Experts who work with congregations say that a congregation’s understanding of its own “identity” is crucial. I hear this often. This may seem self-evident, but how many congregations truly have a clear understanding of who they are? Sure, a congregation may have a mission statement, but do the congregation’s activities and priorities really reflect that stated mission? Or is the mission so broad that potentially any kind of program or idea can fit?
In the pursuit of new people, congregational leaders and members often try to maintain too many programs or latch onto novel ideas that may not fit the congregation's identity. If the programs or formats don’t fit the congregation’s core identity, especially if the identity is not really known, this can end up diffusing energy on projects and programs that don’t work and can, in fact, be counter-productive.
Tim Peters, president of Provident Staffing, says a lot of folks who think their congregation has a communication problem really has an identity problem. His point is simple: if activities are not grounded in a core identity, then the congregation doesn’t communicate anything about who they are. Listen to Tim discussing this issue here.
The Center for Congregations’ Southwest Director Wendy McCormick had this to say about identity and its relationship to engaging Millennials:
“This generation of young adults has been targeted and micro-targeted by marketers since infancy. They know instinctively when they’re being sold. Have clarity about what your congregation is about, and make sure that clarity is communicated consistently online, in worship and in relationships. Beware of flashy worship or the latest social media app that are ends in themselves and don’t point to your deepest authentic convictions.”
You'll see more from Wendy about Millennials and congregational engagement in the near future.
Identity, while seemingly a simple subject, can be very complex in congregational life. The broad strokes are usually defined by our basic faith commitments or denominational heritage but what does it mean, practically speaking, in the daily and weekly life of a congregation?
Ways to clarify identity
John Flowers and Karen Vannoy, in the book Adapt to Thrive, argue that congregations should view themselves as unique organisms rather than organizations. Since organisms are living things, they can learn – need to learn – how to change and grow as they face new challenges. Identity begins with understanding that they are dynamic, unique organisms.
This Alban article, adapted from Janet Cawley’s book Who is Our Church? Imagining Congregational Identity, describes a creative approach of personifying a congregation in order to understand its identity.
Another way of thinking about and discovering identity is through understanding the current dynamics of a congregation. In The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics, Israel Galindo discusses the various, and often hidden, dynamics that affect congregational life. By becoming aware of these dynamics a congregation can uncover its identity and discover and better achieve its mission.
Simon Sinek in Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action argues that leaders need to inspire by appealing to belief in a purpose (the “why”) instead of appealing to what an organization can do or how it does it. Not only does his book articulate this argument, but he also has an online discovery course to help individuals discover their purpose, cause or belief. While not specifically created for congregations, this idea has compelling application for congregational identity. Hear Sinek discuss this idea in his Ted talk.
Understanding your identity
The bottom line is that a solid understanding of your congregation’s identity will aid you in significant ways. It will help you name your assets and strengths. It will help you focus more precisely on your mission, enabling you to vet and implement programs more effectively. Finally, a deep grasp on your congregation’s identity will allow you to communicate to the outside world more clearly.
In addition to those mentioned above, there are other methods and strategies for determining your congregation’s unique identity, gifts and mission in the world. Contact your local Center for Congregations office to talk with a resource consultant. We can help you find resources that will enable you to determine your congregation’s identity.