How can you effectively change a church culture? In this episode, Bishop Robert C. Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta shares insights with Lewis Center Director Doug Powe about leading struggling congregations through change.
Intro: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly newsletter at www.churchleadership.com/leadingideas. How can you effectively change a church culture? On this episode, Bishop Robert C. Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta and Lewis Center Director, Doug Powe, share insights for leading struggling congregations through change.
Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners, I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Bishop Robert C. Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Our focus for this podcast is leading change. Bishop Wright, I’m so glad you could join us today for this Leading Ideas Talk.
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Thank you, Doug, I’m glad to be here.
Doug Powe: I want to begin our conversation by talking about, before you became Bishop, you were the pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal church in Atlanta, and the church was struggling when you arrived. But you were able to turn it around and make it one of the most vital congregations in the city. The congregation, of course, was getting older and the church was experiencing some decline, this is sort of a common story for many congregations around the country. Can you share with our listeners what first steps you took to help parishioners prepare for the changes that were needed?
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Well sure, looking back it seems like a blur, but, as I really think about what really got going was, I’m a great believer in that Sunday must be the driver. I began to look at ways in which we could make Sunday worship more dynamic. And by that, I don’t mean a performance oriented thing, but I meant, first and foremost, at least my part was really praying about preaching, really committing to a discipline of study for preaching, and then, really just having a conversation on Sunday morning about a God that is lively and active. And so, I think one of the things we’ve got to start with is the Word. I think that’s where scripture starts; In the beginning was the Word. And so, I think we’ve got to figure out how to close the gap between the preacher and the Word. How we’ve got to close the gap between the congregation and the Word. The other thing we’ve got going, really, was to invite people to Bible study. And so, I think what we need to do is make sure we have a coherent message about the prominencey and the primacy about the Word of God in our work. And so, I was glad to find that people found that was refreshing for us to begin that way. And, of course, I always rush to caution when I talk about this. I’m not talking about a, sort of, over and against kind of Word of God. I find that the Word of God is amazingly affirming and confirming and the Word is really near us and wants to find us and locate us gently. And get a sense of our belovedness. And so I’m talking about that. I’m not talking about showing up and ramming the Word of God down people’s throats. You know, I think I did a lot of listening, and, even looking back now, I probably should have done even more, but to listen to people and to find out where the hunger for the Lord was in them. You know, we do this in pastoral occasions and teaching occasions, etc. And then, you know, maybe secondarily I think it’s the word “Psalm.” And so, we put real emphasis on singing, we worked on A Capella singing. We asked people from the congregation, “what songs do you want to sing?” “What would make your heart glad?” And so we get the Word moving both in the preaching moment, in the moment of liturgy, but also in the singing moment. And I’m one who believes that when Sunday becomes an event, that becomes the driver for many things.
Doug Powe: Thank you for talking about the Sunday in that way. And I just want to pick up a little bit, you were talking about the Word and not the word over and against. And I think that a lot of pastors struggle with, how do you help people to experience the Word as challenging and lovingly, but at the same time, it doesn’t become over and against people who are feeling beat up. Can you share a little bit about how you figured out how to make it challenging but at the same time, you didn’t want it to come across like you were beating up the congregation?
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Well, that’s a great question. I think all of this works together, doesn’t it. I think our pastoral engagement with people softens our hearts. And we shouldn’t avoid a moment of challenge, but we offer a challenge understanding that we are beloved and the people we are called to serve are beloved. So how do we talk in terms of challenge? I can tell you, in my own personal, spiritual life, the times when I’ve heard a challenge, a real invitation to change my ways, I was not slammed around by the voice of the Spirit, I was not thrown down and beat up. But it was just a gentle acknowledgment that I had fallen short in the Word, or in the song, or in the preaching, or even in the quiet of my prayer life. And that there was this invitation there and not a condemnation. So I think one of the first things we have to do is ask ourselves, “do we love these people?” I think it may sound cute or trite, but I think that any change that can really happen comes at least in part, and I would say lion’s share, if the people get a sense that you are genuine in your affection. Paul says that, “be genuine in your affection.” And I think that ends up being the conduit for some of the work that we can do in the congregation. So we offer the Word, understanding that we only have part of truth, always only part, and that there’s as much truth sitting out there in front of us in the congregation, so we hold our part gently, we occupy our authority gently. So we’ve got to really do our own soul searching about how we correct. And sometimes the preacher is the one who can learn the most from the people about how to be gentle in correction.
Doug Powe: That’s helpful. I want to push it a little bit further and ask, when a congregation is facing multiple issues, how do you determine what to address first? Or, another way to ask the question is, how did you figure out how to prioritize what you would tackle, knowing that there were many things you wanted to accomplish?
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Yeah, again, sorry, I hope I don’t sound like a broken record, but again, I really do believe this notion of what is the primary work, is crucial. You know, Gardner Taylor and Sam Proctor, those two great deans of the Black Church, wrote a book called We Have This Ministry, and I would invite anybody who’s listening to take a look at that book and what I got out of that book was this notion of the rent, and these guys said “you’ve got to go into a congregation, you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to pay attention; you’ve got to decide and learn from them, what is the rent?” In other words, what do these people need? What is the contract? What is the work? And for me, the congregation that I started at, it was this worship. People wanted a sense of good cheer, they wanted compelling preaching. They wanted compelling music in worship, and they wanted occasion for real fellowship. So we prioritized that. And everything, in my opinion, in my experience, is down stream of that. I know a lot of people want to go in and start with program, but our first business, in my opinion, again, and in my experience, is Sunday morning. It is to offer the table, it is to offer the sacrament, offer the Word, offer the fellowship. To confirm, and to challenge, and to love, and to care for, and to send people out in the world. We do that first and foremost in a dynamic fashion with facility, authentically, and then, I think, we buy our self some room to then engage the other challenges. But I think the first thing first, is getting people there on Sunday and letting them know that we’re going to worship in earnest. That we’re going to worship in our own idiom, in our own way. And I think this is where the minister and the lay people who work with that person have to really be very clear about the context. I’m an Episcopalian, so one of the great struggles we found as I started up is: how can we be Episcopalian and at the same time, celebrate the great songs and the great traditions in worship of African Americans. And so we found a way to blend that where people felt at home. And while it was challenging to get that work done and accomplished I think, at the end of the day, people felt very comfortable with that. And so, Sunday became a home. And once we got that going, got some energy and momentum there, then we applied some of that energy and momentum to various other projects. Starting to do some work, buying some property in the neighborhood to begin to do good works. Engage with the public school across the street, again, to do good works, to be a good neighbor, etc.
Doug Powe: You’ve piqued three questions as you responded there. Let me start with the first one is, you were talking about the work and people buying into what you were doing, particularly around Sunday. I’m imagining there were some early adapters who sort of, as you started this work particularly, you talked about how do we be Episcopalian and still honor some of our traditional African American heritage, that there were some early adapters to what you were trying to do. And of course there’s middle adapters, and then finally, you get the late adapters. Is there a way that you discern those early adapters?
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Yeah, I think the early adapters are going to make themselves known pretty early on, if you’re paying attention. All of this is sort of experimental, that is the word I want to offer. I think we have to realize that the steps we take are experimental. Our interventions in a system, a young minister going there, a not so young minister going to a church. I mean, these are all interventions and experiments. So we listen, and then we take a step. As we take some steps, the people who have been waiting for that, longing for that, are going to make themselves known to you at the end of worship. They’re going to thank you profusely; they’re going to display and exude some energy. So I never really had any difficulty finding the early adapters. You know, in the fellowship hall, you get a sense that this person, or I think you need to ask some questions, “how did you like today? How was Sunday? What did you think of that musical selection?” I mean, I think you’re trying to get as much feedback as you can. And then, of course, you’re going to get late adapters, but you’re also going to get resistors. I think that we’re going to have to increase our capacity to deal with resistance. As that’s my advice to people, we’re going to have to work hard to not take it personally, we’re going to have to work hard to develop allies as we take on initiatives. I think one of the things that lots of folks do in congregational settings is they really set themselves up for a figurative assassination. And that is, as one wise man told me, we are so far ahead sometimes of the people we’re serving that we’re easily confused with the enemy. And so there’s a great parable there about how to walk closely with people. A lot of times we have to manage our ego to get into systems and we want to drag this thing into the end zone by hook or by crook, and I don’t think that is the best use of our time, and I don’t think that’s what congregational ministry is. Congregational ministry is about mobilizing people, I think in it’s best sense. And so what we’ve got to do is increase our capacity for finding and locating and making allies, and then asking people to join us as a partnership to move a system forward. And then, lastly, I would say, and you’ll find Doug, that I’m just an amalgam of having talked to really smart people. I have found some great mentors along my journey and they’ve helped me immensely. So, in the midst of offering change and experimenting and developing allies and experiencing resistance, I had a very wise senior minister say to me, when he saw me with my chin down, because sometimes we get weary for trying, and that’s a legitimate part of the work, and the older gentleman came right up to me and he said exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right moment. And he said “remember Rob, move with those who want to move and pastor the rest.” Now, what that meant was, so many ministers and so many lay people can get into the “we won, you lost” mentality. And so, what he was saying was, we’re going to stay close to everybody. But there are people who want to make a move with you and so let’s make a move with them. But, we do not do that at the expense of authentic relationship with other people who are not quite there yet. And so we go out to coffee with our critics, and we go out to lunch with those who are really struggling and we invite their input. I think this is one of the things that we’ve got to learn to do better. We’ve got to learn to get over the awkwardness of it all, and to find out ways in which to deepen the fellowship. In our baptismal covenant in the Episcopal Church, we pledge that we will continue in the Apostle’s teaching the fellowship and the breaking of the bread. But the fellowship is one of those fundamental Christian pieces; practices that we’ve got to continue to do. There’s no real change in a system without that kind of messy fellowship that’s really all over the map. But you need those outlier voices who may tell you that you’re not doing such a good job. You need them to really develop and refine. It takes a lot of really cranky lay people to make a really good ordained person, in my experience. So, I have learned to not avoid or curse those folks, but to get my ego in check and to have a conversation with them and to listen.
Doug Powe: I think that’s really good advice. Not only for those who are in ministry, but also in lay of how to better help to make their congregations more, sort of, spiritual places where people will want to come and participate and find worship, as you say, more of an event. I want to also take another piece of this. I have heard you preach and have known you for a while so, you have, sort of, a charismatic flair where people are going to naturally follow and be attracted to you. So, my question is, in what you’re describing, it seems to me that if someone has your charismatic flair, it works, but what if someone does not have that flair? How do they follow the blueprint that you’ve lined, particularly of work starting with Sunday?
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Yeah, I appreciate that conversation because I’m glad for the rumor that I’m charismatic. I’m glad for that rumor. I think that this is a really important point because I think that some people out there may be discouraged because they’re a little bit more reserved in the preaching moment, or a little bit more reserved in the fellowship moment. I think there’s this invitation in scripture, certainly this invitation when we follow Jesus to be your authentic self. And to offer that. And so, what I find in myself is that I have a familiar relationship with God. Not because I’m deep or a mystic or something, but because I’ve been in this conversation with God for 54 years now. And so, what I get to stand up and talk with folks about God, I’m talking about a friend. And so, yeah, I may have some literary flourishes, or I may say things that in a particular way to catch the ear, etc. Yeah, fair enough, but I think that everybody should be on their journey to authenticity, and then to offer that authenticity to the group on Sunday morning. You know, one of my things that I would say, and this will be a little bit controversial for some people, is, I think, given the time and season that we find our self in, that the majority of many of our preaching moments should be extemporaneous. And by that, I mean, very deep and hard work during the week, with the text, with the commentaries, with the study, with the praying, all of that. But, perhaps, to figure out, in our own way, how to stand up in the morning and say “Good morning friends. There’s this one line today in the Gospel that I just gotta talk to you about.” I mean, you know, I think that many of us have not practiced how to talk about movies that we’re really excited about, or meals that we really enjoyed, or a vacation that we’ve been really excited about. But that’s where people feel our spirit in those things. I think that the same thing can be done in preaching and I think that that is magnetic. So yeah, charisma is one thing for sure, but I think that there’s no substitute, whether someone is a charismatic personality, or a reserved personality, I think there’s no real substitute for the magnetism that can come from someone being their authentic self. To talk about this friend that they’ve had, God, and to talk about some line in scripture, some text, etc. That has moved them, personally, but that they can’t wait to tell people about on Sunday. I think that’s the other thing too, is that we’ve got to take a look at the way in which we’re preparing to talk to people. You know, sometimes these people who are charged with talking, lay or ordained, on Sunday, are so over burdened, they haven’t had a chance to really sit with the Lord and talk. And they haven’t developed practices in their own routine, or rhythm or cadence, so they can have something to say on Sunday, and so they really leave the best of themselves in Monday through Friday, and then really only give the Sunday moment what’s left over. And so, when I talk about making Sunday the main thing, I’m talking about organizing the week in a fashion that you have your energy on Sunday. I used to say to my worship team, every Sunday for us is the Super bowl. And so, we don’t back into Sunday, we run to Sunday. And that paradigm requires some real serious work with the calendar, etc. But I think when we save our energy for that Sunday morning and that positive transfer of energy, which is our own genuine enthusiasm about this God who has come among us, then I think we’re on the right road.
Doug Powe: And the last question, and you talked a little bit about this with talking about resisters, but I’m hoping you can say a little bit more from your experiences, how do you deal with the fallout of those decisions that some people just aren’t going to like, but you know that you have to keep the congregation as a whole moving forward. How do you, sort of, deal with the fallout of things that can be troubling to some, or to many, but you know that this is really necessary if we’re going to take that next faithful step for where we need to go as a congregation.
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Yeah. I mean, I could say so much about that. We could do a podcast just on resistance! But, I think that, and I’ve learned, I mean I’m, by no means, a finished product on this subject. And I have learned quite a bit that I hope I’ve grown some. But I think one of the things I would say, which I think is important to say is that the people in the congregation must never get the sense that you’re just about, it’s just ego that’s driving you. I think that, sometimes, people pop up and reflect back to us an unflattering interpretation of ourselves and that is my ego is really leading here. I think that people have got to get a sense of your genuine care for the community, and one of the ways we do that is we gather up the revelation and the insights of the community and forward those forward, rather than “hey, I’ve got a great idea and you guys have been sitting here for all these years and you guys don’t know nothing and I’m the savior and I’ve come to save you.” Well we can try that, and you will get a lot of resistance, and you will get that figurative assassination because people have good sense. But I think that the work on our way to, maybe experiencing some resistance, making sure we’ve developed some allies. Making sure we’ve heard from the wisdom in the community. Make sure we’ve been accessible to that. Make sure that people understand that we’re a listener. Make sure that we really have got our ego in check. I think then you move forward. That gives you some good odds against resistance. But then when you actually hit the resistance, I think you’ve got to hit it head on. You know, I think we’ve got to bring our spiritual maturity to bear here. We’ve got to pray for those, those folks, and we’re hoping that they pray for us. And we’ve got to go to them and, as honestly as we can, we’ve got to invite them in, we’ve got to let them know that we don’t want them to leave, we don’t want them to go, we would like for them to join us. And I’m a great believer in the ask, in asking Bob or Mary, “I understand that you’ve got some reservations, some concerns. And I’m wondering if you would travel with us for just a little while longer here as this thing unfolds. I really want to hear your voice as we go forward. I think that I’ve done that, I’ve appreciated that, now, ultimately, let me say this. Some people may find out, may discover, as you’re trying to do a good work or a good change, or etc. Or run an experiment. That they really don’t want to be a part of that. Now when that happened in the Gospels, Jesus didn’t condemn anybody. He didn’t shame anybody, he didn’t guilt anybody. People were free to go, and they were free to join. And I think that’s the spirit with which we’ve got to do these experiments. When we saw some growth in that congregation, some people left, and I was always sorry for that, but I had to respect adult people who decided to go another place. Now remember, everybody is on their spiritual journey and not every place can be everything to everybody. So I understood that, even though, as a person, as a human being, I lamented the fact that some people chose not to continue the journey with us. But, some people chose to show up, new people chose to show up and to journey with us. And so, I think we’ve got to, again, realize that resistance is just a part of ministry, get our ego out of it, make sure we pastor those who cannot join us on the journey, and move with the allies who want to do the journey with us. I see a lot of really good work being diminished because of back biting. And this really impinges on our effectiveness. Because it’s the wrong spirit. Now we’re not in the win-lose game. We’re in the moving people forward game. And that’s a very difficult game and it takes us to apply our best spirituality and that is not one of condemnation and back-biting.
Doug Powe: I’m going to shift the conversation a bit and I want to ask you, as you worked on making Sunday special, how did you help the congregation to be intentional about inviting others. I think the other challenge many congregations have is folks think that the church is just for their small group, and they forget about the importance of inviting others. So how did you help to encourage them to actually invite others?
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Well, I guess the first think you want to do is you want to make sure that they have something they can be proud of, that they would invite people to, number one. Right, so at the congregation we’re talking about, we really worked hard on trying to embody the best of our African-American Heritage and tradition, as well as our Episcopal service. And so, once we found that right mixture together, we had something, I thought, and I think many people would agree, that people were proud to point to and tell sorority sisters, and fraternity brothers, and co-workers, and neighbors, hey, you ought to come by and see this think. Like a good restaurant, like a good movie, you make it easy to recommend because it’s good, number one. Number two, you’ve got to raise that expectation. You’ve got to say “hey, invite friends.” “Hey, invite family.” I think one of the roles of leadership is beginning to help people figure out what the main thing is. And for us, in scripture, Jesus is very clear. He’s inviting us to join him in his purpose of affecting people’s lives. And so, what we want to do is we want to be very clear to raise that bar, to raise that expectation. Number three. We’ve got to find creative ways to give people side doors into congregational life. One of the things, one of the images I used to use when I was in a congregation was thinking about how many doors can we build into this fellowship, how many doors can we build into this church? So one of the doors that we had some success with was what we called bridge events. So a bridge event is, you know, not necessarily Sunday morning worship, it may be picnic fellowship, or it may be, for us in Atlanta, it was the Hunger Walk. It was having people to give people an opportunity to invite their friends, invite their co-workers, people who might be a little skittish about joining a church, into the fellowship and get to see us, get to know us, get to feel the warmth of the fellowship, so that we can make that second ask, which was “if you had a good time with us in picnic field, or at a dinner party, or at a house blessing, or something like that, how about you join us on Sunday and have a little bit more of that?” We had great success with that and many of those people became members and turned around and because they had been welcomed in, turned around and welcomed other people. And I think, maybe number four is to raise clear expectations about the fellowship expectation in the church. In other words, the warmth. You know, one of the tasks I used to charge my leadership group with, we call ours the vestry, the leadership group was that, when we leave worship and go into the fellowship hall with food and so on, I would charge them, and really encourage them, don’t talk to anybody that you know for the first 15 minutes. So, look at the wall, see the people hanging back from the walls who look a little hesitant, find them, walk up to them, say hello. You know a lot of people in this congregation they have traveled, they’re educated, and they’ve been all over. So go and use some of those experiences, just let people know that they’re welcome. And then, I think the last thing is, knowing something about your demographics. This particular church, as you know, is an African American Episcopal church. As I looked around in the religious marketplace in Atlanta, it seemed to me that there was a space where people could come, that was needed, where people could come and do different kinds of genres of music and to have about an hour and a half, about an hour and fifteen minutes worth of worship, in the Episcopal framework. So we went after young African Americans, of course anybody was welcome, but it seemed to us that those young African Americans who are out in professional lives, in new marriages, in new families who are sort of the only black where they were all through the week, were longing for, were looking for a place like St. Paul’s where they could see and worship alongside other people who, professionally, were excellent, and this was their place of worship. So that became a great drawing card for us as well. People came there and found friendship and even networking opportunities there. We tried to develop right there, quite a bit of a beehive to some effect.
Doug Powe: And bishop, as we get ready to draw to a close, I want to end with this question. As you think about, now in your role of bishop, what characteristics will be needed for pastors to be successful in the next five to ten years in leading congregations. It seems to me we’re hitting a period, particularly in main-line denominations where churches are experiencing more decline and pastors are struggling with “how do we move these congregations forward in a way where we’re not going to be a mega church but we certainly can be vital and vital in the community?” So what are the leadership characteristics that can help pastors to actually do that work?
Bishop Robert C. Wright: Clergy have got to get out of the business of being the great general person. I think we’ve got a lot of really talented lay people who are in our midst. I think we’ve got to give over some of the work of congregational life to lay people who are, often times, who are more qualified and more experienced to do some of this work than they clergy. And os, I think that clergy are going to have to get increasingly clearer about what their narrow area of value add is. And to ask other people, lay and otherwise, to join them in the work. I had a great example given to me, from the popular movie, Fiddler on the Roof, and a wise old bishop said “pay attention to the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof. He’s not buzzing here and there. He only shows up at important intersections. He convenes the community, helps them to do the work that is necessary at that intersection, and then he’s off again.” I hold that up as a parable for congregational life now. I think we’ve got to get into this business of father or mother knows best and move into a season where clergy are clearer and clearer about what their value add is for this community, and then to allow other people, allow space for other people to share the responsibility of congregational life.
Doug Powe: Bishop, thank you very much for joining us today. I appreciate your insights, and I’m sure the audience will appreciate the insights also.
Outro: Leading Ideas Talks has been brought to you by the Not Safe for Church. This practical book by Doug Powe and pastor Jasmine Smothers, offers ten ways to help churches move from just saying what they intend to do to actually doing it. Not Safe for Church is available at churchleadership.com/books. On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Amanda Poppei, Senior Leader of Washington Ethical Society, describes how her community has made anti-racism work an overarching priority, shaping its identity and congregational practices.
Preview: I think the idea behind anti-racism work is that, particularly for those of us who, like myself, identify as white and are experiencing the world as white, we’re either working actively against racism, against the systems of oppression, against the world around us, or we are accidentally reinforcing it. Now, of course we might actually be trying to reinforce it, but that’s not the situation for most of the folks of my congregation, and, I suspect, for your listeners. So, if in fact, we want to change the system of racism in our country then we need to be actively working against it.
Outro: Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.
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