The Trouble with Emerging Spirit

Part of the trouble with Emerging Spirit was not in its mandate or vision but in failing to appreciate just how difficult it is for local leadership to make significant shifts in a congregational culture. We probably should have known better – and maybe even did – but the timeframe was compact and necessitated certain choices.

By and large leaders were sympathetic to the project’s analysis, message and call to radical hospitality. The challenge, in reality, lay in trying to balance the cost in time and energy it would take to engage that question with all the other voices demanding attention. No one says that improving a ministry of hospitality is a bad thing but where does it fit in the lineup of things we should do, like looking at the governance system, renovating the worship service, training leaders, meeting the budget, visiting the sick and doing all the things necessary to keep an old way of being church on its feet while being open to something new. For many there just wasn’t time or energy even though we heard ‘Amens’ from their lips and spirits. (Part of me is still not convinced that making hospitality a priority really takes as much time as it does a commitment but more of that in another blog. For now, I concede the point that it takes time which leaders feel they do not have.)

So, in the end, here’s the rub. New life usually demands some kind of space and nurturing to take root. Congregations did not oppose Emerging Spirit but often assumed their leadership, paid or enthusiastic lay people, would add whatever insights or programs that arose to the existing load, “off the side of my desk” as one clergy noted. And that can’t be done because, even more than we realized, the call of Emerging Spirit to engage in radical hospitality was actually a call that a significant strand of the culture of many congregations be changed from a focus on “us” to an orientation to “them” and to the Spirit who might move in surprising and disguising ways.

Often the most enthusiastic reports of “success” came from congregations who either did not have a large programmatic load to support or governance structure to maintain and so they could “go for it” since, as many said, “what did we really have to lose!”

The challenge of creating room for new life will not cease with the retirement of Emerging Spirit. In the end, I suppose the decision of whether to allocate the time and will to create that space remains with the congregation.

  1. Keith – apologies for some slightly wandering comments on Facebook. Your analysis above is keen, and I wanted to amplify the caveat you had above, “but the timeframe was compact and necessitated certain choices.”

    Culture change does not happen overnight or with a single program. It’s significant that the picture at the top of this blog is of a bridge – I’m thinking of the rapid “change of culture” here in the White Rock area that is the direct result of bridges being built in the Lower Mainland. I suppose we could have all guessed, but with the Putallo Bridge of the 30s, Massey Tunnel of the 50s, the Alex Fraser of the late 80s, the culture of the South Surrey White Rock area has changed immeasurably. It would be hard to know which style of church leadership`(`hospitality`?) could compete with the `leadership` that resulted in those bridges. Once built a cultural-logic took over and in the 2010s we can say, `of course` but the shifts to come were not so predictable in the 1980s.

    Anyway, I hope you`re not worried that Emerging Spirit is a failure. If the aim was a culture shift, or at least to engage leadership in precipitating one, the only answer is, “that remains to be seen`. You take your best shot with limited resources and let the H.S. have at it. Culture shifts cannot be engineered, because the reprecussions positive or negative are beyond predicting. The project of residential schools comes to mind…. but you could write a book about that one! Where we are now with R.S. is well beyond the ken or culture of the 1870s….

    For what it`s worth. Hope all is well with you.

  2. Thanks to both of you, Keith and Stuart, for reflecting not only on Emerging Spirit, but on what is involved in encouraging a shift or change in (United Church) culture. Oft times it is the weird other thing – like building a bridge – that causes reverberations in unexpected or unpredictable ways. And as Stuart says, Emerging Spirit’s role in a culture change still remains to be seen. Although I suspect that you, Keith, already know Emerging Spirit is not a failure but one of many steps in a process. Again, thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments.

  3. One last kick at the cat, Keith, and I mean no disrespect.

    The one troubling line in the piece above is, “how difficult it is for local leadership to make significant shifts in a congregational culture. We probably should have known better – and maybe even did.”

    Now that it’s taken totally out of context, I can have at it! 😉

    Not sure what is meant by “local leadership”. Is this the ordered leadership which by (theoretical) definition is not “local”, but (word alert, it’s chosen provocatively) imposed by a presbytery? Or by local, does it mean the eldership or equivalent that will outlast the presbytery leadership?

    It’s strange, because the distrust of the locals by presbytery (ie. leadership SHOULD be making shifts in congregational culture, and those darned pewsitters will just not change!) and the distrust of presbytery by the locals IS the culture of the United Church. I hope I’m not reading too much into this, but the dualism suggested in the first paragraph of, “Part of the trouble with Emerging Spirit….” IS and has always been the culture (or sub-text) of our beloved denomination.

    Emerging Spirit Phase II (if there is one) should make more of an “us” assumption, rather than a “we” (leadership) and “them” (those being lead, who are really there for “me” reasons). That dynamic has been a major part of church culture at least since the 1970s when I discovered the place existed.

    The paragraph above that gets at it the most is, “And that can’t be done because, even more than we realized, the call of Emerging Spirit to engage in radical hospitality was actually a call that a significant strand of the culture of many congregations be changed from a focus on ‘us’ to an orientation to ‘them’ and to the Spirit who might move in surprising and disguising ways.”

    The “us” and “them” seems to be built in, esp. in the subtexts of stuff that don’t dare make it into blogs.

    It makes it hard to offer critique – helpful or otherwise. I think the best change agents are those who can critique from a standpoint of trust, ie. those who feel themselves on the receiving end already know that the critique is not meant to destroy or be unfairly harsh.

    Leadership, then, that seeks to change a local culture needs to be trusted leadership. Someone like an Urshad Manji who is critical of conservative Muslims, as well as mainstream Muslims. Although Manji needs to work a bit more on a public profile that she’s engaged in her critique from a motive of trust.

    But that’s a digression. As much as much of Emerging Spirit was tantalizing and refreshing, there were a lot of subtexts within the church which were left unaddressed.

    Strangely, though, one o fthe ones who addressed this first was (John Stackhouse?) from Regent College. When the first bobble-headed Jesus came out, he was asked to comment. His comment was pooh-poohed as coming from the evangelical wing which didn’t like us anyway – ie. us and them.

    His comment: bobble-headed Jesus’ might get people in the door of a local congregation, but what will they see once they get in the door? The same old same old that caused them not to be there in the first place. It bordered on false advertising.

    He was pooh-poohed not on the truth or falseness of the observation, but mainly because he was from Regent College and “not one of us”.

    Just an example.

    In any event, the first paragraph aboe seems to be part and parcel of a long history of UC culture, rather than a frustration of why “they” wouldn’t change.

    My 2 cents. Hope I’m being fair.

    I think the real question is not whether or not the young leaders will give up – I just hope YOU don’t give up! Emerging Spirit Phase II can reboot the needed process….

  4. Hi Stu:
    A lot of things to agree with in what you say. I won’t list them all.

    Certainly the stuff about leadership is right. I often use this word because it does provide some slippage between whether leaders are paid or not. As you say real leadership can only occur when people feel it is “us” moving rather than someone forcing us (the trust issue). And this is true whether people are paid or not.

    When we do events centered around leadership we inevitably say “it’s all about relationships now.” And by that I want to emphasize that any kind of leadership based on position, education or authorized appointment really doesn’t cut it. Unless leaders can establish relationships of trust they will not be leaders, no matter what the certificate hanging in their office says.

    The worry that Stackhouse voiced was one we had from before the project began. The concern was always that people would see Emerging Spirit as another “program” that if we could just “run it” here it would fix things instead of seeing it as an excuse, an invitation, to take a hard look at who the church is now, how we are perceived, etc. and what parts of our culture alienate, in an unnecessary way, those who are so interested in “spiritual matters.” As someone quipped to me at the beginning, “You know that, in three years, they’re (the church) going to say ‘Well, we bought the coffee and nothing changed! What’s up with that?” 🙂

    On the matter of where I am personally – I am sobered but not discouraged (at least most days). I think Emerging Spirit did as much, if not more, than could be expected but really it simply was an excuse to have the conversation. My worry is that congregations and their leaders, paid or not, will not continue the conversation, which is basically about the mission of the United Church in our time.

    In the next 5-7 years there are some very important decisions that will have to be made and they cannot come as pronoucements but will be made by “local” congregations and their leaders. Of course the General Council, presbyteries and the rest have their own work to do but the real future – and challenge – will be determined on a congregation by congregation, context by context, basis.

    Although, of course, I could be wrong. 🙂

  5. The only constant in the church, as elsewhere, is change (whether we want it or not) which will happen by evolution or by revolution. We must decide whether it will be guided and implemented or will come crashing down driven by external factors. Some will decide to accept Emerging Spirit’s vision and evolve into a thriving future. Those who have chosen not to see have implicitly decided to turn out the lights and close the doors – too bad that choice is being made by our “leaders”.

  6. Apparently you opened a wound and I can’t resist the soapbox.
    You were quite gentle with some of our clergy, lay leadership and churchocrats. I know that they are chronically overcommitted and that change is always more complex than the alternative of just trudging forward meeting the demands of the daytimer (just dated myself there). The old adage comes to mind about how hard it is to focus on draining the swamp when you are dealing with the alligators. Many may have become managers in an increasingly harried and over-managed society and have lost their role as leaders. The role of a manager is to oversee the daily operations (i.e. maintain a stable state) while a leader’s function is to anticipate and manage change.

    The focus became efficiency rather than effectiveness, largely because effectiveness is so much easier to benchmark and measure. Planning horizons changed from long-range to immediate. Productivity must be measurable and measured during each business cycle (church year?). Eventually public sector organizations (and others?) perfected efficiency by removing effectiveness almost entirely, resulting in the expenditure of enormous amounts of energy without anything productive emerging from the process – but I digress.

    Managers get things done through others while leaders get things done with others. Managers direct people to perform in a specific way while leaders inspire their folks to want to make changes; leaders nurture and guide; they identify and train new leaders; they allow people to take initiative; they delegate resources and decision-making power; they trust their people to learn their own strengths. The difference between a leader and a manager is that leaders genuinely care for and respect people for the intrinsic value that they bring, not just for the year-end bonus their efforts will bring the manager.

    In the context of the church I wonder if we haven’t fallen into some of the same traps. Clergy sometimes seem to be on a mission to direct their congregation into a their (the clergy’s) understanding of how to “do church” rather than to guide their fellows on their individual a spiritual paths – or do they miss the possibility that each of us has our own spiritual path? Some have fallen into the trap of managing their efforts towards the easily measured goals of filling seats (in study groups or worship), raising operating revenues, making pastoral calls, producing ceremonies and so on. Unfortunately many of our clergy and congregations long for the heyday of the 1950s and ’60s and find themselves unable, unwilling or untrained to change to meet the needs of the changing community. While many members and individual clergy see the need for change, and some seek it, they face the challenge of congregational cultures devoted to maintaining the status quo. Perhaps their personal survival and safety depend on them not naming the challenge they face?

    I’m sorry for preaching at the choir, Keith, but I get increasingly upset that the UCC, the clergy, and the congregations cannot seem to acknowledge what is happening. I know that this has been your frustration for the past few years – take some heart in knowing that some of it is shared. We are rearranging the deck chairs hoping that will keep the ship afloat. Leadership dedication to stability is a commitment to see the congregation, and the United Church, wither away to insignificance.

    But then I’m reminded that death (of organizations as well as people) is the ultimate change agent – always leading to new things. And I just realized that I have come full circle the long way to reach the conclusion that you described so well in your blog.

    Thanks for the therapy!

  7. Jim and Keith,
    Your comments are very insightful. I agree that too many of us are just re-arranging deck chairs and not willing to recognize the need for change.
    I wonder about our church’s priorities and unwillingness to have the debates and discussions necessary to discern new directions.
    There are a lot of assumptions that the UCC makes that have led to and will continue to lead us to a dead end.
    1) The UCC is a church for white educated people. We have nothing to offer new immigrants because they have their ‘own ‘ religion and values that are ‘different’ than ours. And newcomers have nothing to offer to us. Therefore a change in demographics will always lead to a UCC closing its doors.
    2) When a congregation is thriving and growing don’t give it any support. Instead try to prop up the deadwood and dwindling congregations until it’s obvious they can’t keep up the building.
    3) Keep the bureaucracy strong at any cost so any sign of change can be stifled immediately with rules, procedures, and technicalities.
    4) Sell buildings and hoard the money until one of the ‘in’ group can convince everyone to support their pet project.
    5) Make sure our ‘left’ wing convictions and credibility take precedence over Christian unity. (the John Stackhouse example quoted above) If someone disagrees with you avoid them forever. Keep groupthink alive.
    I have encountered all the above at Presbytery meetings and find it so sad that the UCC has come to this in spite of some of the good work of so many including the Emerging Spirit project. Perhaps an Emerging Spirit II could help the church open its doors to new immigrants and the changing face of Canada.

  8. HI Barbara:
    In many ways the fundamental movement of Emerging Spirit is in line with facing the changing nature of Canada. The focus of Emerging spirit was primarily upon hospitality to those between the ages of 30 and 45 not currently associated with another faith group. The basic posture though could – and should – be extended elsewhere. Even just a cursory look at the changing census and demographic figures for Canada shows that somehow, as congregations, we are going to have to find ways to have honest engagement – and so relationships – with people other than those of European heritage.
    Our children grow up in school with this as an assumption and daily practice. It just may not be reflected in many congregations.

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