Resource Library

Ritual and Relationship

Resource Library

Ritual and Relationship

Congregations Learning in a Time of Change

by David P. King, PhD

Tim Shapiro is the President of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, and his interest in how congregations learn to do new things led him to write How Your Congregation Learns. He spoke with me earlier this month about how that learning orientation will serve congregational life, in light of the challenges and change imposed by the COVID-19 crisis.  

What should we know about congregational learning in relation to abundance, generosity, stewardship, and finances?

I would emphasize that during these times two things don’t have to change. First are rites of passage and rituals around giving. A household can create a sacred space in the home as a reminder that they are faithful people. Rather than just mailing the check or setting up autopay, create some sort of ritual about that act of giving that is still taking place even though you’re not physically with the community. Additionally, even though we’re practicing appropriate self-distancing, it’s still possible for individuals and small groups to have conversations about where they’ve seen acts of generosity during this difficult time. They can have those conversations with the people who they already have a sturdy relationship with and this would only deepen that relationship.

Are there questions you would encourage leaders to consider that inspire an engaged learning journey in this season?

One way congregational leaders can help a congregation cultivate a culture of generosity is to make the conversations, the learning, and the proclamation about generosity be more than four weeks leading up to the stewardship pledge time. Just as if one is preaching from the lectionary, there’s going to be certain themes that come up more than once during the year: hospitality to the stranger, the importance of the presence of God catching people unaware, etc. Like those key themes in one’s religious experience, it’s important to normalize generosity throughout the year and to take opportunity in worship and other educational settings to model generosity or discuss generosity.

One of the themes of a learning experience is the importance of relationships because almost anyone who has learned to be generous, in a broad definition of that word, have people in their lives who have modeled for them generosity, not only strictly financial generosity, but generosity of time, of nurturing, and of helping in difficult times. To remember and give thanks for those people is a really important part of any curriculum around generosity. A congregation that looks at the relationships that have led to generosity helps uplift the practice of generosity and that generosity is about relationships. 

I can remember my stepfather every Sunday passing the pledge envelope down the line in the pew. There were seven of us in this blended family. My stepfather would pass that pledge envelope to each of us. The evening before he had put a dollar in each envelope but left it unsealed. By leaving the envelope unsealed he was inviting us to add to the dollar bill that was already present. It was a moment of truth every Sunday. Am I going to add to the offering or not? On the one hand, this is an example of a ritual being lifted up as important, and it also is important when I think of my relationship with my stepfather.

Can you talk a little bit about the differences you expect in this kind of disorienting moment for congregations?

I think it is important to acknowledge that there’s a continuum on which some people will see this pandemic as very threatening, and they’ll regress in their understanding of what it means to be generous. In almost all of those situations that is understandable and need not be seen as some sort of pathological part of that person. If someone is becoming more careful about their money or lowering their pledge and not going to the extra effort to give to the Red Cross during this time, that’s one aspect of life where this regression might be seen. But alternatively, that very same person may be the one who’s calling the neighbor and asking if I can make a grocery run for you. I want to be careful that we’re not typecasting when it comes to generosity in the view of scarcity or abundance, one does not make stereotypes out of people’s understandable fear.

And then of course, I think that people would be all along that continuum in different situations. So, there are some people that see this as an opportunity to be more generous, to understand or trust that they have enough, so they can step up and give even more away. From a congregational point of view, I think it would be important not to stereotype anyone along that continuum, but instead see it as an opportunity to listen deeply to what’s going on in people’s lives.

I do think that there will be many congregations, just like there are many businesses whose very existence is going to be threatened by this pandemic. I think that’s important to be named and said, just like it’s important for public health department to report accurately on how many people are ill and how many people unfortunately tragically died, et cetera. There’s this honest, unfortunate dynamic that some congregations will not be able to sustain themselves as a result of this pandemic. There are certain religious oriented or religious connected institutions that will also have the same experience.

I’ve observed and heard that it’s typically the role of a leader, including the role of pastor and their board, to be able to see what’s happening far into the future. So, they’re always thinking of vision and mission and strategy. Not in the present, but a year from now, two years from now as a way to being a good steward of the congregation. But I think that right now we’re in a time where leadership is really one day at a time. This would not be the time to ask for great financial, long-term commitments from congregational leaders because I think leaders can only see one day at a time right now.

Any learning about generosity, in a sense, is going to happen through Zoom calls one-on-one or in a small group with a clergy person. I think there’s more learning that will be applicable and available between small groups of people and in one-on-one relationships. Not unlike the neighbor who calls the other neighbor to see if they need a grocery run.

What does it look like when the congregation or congregational leadership can practice discernment and choosing the next step in the midst of uncertainty?

One thing that is possible during this time is for pastoral leaders, other leaders, and parishioners who value congregational and religious life is to see the time of this pandemic for all that it is in terms of the social and spiritual challenges. Perhaps you see it as a Sabbath. We’re not experiencing the 70 year jubilee at this point. We’re experiencing the 40 days in the desert during the temptations of Jesus. If this is a Sabbath time — I can use this time for some contemplation about my life, what do I truly value? Just as it has for many biblical persons, revelation or epiphany is preceded by some form of contemplation.

Out of something tragic, unexpected, disappointing, comes the opportunity to be very open to God’s voice. One way to create that openness is to see this time as Sabbath time, a parabolic Sabbath time. It is parabolic in the sense that just as many parables turn our assumptions inside out, the pandemic might provide us with new understandings of generosity.  

Do you have an expectation that we can be generous in our assessment of how it is that we move forward?

Yes. This could be a time when Christians and people representing other faiths are able to respond with generous love, forgiveness, and understanding to people’s fears. And that includes people’s fear about their economic future. 

One of the ways the Center for Congregations is reaching out during this difficult season is to convene small groups of clergy via Zoom. I’m sure we’re not the only organization doing that. In this most recent call, among the clergy, there was a real sense of loss. The loss was having to do with their congregations’ journey during Holy Week, that it’s just going to be very different. One of the alternatives that a couple of the congregations had was if the Indianapolis 500 can be rescheduled for different date, then surely we can have our in-person Easter celebration fall at a time other than the typical liturgical year. To me that is an example of thinking creatively, but also knowing that this time of scarcity and fear will end.


DATE: April 28, 2020
TOPIC: Organizational Leadership
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Change Management
AUTHOR: David P. King, Tim Shapiro