In a small group at a pastors' workshop, we were asked to reflect on the previous year's deepest pain and greatest joy.
"My greatest pain," said one pastor, "resulted from the conflict over a divorce-recovery group we started about ten months ago. A small core of longtime members contended we were condoning divorce, if not actually encouraging it. My greatest joy has been that our divorce-recovery group attracted so many people that we've had to divide it. Now we have 2 groups of nearly 30 people apiece."
How frequently pain and joy accompany the same experience! The story also illustrates that it's not unusual for a small group within the church to receive less than enthusiastic support from other members.
In some cases, a new group might face resistance because members of the group appear unconcerned about becoming fully integrated into present church life. One common example is the home Bible study that never uses the church's curriculum, nor does it seek or welcome pastoral assistance. Whether or not the group is composed entirely of church members, the participants don't consider the group as part of the church's teaching or caring ministries.
But there are other examples:
- The group of older members that adored the long-tenured minister who retired several years ago, and unfortunately never have accepted either of the two successors as "our pastor." Most of them have been in the same adult Sunday school class (meeting in the same room) for the past three decades. A few never miss worship, but most "stay for church" fewer than half the Sundays in the year.
- That group of young adults organized by the energetic and charming associate minister who left two years ago. He built a close-knit and caring group, but never got around to helping these young adults shift their allegiance from him to the congregation. About half the group has disappeared since his departure; the remaining dozen or so, although listed as members, display little sense of belonging to the congregation.
- Those parents of young children who helped launch the weekday nursery school a few years ago. They are enthusiastic supporters of that ministry and militant allies of the children's director. Most have united with the congregation, attending worship regularly and rarely missing the Sunday school class created for parents of nursery school children. But only two or three display any interest in other facets of congregational life.
A Crucial Distinction
Obviously the issue is assimilation, but that simple diagnosis understates the problem and can lead to an unproductive prescription.
Much has been written on new-member assimilation, but what about groups that don't fit? Although groups resemble individuals in some ways, the process of assimilating groups is unique. Perhaps the crucial distinction is that members of groups already have found a place to belong; they feel no great need to fit into a larger fellowship. Their cohesive group provides all the friends and support these folks feel they need.
In addition, these groups usually reflect a high degree of homogeneity. Why venture out for acceptance in a larger fellowship that is far more heterogeneous? You don't go looking for more friends if you already have enough.
The staff person who urges the members of such a small group to become more involved in the church may be told, "That's your concern, not ours." It's hard to help those who perceive no need for help.
One alternative is to challenge each group to accept yearly responsibility for one congregation-wide goal. This needs to be a clearly defined, attainable, measurable goal with high visibility and a precisely stated terminal date.
Painting the third-grade classroom won't do because of its low visibility to the whole congregation. But useful examples include such activities as:
- coordinating the annual all-church picnic
- planning and leading worship on Laity Sunday
- sealing and striping the parking lot
- painting the exterior of the parsonage next door
- planning and implementing that special afternoon program the first Sunday in Advent.
This alternative has two facets. From the group's perspective, it is assimilation by task—"You know you belong when you know you are needed and appreciated." From the congregation's perspective, this gives visible evidence of that group's loyalty to the larger fellowship.
A second and far more difficult alternative is to ask each of these groups to see itself as a congregational entry point for potential members. Sequentially, the process goes like this: The group enlists and assimilates new members. These people subsequently unite with the congregation. Some eventually "graduate" into congregation-wide responsibilities and become living links between the group and the congregation. The adult choir, for example, often acts as an entry point to the congregation.
A third possibility is based on the old adage, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." This requires of the pastor authentic and repeated public affirmations of each group. In other words, the process calls for "loving them into the larger fellowship." This, of course, is consistent with our Christian understanding of the power of love.
A fourth alternative is to involve these groups in new coalitions. Perhaps representatives from different groups could plan and implement a new program or take responsibility for a special event, such as the annual celebration of the founding of the congregation. Using the example in the opening illustration, I'd gather five people from each of the two divorce recovery groups, five people opposed to the divorce recovery groups, five others from an adult Sunday school class, and five from the women's organization to work together on a cause everyone supports. That would help these people overcome old barriers and prejudices. It also can begin to forge new friendships.
This alternative not only uses a task to assimilate people, as in the first alternative, it also builds inter-group bridges.
What If It Works?
The price one pays for the first and third alternatives is that ties within the group are simply reinforced and its identity strengthened.
The second and fourth alternatives, if successful, can destroy the group. If four or five key leaders build closer relationships with people outside the group and transfer their primary allegiance to the congregation or a new responsibility, the distinctive group may fall apart.
So which of these alternatives is best? That depends on whether a church's first priority is to reinforce each group's distinctive identity or to help people transfer their primary allegiance from that group to the larger fellowship. But once a church knows what it needs and the price it must pay, it can decide the way to graft its groups and their members into the ministry and fellowship of the larger body, for the benefit of all involved.
—Lyle E. Schaller; excerpted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, © 1990 by the author and Christianity Today. For more articles like this, visit www.LeadershipJournal.net.