Developing a Discerning Community: Steps Toward Collaborative Decision-Making

[Note: All personal names, geographic locations, and names of churches or other organizations in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of study participants.]


For many small churches in the American West, a significant increase in membership would seem like a dream come true. The Rev. Crystal Hughes knew enough of the recent history of her new parish to realize that dealing with growth would also mean navigating an emotional minefield.

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church had survived some traumatic events during the previous decade. An earlier rector had convinced members to deposit their pledges into a separate bank account rather than the one controlled by the church—then left the denomination and used the funds to start his own church plant.

The congregation split, with many members moving to a nearby Episcopal mission. St. Mark’s was left with less than 100 members, unable to make the mortgage payments for its new church building, constructed just five years earlier.

By the time Hughes accepted a call there, the small congregation had adjusted to having only one Sunday service and, under the leadership of a part-time interim priest, had doubled its membership.

As the church continued to grow, she could see that adding a second service would be necessary. The sanctuary could only seat 175 people comfortably, and the parish hall was jammed at coffee hour.

Pastor Jeanette Sherrill at Trinity United Church of Christ - copy“I thought, for all kinds of reasons, we need to add a second service. But I couldn’t just add one, because of that fear: [they assumed that] growth means two different services, means two different communities, means the seedbed of division, and eventually it will lead to a split. I could just see that in their DNA. So, they wanted to grow to help pay the bills, but they didn’t want to grow, because a larger church meant less of a community.”

Hughes had learned in her Transition into Ministry (TiM) residency how important it is to respect the culture of a church and learn its history before introducing any serious changes into the existing system. The rector of her field education church, where she was an intern during seminary, had emphasized listening to the congregation.

“He really had a high, high esteem for the community of the church,” she said. “He’s like, ‘You know, clergy come and go, but these are the people of God. Listen to them.’ So, a real value of communal discernment.”

Hughes embarked on a long-term effort to develop a discerning community within the parish. She invited members of the congregation interested in discussing the worship issue to meet with her after the church service one Sunday.

This first experiment in collaborative visioning and decision-making met with resistance from some of the church leaders:

“Well, that just shot up the anxiety in my warden like you wouldn’t believe, because he was like, ‘That’s just a decision that the bishop’s committee needs to make. And we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on it. We just need to do it.’

“And I said, ‘Actually, when you change up Sunday morning, it’s going to affect the whole community, and I think we need to spend some time on this, and it doesn’t need to be a top-down thing.’ So, that was kind of a shift in how they’ve done things before. It’s been very sort of closed-door, bishop’s committee, power-holders, power-brokers, and I said, ‘We’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to try something different.’”

The 40–50 people who showed up at the meeting were expecting the issue to be resolved by a brief conversation and a quick vote—reflecting the congregation’s tendency to “just get on with it” and not linger on something that might cause conflict. Instead, the young priest offered them a six- to eight-month process of field trips and group meetings, to help them explore a variety of options about the style, music, and scheduling of the new service.

Fifteen people committed to the process. Together with Hughes, they visited Sunday morning services at Episcopal churches, worship services in churches of other denominations, Saturday night services, Sunday evening services. They explored questions of what worship is, what it’s for, and how it equips a Christian community.

In the end, the group decided to add a second Sunday morning service that was identical to the existing one, a Rite II Eucharist straight out of the Book of Common Prayer. Their priest admits to having mixed feelings about the decision.

“I struggle with … being maybe a little bit disappointed that they didn’t try something, you know, edgy, and creative, and emergent, and all that kind of stuff,” she said. “But … the best literature out there says if you’re adding a service because you’re getting close to being maxed out in your first service, the best practice is to add an identical service.

“Obviously, what you’re doing is working. And people are just in a groove to go to church on Sunday morning, and we certainly haven’t tapped out the Episcopal population here. So we’re not trying to grow a different demographic right now. And for this community, having been through what they’ve been through, just adding a second service on Sunday morning and dividing their community is enough transition for them right now. To have started a hip, emergent Sunday night service would’ve just been too much too fast.”

Hughes was particularly adept at assessing how much change the church system could tolerate at one time. She continues to stand by her choice because she believes it has helped empower the congregation over the long run.

“[I] tried to help them claim their authority that they have in the governance of the church and then discernment and ownership of a vision, so what happened to them [with the previous rector] will never, ever, ever happen to them again. That’s my long-term work in this place—to help them know they, too, can hear the voice of God. They, too, can discern. They, too, can own their vision, and then they can stand up for it, so they won’t be vulnerable again to a wolf.”


For Your Consideration

  • What types of decisions do you think clergy need to make on their own? What kinds of decisions do congregations need to make together?
  • What circumstances can affect how decisions can or should be made?