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This frame is about understanding “how we do things around here.” Shaped by their very nature as voluntary associations, congregations organize themselves through a variety of formal and informal processes.

(A) Decision-making.

Congregations make decisions both big and small. Understanding how it goes about this process of decision-making is reflective of a congregation’s traditions, social setting and the people themselves. When decisions are made, pay attention to the decision making table.

(B) Ideas.

Speaking of decisions, how are new ideas brought to the table? Do they come from a centralized authority, from a visionary pastor or local board, or from the collective brainstorming of the members? How are new ideas vetted and how are they implemented?

(C) Formal Processes.

When considering a congregation’s processes, it’s helpful to notice both the formal and the informal processes. Formal processes are prescribed and explicit. Their logics and structures are often explained in official documents such as constitutions. Examples: Tax-exempt financial arrangements, staff policies for hiring and evaluation, budgets, and hiring (calling) a new religious leader.

(D) Informal Processes.

Informal processes are those that are assumed, implicit, or perhaps they take place behind the scenes. Which processes are formalized and which are left to informal, self-organizing can vary significantly. Some examples might include: welcoming new members, how to get involved, or starting a new program.

(E) Who’s at the table?

Just like any activity of a congregation, its important to notice who’s at the table and who is not when a congregation is making a decision. Some congregations have large staffs who run the day to day operations of the congregation. Others rely on volunteers. Some congregations share decision making widely, while others concentrate that authority to just a small group of members.

Frame in Action

Studying Congregations in a Pandemic

In the midst of this pandemic, congregations have often been in the news (not always for good reasons). Newspaper columnists are writing about how we need what religion has to offer and how we miss the little things, like singing together, as well as highlighting the creative ways religious communities are staying connected. Meanwhile leaders of local congregations are scrambling to learn new skills, and members are gathering in new ways. Bible studies and committee meetings are via Zoom. Caregivers are setting up old fashioned phone calls and cards for vulnerable and isolated members. Food pantries are staying open to serve the increased need. Much of what it means to be a congregation...
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Thinking about Conflict

The recent General Assembly of the United Methodist Church has resulted in much soul-searching and debate – and it raises the possibility that some local congregations may encounter conflict as they decide how to move forward. Nancy Ammerman has written about the many layers of conflict that can face a denomination at a time like this, but when it comes to the possibility of conflict in local congregations, the below article by Dr. Joyce Mercer, from our archives is an excellent resource. From the Archives: “6 Ways to Keep Congregational Conflicts Constructive”– Dr. Joyce Mercer Question: We are watching congregations all around us be torn apart by conflicts. How can we...
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From the Archives: “Congregational Conflict: Listening to the Conflict”

Conflict is a natural part of human interaction — there will be differences in opinion and perception in every day life. However, examining how your congregation deals with conflict can provide needed insights into the life of the congregation. Some congregations suppress conflict, whereas others embrace it and see it as a sign of vitality and engagement. To engage in conflict, there must be (at least) two parties who think each is right — indifference is not a part of conflict. At the basic level, conflict suggest that the established ways to make decisions have failed. When conflicts are still minor, they can help a congregation set goals or reaffirm membership commitment,...
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How Are We Doing?

One of the reasons people get interested in learning more about a congregation is often that they want to know how they are doing. Are we healthy? Are we happy? Are we growing? And are we fulfilling our mission? Ah – now there’s a reason to take stock! That, of course, assumes that you know what that mission is, but it also calls for some creative thinking about how to know when you’ve seen evidence that it’s happening.   In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Zachary First took the case of one congregation as an illustration of the point. All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena certainly looks good on paper – 8000 members.  But is membership their mission? Rector Ed Bacon is quoted this...
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Related Tools

Asking Questions

To understand the processes of a congregation be sure to conduct some interviews. Be sure to ask both leaders and regular participants.
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Survey Says!

A survey of the congregation can be a helpful tool for understanding the process frame. Be sure to review the section on developing questions.
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Step Back, Watch & Listen

When it comes to the processes of a congregation there's really no substitute for stepping back and observing how they unfold.
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