Being the head, heart, hand, and body of the future church

Posted May 21, 2015 | Pastoral Excellence Network


By Lawrence Peers

Lawrence PeersIt is customary in my work training clergy group facilitators for me to begin our conversation by recognizing the changing religious landscape in which we are doing ministry. Using a graphic facilitation process, we map the challenges that are already, near, or far on the horizon. In recent months, this conversation has happened readily, and it is hard for me to capture in writing the numerous challenges as quickly as they are named.

The distinction between which challenge is already happening, near, or far on the horizon is harder to maintain. The sobering fact is that many of these challenges are already happening now, in various degrees.

I always invite us to sit in the challenges so that we can feel their impact, so that we can identify our uncertainties or our feelings of being overwhelmed. As any clergy group realizes, naming the situation is an essential step to any move forward.

There is a lot of conversation right now about the Pew Research study recently released on the Changing U.S. Religious Landscape, including the decline of Christianity and diminishing participation in congregations across generations. I believe that those of us who are engaged in stewarding the religious life and institutions need to sit in these conversations a little longer and listen deeply.

At the same time, I also think that we need to add to those conversations another essential element.

After notating the challenges elicited from the group on the wall-size religious landscape paper I ask, “What are the possibilities that are emerging as well?” This is as important a conversation as that about the challenges since we often see some of the possibilities even in the challenges. The challenges that contemporary clergy and congregations face are real—and so are the possibilities.

The sobering fact is that these possibilities are already happening now, in various degrees.

In her exquisite book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, Margaret Wheatley reminds us that:

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about. Ask, ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking.... Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Clergy communities of practice are incubators of innovation—not just any change, but purposeful change. We often think of these ongoing groups as greenhouses for seeding ideas, cultivating new actions, and tending what wants to emerge.

Can we imagine that the future church is now; that we can be the heart, head, hands, and body of that change even now? Adapting some of Robert Dunham’s work on The Innovator’s Way and generative leadership, I propose that these levels of innovation can become part of our conversations with one another in clergy groups. There are four levels of innovating:

• Level of the head: We can help one another to consider a meaningful and relevant change. We can discuss the question: “Why and how you might go about doing it?”
• Level of the heart: We can enter into a place of deep discernment as we listen to the whispers of the Spirit and to the Spirit’s leading.
• Level of the hand: We can ask, “If you were to give this change a try in a small way to test it, what would you do?” Or, “How could you structure a time-limited prototype of this change that you and others can learn from?”
• Level of the body: We can explore the question: “What are the ways that you can encourage this change to its next developmental step, carrying it forward in a more sustained way?”

In Matthew 13:16, we read, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” We need to have the eyes and ears to notice what is and what’s possible. We also need, as Gandhi said, “To be the change we want to see”—and I would add—now.

Join us for further discussion on this topic in a PEN Talk, a free webinar with Larry Peers on Thursday, June 11, 2015, at 2:00 pm EDT. Go to:

Lawrence Peers is the director of learning of the Pastoral Excellence Network at Christian Theological Seminary.

The Pastoral Excellence Network at CTS seeks to connect and nurture groups for clergy at all stages of ministry. To request permission to repost this content, please contact



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