As we move into the summer months, our Flourishing Congregations Institute newsletter will be issued just once a month. For the June, July, and August issues, we will be focusing on our nation-wide case studies researching various congregations throughout Canada and highlighting a number emerging themes, hunches, or “rabbit trails” that the collaborative research teams are pursuing to better understand why congregations in Canada are flourishing or not.
An “Ethos of Change”: “Re-Flourishing” through Cultivating Repertoires of Resilience
Katie Steeves, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Trinity Western University
“So I think there’s an ethos of change has to happen to keep alive. And we might not always like where the change is going, but we’re not going to go against it. And I think that’s what keeps us moving forward” (Congregation member T, Church A).
On my first Sunday visiting Church A¹ chosen by our research team² as a case study of flourishing in the Greater Vancouver area to conduct research observations, I was met with the inevitable question by several congregation members: “So, what is your research about?” Upon responding that we are interested in understanding the processes around how the congregation is flourishing more in-depth, without skipping a beat, one older gentleman said, “Well, it’s more like re-flourishing now.”
This was, of course, a reference to the way COVID-19 has changed this congregation’s landscape and also how the congregation has felt the need to change their previous landmarks of flourishing as attendance in-person is still lower than it was before, and events and ministries are still re-starting or looking different now. Nevertheless, there is a vibrancy of spirit present in this congregation, and a wealth of ministries that continued to operate in modified ways during the pandemic such as serving a weekly meal for the community and a full calendar of events hosted by their innovative Center for Spiritual Renewal. This caused me to wonder what was sustaining such optimism, creativity, and persistence.
As we continued to dig deeper into this church’s history through document analysis and in-depth interviews throughout the fall of 2021, we learned that they are certainly no strangers to challenge and change. COVID-19 is, in fact, for them just the latest in a series of significant shifts, including merging with another congregation, their previous church building being destroyed by a fire, and moving towards becoming an affirming congregation. Although these changes have not been without wrestling and loss, the overwhelming sense from both church leadership and congregation members is that through collaborative leadership and inclusive conversation most people have come along for the journey – and each challenge has opened the door for greater flourishing to occur.
Thus, an emerging theme contributing to flourishing, in Church A’s context, seems to be their congregation’s cultural ethos around navigating change, and the narratives they tell about previous challenges which might enable a particular outlook towards current and future disruptions. Thinking about this sociologically, I initially wonder if such stories may form part of what sociologist Ann Swidler (1986) has referred to as cultural repertoires, or tools a group can draw from to make meaning and construct future lines of action.
Swidler (1986) suggests that people and groups do not take moves towards specific lines of action from scratch; rather, like a chain, present and future actions build upon some previous “pre-fabricated links” (p. 277), the shape of which are influenced by culture. It is thus my hunch that the stories told by church leaders to members, and members to each other about challenging times create (or limit) a congregation’s cultural repertoire of expectations around how things have been, how they are, and what is or is not possible for their future. In this way, cultural repertoires can either limit or enhance the strategies of action a congregation can draw from to face present challenges.
In the context of Church A, we see how a history of hardship can be transformed into cultural repertoires of resilience, as opposed to repertories of death or defeat. And I wonder if this distinction is important for flourishing and “re-flourishing”. It is also interesting to note that, while church leaders can likely contribute to cultivating repertories of resilience, it seems as though this is something that congregation members can also significantly cultivate among each other. It was, for example, the existence of a committed core of people who had gone through difficult times together and produced something beautiful that helped attract this church’s current young pastor whose leadership is so deeply appreciated and respected by the community. It is interesting that he was drawn to this congregation precisely because they had been forced out of the box before, and were thus able to wonder about the shape worship and community might take and do things differently.
As an example of facing the challenges presented by COVID-19 and moving towards re-flourishing, Church A seems to be able to draw from deep wells of cultural narratives which suggest that change has led to good things in the past, it’s gotten them where they needed to go in bringing key leaders, members, and ministry initiatives at the right time, and that will happen again. As one congregation member described it, “we’ve re-pitched the tent once before, twice before. So I think that in terms of that we can adjust, pivot. That’s the word: pivot, and move forward” (Congregation member C, Church A).
¹ The church and congregation members’ names are kept anonymous here for the purpose of research ethics.
² Beyond myself, this research team also includes Dr. Michael Wilkinson, Professor of Sociology, Trinity Western University and Jason Burtt, PhD Candidate, Baylor University.
Swidler, A. 1986. Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review, 51 (2), 273-286.
What We're Reading
Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change
Paul David Tripp
One of the key variables in our Flourishing Congregations Construct that is evidence of a flourishing congregation is what we refer to as “engaged laity,” that is “attenders who have an active involvement in the life of the parish/congregation community.” Paul David Trip in his book Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change (P&R Publishing, 2002) asserts that in the average congregation “there is more informal ministry than formal ministry in any given week.” (p. 21). In other words, more ministry is carried out by laity than vocational pastoral staff. A concern for any ministry team, of course, is ensuring that the laity is equipped for this ‘informal’ but essential ministry. Arguably one of the biggest obstacles for the average lay person is a sense of inadequacy that comes from time to time when helping other people navigate through the changes and challenges of life. The starting point for Dr. Trip’s book is that every one of us needs the help of others in the body of Christ as we grow in our walk with Jesus. In turn, we will be given opportunity to walk with others. I do not believe that a well-equipped laity negates the need for trained professional counsellors. What this book does is provide some clear insights and accessible principles and practices that lay people and pastors alike can benefit from as we help each other become more and more like Christ.
Dr. Bill McAlpine is Professor Emeritus at Ambrose University
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