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Working Together in Spite of Differences?

Understanding a congregation’s context is complicated these days – but never more important. The communities where congregations reside are a complex mix of changing demographics, shifting economies – and politics. Understanding ourselves and our neighbors is a critical first step toward finding new ways to talk to each other and work together.

The challenges were especially apparent when ICE raided a concrete plant in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, detaining 32 workers who were in the U.S. without legal documentation.  As the New York Times reported, the fallout exposed divisions between residents and among the town’s congregations.  For some, the law is the law; while for others, a biblical command to welcome the stranger took precedence.  Attempts to mobilize congregations to support the affected families brought together one group and not the other.

Facing challenges like this requires diplomatic skill, to be sure, but it also helps to know your community and your own congregation.

political argument

To explore a community more intentionally, we usually suggest tools like walking tours and using census data. These are ways to understand the local ”ecological” system of a congregation.

But for understanding your political ecology, other means may be called for.  A scan of an on-line directory of local congregations is a starting point – which groups have you overlooked?  A look at their websites may provide a starting point for understanding where bridges need to be built.

Building those bridges before a crisis hits is important.  That might involve working together on a non-controversial project like disaster relief or a food pantry.

But responding to community needs of any kind means knowing your own congregation’s commitments and resources, as well.  People respond most enthusiastically when the call resonates with who they are.  We call that congregational culture, and effective leaders are constantly exploring the stories that bring that culture to life, highlighting both who you are and who you hope to be.

As you think about these challenges, explore the resources of this website to help you think about what you need to learn and how you might learn it.  That’s what we mean by “studying congregations”!

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org