By Laura Stephens-Reed
I recently interviewed several pastors about their experiences leading congregations during the pandemic. Specifically, I wanted to know how they handled the initial turn to online worship and the million mini-ministry pivots they’ve had to make in the two years since. Unsurprisingly, all these pastors are exhausted. But not all are discouraged. A significant difference between the ministers who are hopeful and the ones who are not is that the former group serves congregations that were clear about their values pre-pandemic.
Core values are those aspects of your church on which you would never compromise. They could include principles like “welcoming children’s joyful noises,” “inclusion of all people,” “being prayerful in all circumstances,” “being innovative in the ways we serve our city,” “feeding our community’s bodies and souls,” or “focusing on making the world a more just place.”
Though the ways your congregation lives into these values might change over time, the values themselves stay constant. That’s why they are, in my estimation, more helpful than vision or mission statements that need to be revisited regularly.
Why is an understanding of these values so important?
In a church that has consensus on its values, everyone starts from the same place. We might have different ideas about what it looks like to embody our principles, but we have commonly-held commitments and a shared language for discussing all the options.
A church that fully owns its values has trust among its members. We can assume positive intent in one another because we are bound to the same ideals. If there are disagreements, we can give one another grace because we hold similar values, and these tenets in turn serve as touchstones to reset the relationship between the involved parties.
And a church that has done the work to define its values knows what it is about. It doesn’t have to try to be all things to all people. It lives its beliefs, and those whose priorities align with those of the congregation become part of or partner to the church.
Congregations that didn’t have this baseline, this trust, this sense of identity, have struggled the past two years. The pandemic kept (and in many ways, continues to keep) us from being in close proximity to one another in familiar ways. That reality has made it difficult for us to have complex conversations. So, when leaders had to make quick or hard decisions, on what values were they basing them? Where did the trust come from that all the options were explored and that choices were made based on the fullest expression of the congregation’s values and the best available information? What kept pastors and churches from overextending themselves by trying to do all the things to reach all the people?
I invite you to mull what you consider your congregation’s top three values, then check them out with others in your church. If you’re surprised by the discrepancies, don’t panic! It is not too late for you and your fellow congregants to do the good work of naming these touchstones.
Here are some questions to start the conversation:
What brought me to this church, and what keeps me here? Try to think beyond such realities as “My family goes here” or “This is the closest church to my house.” Consider when you feel most engaged with your faith or with other congregants. What bubbles up might not necessarily be values that everyone shares, but this exercise can start to get you thinking in the right direction.
What does our history reveal to be important to who we are as a congregation? What doesn’t make this list, and what surprises you about that? Values, even if we haven’t named them, tend to be running themes through most of a church’s history. Making a timeline of key moments, such as pastor tenures, physical plant changes, major conflicts, the beginning and/or end of significant ministries, and responses to world events can make these runners more apparent.
Who are the church people, now gone on to the cloud of witnesses, whose legacies shape us the most? What did they ingrain in us? How did they invest in us? What is essential for us to carry forward? Focus on lessons from the departed could tie in well with dates in the liturgical calendar, such as All Saints’ Day, Lent or the Anna and Simeon Scripture text at Christmas.
To what are we most committed as a church? What’s important to us about these commitments? Here, you’re not really looking for stances on political or theological issues, but you can dig underneath those to get at the values that provide the scaffolding for those stances.
What can we not imagine stopping? By contrast, what is something we can never imagine doing? Our strong reactions point to values that underpin our doing or not doing.
What do we offer our community, defined as both those who attend our church and those we minister alongside in a broader sense? You don’t have to be a larger, well-resourced church to show the love of Christ in impactful ways. So, what do you provide that others would miss if your church disappeared tomorrow? The responses might get at value more than values, but they can also give clues about what your congregation is doing when it is most authentically and faithfully itself.
Wrestling with these questions can be an energizing exercise for your church. They are also a great way to get back on the same page with fellow church members after long spans apart and to jumpstart your ministry in this new season. Have fun with them, and watch what God will do.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.