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?


Ready or Not: A Senior Pastor Pushes for Innovation in Worship and Music

[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.]


Only 40–50 people were coming to worship at Mount Hope United Methodist Church on an average Sunday when the Rev. Charles Turner arrived. He had been appointed to serve as the congregation’s senior pastor by the Annual Conference, which at the time was focusing on increasing worship attendance.

The recently ordained pastor found some of the church members’ expectations frustrating. They said they wanted to grow—financially they needed to grow—but they didn’t see the need to change.

“The congregation didn’t want to change to meet the community,” he explained. “The congregation used to be the community. Everybody who started off in the church lived somewhere around that church. Now they have moved out and they are scattered all over, and the church no longer reflects the community.”


Piano or Pipe Organ?

Part of his approach to attracting new members was to change the music to something that would resonate more with a younger, more diverse crowd.

For decades, members of one musically talented family had served as the church’s organists. “There was this long family tradition deeply rooted in the lectionary and in the liturgical year, deeply rooted in the Methodist traditions, and I was like ‘You all boring me. Here’s what I need out of the music department.’”

Church organ and piano croppedWhen the current organist decided to retire after 63 years of service, Turner threw her a huge retirement party, and then made his move:

“[A]fterwards, I was like, ‘I’m not looking for her replacement. I’m looking to do a total change.’

“That just threw the whole congregation: ‘We need another organist.’

“‘No, I want a piano.’

“‘Well, you know, there’s very few organists, and we’ll pay top dollar.’

“‘I don’t care. I want a pianist, somebody who can do more than just play the organ.’

“You know, so they searched and searched and finally after three weeks I said, ‘I won’t go another Sunday. I will interview, and I’ll recommend somebody back to you.’”

The church ended up hiring a pianist, someone who could also play the organ and had played trumpet in a jazz band with Turner years before. “That was a really frustrating moment for them,” he reflected. “They’re not used to not having an organist, even to this day.”

By the time Turner’s two-year appointment ended, worship attendance had increased significantly, to more than 150 on an average Sunday.

Yet when asked whether the more contemporary music program at Mount Hope had lasted, Turner responded, “Oh, Day One, as soon as I left, they couldn’t wait to start looking for an organist.”


“Worship Wars” Throughout the United States

This case may sound extreme, but it may not be all that different from conflicts taking place in churches around the country. Recent studies have shown that worship services featuring more contemporary music—with elements such as electric guitars or drums—are one indicator of churches that tend to grow.1 As news of such studies has spread, countless congregations have become engulfed in “worship wars” between members convinced that praise music or a rock band is necessary for their church’s survival and those still attached to the hymns or songs they grew up with.

The people of Mount Hope, a mainline protestant church from a liturgical tradition, clearly were at odds with their new senior pastor, who came from a Disciples of Christ background.

Before attending seminary, Turner had served as the minister of music and young adult pastor for a large congregation that embraced creativity and variety.

“Every Sunday was something new and different and exciting,” he recalled. To set the stage for the senior pastor’s sermon on the rainbow as a symbol of God’s love, Turner and the worship committee strung colorful streamers from the ceiling. When her topic was fighting back against the obstacles that the Devil puts in your way, they decorated the worship space with boxing gloves, and she came down the aisle wearing a boxing robe.

“We did [the] Desert Mothers and Fathers, and we talked about the prayers. We had the heat on in the middle of summer so people could experience the desert. And we had sand, and afterwards … people could take some sand in one of the vials to remember the prayers that brought us through.”

Is it surprising that, coming out of this experience, Turner would try to replicate some of the same energy and innovation at the traditional United Methodist church where he was now in charge?

Though he was trying to push a liturgical church in a more contemporary direction, similar problems can arise when clergy push the other way as well. The Emerging Church and Emergent Church movements have popularized elements of worship such as liturgy, icons, the labyrinth, and lectio divina, especially among young people, but that doesn’t mean that evangelical or “low church” congregations will feel such “high church” practices are compatible with their worship traditions or theology.


Practicing Creativity Within a Church Culture

In the case of Pastor Turner, the problem wasn’t that he was trying to push the congregation in a bad direction. The problem wasn’t that he was innovative and wanted change. The problem was that he didn’t consider whether his changes were compatible with the spirit of creativity within the congregation—or whether the congregational culture was ready to truly accept such a radical change.

Turner is a good representative of some patterns in clergy creativity that emerged from the results of the Clergy Into Action Study. Recently ordained clergy who had completed TiM programs showed moderately high creative potential, excelling at quickly coming up with new ideas and at working alone.

Their ability to implement their ideas tended to be more limited, however. Clergy without a strong grasp of the networks of influence in their congregations may not know how to get enough members on board with their big plans—or even understand the importance of doing so.

Highly effective clergy are often able to build something that resonates with the existing congregation while also inviting in new people. Some clergy also can cultivate an organizational climate that tends to embrace creativity and positive change.

Rectors and senior pastors may have the authority to force their congregations to change, but without the authentic support of the lay leadership and other influential figures, those changes may be short-lived—or may come at a high cost, in terms of long-term trust and relationships.

Looking back, Turner realizes that the switch from organ music to piano music probably should not have been his first major change at Mount Hope.

“In hindsight, I probably would have chosen something else to be first,” he said. “Within your first five to six months, you don’t need to change the music. That’s too much of an ingrained cultural issue.”

More recently, as a district superintendent in the United Methodist Church, Turner has developed one-day training events that introduce church leaders to exciting new styles of worship. He’s supported congregations experimenting with styles of music that seem radical even to him.

“If you can’t afford a musician, how do you still have good music? I have a church right now that [uses] totally video-based music. YouTube is kind of their church. Every Sunday, they’re singing off the screen; people are excited about it. … Maybe because I’m a musician, it’s like ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ But this pastor found an alternative way to reach new people. Instead of having to have a musician, he has YouTube—he used what was in his hands, you know. It’s hard, because I would not want to go to a church like that. But the people he’s reaching don’t want to hear a musician playing the hymns.”


For Your Consideration

  • In your ministry, have you ever pushed for a change that others resisted, because you knew you were right? What was the outcome?


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1 Hadaway, C. Kirk, FACTS on Growth 2010 (Hartford, CT: Faith Communities Today, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary, 2011). Downloaded 2/11/2014, .