A Field Project Promoting Purposeful Conversation - By The Rev. Mike Pennanen
For several years recently I worked as a hospice chaplain and was therefore free to belong to a church without serving as its pastor. During those years I enrolled in the two halves of the Fundamentals of Transitional Ministry sequence, culminating with the field project. Conveniently for me, the church I belonged to (Westminster Presbyterian Church, Munster, Indiana) was between settled pastors just as I needed to work on it. Transitional pastor Rev. David Comstock was entirely receptive to my implementing my project there. While I took the lead in designing it, Pastor Dave provided significant input to ensure that it would address the church’s needs.
At the time, Westminster Presbyterian Church (WPC) had over 500 members and was blessed with capable staff and strong lay leadership. Over the past year, they’d suffered the loss of many members following the dismissal of a pastor who’d engaged in financial misconduct. This crisis plus other losses left WPC hurting. Nevertheless, the church was so healthy at the core that it managed to cope quite well despite the traumatic events. Pastor Dave had been there over 1½years when I approached him about pursuing my project.
A few months before my fieldwork began in earnest, a workshop led by Pastor Dave had generated a set of”top ministry priorities”for WPC, such as improving our technology, learning how to attract Millennials, and strengthening certain programs. When he and I met, he requested that my project enable the church folk to explore these priorities in greater depth. More generally, our goal was to help people do the inner work of preparing for a new pastor and new directions in ministry. They’d be considering the “price tags”-the potential losses-the church would face while embracing these changes. Dave and I came up with a general shape for the project, centered in an evening of conversation open to the whole church.
I called together a six-member planning team that reflected (to some degree) the makeup of the congregation, including representation from both traditional and contemporary worship services. They helped me improve on the working outline I’d brought, and two volunteered for roles in the central event, which I now called Purposeful Conversations. As agreed on from the start, the planning team met only once.
Forty-plus people showed up for the Conversations. Dave and I led the event with some help from lay leaders. We had the people sitting in a circle to start with, a spirit-seeking song, a scripture passage on faithful risk-taking, and reflections by Dave established the tone. After that came two segments featuring discussion followed by a period of silence, with a song providing a transition between the segments. To set up the first discussion, I summarized a researcher’s essay on the spiritual characteristics of the Millennial generation. We then asked participants to answer queries about WPC’s strengths and its response to Millennials by way of what I call a “People Mover” exercise-where folks move around in a room or hallway to show where they “stand” on various questions. For the second discussion the people broke into small groups, with each considering the implications of pursuing a particular ministry priority.
The People Mover activity provoked the most laughter and “aha!” moments. After I had people moving to various stations to indicate their perception of the church’s strengths, Dave followed with a series of questions based on the premise of WPC developing a new worship service to appeal to people who are “turned off” by church. How much would you support this service, he asked, if the time of your favorite service was bumped to make room for it? If you were asked to increase your giving to fund it? If the service was publicly advertised as welcoming to both gay and”straight”worshipers? It was eye-opening for all present to realize where they-and their church friends-would place themselves between total foot-dragging and enthusiastic support given these various scenarios.
The ending of the Conversations was marked by a return to the Bible passage and three questions posed by Dave. Silence followed, and then a closing song. Before leaving, participants were invited to write down “the key feeling, insight, or conviction” that emerged for them in the gathering. These responses were collected afterward.
Three church members joined me in preparing a report about Purposeful Conversations. They were already primed for this task when they participated in the event. Along with highlights of the Conversations, our report included an evaluation of the experience based on the brief statements participants left behind. The two-page document was made available to all members and provided specifically to Session (governing board) members, with a copy set aside for the new pastor to peruse after her or his arrival. When he came, the Session and pastor did in fact give it serious attention.
Was Purposeful Conversations a fruitful venture? The brief written assessments of the experience indicate that it was for most who attended. The following pair of comments captures the encouragement that many received. One said the occasion was full of “vibrant spirit filled work.” Another noted that “WPC has a daunting task ahead. The 40+ people who came tonight show their willingness to meet the task.” A minority voiced skepticism or disappointment. As one put it: “So many good ideas (again) but we never take action to execute the ideas. This time will it be any different?” Another felt the proposals coming out of the small groups were too outward-focused, while the real need is for more “looking inward.”
For my part, I believe the event was largely successful. Many participants were enlightened, stimulated, encouraged and, I trust, spiritually challenged. I am pleased that we were able to integrate a prayerful spirit into the gathering. I was disappointed, however, that the small group conversations went in a different direction than I’d intended. I asked the groups to consider what risks (and possible losses) WPC might need to embrace to pursue its ministry priorities, and what church strengths we might draw on to help us step out in faith. That is, I was calling for more inner work-it was Lent, after all–but the groups got pragmatic and brainstormed ideas for implementing the priorities. Another instance of what I learned long ago–what I intend isn’t necessarily what the church wants or needs! In any case, I am confident that Purposeful Conversations was beneficial to the congregation.