Church DNA, Part Two

I closed last week’s column with a question: “What part of our church DNA needs some revision?” In other words, are there any unhealthy behaviors or traditions in which this church participates? Are there things we need to change?

I was hoping someone might leave a comment on the blog, but so far, nobody has written or said anything. I don’t think this is because we all believe our church is perfect, but rather because it is a difficult question that requires lots of thought.

Perhaps it would be helpful to meditate on the way the DNA of Kessler Park UMC has changed over the years. I understand that, at one point, this church had the reputation of being a “country club church.” Our members were caricatured as being wealthy, snooty, and a bit exclusive. I think all would agree that we’re not like that now! Our DNA changed; the way our congregation interacted with the community changed, and we finally lost that negative reputation.

Now that I have been your pastor for three years, I believe I am starting to understand this church’s culture and ethos. I have a better grasp on the ebb and flow of things, the way things get done, the kind of informal rules that guide church behavior.

Before I say anything else, let me affirm my conviction that KPUMC is a healthy organization. We have an identity, a sense of purpose, that is shaped by the gospel, and we have a strong conviction that our faith must be put into practice, lived out. We are not primarily inward-looking, but mission-focused, even if we’re not yet able to accomplish everything we want to do. But we are on the right track.

There are a few things that I think we need to revisit, or at least strengthen. Perhaps this is where we could stand to do a little DNA tweaking, a bit of genetic splicing, if you will:

  1. Let me begin with what I mentioned before this Sunday’s sermon. I believe we need to reclaim our Scriptures as inspiration and guide, and take seriously Scripture study and knowledge. When I arrived as your pastor I was surprised to learn that, besides two Sunday School classes, there was only one midweek Bible study group meeting. I know that there was a tradition of Disciple Bible study in this church many years ago, but the interest in really getting to know the Bible has flagged since then.
  2. Bible study takes place best in small group settings, or situations where people can have honest conversation and dialogue over Scripture. There are currently too few small group opportunities at KPUMC. And yet small groups are the place where relationships form, friendships grow, and community blossoms. We should be encouraging and facilitating more of these kinds of connections. Unfortunately, too many of us are engaged with the church only through worship, and not through any other activities.
  3. Financially, the church is on fairly solid ground. We’re not deeply in debt, and we have recently started a permanent endowment fund to secure our future. But we have not yet become a place where we understand that financial stewardship is part of our discipleship. Too often we exist in a “fundraising” mindset; we view the collection plate as an extension of the church budget. Instead, we must begin thinking about our giving as our own response to God’s call to join in the work of the gospel. We don’t give to pay the light bill; we give to participate in God’s mission.
  4. And finally, I believe that we need to continue to tweak our understanding of mission. We are a congregation that firmly believes in the importance of doing mission work. I am proud of all the work we do to support various ministries that work to transform lives. But we also need to take a further step that moves us from an understanding of mission as “charity” to mission as “doing justice.” We are too content with giving grace bags to homeless people, when we must also be asking why people are homeless, why affordable housing is so hard to find, what are long-term solutions to homelessness, etc. Very few churches ever make this step; perhaps it is our calling to find a way to move into more substantial justice work.

Again, let me ask for your input. What do you think of my suggestions? Do you also see room for improvement in these areas? Or can you think of other ways in which we need to change our DNA?

Church DNA, Part One

I found myself in a conversation with colleagues recently in which the topic of discussion was whether or not a church can change its DNA. In other words, can a congregation buck years of unhealthy tradition and become healthy, or is this an impossible task?

The person who raised the question is someone who finds herself in a small church which struggles to pay the bills and attract new members. She’s afraid that her church has too much history of negative patterns and conflict to overcome.

This exchange caused me to reflect on the idea of a church’s DNA. I have read lots of books about church leadership and attended a fair number of conferences on the matter, and I recognize that the analogy of DNA is an accurate one for groups and organizations.

DNA is the genetic code of every living organism; it includes everything one would need to know about a human being’s biology. It is passed along to us by our parents, and then we pass it along to our children.

The same kind of phenomenon occurs in organizations. Just as healthy genes and unhealthy viruses can be transferred by DNA from generation to generation, both functional and dysfunctional systems and patterns can be passed on in larger groups, like churches. It's especially important to recognize that those who start an organization put their fingerprints all over that group for a very long time; the way that a church is founded carries serious implications for its success or failure in the long run.

So yes, every church has a DNA that reflects its particularities, both in positive and helpful ways, as well as negative and harmful ones. Kessler Park UMC has a DNA that is unique to this particular church, which has made us what we are today.

I don’t know all the details of that DNA; I don’t know the full history of KPUMC. None of us know it all. But each of us have made our own contributions to this heritage, especially those of you who have been members for long years. Each pastor has also contributed to the DNA of KPUMC. His or her sermons, care, teachings, administrative style, and lifestyle choices have all shaped who we are.

I am particularly thankful for the rich blessings of this history, and I can see many positive results of the traditions and customs that have been passed down over the 90+ years of this congregation’s past.

Likewise, I can see that not everything that this church has passed down has been helpful or positive. That’s to be expected! It’s likely that there are genes that your own family have passed on to you that you wish you could have missed. This is nothing to be ashamed about; it’s merely the truth about who we are. All legacies are mixed — none are completely righteous and good.

I told my colleague that I certainly believe that a church can change. And I believe that part of the responsibility lies on the pastor to identify those features of church culture which need to change. Clergy can be important change agents, alongside of key lay leaders and staff persons.

The first step in changing a church culture is open acknowledgement of those things which ought to change. We all need to learn to answer the following questions from time to time: What part of our organization appears “stuck in a rut”? What unhealthy patterns continue despite our best efforts? What are the worst stories about our past?

When a church is able to openly identify and discuss its shortcomings and failures, then it puts itself into a position to receive transformation through the Holy Spirit. It’s the first step in changing the DNA.

Let me conclude this first column on KPUMC by asking you this question: “What part of our DNA needs some revision?” I’ll give you some of my own thoughts next week.