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Discern Your Church's Mission

Church Visioning as Vocational Discernment

Why am I here? What is God's will for my life?
We all want to know the answer to the questions of vocation.

The word "vocation" literally means "call."  As Christians we believe that God calls each one of us by name, and calls us to a purpose uniquely ours. Discernment is the way we try to discover the answer.  It involves prayer, self-exploration, and awareness of the circumstances of our life and our abilities. It also relies on deep relationships with others to help discern what might truly be God's voice, not just our own desires.

These are also important questions for a congregation to ask.  Although the mission of a congregation is different from an individual's vocation, the process of discovering that mission has a lot in common. When your church writes a mission statement, or you invite someone to attend worship with you, in some way you are responding to a similar question. What is the purpose God may have for our church, for us?

This guide invites you to listen for the voice of God. It is designed to assist with both your personal and your congregation's discernment.  Your congregation may prayerfully figure out, in holy conversation with God and one another, the mission of your community of faith.

How to Use this Guide

This resource is divided into three ways of looking at discernment. The first focus is an individual understanding of vocation, with an emphasis on identifying God-given gifts. The second section explores ways your congregation may weave the practice of listening for God into its ongoing work. And the third section suggests ways to move through a process of discerning the congregation's mission as part of a planning or re-visioning ministry.

Each section contains reflections, discussion questions, and suggested resources for going further. It suggests ways to do this in a group, as well as for individual reflection. Use one or any combination of the sections. Click on a title of a particular section if you wish to go directly to the material described.

Focus 1: Vocation: Your God-given Mission in Life
"God, Why Did You Give Me Life?
Consider the Givens
Personal Discernment and Community
Resources for Personal Discernment

Focus 2: Practices of Discernment for the Congregation
The Distinctive Gifts of Your Congregation
Gifts and Skills for Congregational Discernment

Focus 3: Discerning Your Congregation's Mission
Seeking God's Way Together
Discernment as Holy Conversation
A Process for Congregational Discernment
Crafting the Conversation
Suggestions for Guiding the Conversation
Neighbors as Conversation Partners

Focus 4: Writing a Mission Statement
Using Few Words,  Declaring a Great Mission
Additional Resources

Vocation: Your God-given Mission in Life

"God, Why Did You Give Me Life?"

"Why am I here?" is one of the most basic questions we can ask of God. What is my deeper purpose?  It may not be a question we think of everyday, but asking this question is an important part of the spiritual life for most of us. This question has to do with something the Christian tradition speaks of as "vocation", or "call."  Vocation is not just for nuns or pastors.  It is more than a profession, job, or type of training.  In the Christian sense, vocation has to do with basic questions. Why am I here? What does God call me to be and to do?

For many, the effort to listen to God has not been a regular daily practice. Even in prayer, we may be more likely to speak to God than to listen; our prayer requests are not often requests for guidance, unless we are faced with an unusually difficult decision.

Discernment is a spiritual practice for listening for and seeking God's will. This practice has been known to many, for centuries, who have struggled to hear the voice of God in their own lives and to understand their vocation.
Discovering why you are here is linked to the lifelong process of learning who you are. Each of us learns over time to identify those unique gifts of personality and perspective that seem to persist through growth and change.  One person has a "gift for friendship"; others seek her out and enjoy her comfortable home and conversation. Another has a gift for listening, and while he may use it in a profession like counseling, he might also use it in myriad other ways, perhaps only peripherally in his paid work. It is something he is known for and seems to do naturally.

Our God-given gifts are surely clues to discovering God's purposes for our lives. Career counselors know that the kind of work a person is best suited for is most reliably predicted by discovering what they most enjoy. Our gifts may be as natural as breathing- sometimes it is even hard for us to recognize them because they are just "how we are". But others recognize and appreciate them.

God has provided technical gifts too, a body just "made for" a certain sport or fingers seemingly designed to play the piano, gifts of intellect or skill or strength.  Our native gifts are usually things we have also worked hard at developing in our lives, because we enjoy exercising them. They are deeply satisfying, and though great effort may be needed to hone them, that work usually has its satisfactions too.

Consider the Givens

Life circumstances maybe gifts as well. Many are "given", not chosen. One is seldom in control of the situation into which we are born, our family nurture, and others we encounter on the way. These help make up what one theologian calls "the providential call."  Some of these circumstances God seems to provide, others God forms us in spite of them.
It's easy to see how some early experiences are part of determining how gifts and talents may be developed and expressed. For example, those long, strong and flexible fingers may belong to someone with a natural affinity for music- or for drawing, or for mechanics. Those fingers might grow in a household where music is part of everyday life, where piano lessons are encouraged- or they might come of age under the tutelage of a dad who just loves to tinker with cars. But the circumstances of our lives are complex, and determining factors are mixed.  Mechanics can be raised in musical households. As individuals, we can look to all that has been "a given" to glimpse in this mosaic the unifying patterns. Some of the "givens" may seem negative too.  Perhaps a potentially musical child is raised by parents who don't value music or who simply can't afford lessons. Hard as it may be to understand, even the restraining factors are "givens", though they may not feel like gifts.

We can look to all of the circumstances of our lives, not just our early nurture, to see what "gift" they may be to us, as they contribute to our growth and shaping.  In the journey of faith, we learn to recognize the events of our lives as coming from God, and as vital clues to our mission in life- the reason "why I am here". We may encounter a need in the world which seems to cry out for our response. We may meet someone who unexpectedly interests us in something new.  Our answers to "why we're here" change throughout life as we encounter new circumstances. In fact, many have found that some of the most important clues to meaning and purpose may have come from the painful experiences of life. Responding to these as clues to God's loving guidance can seem difficult, but many have found new meaning by doing so.

For group reflection: In groups of two or three, spend about 5 minutes each sharing your thoughts about your gifts.  You may want to talk about what is "a given" in your life, or what has been "a given" in the past that has shaped you and made you into who you are today. Is there a particular quality that others seem to recognize in you as a gift? What are the gifts you use in your everyday work? Your social life and family life? Your other commitments? Your hobbies or favorite pastimes?

For personal reflection: We each have our own ways of learning about who we are throughout life, of reflecting on ourselves. Some use a journal. If you are comfortable writing in a journal, spend some time writing about this:
Over time, what are the ways I have come to learn more about who I am and what my gifts are?
(For example, what kind of feedback from others has helped your self-understanding? What events, skills, circumstances? How have you made time and space for this question?)

If you don't prefer to use a journal, just ponder the question and jot down a few words or phrases that come to mind.

Personal Discernment and Community

Many writers and spiritual guides feel that discernment, even of individual vocation, is not complete without an element of communal sharing.  The Christian tradition includes community guidance as a key element of call.  This may come as others notice, and nurture, our gifts. Part of the practice of the Christian faith is noting and nurturing the gifts of others. Even without a formal feedback process, those skills and abilities that are affirmed are often the ones which are developed further.  Sometimes a group develops an intentional practice of discussion and discernment. Spiritual companionship groups help members hear God's voice in daily life and experience by using active listening to reflect what they have heard.

For group discussion: Breakout into groups of two or three, and share what you see as the gifts of the others. Or, in a group of 10-12 who have already done some sharing, or some work together, offer a group prayer of thanksgiving that lifts up the gifts of individuals. Say, "God, we give thanks for your servant __________and celebrate his/ her gifts of … (pause while the group calls out responses). Repeat for all group members, and conclude by praying for the good use of their gifts. "God, we thank you for these many gifts you have given us all in these your servants.  Guide all to know and use their gifts to show God's goodness to the world.

Nurturing an ear for God's will, a sense of gifts and possibilities in the circumstances of our lives, is not a skill that is learned once and for all. It is developed and deepened in regular practices of contemplation, reflection, and relationship. The habit of turning to God in times of change is the beginning of practicing our faith.  How will you listen for the voice of vocation?

Resources for Personal Discernment

There are many resources for prayer and contemplation that may be used to make space in our lives to attune to God. Here are a few books which are specifically about the effort to know God's will in and through our everyday lives and experiences, along with focused devotional practices.

Copeland, M. Shawn, "Saying Yes and Saying No," in Bass, Dorothy C., Ed. Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Seeking People. Jossey-Bass, 1997. 

Jones, Timothy Awake My Soul: Practical Spirituality for Busy People. Doubleday, 1999.

Mahan, Brian J. Forgetting Ourselves On Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition. Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Palmer, Parker Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Jossey Bass, 1999.

Pierce, Gregory F. A spirituality@work;10 ways to balance your life on-the-job Loyola Press, 2001.

Practices of Discernment for the Congregation

The Distinctive Gifts of Your Congregation

The search for meaning and purpose of life is not only a personal one, but happens in relationships and communities as well.  Gifts exist not only in individuals, but in the "givens" of a community's circumstances, for example, its size and culture, social location, time and place, limits and needs.  All that is 'given" can be seen as gifts of different kinds, and can serve as clues to God's purposes and will.

A family, or even a work team, may have unique gifts and calling. And certainly each congregation has its own calling. Now, there are those generic things which each of these groups are "meant to do". A family is a place where care is provided, where children are nurtured and taught, where they learn to relate to others.  Each work team has a given purpose. It may be to build something like a car or a bridge; to produce a play, or an advertising campaign. It may be to contribute to a process like the care of a patient through a hospital stay or the education of a child.  And a congregation has its stated purposes too—worship, education, and reaching out to care for others.

But there are all kinds of families, all kinds of work teams. Every group of people has a distinctive character.  It seems that each community is called to be distinctive, to make its contribution in a way which rises about the sum of its parts. This happens when the inner life and human relationships are given importance, and related to the outer circumstances of the tasks.  The group will learn to "listen to" one another's unique gifts and its own set of circumstances, and so will learn how to live out its purpose more fully.

For example: A family finds itself in a neighborhood which is in transition. When this "given" is received as God's gift, the family may find ways to help the school system adapt to the changes. A work team which is devoted to truly being a team learns to identify and nurture the particular skills of its members. It then performs its work in a way it otherwise could not. Something new and unexpected results in the product or process which adds to its value.

In the congregation, we use all of who we are to seek out the unique ways we are to contribute to God's mission here and now.  The gifts of individuals, of relationships, of the community, and of its circumstances all combine to allow us to become that people whom God has created us to be. In the congregation, our work is very much about discernment, about paying attention to inner lives and relationships. We meed to take care not to lose sight of that, to include it in all the tasks we do.

Just as individuals, seeking to know God's will, adopt practices of prayer, discipleship and attention, so there are ways to weave an attitude and practice of discernment into the common life of the congregation.  This community practice is essential in the work of the congregation's leaders. These practices open the door to deeper experience, and they build relationships.  The congregation is helped to discover its call.

For group discussion: Name one or more of the "givens" of your committee, group, or task in the church. How do you see these as clues to God's will for your work? Think of the distinctive particulars of your work and "gifted-ness" rather than the more general. For example, if you are on the Christian Nurture committee.  Among many responsibilities, you are charged with caring for the Sunday School and for children's ministries. The focus of that calling at this time might include something like this.  It's a "given" that you have only one large space in which to hold all our classes beyond the nursery. This might mean you are called to learn something about team teaching. You might be called to help the children relate to those of different ages." On the other hand, you may also have a member who has access to inexpensive partitions. That also could be the gift you seek. But don't assume that "fixing problems" is always the best way. Remember that sometimes what appears to be a problem may actually be a gift to be used.

For personal reflection: Use a journal, or simply reflect and jot down a few notes, to consider this question:
When have I been part of a community or group that was really special? How did we manage to do what we did together? What was the "call" of that group of people? Were there problems that turned out to be gifts in disguise?

Skills and Gifts for Congregational Discernment

There are times and places where it seems easier to seek contact with God. We don't often think of committee meetings as that kind of a time and place! How can your committee consciously develop ways to make space for reflection and listening? There are a variety of techniques to use, when a committee has some willingness to move in that direction.

1. Prayer and community sharing at the opening of meetings is a basic part of developing a posture of listening. Building relationships is at the heart of what we are called to do in congregations, and committees tend to get quite close when they are working hard together. Frictions can develop between us too. Adding the deliberate time to share personally about our daily lives helps foster and deepen relationships and help them withstand the difficulties leaders face.

One method is to open with a short passage which has to do with discernment as an opening devotion, and then move into an open-ended question related to the passage for community discernment.  The world is full of writings and reflection that helps individuals develop the practice of discernment. (See the resource list at the conclusion of the first section, "Vocation: Your God-given Mission in Life). Parallels are usually quite easily drawn between an individual's process, and the life of a group. Try some passages from Parker Palmer's book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey Bass, 1999).

2. Develop your group's communication skills. There are many books that deal with the techniques of active listening. One basic tool is for a listener to paraphrase back what they have heard. Developing understandings of group process can help too. In fact, many of the things that make for a healthy group dynamic also promote discernment. One basic book on group process: Leading Small Groups: Basic Skills for Church and Community Organizations by Nathan W. Turner (Judson Press, 1996). Taking care with communication helps make space for God's intentions to be heard and seen.

3. Encourage listening and speaking with the "ear for vocation" in committee meetings.  Asking the question "What's God got to do with this?" shifts the perspective.  You might mention the clues in circumstances and events that point to call. For example, "Those groups of kids hanging around on the corner make me uncomfortable too. But what if we look at them as a kind of an unwelcome gift from God? I don't mean we have to jump in and open a teen drop in center. But maybe we should dig a little deeper. Why are they here all of a sudden? Is there something going on at the school we don't know about?"

4. When people work together they learn to recognize how the mix of personalities and skills works together. Naming one another's gifts creates opportunities to grow in trust and mission. "You know, this issue is a really emotional one for me. You bring a gift of logic and reason to the way you talk about it. That's pretty hard for me to hear, but it does give me another perspective.  Still, I do really hope we don't lose track of the human element."  These are hard ways of talking, but they open doors to understanding our differences while focusing on our common mission.

For group discussion: Review four ways of working in committees listed above. What will work for you? What do you already do? What specific methods can you think of? Think of a problem you are dealing with and dig deeper to mine it for clues to vocation.

For further study:  Scan two helpful books: Grounded in God: Listening Hearts Discernment for Group Deliberations by Suzanne Farnham and the Listening Hearts Ministry Group, Morehouse Publishing, and Attentive to God: Spirituality in the Church Committee by Karen Marie Yust, Chalice Press, 2001.

The Christian tradition includes the community as a key element in determining call.  This may come as others notice, and nurture, our gifts. And part of an individual's practice is noting and nurturing the gifts of others. Those skills and abilities that are affirmed are often the ones which are developed. You might wish to start small groups in your church which include discernment in their focus- whether or not it is their primary focus. "Where is God in all of this?" is a question that works with any topic. Spiritual companionship groups of all kinds help members discern God's voice in daily life and experience by reflecting back what they have heard.

Developing the ability to practice discernment in groups depends on developing trust and deepening relationships. This can be difficult work, but it just might be the key to the work God has called us together to do. 

There are many resources for small group work. You might try Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups by Abigail Johnson, The Alban Institute, 2004. For pairs of people working together, consider Partners in Covenant: The Art of Spiritual Companionship by Barbara A. Sheehan, SP, Pilgrim Press 1999.

Discerning Your Congregation's Future

Seeking God's Way Together

Your church may be at a point where it is planning or considering change. Cultivating an attitude and practice of discernment will ground these efforts in your congregation's life, its community, and God's calling. Just as we turn to God for guidance when contemplating a change of work, a move or a major undertaking, this is a natural time for a congregation to seek God's purposes.

Discerning God's purposes for the congregation is the foundation of what we are doing when we conduct a church planning or re-visioning effort. But, few congregations are intentional about nurturing the practice and language of discernment. Simply using the language isn't enough when it is not in the lexicon of your congregation. In fact, it could make the planning and visioning effort feel alien or intimidating.  How do we seek to know God's will in concrete ways in a planning process?

One helpful way is to compare it frequently to the ways we try to understand God's will in our individual lives.

1.    We consider the "givens", the unique gifts that God has provided.
2.    We look back to see how we have developed over time; we review our history.
3.    We consider our strengths, what feels "natural" to us.
4.    And we look at the ways we have grown and gained understanding through adversity. "
5.    The question "What kind of person am I?" becomes "What kind of congregation are we?"
6.     Most of all, we remind ourselves to ask the right questions.

"What should we do?" becomes "What might God have us do?"

"How can we benefit?" becomes "How can we best serve our neighbor?

"Where do we want to be in five years?" becomes "What does God have in store for us?"

Our language is important because the answers we arrive at often results from the questions we ask. A business book with the title, "Better results through efficient teams" has some idea of what kind of "results" it has in mind. In many businesses, profit and board satisfaction are the results of success.  The methods the business book recommends are designed to bring about those results. While some of its methods may adapt for our purposes, the church has a different "bottom line" (even though it must also attend to financial issues, just as businesses must attend to human needs.) So it is important that the language of business, (even though it is so comfortable for many in the congregation) is replaced wherever necessary with the language of the faithful purposes of the church.

Church planning resources are more helpful for congregations than business guides for this reason. They also take into account the ways that congregations typically organize themselves and how people tend to behave in them.

Discernment as Holy Conversation

Listed in the bibliography is a book called Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, of the Alban Institute.  The authors suggest that while the technical aspects of planning are important, they are only part of the picture. They suggest an approach to planning that is under-girded with practices of group discernment.

Most of us have an approach to "getting things done" that uses rational problem-solving techniques.  While these are extraordinarily useful tools for much of everyday life, they are not the only tools for the job of group discovery and visioning. Teamwork, brainstorming, and dreaming can be very uncomfortable ways for many of us to approach a task.  This may be more true of "spiritual practices", which are ironically rather unfamiliar in congregational life. So it's important for the planning team to immerse itself in understanding the nature of the work, and to reinforce it continually for the congregation. This book, Holy Conversations, opens the door to new ways of discovering who we are and what we are meant to do and be.

Note that the word "conversation" is prominent in the title. The way of group discernment means, we talk to one another! Many discussion approaches and questions get at the answer to the congregational question, "Why are we here?"   Many have to do with encouraging telling "the story of" the church. As noted previously, this is akin to the process of individual discernment. We answer the question "who am I" partly by looking back. When we share our own version of the church's story with one another, together they start to reveal the unique character of the congregation. (At the same time, the congregation is building a common understanding which is woven together of our individual experiences and our sharing and listening.)

These conversations are part of the information gathering which the planning or visioning team does. They also form a kind of lens to look at the statistics and demographics which will be part of the effort. While it may be important to use "impersonal" methods to gather broad demographic information about the neighborhood of the church, most of the information gathering should be done face-to-face.

In an effort to be efficient, many church leaders turn to surveys in this effort. Most church consultants strongly discourage this practice. There are several reasons that written responses should be used sparingly, if at all: 1) Surveys can encourage anonymous complaints. 2) They may give the impression of a "consumer satisfaction" approach to church life, downplaying the roles of community, participation and mission. 3) They may discourage input by some members. 4) Writing often discourages creativity. 4) Surveys give the same importance to the peripheral or perhaps disaffected member who will be less inclined to contribute to a new future for the congregation, as to the opinions of those deeply involved members who will live out the mission.

A planning or re-visioning process requires the active, first hand engagement of the core members and friends of the congregation who attend frequently and are regularly engaged in programs and missions of the congregation. It also requires regular, frequent communication of its methods, and their results. Newsletters, mentions in church, bulletin  boards- all the church's usual communication routes, and more, should be used to let the congregation know what is happening and to invite communications with the planning/visioning team. Responses will then come from those who have a real interest in, and commitment to, the congregation's future.

Three sets of prayerful questions describe this process of discovery:

1    God, who are we? What are the strengths that you have gifted us with?
2    God, who are our neighbors? What are their needs and gifts?
3    God, after listening to your voice, how shall we respond?
A Process for Congregational Discernment

Before launching its efforts, the planning/re-visioning team should familiarize itself with Holy Conversations or another resource about engaging the congregation in the effort. These are suggestions for a process, but take time to familiarize yourselves with the task you are undertaking.  You should determine the methods you'll be using, and communicate them to the congregation in broad stroke. Here is a suggested sequence of events for undertaking the process.  Take the needed time to discern.  The process below extends over several months. 

1.    A team meets for several months, reviews some planning literature and does a number of visioning exercises itself. Sets a tentative plan for congregational and community engagement and communicates it to the primary governing body (council, consistory, elders, or other).

2.    The team's plan is then communicated to the congregation in broad strokes, taking care not to overwhelm the congregation with detail.  This plan might typically consist of the following:

    a.    One or two community forums
    b.    Several small group "cottage" meetings in people's homes
    c.    Neighborhood drive-through by planning team members
    d.    Neighborhood demographic gathering, including mapping homes of current members/friends
    e.    Interviews with "neighbors" (for example, include institutions, organizations, other churches, schools, individuals, stores, families, tenants and others using your property or sharing. )

3.    Continue communications as dates are set. Members of the planning group and other active leaders can host cottage meetings and invite a selection of diverse members to each. For community forums, announce dates and time. Sign-ups are not necessary, but specific verbal invitations should be made to those who are especially active, influential, or symbolically important in the congregation. Aim to have no more than 30 people at each forum.  Based on your experience of how your congregation typically responds to such events, set different times and arrange for childcare.

Those leading these meetings (and especially the larger community meetings) should be relatively skilled at group facilitation.  If this is not a natural skill among the team members, use a resource like Facilitating with Ease (from Jossey-Bass Publishers) or another from your local library to help develop skills. In the course of the meetings, planning/visioning team members should test with the group some ideas or themes which seem to be emerge. Even a lack of unanimity can contain much that is interesting or engaging. Ideas, themes, metaphors, and stories from the congregation's history will be gathered and shared at these meetings. Encourage the groups to find connections and meaning.

4.    Following each meeting, distribute notes which contain the essential elements, and in particular, highlight any broad themes or ideas which have arisen. For example, "people who come here seem to be drawn at first by our beautiful sanctuary, but the people who stay and become active are those who  join a small group" or, "a lot of people seem to feel that this is a place where healing can happen".  Deliver regular reports, some written but usually in person, to the primary governing body. In a large group process, communication is a key to success.

5.    Hopefully, hints of a core identity will begin to emerge through this process. This identity will be in the minds of the planning/visioning team as you go on to explore the neighborhood.  Drive or walk around the neighborhood and look closely at what may have been unnoticed before.  Many churches also want to examine neighborhood demographics. Check out the demographic tools that are part of this Congregational Vitality site.

6.    Share the neighborhood information widely. You will have already asked questions in your large group meetings about your neighbors. Integrate the information you've gathered with those conversations.

7.    Is something emerging? If not, you may need to have more group meetings, or you may want to engage some of the committees of the church directly. But it's likely by this point you have developed a deeper sense of the three core questions.

8.    Weave together the picture of the congregation's identity and vocation, and meet with the committees and boards of the church.  How does the picture of the church's call relate to their work and priorities? You may already have suggestions for the work of the committee (for example, you may bring to the Christian Education committee a picture of a church called to nurture the youth of the neighborhood, and suggestions that have been made for programs like a teen center or youth group activities).

9.    With the agreement of affected committees, make a report to the primary governing body and present it to a congregational meeting for affirmation.

10.    Transition action items to appropriate boards and committees. Plan to end your work with celebration. Provide public recognition of those who will carry the work forward now that you have concluded your part.

Crafting the Conversation

When you prayerfully ask "God, who are we?," you are really asking the question which will lead to an understanding of vocation for the congregation.  Many of the questions of vocation for the congregation are just the same questions that we ask ourselves to discover our own call. Who are we? How do others see and know us? Why are we here (why do I attend this church? Why did I come to this meeting?), why are we visioning?) What are we especially good at? What are the "givens" (location, characteristics of our building, elements of our history) that tell us who we are?

One of the best ways to get at some of these answers is to invite people to tell stories. Stories that are told frequently are usually potent keys to the congregation's self-understanding. Some ideas:

1.    How did you happen to come to this church? What had you heard about it?

2.    When you are telling others about the church, what do you tell them?

3.    What do you love about this church?

4.    Is there a story which you were told when you first came to the church, or soon after, when you began to meet people?"  Often there will be a single story, with variations, which is commonly shared. In a metaphorical way it holds a key to the identity of the congregation. For example a story about the calling of a pastor may be about the congregation taking a risk ("we'd never considered calling a woman before") which helped it take further risks. Or a story about nurture, or healing, or care giving, may reveal a core aspect of identity.

As you plan your questions and exercises for the group meeting, take care with the ways you phrase them, and how you guide the discussions. Ask about experiences of the congregation's strength, and what is valued about it, but not about impediments. The story of an individual's vocational understanding may include some sad and seemingly negative "givens", but discovering our vocation generally isn't a process filled with accusations, blame, and raising roadblocks and problems.  For example, a participant says "we have never been able to grow because of our parking situation". The facilitator may respond by asking a question about history ("does anyone remember why we ended up making the parking space smaller?") or broaden the discussion. ("What other effects has the small lot had on us?") As mentioned in the section "Practices of Discernment for the Congregation," keep the discussion centered on God's purposes for the congregation. Aim for questions that engage discussion.   Saying, "Well, we can't do anything about that right now" will discourage creative thinking. In the end, the congregation may include the parking in its plans for change. But to focus on it early on may discourage creativity by activating the "problem solving" brain. Get a lot of ideas out, in several meetings, before encouraging much strategy.

As church leaders and as individuals, we tend to go to "problem-solving" mode very easily. Be prepared with a list of reversal and exploratory questions to turn the congregation to a way of thinking that is more open. Sometimes it may be helpful to put these "roadblock" issues or "that won't work because" responses on a flip chart, assuring participants they will be addressed later, but that at this time you want to focus on who we are as a congregation (values and strengths)  and what we are called to do. You can also put the strategic ideas in this flip chart "bank" for later consideration. (Call it "the bank" "because that's where we keep our valuables", and be sure to return to it when the time is right.)

The story of the congregation is tied to the biblical story, to the story of the people of faith. In the Bible, the people of God seek the meaning of their relationship with God, their circumstances, and the circumstances of their neighbors. In the planning and visioning process the people of God ask these same holy questions, and the Bible is one of the primary tools the church has for exploring vocation and mission. As the authors of Holy Conversations put it, the church is a "meaning-making enterprise". The planning/visioning process is a way of finding the meaning of congregational life for large numbers of people, and that meaning leads to action.

One useful exercise for the forums and cottage meetings is to divide into groups of 3-5 and ask, "Which biblical story represents us as a congregation best, right now?" You may be on an ark; wandering in the wilderness; exiled in captivity;  returning as the prodigal; or building idols. Each person in the group shares a image, and reports back the stories. There may be one to which the full group has a strong reaction. These are all clues to identity and vocation. That story may become an important way for you to speak about your congregation's reality today.

Of course, as individuals one way we discern vocation is to simply look at what we have "found ourselves" doing. Our history gives us strong clues. Explore the church's history, especially of engagement with the neighbors and the world. This can be done by listing dates along a long scroll of shelf paper hung around the room, and invite participants to move around the room and jot down memories of the church's life and mission at various times. You might ask a question such as "what was happening in the church at that time?" (It can be helpful to start with some dates already listed along side larger historical "markers" or events, such as September 11, 2001.)

Guiding the Conversation

The following suggestions may be helpful in leading group discussions around discernment?

1.    Exercises and discussion questions are usually best addressed by breaking into small groups (of 3 or 4, usually) which then report back to the larger group, for general response. 

2.    Sometimes you may want to invite people to write out their responses alone, and bring them to the small group, then report to the full group. This may be helpful when reflecting on the questions listed in the previous section.

3.    When inviting responses from small groups to the larger, you can either ask all members to give impressions, or ask the group to appoint a reporter, then after the report, ask for any other feedback.

4.    When soliciting feedback from a large group it is usually helpful to ask an open-ended question and look for raised hands or people who appear to wish to speak. The small group breakouts will help those who have difficulty speaking in a larger group. In the larger group, the invitation can be for "anything you heard in your small groups which helps us understand____." If you use reporters and after they share, ask "is there something else anyone in this group found interesting?"
5.    The history scroll event invites people to move around the room and interact. There are other ways to do this too. You can list a series of questions at the top of flip chart pages and invite small groups to travel from one to the next, jotting down answers. At the end the group facilitator can read these off to the group, or the entire group can "make the rounds" one more time to see others' responses.

6.    Involve the heart as well as head. Invite people to take markers or crayons in hand to draw images in response to questions. A simple one to open a forum or cottage meeting: "Draw where the church is now." After a few minutes, invite them to "add to that or change it to show where the church is going."  Use exercises like this as you plan the process in your planning/visioning team meetings as well. Although people often resist the idea, this is a potent way to move into "possibility thinking" (the basis of visioning) rather than our usual default, rational/linear reasoned thinking (the stuff of problem solving). Other methods include background music and guided imagery or meditation.

Neighbors as Conversation Partners

For individuals, who we are, our character and gifts, interacts in complex ways with our life setting. In the case of a congregation, the life setting includes its neighborhood and most importantly, its neighbors.

The on-line resource Knowing Your Neighborhood maybe especially helpful in identifying neighbors as partners in your congregation's discernment.

The planning team may solicit information from "the neighbors", broadly defined. Take some time to decide who your neighbors are.  The neighborhood walk or drive will help. You may also ask persons in the neighborhood individually to meet with you, giving them an idea beforehand of your purpose. You might ask: "What has this church meant to you?  How do you see us? Are there ways that our mission (or interests/ values / reason for being in the neighborhood) overlaps or intersects with yours?" Remember to ask questions of meaning and purpose, and avoid a problem orientation. (Remember to refer problems for appropriate action.)

Also consider the gifts and needs of "neighbors" outside your immediate neighborhood.  Spend time examining our global setting as well.  Explore our global ministries site .  Prayerfully ask, "God, to whom and how would you have us respond to sisters and brothers throughout the globe?"

For people of faith, the question "God, why are we here?" question is intimately tied to our relations with our neighbors, those close to us and faraway. When a congregation begins to discover its vital core of mission, it will be in engagement of its "true self" with its neighbors.

A well-known quote by the author Frederick Buechner is "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's hunger meet." Both as individuals and as a congregation, we yearn to discover that place of holy meeting.  We enter into a holy conversation with God, with one another and neighbors, and listen.  Through that conversation, may God's call be revealed!

Writing a Mission Statement

Using a Few Words, Declaring a Great Mission

Many congregations find it helpful to craft a concise statement of their vocation, a mission statement.  Developing a statement may help you pull together the understanding of the congregation and build commitment. A mission statement gives a clear vision of you unique call in your time and place to neighbors, members, friends, and visitors.  A concise statement may creatively assist in living out your congregation's calling, your distinctive identity.

Designing the mission statement can be done in a final congregational forum. You can include a summary of all the work you have done up to this time.  As the committee has been developing language for broad areas of agreement, these phrases can be used as you approach the task. List them on a sheet of paper, and also have available copies of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, past mission statements or similar statements from your Constitution and Bylaws, hymnals and Bibles.

Use breakout groups to brainstorm phrases and sentences that remind you strongly of your unique call. Encourage words and phrases at this point rather than complete sentences. This is another time when crayons, music, and other means of fostering creativity will serve you well. Repeat the signature stories you discovered earlier; quote the words of a favorite hymn or anthem.

Ask each breakout group to report its ideas and use a flip chart to record them. At this point, encourage people to stay with words and phrases, leaving aside sentence structure and grammar. After ideas have been shared, seek agreement on phrases and seek a common set of images and words to which the group responds positively.  Then, move on to work on the statement itself.

Your statement should say no more than two or three things. Ideally it will address the core vocational questions:

1.    Who are we?
2.    Who is our neighbor?
3.    What is God's distinctive call to our congregation?

Examples might include: "We are a community of God's people seeking justice in our neighborhood and world."  "We are people on a continuing journey of faith, relying on the presence of the Spirit to show us where we are called to serve". "We are brothers and sisters in Christ who seek to honor God's creation and live in harmony with one another".

Your statement will touch chords of meaning for those who have been on this journey together, but it need not be elaborate. In general, simpler statements are more potent reminders of the work you have done. As you work with the wording, if you find yourselves feeling the need to include more and more, you may want to set the phrases aside and try paraphrasing in the simplest way possible. 

If you find it difficult to find the simple and direct phrasing you seek in the large group, ask for volunteers to complete the work and bring it back to the congregation the following Sunday.  These few people (no more than 4 or 5) should leave with an understanding of the core meanings the group would like the statement to convey.

Once you have a concise and compelling statement of your vocation, spread it around! Put it on your newsletter, your letterhead, your bulletins, your bulletin boards, the sign in front of your church, and in your newspaper ads.   Such words, discerned together in prayer and faith, will remind you of the journey of discovery you have made, and continue to make, as a congregation.

Additional Resources

To enter more purposefully into a way of seeking your mission, here are additional resources that you may find helpful.

Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, The Alban Institute

Redeveloping the Congregation: A How-to for Lasting Change by Mary K. Sellon, Daniel P. Smith, and Gail F. Grossman. The Alban Institute

The website has a number of helpful items. It is a joint project of the Alban Institute and the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. To help find other books, it has an annotated bibliography. It also has a number of resources which are shorter than books, yet longer than articles. A few that could prove useful include:

Claiming the Light: Appreciative Inquiry by Paul Chaffee.

Quick and Simple Asset Mapping, by Luther Snow (based on his book, The Power of Asset Mapping) describes a brief asset-mapping technique for groups in the congregation.

Vision and the Church: A Learning Pathway. This resource includes a collection of study and exploration modules which could be used for discerning  a congregation's vision.

This guide was prepared by Christy Trudo, Minister for Parish Life, with the Parish Life and Leadership Ministry Team of Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland OH.


Rev. David C. Schoen
Minister and Team Leader, Congregational Assessment, Support & Advancement (CASA)
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland, Ohio 44115