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Two Distinguishing Values Every Congregation Needs

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In 2004 I was chairing the Pastoral Search Committee in my congregation. In each interview we asked the potential candidate what they saw as the first tasks once they started. One promptly responded that for the first year he would an historian and a lover. In light of the one or two raised eyebrows around the table, he expanded. “Before I can do anything here beyond the basics, I need to know you, your history, your congregational system. And I need to love you, each of you individually and the congregation as a whole.” We called that candidate. With good reason.

That response stuck with me. The longer I work with congregations in turmoil the more I see the wisdom of the answer.

In his book “The Advantage”, Patrick Lencioni distinguishes between the values that truly distinguish an individual or organization from the field and “get-to-play” values. For pastors being historians and lovers are in my view get-to-play values. They are a bare minimum for doing the work. Yet at the same time it seems that they are distinguishing values—far too often I meet pastors who I am not convinced really love their congregation or its people.

Why are these values so crucial? As always, the answer starts with stories.

This story is taken from no congregation in particular. But it is also the story of almost every congregation that makes the transition to greater wholeness.

The congregation was fractured. People were hurting each other. The leadership body was divided. Decisions couldn’t be made. There was no sense of direction. People were focused on each other and their hurts rather than attending to what God had for them. Mostly they were stuck with the aftermath of a difficult pastoral departure. But that isn’t really a story yet is it? It describes countless congregations.

Enter a pastoral leader (maybe an interim minister, maybe a settled minister) who spent time listening, listening to as many individuals and families as possible, listening to the congregational system. Out of the listening the leader came to know the place and the people, to know the many stories over the many years that had come to make up the unique story of this particular congregation. More, the leader came to love the people. Not because they were particularly loveable, but because that is what a leader does.

Over time the leader created a safe container where the people knew they were loved. And amazing things happened.

People started to love each other more deeply. People started to listen more carefully for what God might be saying to them. People came to know themselves as loved by God. People started to have hope for themselves and for their congregation. People started to trust each other. The congregation gained clarity about itself and its place in the world and in God desires to bring wholeness.

Were all the problems of the congregation solved? Not in the least. There were hard decisions to be made about the future. There would be losses still to be born. There would no doubt be pain still to be carried. Can the survival of he congregation be guaranteed? No, because much larger forces are at work putting pressure on congregational life.

But here is the point: A congregation that is loved learns to love. A congregation that loves has tremendous resilience for facing its trials. Even if things go badly, even if the congregation dies, its people will be able to say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

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Keith works in the field of conflict resolution and restorative justice. As well as delivering conflict and communication training, Keith leads processes to re-shape congregational identity, mission and direction, and provides congregational assessments and mediation for leaders, leadership teams and congregations.

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