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Understanding Congregational Core Values - by Kevin Martin

Understanding Congregational Core Values

by Kevin Martin

For much of my teaching ministry with congregations or consulting with parishes, I have taught the values of a church having a Vision and writing a Mission Statement.While I still believe that these are helpful tools for church leadership, over-the-years I have come to realize the importance of Core Values. This first came forcefully home to me when my work in the Diocese of Texas brought me into contact with the Church Multiplication Center and their boot camps for church planters.
We learned early on to send our future planters to the camp to gear up for the new launch. Everyone I sent there spoke highly of this work, a recent seminary graduate told me that "every Priest should be required to attend one of these."

What I learned from this work was how much emphasis the Center put on the creation and understanding of Core Values. Yes, they did have their participants write a mission statement for the new work, but they spend much more time helping the planters spell out the core values to be the foundations for this new congregation. Furthermore, they insisted that a new church should have three Core Values and no more than four! Over time I learned how true this is.

What Are Core Values?

Core Values are the unconscious expectations and values that form the congregation's heart and the glue that holds people together. They are not the same as core beliefs like the creed or core practices like the Eucharist. Core beliefs and practices are held in common by Episcopal Congregations. The Core Values of a congregation are unique. The Core Values, when held in tension and balance with one anther, make your congregation distinctive from other churches, even other Episcopal churches.

Yet, as important as these are, they are often hard to describe. One reason is that over-the-years a congregation's Core Values tend to become defused. A congregation that once was a high lay-volunteer congregation over time may become dependent on staff. In addition, new members often bring elements of the Core Values from their previous congregation, and these contribute to the lack of clarity. Of course, new clergy come to congregations and bring other Core Values to add to the mixture.

Core Values can be expressed in a brief sentence or phrase. For example, a new forming congregation listed these four Core Values:

* We intend to reach out to the young professions in our target area.
* We will have "Spirit-filled" and inspirational worship
* We will build our church on small groups that form people as disciples
* Our church will be a racially diverse community

Another, congregation with a longer history, listed these:

* We value traditional liturgy and especially traditional music
* We have a high commitment to children and youth
* We place a special importance to Adult Education
* We believe in our member's high involvement in social outreach to the community
* We have high requirements for those in leadership that includes tithing

Questions often help to get at Core Values

For example, ask people to list the congregation's strengths, then ask them, what:

* Values do you think lay behind these strengths and commitments?
* What changes would cause our membership to feel disconnected and leave?
* What do our people care passionately about?
* What really makes us unique as a church?

Often composing a list of 10 to 20 possibilities and then asking people to reduce these to a priority list of just 7 brings about clarification of the Core Values. I have found that effective revitalization of a congregation often demands the leaders become disciplined in reducing the number of core values and committing to them. It goes without saying that some people leave a congregation as leaders do this kind of work. It is not the congregation that they thought they had joined.

We should not be disturbed by this leaving. After all, some people join an existing church merely because they like the architecture or the church has the same name as the one they grew up in. This principle of value clarification and the often accompanying fall out of some members can be seen in nature. We call it pruning. But, just like in nature, future growth and development of a declining congregation has to start with pruning

Pay Attention to Valued Practices

Another source for finding a congregations Core Values is in highly valued practices. For example, St. Martin's parish in Houston does not allow vestry members to be re-elected to the Vestry. Some congregations believe strongly in no plaques or memorial signs - often the reflection of a high egalitarian value system.

Remember that a congregation can share individual values with other churches, but the combination of the 3 to 7 Core Values create a culture or a "feel" for the community.

As a last example, I would list the Core Values of Christ Church, Plano; the church where I work part time and the most attended Episcopal Church in the country. They are:

* We are highly committed to the centrality of teaching Holy Scriptures in making disciples
* We have a large front porch for the seeker expressed in our worship
* We aim at transforming these seekers into disciples including children and youth
* Women's ministries are essential to this community
* The committed core families are in small supportive cell groups
* Stewardship and financial sacrifice is required of all leaders

Remember, when you ask leaders what the Core Values are of their congregation, they usually begin by listing Core Beliefs and Core Practices. The challenge is to move beyond these. How do you know when you are onto a Core Value? The leaders become animated and energized. Core Values are the energizing principles of the community.

Leaders and Core Values

This gives us one last principle about leading congregations. Leaders who present new ideas or practices as an extension of the congregation's core values have a more predictable chance of achieving success than those who do not. I often see efforts at change - even needed change - rejected by congregations because these changes (no matter how valuable they were to a clergy person's seminary professors) are not connected to the underlying glue and passion of a church. Finding this glue and passion is often the first step for a new leader.

The great thing about being the founding pastor of a new congregation is that you get to say, right up front, what you believe the core values of a congregation should be. For the rest of us, we can only hope to build on the present Core Values and from time to time offer new ones. In today's highly mobile world, most church leaders do not stay long enough to be able to change the present ones.

What do you think are the Core Values of your congregation? Are they clear, focused and well articulated? Or are they numerous, complex, and mainly unspoken? These questions answers may tell you a great deal about your Church's future.

The Rev. Kevin Martin is president of Vital Church Ministries based in Plano, Texas.

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