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EFAC National Conference 2006

Changing Parish Cultures
reprinted from the Summer 2006 edition of Essentials


   One of the unfortunate realities of our Anglican system across Australia is that too often a newly appointed minister arriving at a parish doesn't fit seamlessly into that particular parish culture. Anglicanism is no longer uniform in its culture or style, let alone beliefs, and so sometimes the necessity for changing parish culture is a reality. I am loathe to suggest a formula for doing so, since each parish and situation is so different, but I have cobbled together the following principles from my experience. I have been part of three culture changes within parishes and it's very important to understand these experiences have all been attempted in highly mobile, urban centres, which is significant because the reality of shifting growth has enormous impact on changing cultures. By "shifting growth" I mean when a new person or family move into an area searching for a new church community to be part of. This is in contrast to "transfer" growth which is when people remain in the same location but change churches. More of the significance of that in a moment. Adam Lamb is
Parish of Leederville, Perth
   When looking to change a parish culture the first and most crucial step to ask is, "Is change really necessary?" Some changes we can inflict upon parishes can be more a reflection of our inflexibility & intolerance than strategic thinking. For example to force a congregation, who for forty years have been conditioned and socialised into traditional prayer book services, to loosen up and get contemporary, will almost certainly end in division, unhappiness and the closing down of pastoral relationships. So it seems to me the wise first step is to work out what is a core issue and what is a secondary issue that may not need changing or at least a very different approach and urgency. Seeking to establish a parish culture of clear Biblical teaching is a core issue and worth the potential and probable upset it will cause. Music, service style, dress and so on I wouldn't put down as a core issue. Some change that is core will need to be immediate and other change can wait.  
   The second step is to establish a well thought out plan. The leader must identify and set out the problems that require the culture change and work through a benefit v cost assessment with key leaders. If people are unaware there is a problem they won't be looking for a solution. The problem may be lack of growth or disorderly, unplanned services or poor follow up or lack of evangelism, whatever, but the problem needs to be made clear to the leadership group. The leader then needs to develop strategies that will address the problem. In my last two parishes, lack of growth was a factor and so the strategy I argued for because they were both in suburbs going through urban renewal was to try and attract shifting growth. This is alongside evangelistic efforts, not instead of them, but I argued with the right strategies we will build a Christian community and move from survival as a parish to stable and then on to thriving. (My crucial assumption at this point is that churches in western society don't grow dramatically from conversion or renewal growth, but only from shifting and transfer growth. e.g. University churches grow as students shift into the university, suburban churches grow as people shift and transfer. Shifting growth is always a positive thing to be desired, in contrast to transfer growth which can leave good churches decimated as Christians look for the next big thing – be it preacher/music/programs or whatever. Again please be clear we have to maintain our evangelistic fervour through teaching, training and events, and under God conversion growth will come, but if we need growth to survive and thrive, "shifters" are a clear target)  
  So the strategy to attract shifting growth in our patch and so survive, was;  
  1. Get the children's ministry functioning well through able volunteers, or in the absence of that, paid workers, both at our traditional service and the main contemporary service.  
  2. Provide excellent music, again suitable to the particular styles of service, reflecting the market we are trying to reach; again volunteer or paid.  
  3. And to put it crassly, make sure the guy up front is not boring! (me that is)  
  Principled Pragmatism  
  Now as I argued to my leadership group, in our suburb we can get bottoms on pews with those particular strategies, that is ensure the enquiring "shifter" comes back, but we won't make disciples of Christ if we don't teach the Scriptures and disciple people. So we have to be principled in our pragmatism.  
  Having got the leadership group on board, I then, on the strength of establishing the problem and suggesting a strategic solution, asked the parish council to risk financially putting these things in place. So the third step was getting the key people on board. The above plan was put to key people, one to one, addressing their concerns and issues.  
  A fourth step that has been crucial and revolutionary to changing parish cultures has been a "New Members" course. I run a six week course that everyone who comes into the parish goes through. In the course we look at theological foundations of our church and what membership means in our parish. It is crucial because I establish not just a friendship but a pastoral relationship with everyone who comes into the parish and very importantly get to work through some defining beliefs in a small group context. This has been a very significant strategy to establishing a new culture. The groups are typically between 4-8 people, allowing plenty of time to talk through issues. For those who were already at the church, I ran it as a "Foundations" course with the same effect.  
  As the change I put in place gathered momentum, I then took the public step of presenting the strategy to the wider church at the Annual meeting of Parishioners. This was not for debate, but to inform. I am always wanting feedback, but in a forum that will not turn into a mob rule. The mob at times can be very self serving.  
  At every step of this journey I wanted to foster realistic expectations. Firstly, that churches grow dramatically not by conversion growth so we need to have realistic expectations of our gospel mission – our role being to promote and proclaim, not convert. Secondly, making clear that any change will mean losing some people, and helping people see that that is not necessarily a bad thing if people have different agendas or profound theological differences. Individuals who are unhappy may stay but can in the end be undermining and destructive. Having said that, losing people from our particular fellowship is a luxury that many city churches, with lots of "shifters", are able to afford. The leader needs to understand that different people will react in different ways to people leaving and must be able to cope with that. A clear direction will mean you will lose some people, but on the other hand attract and excite others.  
  To make culture change happen, the leader also needs to be clear about what leadership is: that is, because a leader is given responsibility to lead, he has authority. This is part of our Anglican system. Although understanding the leader is not a "one man band" but that the Wardens "with the Rector are to offer general leadership across the parish", to quote my diocesan statutes. It means an excellent size leadership team of Rector plus two or three wardens and then the "senate" of Parish Council to endorse strategies by providing or withholding funds accordingly. The leadership team needs to be continually consulting and listening, but have the ability to lead the parish with or without majority support IF the issue is that crucial or significant.  
  With all that well thought out planning and action, a leader changing cultures in a parish must still be able to handle conflict and confrontation. That is, handle the stress of that situation and be able to work through that as constructively as the context allows. One important strategy here is to allow people to save face. Provide a dignified way of people coming along side. Fostering the truth that we are working together and not in a battle of the wills, which pride fosters.  
  Of course despite the best procedures and planning, in the end a person charged with leading a parish may realise his ideas and plans are not well thought out or wise, and so conclude he might serve better in another role in ministry. That's always a potential despite denominational endorsement as a leader. What we need to keep at the forefront of our thinking in all this is Paul's principle of "all things to all people" and the flexibility of this thinking.  

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