For the minutes from the congregational meeting held 10.27.19
Reflections on Current Reality
This document is a summary of current reality at Christ Memorial Church as we understand it, based on interviews with approximately 100 people. It is not yet a recommendation for future action. Recommendations for action will come in the next phase of this process.
Our Process to Date:
Following the resignation of Senior Pastor Jim Liske, the consistory invited Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor, consultants with The Leader’s Journey, to help Christ Memorial enter a time of discernment. Their charge was to help describe current reality at CMC in a manner that identifies some of the underlying roots of the challenges the church faces. The consistory also enlisted a discernment team from the church to work with Jim and Trisha. That team includes Ray Beerhorst, Becca Dernberger, Ken Eriks, Jackie Geerlings, Sue Hemmeke, Dot Holleman, Phil Holmes, Brad Laninga, Elissa Lappenga, Katie Prins, Jon Schram, and Paul Vryhof.
For three months we have worked with the consultants and have been involved in an intensive interview process with members of the congregation, with current and former staff. We talked to a total of 98 people who range in membership tenure from 1956 to 2017. We compiled and reviewed the results of those interviews, looking for themes and consensus that would shine light on the underlying causes of the challenges we are presently facing. We did this in order to move forward into a more fruitful and God-glorifying future.
Based on our interviews, what follows is a brief summary of both our church’s strong foundations and a description of some significant challenges that we currently face. We have identified what we consider to be four strategic and high-leverage issues that contribute to and keep in place the symptoms described below. It is our hope that you will prayerfully review what follows with an open heart and mind, seeking the wisdom of the Spirit as together we attempt to find a hopeful way forward.
Opportunity for Celebration: Our Strong and Faithful History
Christ Memorial Church is one of the most renowned, historic congregations in Holland, MI, and in the RCA. Founded in 1957, our church has a storied sixty-two-year history of generosity and impact. With ministries around the world, our church was once the largest RCA church in the country. We are known for our music and our deep commitment to missions. We have historically been known for our children’s and youth ministries and for deep acceptance of all kinds of people. We can humbly say that God has used Christ Memorial to contribute much to the advancement of God’s Kingdom over its lifetime.
Christ Memorial Church has its roots in a Dutch reformed culture. Sixty years ago, when the church was formed, churches were planted out of deep theological convictions and a desire to see the love of God expressed and experienced in tangible ways. From our earliest days the vision was to think outside the box. Christ Memorial accepted people regardless of their past or where they were in their life journey. Many people living broken lives have been healed by God’s grace over the years through our ministry of “Open Doors for Christ.”
For several generations the church thrived. Slowly, over several decades, things have changed, and today our church and others like us face a significant dilemma. Culturally, a growing number of people assert that church is irrelevant to their daily lives and have turned away in massive numbers from traditional, institutional congregations. This trend continues to grow, resulting in the pool of possible members for a church continuing to shrink. At the same time, over the past 60 years a growing number of new congregations in the Holland area are competing for the same shrinking pool of possible church members.
Opportunity for Reflection: Our Present Struggle
In recent years, we as a church family have experienced a series of challenges that we are struggling to navigate. Though some of us attribute the challenges to the most recent pastoral tenure, our discernment process has revealed that these challenges likely represent a recurring pattern that goes back to at least 2004.
Some of the symptoms that have been observed and reported include:
During a time where some churches in the Holland area experienced growth,
our church has experienced a significant decline in membership (43%) and attendance (33%) since 2004.
Several short-term tenures in the senior pastor role and a high turnover among the staff.
Widespread conflict over a number of years regarding how to respond to these symptoms.
We understand from our consultants that we are not alone in these challenges. Many congregations face similar struggles. One common mistake that congregations like ours tend to make is focusing on the symptoms in a way that creates urgency to call a new senior leader who can “fix the problem.” This report assumes, based on existing evidence/ wisdom, that churches who do this tend to perpetuate the historical issues rather than solve them.
As tempting as it may be to look for a quick fix or a way out of the discomfort so many are experiencing, we believe it is in the best interest of our body to bravely and reflectively examine our challenges head-on. In that spirit, we present these four root issues, in no particular order of importance, that were most commonly expressed as we listened to a broad cross-section of the body of Christ at Christ Memorial. As you read the remainder of this report, we encourage you to remember that we are reflecting a summary of what we heard in nearly 100 interviews with active members of the church and church staff.
Issue #1 - Identity/mission
In a variety of ways in the recent past, the church has struggled to acknowledge the reality of our changing context. This struggle has resulted in two factions. There are those who want to preserve our original identity, rooted in our RCA history and theology, and built around people in the community who are similar in age, beliefs and values to those of us already in the church. This group wants to keep things the same as much as possible.
Then there are those who want us to adapt our founding DNA for a new season of ministry and to discover new ways to reach the diverse population that is in the neighborhood of the church, making the needed changes that would help the church make the gospel relevant to people from all ages, cultures, and backgrounds. In this group there are divergent opinions about how change should happen.
The conflict between those two factions grew when, supported by the consistory and the search committee, a pastoral call included a charge to bring growth and change. Then when pastoral leaders attempted to make this change, conflict and resistance intensified. The process generated more conflict when leaders went too far too fast without listening, building trust, collaborating and providing the training and tools the congregation needed to succeed.
We believe this is a fundamental issue about which the congregation must be rigorously truthful. Pretending that this is not true or continuing in the pattern of vacillating toward and then away from and then again toward a different mission seems to be at the heart of what must be responsibly addressed.
Issue #2 - Changing culture
Issue #1 is exacerbated significantly by Issue #2 and highlights another way in which Christ Memorial’s challenges are not unique. Congregations across the US and Canada are largely in decline and are struggling to find their way forward. Because context always matters in ministry, it is important to name the context.
When Christ Memorial was founded, the larger national culture was filled with institutions which were implicitly and explicitly formed around the assumptions that most people were Christians, that the church was an important center of public life and that the values of the church were at least explicitly accepted by the culture. Over the last several decades theologians have formed a general consensus that these assumptions are no longer held by a vast portion of our population and that we have entered a postmodern era in which the lay of the land is dramatically different. In this new world, the most rapidly increasing religious group are the “Nones,” those who do not identify with any particular faith. At best, the larger culture sees the Church as irrelevant; at worst, it views the Church with hostility.
In the face of the massive shifts in the culture, congregations everywhere are seeking to find a way to be effective in this new context.
The implications of this seismic shift include:
Churches are competing for fewer and fewer churchgoers; although some churches are growing noticeably, mostly they are growing through Christians moving from one church to another, not by impacting the vast mission field of people who are far from God.
Churchgoers tend not to be loyal to denominations or familiar structures.
The culture competes with the church for energy and time.
Discipleship is much more complex when the culture and the church are not aligned.
Those outside the church are not comfortable with the traditions in which many of us in the church find comfort
Those outside the church feel no cultural pressure to be in church.
When we consider the original mission, identity and context of Christ Memorial alongside the dramatically changing culture, we can begin to see the challenges. If we can’t find a way to effectively engage this new context, we are making a commitment to our current challenges. We can expect to continue to decline numerically. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking that will challenge us for the foreseeable future.
Commitment to a new vision that takes seriously the reality of the current context will require a long-term re-education of the congregation and a significant commitment to leadership development for both staff and lay leaders. Many, if not most of us at Christ Memorial, have spent our entire lives in a church world where numerical growth was the primary measure of success. We want to be clear. Our consultants have helped us see that even if we make a change in our mission or how we carry it out, we are likely to be a smaller congregation in the future. Church growth is increasingly not the primary measure of success in this new context.
What are the implications of this shift for how we think about effective ministry? How do we discern God’s call for our church? How does a shift from church growth to church health as a metric for success take place? What are the implications of this for the work of leaders of all types among us? These are weighty questions that we must prayerfully and courageously discern.
Issue #3 - Communication
As noted above, we have been in conflict about our identity and our mission for many years. There have been seasons where that conflict has been intense and other seasons where it fades into the background. For all congregations, effective communication is difficult. The larger and more complex the congregation becomes, the more the challenge grows. When conflict is added to the mix, it becomes almost overwhelmingly complex.
Christ Memorial has multiple groups who are a part of a collective decision-making process. Pastor, staff, lead elders, consistory, and the congregation are key groups who each have formal and informal responsibility for parts of the congregational decision-making process. In our interviews we learned that among these groups there are longstanding patterns of communication.
We want to be clear. We have and have had throughout our history, many fine leaders. For that we are grateful. What we are about to say is not true of every leader or maybe even of most of our leaders. However, it is true enough that it came up over and over in our listening sessions, so we believe that it must be named.
The communication patterns consist of a sense of congeniality and niceness that is punctuated by flare ups of painful conflict which are then stabilized by withdrawal and distancing. This is especially true when the congregational system gets anxious in an important decision-making process. What seems to be missing are the skills that could empower us to talk about differences and to disagree with one another in a unifying way. Fortunately, we can learn to practice these skills going forward. Learning these skills could lead us to solutions and preserve relationships. However, until we address these patterns, they will persist.
Here are some of the things we learned in our interviews regarding communication:
People at CMC often don’t read written communication or engage information in an effective way.
Communication from our leadership is often inadequate and is sometimes perceived as untrustworthy. Often, we fill in the gaps with rumor and speculation. This has led to a wide gap in trust between pastors, staff, lay leadership and the congregation.
Instead of engaging a two-way dialogue, our leadership has sometimes simply disseminated information and assumed that the communication has occurred. When our leadership has provided opportunities for questions, concerns, input and feedback, communication has been healthier and more effective.
Staff, elders, and consistory have not received adequate training or orientation related to the congregational mission, values, responsibilities and communication processes.
There are inadequate processes for accountability and feedback for staff. This contributes to the breakdown in trust between staff and congregation.
When things don’t go the way we want, some of us react by becoming confrontational and aggressive while others blame, gossip or become passive-aggressive.
There is a widespread perception that some with greater financial resources are given more attention and exercise undue influence in the decision making process.
As noted, communication in a large, complex organization is challenging in the best of times. We face a rapidly changing context and ongoing conflict about mission and ministry. We need to learn skills for effective dialogue that bring us to some kind of consensus about how to move forward. These communication issues become paramount as underlying contributors to the initial symptoms described above.
Issue #4 - Pastoral leadership
One important reality that we must face: three of the last four senior pastors have had short tenures and have left under duress. The issue is not mainly one of pastoral leadership but one of alignment between congregation, consistory, the senior pastoral leader, and the staff. What is needed is alignment of these groups related to the mission of this church in its contemporary context. This lack of alignment has led to stress on the congregation and staff and a crisis of confidence in church leadership. As a result of this discernment process, we have become curious about our own contributions to this situation and we have begun to wonder how we can shift from focusing singularly on the senior pastor (or absence of one) and instead focus on the complex underlying causes of our situation.
As we talked with the members of CMC, one theme emerged with powerful clarity: When it comes to pastors, CMC values both pastoral gifts and leadership gifts. However, in general, we are more comfortable when pastors exhibit pastoral gifts (when they know our names and are available to us in times of crisis). However, with the changing cultural context, more and more pastoral energy has had to focus on leadership. The congregation has felt and has often expressed displeasure with that shift, and that has made the already demanding job of pastoring even more complex and stressful.
In the interviews, we learned that a part of the challenge here is that there has been a lack of clarity and clear commitment between the consistory, the congregation and the pastor search committees. Consistory guides the pastor search committee to find a new leader who can help us adjust to change. They call such a pastor. The congregation resists - in part because they don’t agree with the consistory’s point of view and in part because pastoral leaders have not adequately trained and prepared the church in how to go about making the needed changes. This is an ongoing cycle that we must disrupt.
Through the interview process and in our attempts to put in writing what we discerned, we concluded that, while we face significant challenges, these are great days of opportunity for our beloved Christ Memorial Church. The most common thing we heard were comments like, “Our best days are ahead,” and “God wants to turn these challenges into our next best opportunity for faithful service.” We were deeply encouraged by this positive, hope-filled attitude.
In the face of intractable problems, one temptation is to look for quick fixes and easy answers. That approach only guarantees that the symptoms and challenges described in this report will stay in place for another generation.
Another temptation is to resist having the hard conversations that responsible adults have when they face threats or challenges. Instead, the temptation is to find a scapegoat, blaming a person or a group and making them responsible for the challenges that the church is facing.
This report is seeking to foster the kind of challenging, responsible dialogue that could help CMC resist these temptations and thereby increase the possibility that past trends will not repeat themselves. While many congregations give into both of the temptations mentioned above, Christ Memorial has the opportunity to lead the way in helping congregations everywhere learn how to address challenges and blind spot in order to thrive in this new, radically different context in which all congregations in the U.S. find themselves. There is a powerful opportunity to do missionary, gospel work if we can rise to the challenge.
The good news is that human beings are never more fully alive in Christ than, when equipped with the right skills and led by the Spirit, they face complex challenges for the sake of the Kingdom of God. CMC is in a pivotal place where discerning what the Spirit is saying to this church is filled with possibility and opportunity.
You are invited to participate in the discernment process by (1) reflecting on the content of this report; (2) participating in the congregational meeting set for October 27th; and (3) continuing to pray for courage and clarity about how we will move ahead to more fully follow Jesus and share him with our community and our world. In the congregational meeting we will ask you to reflect together with us on three questions.
What parts of this report resonate as being true in your own experience?
What parts of the report do you find yourself resisting?
What parts of the report pique your curiosity for more information?
Once the congregation has given feedback to this report, our next step will be to work with our consultants to make recommendations to the consistory for how to begin addressing these issues.
The Discernment Team
Christ Memorial Discernment Team
September 3, 2019
On August 24-26, 2019, Christ Memorial took another step into the discernment process that we are currently undergoing. Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor from The Leader’s Journey were here and facilitated several events over the course of the weekend.
On Saturday morning they led a learning experience with a broad range of the leaders in our congregation. Approximately 60 people participated.
On Saturday afternoon Jim and Trisha met with our Discernment Team. This team has interviewed more than 80 people in the life of the church, and four questions were asked each participant.
(1) What is your history and involvement with Christ Memorial Church?
(2) How would you describe what is currently happening at Christ Memorial Church?
(3) What are the factors that have contributed to us being where we are?
(4) If you had a magic wand and would offer ways to help strengthen the church, what would you suggest?
Interviews were completed prior to this weekend, and the responses were compiled into a comprehensive document. This allowed the Discernment Team and the consultants to look for common themes and to notice where there were similarities and differences in points of view. The team and the consultants reviewed these documents and began the work of consolidating the information. Based on this work, the consultants are now in the process of writing a first draft of a current reality document. That document will be reviewed by the team, and they will share the written report to the congregation for review and discussion at a congregational meeting on October 27, 2019.
Our consultants worshiped with us in both services on Sunday morning and then met with the consistory on Sunday evening. At this meeting the group discussed how the changes in the church’s cultural context presented significant challenges for leaders. There was helpful conversation about the rich heritage of Christ Memorial and of the challenges the church will have to address when facing the reality of a declining membership in a rapidly-changing culture.
On Monday our consultants interviewed a significant cross-section of the staff, adding their voices to the data that is being gathered.
We invite every member of Christ Memorial Church to join us in praying for God’s wisdom and revelation as we seek to move into the future. If you have questions or concerns, please convey them to a member of the Discernment Team.
July 24, 2019
LETTER FROM JIM HERRINGTON:
“A More Hopeful Future for Christ Memorial- Learning New Skills for Effective Leadership”
Dear Christ Memorial Congregation,
Effective congregational leadership has changed dramatically over the last several decades. For generations, congregational leadership was exercised around assumptions of slow change in a stable context and a shared set of values within the congregation and among the larger community. There was a known and predictable way of getting things done that was usually effective.
Today we live in a post-Christian society where the pace of change grows ever more rapid. The gap in worldview between those in the congregation and those in the community that the congregation is seeking to reach is wider than any of us has ever known. Even within multi-generational families, the generation gap is much wider than ever and it is growing.
The evidence that effective congregational leadership has changed dramatically shows up in a variety of challenges that local congregations face and seem unable to solve.
• Numerical decline
• Repeated short-term pastorates
• Lack of a clear and shared vision
• Ongoing, low-level conflict
• Decline in previously effective ministries
• A wide gap in the cultural makeup of the congregation when compared to the cultural makeup of the neighborhood
or larger community.
These are a few challenges that a growing number of congregations are unable to meet.
Most congregations who face these challenges take two approaches. One approach is to look for that magical leader who will be able to reverse the trends. The second approach is to work harder at the old way that served us well in the past
Christ Memorial is facing many of the challenges listed above, and you are invited to join us for a morning of training where we will be introduced to some new leadership skills. That time, with practice, could provide a hopeful way forward to meeting the challenges that we face. The training will be held on Saturday, August 24, from 8:30 – noon in the chapel. The morning will be highly interactive, and we will be learning these new skills by applying them to real issues that we face in our congregational life.
-Jim Herrington, Consultant from The Leader’s Journey
June 21, 2019
A message to Christ Memorial Church
From: The Congregational Discernment Team
On April 28, 2019, Reverend Jim Liske announced his resignation as the lead pastor of Christ Memorial Church (CMC). Jim's brief tenure represents the second lead pastor resignation in under 10 years. The CMC Consistory shares a unified belief in the importance of pausing and exploring the contributing factors to this emerging pattern before calling another lead pastor to serve.
A 12-member discernment team (listed below) was appointed to do this work. Our task involves listening to you and to the Holy Spirit. From there we hope to discern what our church needs to see and to hear.
Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor from “The Leader’s Journey” were engaged to facilitate this process. They are ordained ministers, authors, and church consultants who have worked with congregations together or separately for more than 30 years. Over the past decade, they have worked with more than 100 RCA pastors and churches as well as denominational initiatives. Currently, they are serving as facilitators of the RCA 2020 Vision Team.
We met as a team with Trisha and Jim on Friday evening, June 14, for a time of fellowship and orientation for this discernment process. We then spent all day Saturday being trained to better understand our congregational system as we discern a healthier future.
There are three important things that we want you to know.
First, we want this process to be transparent. It is our desire to update you regularly concerning our work and our progress. Please consider this letter the first installment of what will be a series of communications from us to you.
Second, between now and August 26, our team will interview a wide range of people. We know that in a congregation our size, there are numerous perspectives, and while we cannot interview every person, we want to hear from as many in our congregation as possible. Over the next eight weeks, we will conduct interviews with you, compile the responses, and generate a report based on our findings. A congregational meeting will soon follow (target date is Sunday, October 27) where we will share this report and ask for your impressions.
Third, we invite you to pray. Christ Memorial Church is an exemplary congregation with a long and storied history within the RCA and abroad. We are thankful for how God has blessed us and grateful for the impactful difference our collective work has made in the lives of so many. It is this team’s desire to build upon this legacy, but we need your help. Please pray for discernment and that God will move and work powerfully among us. We know that there are some things that only God can do, and we know that there are some things that God will not do unless we do some things. We believe that He is asking us to prayerfully examine our congregational life, celebrate its giftedness, and tell the truth concerning the challenges that we must face. Your prayerful support will be essential in this effort.
The Discernment Team