Discovering the Congregationís Norms

by Roy M. Oswald, James M. Heath, and Ann W. Heath

Every human community has norms (unwritten, unspoken, and often unconscious rules about the "way things should be done") that govern the behavior of its members. In congregations, norms may develop as a result of an event, e.g., children playing in the kitchen started a fire twenty years ago, and children still are not allowed to enter the kitchen without an adult. Or, norms may also develop because of habit, e.g., people are never considered for election to the board until they have attended the church for at least three years. While members of the congregation may not think about their norms, newcomers may become aware of them quickly. Newcomers who are comfortable with the norms will fit into the congregation easily; those who are uncomfortable with them will probably go to another congregation where things feel right. Itís a little different for a pastor: as a newcomer, she or he may see a norm that is hindering ministry some way and try single-handedly to change it. Almost certainly, trouble will follow.

The beginning of a new pastorate offers an opportunity for a congregation to discover and examine its unwritten practices as part of the process of introducing the congregation to the new pastor. A congregation that decides to bring to light and examine the hidden understandings about how it goes about its business will be better able to start the pastorate on the right foot and make any adjustments that seem appropriate. This process can have several benefits. The new pastor will be less likely to make mistakes because of inexperience or inaccurate assumptions. Relatively recently arrived members can learn about expectations and test them against their own experiences. (If the congregation has thought of itself as welcoming, have newcomers in fact been welcomed?) Committees may have become self-perpetuating, not adjusting their focus to reflect the congregationís evolving mission. (Should outreach activities be devoted to international concerns in the light of growing needs in the local community?) A process that brings to light and discusses the traditions is a high priority.

An Event for Examining Unwritten Practices and Expectations

A good way to conduct this process is to devote time to examining how the congregation behaves and what its expectations are. Such an event will resemble the one of historical reflection, although its focus will be quite different. The first requirement is to recruit a leader. An outsider - the pastor of another congregation, a transition companion, or an experienced lay volunteer from another congregation - may be the best choice for facilitator, because she or he will probably have a less biased perspective. The facilitator should meet ahead of time with the new pastor and a small group from the congregation to determine areas where the pastor and leaders suspect current norms are inhibiting ministry, or about which they think discussion is needed. These areas might include:

The event begins with a group session in which the leader talks generally about the nature of unwritten practices and expectations. The leader can then introduce one of the topics that have been identified (written at the top of sheet of newsprint), and lead the group in discussion of the topic, writing down the groupís thoughts about the congregationís unwritten rules. When discussion of this topic is completed and people understand how to examine the topics, the leader can introduce the other topics (also on newsprint), posting the sheets of paper at different locations in the room.

The leader can then ask that those interested in each topic go stand by the sheet. If more than half a dozen people are standing by a topic sheet, the facilitator can either divide the group into smaller groups that would all address the topic or ask whether anyone would be willing to join another, smaller group. After the group sizes have been adjusted, the small groups take their sheet down and go to a table where they can work comfortably. (If several groups will address a topic, extra groups can take a blank sheet of newsprint and write the topic on the top and the proceed as instructed. If total participation is small, some groups may have to discuss two related topics.) Each group should appoint a scribe, and spend about 30 minutes developing its list of practices and expectations related to the topic.

After the small-group phase, the whole group reassembles and the leader asks each group to present its list of practices and expectations. There is no discussion beyond clarification. After all the data have been presented, however, the leader asks people which observations match their experience, strike them as "most true," or are personally most important to them? People who disagree can also be asked to note and explain their opinion. This phase should take 30 - 45 minutes.

The critical point of the exercise is reached in a final discussion in which the leader asks people which norms they would like to change. People may notice things that make them uncomfortable - practices that, when brought to consciousness, are different from what people actually want. A short list of up to six points should be developed.

This list may both enlighten and challenge the congregation. Some points may call for action, but that is not the work of this evening. Those in leadership roles in the congregation will have to decide how to take appropriate steps to deal with the discoveries of the meeting. If the discussion has uncovered an unhealthy congregational practice, e.g., a tendency to gossip about people with whom one disagrees, the leadership team may decide to develop a behavioral covenant that could be adopted and enforced in the congregation. Ongoing communication with the congregation will be necessary and working together to solve a problem can reinvigorate people.

A time spent identifying and examining congregational practices and expectations, as well as a time for historical reflection, are two gifts a congregation can give its new pastor. Yet, these two activities can result in much more than simply providing the new pastor with information about the congregation. Both activities hold real potential for congregations to examine themselves and identify certain things they would like to do in a more positive manner. In addition, there is the potential for real bonding to take place during these events, not only between pastor and congregants, but also among congregants themselves. This is a natural byproduct of having people come together to explore where they have been (history) and how they have behaved along the way (practices and expectations). Both experiences provide members the opportunity to share their perspectives about the congregation, help the new pastor to minister more effectively to the congregation, and offer ways for the congregation to support the new ministry.

Adapted from Beginning Ministry Together: The Alban Handbook for Clergy Transitions by Roy M. Oswald, James M. Heath, and Ann W. Heath (Herndon, Va.: The Alban Institute, 2003). Copyright © 2003 by The Alban Institute, Inc. All rights reserved.