Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Cultivating a Core Identity

Next Monday I'll be attending a regional clergy retreat.  At that retreat, I've been asked to share the method by which my congregation discerned its set of core values.  We did this at a one-day congregational retreat that began with a conversation about our missional identity and our own sense of giftedness.  With this conversation as the foundation, we spent the afternoon in small groups and the larger group, discerning which values should define our identity and guide our ministry in the world.  In discerning these values, we started from the premise that we had been called to be a missional church.  The congregation had accepted (I'll use that term rather than embrace) this self-designation prior to my coming.  I would say that we are still discerning what that means for us -- not everyone is on the same page, so it's still a conversation in progress.  But, in our values statement we start with that premise, and developed the list of values from that assumption.   

The benefit in discerning core values is that it helps a congregation understand its own identity -- it's DNA.  Central Woodward Christian Church is a long-standing mainline Protestant congregation that once had mega-church status, or maybe better, it was a tall steeple church.  It's identity was formed, at least in part, by its prominent place on Detroit's Piety Row (Woodward Avenue).  That identity helped create the DNA of the current congregation.  We're still called Central Woodward Christian Church, even though we sit on Big Beaver Road (at Adams).  We're in the suburbs, not in the center of the city.  But, we have furniture in the sanctuary that came from downtown that reminds us of who we once were.  Thus part of our identity is formed by what we once were, even though today we are a small congregation (though denominationally -- both at the general and the regional levels we have a fairly large footprint for a church our size). 

I write all of this as preface to a conversation about cultivating a core identity.  I was struck by Alan Roxburgh's contention that our planning and our visioning must emerge out of a sense of who we are as a congregation.  He speaks of this in his book Missional Map-Making (Jossey Bass, 2010).  He suggests that in our response to our communities, we must first "assess how the environment has changed in your context."  We don't live in the same world we once did -- and so we must ask how this changing environment is affecting our sense of who we are and what we should be doing?  After we make this assessment, we can begin "redeveloping a core identity."  Here is where I want to stop and focus. 

The reason it is difficult to plan is that the cultural environments are constantly shifting, requiring us to make and remake our maps on a very regular basis.  Roxburgh notes that "congregations no longer can imagine themselves as closed or bounded-set communities.  An often unspoken assumption we make is that our churches, with their tradition is and commitments to the biblical story, are more like bounded sets:  they have a clear core identity, and most members know the rules and convictions of the church at  the boundaries and agree to abide by them" (p. 135).  But is this true today?  It's unlikely.  The boundaries are much more fluid today.  People don't know the rules like they once did. 

The boundary between congregation and local cultures is not distinct, and so how do we exist in this now very porous environment?   It is, Roxburgh believes, the cultivation of a core identity.  That is, we are cultivating an environment in which people can re-form the "Christian life around the core identity of the Christian narrative" (p. 136).  In yesterday's guest posting, Bruce Epperly gave a list (one not meant to be exhaustive) of progressive Christian identities.  In writing the post and calling for a progressive Christian revival, Bruce was doing what Roxburgh is calling for, the cultivation of a core identity that will allow the church to engage the world as it stands. 

So, what is our core identity?

8 comments:

David Mc said...

Ironically, I feel our "core identity" is to be part of the whole community. To be open. That's pretty good for a small group. I really feel we could accept just about anyone who may come in the doors. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think not.

Regina said...

I'm interested in the process of how you cultivated your core identity, can you tell me more about that?

David Mc said...

It's ongoing Regina, as Bob said. Probably always will be cultivated, I hope.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Regina,

Good question. In many ways it is an ever ongoing process of keeping one eye on the Biblical story and the other on the contemporary setting. It is a difficult task, but we find ourselves continually asking the question -- why are we here? Another way to look at it is seeking to understand the congregation's DNA and then seeking to live out of it in a new day. That's probably not sufficient, but let's keep the conversation going. But David's right, we have to keep at it!

Regina said...

How did you specifically lead your congregation to their core identity as it is right now? How do you even motivate change?

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Regina,

One of the things I've tried to do is pick up a commitment the congregation had made before I got here to be missional. As is true of most congregations, they had made this commitment without totally understanding what that means. Therefore, I've been trying to find ways of giving them the tools and resources to own that commitment. We're not there yet, but working on it.


The second thing we did was identify six core values that we thought defined that commitment. Again, we're still learning what that means. So, for instance, we identified as a core value -- acceptance. The key here is moving beyond simply being nice to being truly and radically welcoming. As you can see, it is a journey.

John said...

Regina,

When Andrew and Peter decided to follow Jesus the were "all in" from the beginning - even though they didn't fully comprehend what they had committed to. I think this is true of all faith related commitments. We never know the full extend of what God has in store for us, or where the journey will take us, but we trust and we respond.

At our church we talked about six core values which we believed defined who we are (or perhaps who we want to be). "Acceptance" is one of the ideas. I was thinking that perhaps Bob, as our pied piper, could begin a series of classes over the next few years focused on each of the core values, what we think they mean, how they are best lived out in the context of a missional congregation, and how we manifest those ideas.

Just an idea.

David, I think you would be surprised how unwelcoming our liberal congregation can feel to a more conservative newcomer.

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, I like the idea of the emphases!

And you touch upon the dilemma -- how do we move from being accepting to welcoming, and what does that mean? Sometimes when we move in a certain direction, there will be those who feel unable to take the journey with us.

At the same time, it's always important that we think about how we speak to others. Is it possible that in the name of being "liberal" we parade our "freedoms" in ways that can be a stumbling block to others?