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.