I was recently asked by a fairly new pastor to consult with their church leadership team in order to develop and articulate their mission, values and vision for the future. Having worked through Robert J. Clinton’s Leadership Emergence Theory for many years I wondered if the same process could be similarly effective for a church. I asked the pastors if they would be willing to experiment with me on this theory. They were all in, and so we began the process of creating a historical timeline in preparation for the weekend of consultation. We placed the timeline on a poster board with colored post-it notes each with three to five words describing an important person, circumstance or event in the life of the church. Yellow notes represented positive experiences and pink represented painful times and all were placed chronologically on the board.
We arrived at the beach house and placed the timeline on an easel for everyone to take time reviewing before we began. This proved to be an incredibly enlightening experience. For those that had been in the church from its inception, their responses were mixed with fond memories as well as sadness as they recalled some of the story. For those that had joined in more recent years it seemed to explain some of their current challenges. What was clear was the past with its good as well as difficult narrative, had shaped the present cultural reality.
Diane Zemke, in her book Being Smart about Congregational Change, could have used this church consultation experience as a case study. Zemke’s research and writing is from an obvious place of a consultant practitioner. Her first chapter, “The Past Creates the Present” is an excellent description of how culture is shaped and how understanding the history of an organization is critical to leading in the present and future. Church programming tells a guest very little about a church. From experience as a pastor and working with pastors for many years, cultural dissonance is most often the reason people leave a local congregation. I experienced Edgar Schein’s quote in real time with the church leadership team, “…within a group, culture creates a way of being together that is learned, shared, and passed on to new members. Culture enables group members to get along with each other since it defines appropriate behaviors. And, it enables the group to interact with the larger culture.” This group had shared learning of how to be together yet there was an underlying uneasiness yet undefined.
As the leaders in the church consultation experience began to discuss their church’s history the reality of the present came to light in ways we could not have gleaned as clearly any other way. Zemke describes the shaping of culture in a significant statement that every leader must understand. She argues the culture of a congregation begins forming as early as a second or third gathering and problem solving is often a major contributor. This church’s timeline revealed problems that they have encountered over and again, and their approach to resolution had, each time, further solidified the culture. It was clear that over time this process had resulted in what Zemke addresses as a turn inward. The church begins to protect its culture rather than remembering the mission and vision which requires an outward focus. It is often after a pastoral transition that this struggle comes to light as a new pastor comes with great vision and yet the new relationship and uncertainty cause the people to turn inward to protect what has been.
The purpose of my consultation, as with most new pastors, was to help the team see the vision and get them on board. There were some necessary conversations to be had before that would transpire and all would own the future together. Through the weekend the pastors and team became acutely aware of how history and culture were impacting their current reality and change strategy. As is common, they were tackling technical problems when adaptive change was needed. They had believed a visionary statement, strategy and branding would turn things around and the weekend was revealing a deeper need.
Ronald Heifetz in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, describes a necessary trait of adaptive leaders as the ability to diagnose the situation by “getting on the balcony” above the “dance floor.” The trap of the tyranny of the urgent, dealing with emails, calls, and technical problems can quickly sabotage the ability to diagnose reality. The rise above it all, to get to a place of reflection, is critical for leaders to diagnose themselves as adaptive change agents and the deep change needed. The weekend consultation provided the balcony and we were able to get to honest conversations that were vulnerable which then opened the team to one another in a way they had not before. They were able to see their personal need for change as well as gain an understanding of the culture that had been formed through their history. They began to embrace aspects that were important to keep, adjust some areas that were right but needed alignment, and let go of some traits that were not going to be beneficial in the future. Though there is still much work to do, there was a common foundation to work from and a plan to build upon.
Zemke’s work is practical and quite timely to add to our denomination’s resource menu as we address many churches that have plateaued or are in decline including the church I was consulting.
The reason for this emphasis on knowing your congregation is that enacting change involved building a bridge for people to walk on into the future. One side of this bridge is anchored in the future you are trying to reach. The other side of the bridge is anchored in the past. In the present, people are walking on the bridge as you build it. Wisely enacting change means that you are able to anchor your change in the past and to do that you need to know what the past is. The proposed change has to make sense in the present if people are to move into the future. If it doesn’t make sense people can’t move forward.
This was the beauty of using the historical timeline of the church, they were able to see that the plan we were developing was firmly rooted in the past, made sense for today and gave a hopeful, preferred future. Wisdom is found in understanding culture as it will reveal the anchor points of the bridge, we can never underestimate culture.
 J. R. Clinton, The Making of a Leader (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988).
 Diane Zemke, Being SMART about Congregational Change (Self-published, 2014), Kindle Loc. 96.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 249.
Ronald Heifetz, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009), Kindle Loc. 281.
 Zemke, Kindle Loc. 1941.