Book Review: “Holy Conversations”-Introduction

Vital Learning is Critical to Vital Church Leadership…or so they say.

At Greenview, we have been undergoing a revitalization process.  I followed a pastor that had been here ten years, so the congregation was ripe for something new.

We began in January by reading Vital Signs by Dan Dick.  It is a superb book that really got us thinking about who we are as a church.  Church leaders who read the book saw a lot of decay.  They knew that already, but the book helped us define more specifically what was decaying.  As a counterpoint, as pastor, I began pointing out to them “streams of vitality”: they had had a robust Disciple study; they were talented; they had a heritage of vitality.  We identified two major needs: the need to know ourselves better and the need to know our community better.

That meeting was followed by a series of House Meetings where I asked for “quintessential Greenview stories”.  As a new pastor, this gave me a great opportunity to hear about the church’s glorious past.  I heard about saints, wonderful small groups, important service projects, and moments in the church’s life that solidified for them the purpose of church.  For instance, it was recalled how a member had had a terrible car accident.  The story is told how the church prayed for this man for many months, as well as for his wife who cared for him heroically.  I heard dozens of such important stories.  My role in the House Meetings was to interpret for and with them the values I heard in those stories.  I also added values from scripture and our Methodist heritage.  Pulling the various House Meeting notes together, we then identified four Core Values, values that were common across the various house meetings:

  • Growing in Faith
  • Sharing our Faith
  • Meaningful Relationships
  • Service.

In the meantime, we began a series of conversations/interviews with community leaders.  We have met with the local State Police chief; the local elementary school principal; leaders from WIC and the county health department.  The principal of the elementary school invited us to become a Partner in Education, which we have accepted.

We hosted another meeting where I shared with them my understanding of the ‘4 pillars of church‘:

  • Worship
  • Discipleship
  • Fellowship
  • Service.

We then began identifying some tangible things we can do around those four pillars.  We have some great ideas, some of which need a lot of ground work, others which we can do more quickly.  I felt the need for us to move into something tangible: not to abandon the theoretical work, but to test out our current inklings.  It also seems like a way to draw in more participation from the congregation.

In meantime, here I am a new pastor who’s never done this before.  Last year, as part of my ordination process, I underwent some instruction on church administration.  A quiz was given where various scenarios were given with multiple choice answers.  I was amazed that I scored rather well, given that, at the time, I was presiding over 2 dying churches.  The instructor shared that the quiz revealed that my instincts were good.  That little bit of encouragement has served me well.  In a new setting, one with a lot going for it, I have felt more free and more confident to lead.

I was also encouraged by a fellow clergy who has been leading a revitalization of her church.  She and her church have taken advantage of a Grow Your Church seminar sponsored by the WV Annual Conference.  Her straight-forward presentation to the district clergy gave me an important lesson: there will be missteps along the way.  This is a gifted pastor and the daughter of two gifted pastors.  That she was so forthright about the bumpiness of the process has kept me humble.  It has allowed me to forgive myself for missteps I have made along our way.

Finally, my wife has been participating in a conference-wide ministry action process.  She is now getting coaching from Spiritual Leadership, Inc.  At the conference-level they have really tilled some fallow ground.  Closer to home, Meredith is really encouraged by her newfound direction from SLI.  It’s one of those ‘rising tide’ matters: since she is so invigorated, I feel like I need to step up my game.

Holy Conversations

Nevertheless, I feel a bit uneasy with the process.  So after some research, I picked up Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregationsby Gil Rendel and Alice Mann.  They are clergy associated with the Alban Institute.  Mann is Episcopalian and Rendel is United Methodist.  I must say that I appreciate a UM presence already.  They are going to be aware of itinerancy and its unique influence on any congregational vitality process.

The Introduction is 14 pages of parameters and reality checks.  Their approach is that planning in a congregation is not a formulaic procedure to solve problems.  “Holy conversation” is the both the method and the product of planning in the church.  We must talk about important things, even elementary things (pg. xiv):

  • Who are we?
  • What has God called us to do or be?
  • Who is our neighbor?

These elementary questions are followed by a brief treatise on the Exodus as a model for planning.  There was not a minute-by-minute plan for the Exodus.  Instead the Israelites followed God and moved as God moved.  In between movings, Israelites “pitched tent” and waited for God’s direction.  Planning is about discerning God’s direction and moving–or waiting–accordingly.

Rendel and Mann lift up 8 assumptions upon which their work is built.  One assumption that struck me regarded the role of the leader.

“The task of the leader is simply to structure the conversation.  Indeed our operational definition of visioning is “a structured conversation by a group of people about what they beleive God calls them to be or to do“”. (emphasis theirs)

Other assumptions address the realities of conflict and goals beyond mere agreement.  Their assumptions highlight their own experience and their own appreciation for different kinds of churches.  They seem to have a sensitivity that resonates with me.

Just getting into this book, I am already excited by its promise.  I am a recovering type-B personality who is learning to be more structured.  That Rendel and Mann seem to accentuate method while allowing for the spirit’s own timing seems an important balance.

See a more robust adaptation of the introduction to Holy Conversations at the Alban page.

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