Testimonial Interview: Church of the Servant, Grand Rapids, MI – conversation between Lori Wiersma, Minister of Administration, and Tracey Gebbia, long-time congregant and Steering Team Member
Where were you in the life of your congregation that you wanted to do a bit of self-studying?
Our senior pastor of 32 years was going to be leaving at some point, and we knew of other staffing changes. We wanted to explore and discern where God was going to lead us into the next chapter of our life together. We didn’t think we could do it on our won – we’ve got a lot of smart people here, but they are very busy. We looked outside and thought Church Innovations really fit our congregation with your discovery and discernment process that you outlined.
CI does very little of the work – you built a few teams that really did the work.
We did have a discernment team set up already that had been meeting prior to contact CI – we spent a lot of time meeting and praying together, but we came to a point of stalling, because we really didn’t know what to do. We realized, and had assistance from council too, to look for an outside source.
You say that CI really did little of this work, ha ha, but you provided incredible amounts of structure and guidance along the way that we would not have had. Church Innovations gave us the framework to set up these teams of listening leaders that resulted in the congregational discovery report. The process we were able to follow because of church innovations gave us something to follow that was, although very concrete, also not avant garde in any way – kind of a duh – follow the Holy Spirit. Maybe we could have figured that out on our own, but not in the way that we were directed by Church Innovations. It was a process that was directed the entire way by listening, not just to the Holy Spirit but to each other and all of the work that each of the committees did. Listening to people, to the Holy Spirit in Dwelling in the Word – we did more listening that we’ve ever done in our lives. We’re a lot of talkers here.
The deep listening shaped us, and it has permeated through every single bit of the process. You coached us. Between the meetings you kept reminding me what the deep focus was. You reminded me that we would have some hiccups along the way, but you were a very key part of this process. We couldn’t have done it without you. We would have given up long ago.
How about the big meetings?
Ah, the Timeline event and communal discernment event
The Timeline Event was a very exciting time of getting people together to think and talk about the history of our church. People were able to think back on things that were exciting in the past and maybe personal issues came up that people hadn’t thought about in years. It created a time of unity. It ended up feeling kind of like a big family reunion, and that was sort of unexpected. It was another time of listening to one another. As a steering team helping to facilitate we kind of had fun sitting back and watching this happen as people came up with new ideas and new things to say and new post-it notes to put on the wall. “Oh this person saw that event as a challenge but another saw it as a beautiful thing and another saw it as sad.” OK. All right. We realized that as a steering team we couldn’t put our own spin on this or that as we were taking our notes; this is what it is. The people are really talking. This is what’s coming out as they talk. We have to listen. We have to let it be. That’s what listening taught us.
In the Communal Discernment Event it happened again as you came from CI to facilitate that meeting for us. The big take-away for us going forward is that, since our council practiced Dwelling in the Word at every council meeting, and since council members were participating in those communal events, our leaders now strongly insist we have to carry this practice of communal listening forward. That is happening. It’s already going on since you left us after our discernment event in February. It is so encouraging that people are continuing to listen. We’ve developed a new practice here that is so valuable. It is going to really help us as we move ahead into our next chapter with all the uncertainties ahead. Listening to each other and listening to the Spirit will get us to where we need to be.
Were there a lot of big surprises – learning things you didn’t know? Or have you learned more how to come together with new ways of behaving together?
The latter – it has been the process and the practices. Our steering team is putting together a historical document – a communal covenant – that is a revitalization of the forming document for our church back in 1972. We aren’t so different from how we were formed back then. We discovered that we have been faithful and want to continue to be faithful to what God is doing for us now and in the future. Now we can include in this document that we have completed this We Are Here Now process, which we have called Crossing Over (though we’re not sure what we’ve crossed over to, exactly) this has not ever been about information; it has been and will always be about communal discernment, as Pat Keifert says. Working our way through Church Innovations’ process isn’t inventing something new. You can’t argue with this stuff. If you are listening to God and the Spirit and Dwelling in the Word and you’re listening to one another, you can’t go wrong.
We may have strayed over the years in how we got to certain decisions in our church. Looking back, the communal discernment process and the listening process would have changed things is a positive way. If we would have done that, we would have been in a better place instead of people feeling decisions were top down without people’s input. Discernment and listening made all the difference.
Advice for churches thinking about doing We Are Here Now consulting:
- Do not rush this! We learned! Pat Ellison was gracious. But at the start we really wanted to be done in 9 months. By the point of the Timeline Event we needed a break to pause, get energy back. This is not a check-off list, it’s a process. It takes time.
- But you do have to stay on task and prepare for a lot of work. It’s very much worth it.
- Be prepared to face the Spirit and be open. Feel the Spirit moving in your life and in the life of the group. It is a big effort, but a very worthwhile effort. It is spirit driven and God driven, not information driven.
- Listening well, deep listening is all throughout the steps of this process. Deep listening is the outcome we do have. It is shaping us as council, transition teams, search teams. It’s an outcome – an unexpected one.
- Be prepared as a steering team to face members who really want this to produce bullet points and action points throughout the process. They want to know “Now that you are done, what are the strategic action steps?” No. We came out with God’s direction for us, and we use that direction to shape our plans going forward. You reiterated it to us often when you visited us. God’s direction rather than a strategic plan – that’s new for congregations. People are still looking for a business model that they find strategic. As a congregation we’ve gone through strategic plans. This is not that, and it’s so much better. It will go down as a life-changing process for Church of the Servant.