Healthy congregations and humility in action

Again and again, Louis Weeks found the same trait when he visited a dozen healthy, vital congregations. No matter how impressive their ministries, they all had the virtue of humility.

“We can’t wait to learn from the other churches you’re studying,” the Rev. Art Ross told me at the close of my visit to White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., in 2007. At the time, I was just starting my research for a book I was writing for the Alban Institute, “All for God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork.” I had been visiting White Memorial searching for insights about healthy ways of organizing congregational work and worship. I would visit another dozen churches before my research was complete, and I was encouraged by Ross’ kind words.

I had loved visiting White Memorial, listening to leaders describe their work and worship. The church -- which Ross served for 15 years before retiring in September 2009 -- does amazing things to assimilate new members and help people worship well, grow in faith, and stretch in proclaiming the gospel.

Each Tuesday, for example, the entire staff proofreads the upcoming issue of the weekly newsletter and the bulletin for the next Sunday. But they are not just looking for typos or other errors (a cardinal sin in Reformed cultures). They are also reading it to make sure all the various elements of worship and ministry fit together well and that every person who is in charge of an activity or a part of worship knows his or her responsibility.

In its meetings, the staff also spends time naming each new member who joined in the previous year. Together, they make sure that all will receive ongoing attention and be helped to find ways to deepen their involvement in the church and develop their potential for leadership. The staff prays about impending activities and pastoral needs of members. Together, they fashion “proverbs” for their life together: phrases like “Strong committee work makes good meetings”; “Money follows members in mission”; and my personal favorite, “Passion cannot outpace process; and process cannot stifle passion.” Lay leaders and pastoral staff alike repeat these bits of local wisdom on many occasions.

At the meetings of White Memorial’s session, the governing body in Presbyterian congregations, members receive one-page committee reports with concise bullet points about important matters and one or two action items for the board. The session actually assumes responsibility for the spiritual life of the congregation, praying fervently together. They delegate their work broadly among members.

Throughout my visit, I was struck by White Memorial’s amazing ability to make everything work together smoothly. Yet, in virtually every interview or discussion, congregational leaders and others always pressed me for ways they could learn more. Together they had established a thick culture of inquiry and formation. They assumed that everyone and every part of their church needed to grow in Christ. They did their congregation’s work with competence, but also with humility.

Later, as I visited and studied other healthy congregations, I repeatedly found this same trait of humility. At every church, I asked leaders how they planned, executed and assessed various areas of church life, including visitation, stewardship, leadership development, worship, growth and mission. And every time, leaders responded modestly and humbly about their accomplishments.

At a high-threshold church in Harrisonburg, Va., one that expected much from members, an elder shared with me their intricate plan for how ministries and house churches worked together. After he pointed out both weaknesses and strengths in the complex document, he turned to me and asked, “Suggestions?”

At a historic church on Society Hill in Philadelphia, the pastor confessed that she had not yet focused the church’s stewardship as she might have liked. At a growing suburban church in Richmond, Va., a staff member told me they still had “lots more work” in developing their adult education program and then asked, “Can you help?”

At a church in Louisville, Ky., that flawlessly meshed together seven different programs for visitors and prospective members, a pastor lamented that their stewardship effort was not as coherent to him. To address that issue, several leaders were planning to attend an upcoming event on teaching generosity.

At an inner-city church in Atlanta, I quickly noticed that staff members were remarkably straightforward with one another. When I asked why, the pastor said, “Well, we’ve got a homeless shelter here on the premises, and the residents are teaching us all the time to be clear and honest among ourselves.”

Every church leader I interviewed described his or her congregation’s accomplishments modestly. And every one of them was eager to learn from other congregations, just as I had learned from their excellent organization.

As I thought about it later, I realized that pastors, staff members and lay leaders who are modest about their accomplishments and eager to learn from others are following the admonitions of Peter: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Moreover, all these desired attributes of a Christian community go together, each reinforcing and strengthening the other: unity, mutual love and respect, sympathy for one another, tenderness in relationships and humility.

Later in his letter, Peter notes that elders and younger ones in the faith have different duties and responsibilities. But relying on the book of Proverbs, he declares, “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (5:5).

Such a spirit, practicing humility together in a congregation, is a gift of God’s Spirit. It is not something we ourselves can conjure. But we can certainly pray to receive it.