Tuesday, April 02, 2013

I am because my neighbors are

Who are we? Who are our neighbors? What are we called by God to do and be in this place? These are the kinds of big questions we are asking ourselves as a congregation as we engage in a "strategic planning" process. 

We never know ourselves as well as we think. Almost always, getting to know our neighbors helps us learn more about ourselves. So the kinds of patterns of investigation ethnographers and consultants encourage are actually also very faithful ways to do ecclesiology (study the church) and theology (study God's action in the world). 

Although strategic planning and ethnographic forms of research have arisen primarily out of so-called secular disciplines like the business world and academia, these are no strikes against them. The church can learn a lot from "outside" disciplines. In a way, the church is and always should be an inside-out institution. Since the church is made up of so many people from diverse human institutions (parents, non-profit leaders, workers, students, urban professional, artists, artisans, the leisured class, retirees, and more), it is no surprise that we "borrow" our methodologies from all over the place. 

We do because we can, because the church is such a highly networked and resourced organization.

Our process of strategic planning has borrowed a lot from a great little book I read last fall, Susan Beaumont's Inside the Large Congregation. Although Good Shepherd is not (yet) itself a large congregation, it is on the verge of becoming one, and Beaumont spends a lot of time in her book describing "multi-cell" congregations, the type of congregation we are, situated size-wise just below the first stage of what most church consulting groups define as "large."

In this post, I describe just two parts of the information we gathered. In March, our congregation took the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Although on many measures we described ourselves as quite like other U.S. congregations, there are some points at which we really stand out from the norm. Second, over the past two months I have been conducting a series of community leader interviews. The goal here was to hear how leaders of other organizations in our community perceive the needs of the neighborhood/city, and perceive our congregation. 

U.S. Congregational Life Survey and Us

1. Our most notable growth area is in the area of prayer groups and prayer ministries. We are lower than the national average and the ELCA average on this point. This may be related to a point that comes later (perhaps we are more social ministry focused than prayer focused), but I call it out first, to indicate a part of our congregational life I plan to lead us in in a very focused way in the next year--our prayer and spiritual growth.

2. We are much less frequently bored or frustrated in worship than the national and ELCA average (72% compared to 62%), and we value the sermons much more highly than the national average (48% compared to 36%).

3. We have a very high level of satisfaction with what is offered by the congregation for children and youth (72%).

4. Our strongest area, where we consistently scored at or above the 80th percentile, was on focusing on the community. We are an outward service focused congregation.

5. 33% of our worshippers started attending our church in the last five years. Of these, our sweet spot is "returnees," those coming back after not having attended anywhere for several years.

6. I was pleased to learn that we scored in the 8th percentile for people in our congregation believing the leadership style of the pastor inspires people to take action. Since that is what I think I am doing a lot of the time in my ministry, it was good to hear that back.

7. We have a very strong sense that our congregation is currently moving in new directions, and our overall looking to the future score is high (can anyone say "strategic planning"?), but are still a little unclear what that new direction is. Like Abraham and Sarah, we've been called to a new place, but we don't have a clear vision yet of the destination.

All of the above came from the strengths report. Another report, the connections report, included these highlights:

1. We are a congregation of leaders. Many of us (56%) report having a leadership role in the congregation. Interestingly, this level of leadership comes out of a sense of joy rather than obligation much more than the national average.

2. As a congregation, we are much, much more likely than the national average to be involved in community service, social service, and advocacy groups (65%, compared to national of 42%). This is through activities of our congregation and other groups.

3. As mentioned above, we are much more likely than the national average to attract "returnees", thost coming back after not attending church anywhere for several years.

4. We are much more likely to be married, and have college degrees, than the national average (university town).

5. The three things our congregation values most, given the opportunity to rank them, are 1) sermons, 2) Holy Communion, and 3) traditional worship or music. Fourth was wider community care, and fifth was openness to diversity, and sixth was ministry for youth.

6. 70% of us said, in response to the question, "Does this congregation have a clear vision, goals, or direction for its ministry and mission?": "Yes, and I'm committed to them."

As I already mentioned, on many measures we are statistically similar to the national average, so I have not called those out in this blog. 

I will be writing a follow-up blog some time soon seeking to analyze these a bit more.

Community Leader Interview Notes

I offer this more as "raw data." Interestingly, since conducting these interviews, the most intriguing outcome has been that simply by having spent time in the interview, connections have been made, and in all three cases we are already partnering in new ways between our organizations. Specifically, a group of staff from the elementary school now use our gym for exercise; we are using the local park for an upcoming event; and we are in the beginning stages of organizing a community project that is a cooperative exercise between the Chamber and our congregation.

Joey Folsom--Butterfield Trail Elementary School (kitty corner from our church)

1. Their vision: Focused on curriculum, civics, serving the students; they are focused on "rigor, relevance, relationships"
2. Strengths and weakness of neighborhood: Strengths are the families themselves, especially families that commit to a parent staying at home. This illustrates a value in the community, commitment to making sacrifice for neighborhood and children; need is that some families are unraveling and weak and struggling; 35% receive free lunches, lots of needs that mirror society as a whole
3. How can our church partner: Would love to have a core of regular volunteers coming weekly to the school; the need is for regularity consistency, older adults involved in lives of young people
4. Impression of our church on neighborhood: Biggest impression we make is in our facility sharing: sharing the parking lot, being available as emergency shelter, shared our facility while they were in their construction phase for programs; many people don't notice we are here because we are not "their" church
5. What else would you want me to know: We talked about our Thanksgiving meal programs, and their program of volunteering at the nursing home with you; facilitating relationships is an important call for us and for them; she also felt that identifying individual families and then establishing durable supportive relationships could be helpful
6. Other people to talk to: She recommended I speak with John Lindsey because there are eight apartment complexes in our neighborhood that feed into the school, and most are owned and managed by Lindsey

Connie Edmonston--Fayetteville Parks & Recreation

1. Overall, one of their big picture goals is a park within one mile of anyone living in the city
2. Biggest assets near us--Gulley Park and Lake Fayetteville
3. Events--Gulley Concert series, drama camp at Gulley, environment camp at Lake Fayetteville
4. Trying to reach the young professionals--kickball and co-ed volleyball; felt they had already been doing well with children and families, wanted to expand to young professionals- 336 playing kickball (21-35 year olds); it was clear to me that our target audience with the Pastor of New Communities is also their target audience with their new programs; they see it is a growing demographic group they want to engage
5. They want to do more outdoor education things, perhaps developing camping areas
6. She suggested I talk to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families
7. She would love to see churches put together teams that connect with the sports activities the parks are organizing
8. They always have trouble with trash in parks/creek clean up needs/adopt a park program/trail trekker program
9. Called out the Yvonne Richardson center as an especially good resource; such good programs they often have to cap participation, do things esp. at Christmas and spring break
10. Big take away: we can use parks and recs more as a inexpensive resource, they're kind of a "deep secret" congregations could tap into more frequently

Steve Clarke, head of the Chamber of Commerce:

They believe the focus for business in NWA is: Eds, meds, innovation
Interesting Goal: Wants 35% Latino population because of shared values with current population
Making North/south connections by visiting Bolivia, Colombia, and Brazil to establish business partnerships
Impression of GSLC: Warm, friendly, doing outreach work in the community (impression)
Chamber has ten standing committees: goal is at least one event a year that is for the community; they are always looking for projects
Suggested I talk to Tyson center for spirituality in the workplace. Has a big focus on teaching leadership and faith has a place in the workplace
Suggested we talk to someone in the manufacturing community (Superior, Mexican Original, Pinnacle)
Working class issues, facility improvement issues in city is a major focus
I was the first pastor ever to come and talk to the Chamber about ways we can partner in the community

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