Having worked a great deal with small congregations—rural, suburban, and urban—I have heard a lot of statements such as “We are losers,” “We can’t get a ‘real’ pastor [meaning a man with wife and children in tow] because we are so small,” “We used to be great, but now we can barely keep the lights on. It is depressing.” It saddens me to hear these stories.
One congregation stands out in my experiences as a consultant. “St. Luke’s” was founded in a strong farming community at a time when family farms and related industries were booming. Slowly this way of life had changed as family farm after family farm was sold to conglomerates, and the community had shifted. Further, many farming communities had lost many of their young people after they finished college. There were no jobs to return to, so slowly the community dwindled.
St. Luke’s sat on the cusp, however, of a new phenomenon. The nearby city, which used to seem far away, had slowly been growing toward them. Some of the old farms were being transformed by developers into suburban neighborhoods and were attracting young families who commuted into the city for work. This was not a reality St. Luke’s was prepared to address.
One of the times I was with them, one of the older members proudly showed me their beautiful building. They had kept the building up, and it was pristine. After our consulting sessions were completed, this same member came up and asked me what I thought of the church. I thought she was still referring to the building and replied that it was a beautiful church.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t mean the building. I meant us. Are we okay?” She was sad in responding to my misunderstanding. I began to realize what low self-esteem this congregation was experiencing.
As I traveled home, I thought back through all the various conversations we had had together over the course of the consultation as the congregation’s story had slowly emerged. These were proud people who had worked hard all their lives. They had memories of a beautiful church in the middle of their farms that was packed every Sunday.
Their world and their church had changed, but the story now was one of loss and a deep fear that telling our story allows us to become stronger and clearer about who we are and what God is calling us to do.
Somehow they had done something wrong and were being punished as they watched their church slowly dwindle and die.
The story they wanted to believe was that they were still that big, beautiful country church that reflected their heritage as immigrant farmers. The reality was that they weren’t that church anymore. And the current story of the church—we are not okay, we are wrong, we are sad, we are dying—continued to get in the way of creating a new story of the church that could be. These narrative refrains deeply affected their ability to let go into a new future and to attract new members into their midst. No one wants to be part of a church that sees itself as a community of losers with low self-esteem.
Without a new story, this congregation would make its fears that it was a dying congregation a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Congregations create stories to explain who and what we are. These stories often have some dimension of truth, but ultimately they are interpretations of truth. As a congregation tries to move forward into the future, those interpretations will affect our success for good or ill.
The growing understanding of the importance of narrative in healing from the past and building toward a new imagined future—a preferred future with a vision of God’s desire for us—provides an important tool and strategy for congregations emerging from conflict. Telling our story allows us to become stronger and clearer about who we are and what God is calling us to do.
Excerpt is from “Change & Conflict in Your Congregation (Even If You Hate Both): How to Implement Conscious Choices, Manage Emotions & Build a Thriving Christian Community”, 2015 by Rev. Dr. Anita L. Bradshaw. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, www.skylightpaths.com.