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Leading Congregations, Discovering Congregational Cultures

by James P. Wind

James P. Wind was program director in religion for the Lilly Endowment, Inc., in Indianapolis, at the time this article was written. He is the author of Places of Worship: Exploring Their History (American Association for State and Local History). This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 3-10, 1993, pp. 105-110. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


To speak of "discovering" congregational culture may sound a bit presumptuous. After all, religious leaders have been confronting distinctive congregational cultures for centuries. Think of how immigrant congregations fought over changing the liturgy to English, or of the battles that took place when Irish clergy were sent to serve Polish parishes. And we are familiar at another level with the skirmishes that have taken place over church dinners -- do we use fine china or paper plates -- and building designs -- Gothic or modern? Such clashes are not trivial. Ways of life and basic self-understandings are at stake in such controversies. Clearly, cultural differences have been facts of life in our congregations for as long as we can remember.

In the 1970s, however, a handful of anthropologists and ethnographers began to study local congregations in the way that their colleagues would study remote tribes in Africa or South America. Careful field work, shelves of field notes, and long-term people-watching from close proximity are the hallmarks of this kind of study. The work of these congregational ethnographers has helped undermine a longstanding interpretation of congregational life.

At the heart of the old paradigm, say sociologists of religion like R. Stephen Warner, was a preoccupation with religion's role as a tottering sacred canopy over the whole of American culture. This way of thinking obscured the generative and nurturing role that congregations played at the local or subcultural level. Sociologists and theologians of the stature of Peter Berger, Gibson Winter, Langdon Gilkey and George Webber generalized in the '60s about the bland sameness of American congregations, warning that they had become places of structured irrelevance to social, economic and public life. A massive suburban captivity was homogenizing churches, parishes and synagogues, they said, and these religious institutions were losing their religious substance. According to this perspective, congregations had made a deal with North American culture: churches could have Sunday morning, nice buildings and tax exemption, but they had to stay away from corporate boardrooms, executive suites, smoke-filled rooms and other places central to the nine-to-five world.

A decade later a handful of anthropologists and sociologists began to see something else. They described how congregations built worlds of belief and value of their own, how each fashioned itself out of a particular amalgam of personal stories, denominational heritages, local history and larger cultural events. Their discoveries bring into view the distinctive character of the congregation and challenge us to stop taking these institutions for granted.

These explorations of congregational culture also challenge those who lead these institutions -- and those who seek to shape their leaders -- to learn to read a new kind of text: a congregation. The discovery of congregational culture poses an interpretive challenge as sizable as that presented by the scriptures themselves. Think of how much we invest in preparing people to read the scriptures. We need to make an equal investment in preparing people to interpret congregational life.

A powerful example of interpreting congregational life is provided by Melvin Williams's exploration of Zion Church in Pittsburgh. (For a complete account, see his Community in a Black Pentecostal Church, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1974.) Williams did not turn to sermons or Sunday school curriculum materials to unearth Zion's culture. Instead, he watched what congregation members did. Williams spent two years watching members at worship and at other moments in the church's formal and informal life. These African-Americans had migrated from the South earlier in the 20th century and became day laborers, custodians, maids and busboys -- if they landed jobs at all. According to the American status system, they were part of the underclass. But Zion's culture subtly made much more out of them. Williams noticed that their church suppers were full of collard greens and other southern favorites. Those suppers kept memories of old ways of life alive in the face of a city that had no use for them. Details like church supper menus create what anthropologists, following Clifford Geertz, like to call "thick descriptions" of the multilayered and many-textured reality of cultural life.

Zion members also had a distinctive social ritual that occurred every time someone moved -- which, in the inner city where rents are gouged, jobs lost and crime is high, was often. Whenever a member moved, the rest of the congregation came to help and to re-create community around the relocated individuals.

The church members also had what Williams called an "alternative status system." In their everyday worlds, Zion members did not count for much. But at Zion everyone had a title. They were "Brother" or "Sister," deacon, nurse, president, treasurer, secretary or teacher. Even their seating patterns at worship reflected their standing in the church; in countless ways they were reminded that they belonged and counted.

Williams eavesdropped on church gossip and found a distinct moral code embedded in the conversations. He traced the congregation's formal and informal organizational life and uncovered an intricate network of relations. In short, he saw that Zion was not just a congregation like any other; it was a thick, deep subculture which could be uncovered only by patient observation.

If we assume that every congregation is this complex and intricate, we need to consider the implications for those called to lead them. We need, first, to recognize that many clergy, teachers and religious leaders have unwittingly collided with congregational cultures for centuries, and that they have often perpetrated acts of violence against those cultures. That is a serious charge, but one that I am not alone in making. For years, people who have watched fledgling clergy move from seminary to congregation have commented on the clash of cultures that occurs when a new pastor crosses the threshold into his or her first charge. My sense is that the problem is even deeper and more complex than such comments suggest.

During their years of professional education seminarians go through a process of cultural immersion -- but it is into the culture of a seminary, not a congregation. Some pastors, such as Virgil Elizondo, the rector of the Cathedral of San Fernando in San Antonio, Texas, have described quite movingly how arduous and alien that cultural "obstacle course" can be. At the seminary, students learn distinct styles of worship, varieties of biblical hermeneutics, modes of theologizing, approaches to pastoral care and models of leadership. Some observers of theological education are so disillusioned by the depths of this enculturation and its lack of fit with the cultures of local congregations that they conclude that the only thing the seminary equips students to do is to attend seminary. I would not take that position, but I would suggest that very little attention is paid to equipping people to "read" the local cultures they are going to serve. Instead, seminarians are taught a variety of techniques and insights that they are to apply to their local congregations, as if one size fits all.

When I was in seminary two decades ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's theory about the stages of adjustment faced by the dying was in vogue. I recall making pastoral visits as an intern in which I tried to assist a dying person to that esteemed goal of "acceptance." Individual behavior was squeezed into categories -- is she bargaining or denying? Is he blocked in anger? My point is not to pick on Kubler-Ross or to deny the usefulness of theories about human behavior, but to offer one example of how seminarians are encouraged to fit people into categories that come from the world of the seminary. My generation had similar temptations with liturgical styles and principles of biblical interpretation. The assumption was that the pastor brought the truth with him or her, and that the congregation needed to have this truth, this way of construing the world, imposed upon it. The possibility that a congregation might already have a healthy sense of mission, that it might already know the gospel, and that it might have embedded within its culture the great marrow of the Christian tradition was overlooked in the face of the repertoire of new techniques and insights that the graduate was waiting to use. Whether it is Kubler-Ross, stages of faith development, liberation theology or a new fascination with story that is in vogue, the leadership dynamic remains: professional mastery in the seminary, application in the congregation.

Earlier I used the phrase "perpetrated acts of violence" to describe what religious leaders have done to the local cultures they served. That is strong language, and I need to back it up. Consider Robert Orsi's impressive study The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem 1880-1950, which reconstructs the "popular religion" of Italian immigrants in New York City. At the center of their piety was a festa held each July 16 in commemoration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Orsi's exploration of this festival and the theology of the streets which accompanied it are far too complex to recount here, but his description of the clergy's response to the laypeople's festival is important: "Throughout the story of this festa . . . it is clear that the clergy and the people understood the celebration in different ways. The priests minimized the importance of the merrymaking of the festa, insisting that all this noise and the smell of food were secondary to the real purpose of the event, which was religious. The criticism of the street life of the devotion -- the parties, food, games, noise, and dancing that are an inseparable part of the religious meaning of festa--intensified at Mount Carmel as the church became more of an American parish in the 1940s and 1950s." That the conflict was serious and deep is indicated by the fact that the clergy took the lay society responsible for the festa to court in the late 1930s.

Is "acts of violence" too strong a phrase? I visited a major downtown cathedral not long ago and encountered an example of how interior decorators can triumph over church history and local culture. A local historian was giving me a tour when we encountered an old couple standing reverently in an open space near the back of the newly remodeled sanctuary. My guide informed me that these people were praying at the site of the confessional of Father_____. That confessional, a holy place for these people, had been discarded when the cathedral was remodeled. The new postmodern interior had no stations of the cross, no side altars, none of the sacred places that generations had turned to for meaning, help and consolation. That quiet old couple who paused at a once-full-but-now-empty place represents many who have lost part of their religious world as leaders have moved ahead with new visions and religious understandings.

Does the discovery of congregational culture commit us to conservative and nostalgic agendas? Does it rule out prophetic criticism of the evil and sin present in all human cultures? Does it foreclose the possibility of new discoveries or better ways? I don't believe so. But it does place a new burden on those who would teach or lead local congregations. Before changing a congregation, those who take congregational culture seriously must understand it. The posture of the teacher-leader shifts from being truth bringer to truth discoverer. Instead of being the dominant figure who imposes interpretation from the outside, the pastor becomes the servant leader who nurtures a process of cultural formation and negotiation.

Several other implications flow from this discovery. Those who teach and lead must learn new skills and develop new perspectives. If congregations are local cultures with deeply embedded narratives, worldviews, folkways and rituals, then we need new hermeneutical abilities. Daunting as it may sound, those who lead congregations in our multicultural age must learn basic ethnographic sensibilities and skills. They need to identify the variety of worldviews and systems of belief that are at work in their pluralistic environments. The good news is that a growing number of practical theologians and students of congregational life are providing resources that can help ministers become practical cultural anthropologists -- which means becoming adept at reading the world around them.

The capacity to "read" a local culture is only a part of what is needed. How do we help clergy and other congregational leaders learn to talk across the cultural divides that exist within our congregations? With intermarriage, denominational switching, higher education, career mobility and the complex spiritual pilgrimages taken by so many church members, one cannot assume that members and leaders share a worldview. In addition to learning to identify who and what is in the room with us, we need to learn to work with cultural diversity, to negotiate differences, to bring to the surface hidden values, and to turn congregations into places of healthy cultural exchange. Decisions about hymns, sermon illustrations, church suppers and mission priorities are occasions where church leaders can help or hinder people in passing on, transforming and creating a local culture that can give meaning and value to their lives.

A practical way for congregations to discover their local culture is by pondering their own history. Most every congregation contains people interested in its story. Sadly, most of these people's energies go into producing a scrapbook, membership roster, or simple chronicle rather than into creating a real history. We often reduce congregational life to the official religious things that the congregation does on Sunday mornings or at church meetings. Congregational culture is much more than that, and we need to connect the congregation's gathered and dispersed lives into one story. We need to learn how to follow the congregation into the world through the lives of its members. A congregational culture is the full web of relations between the people, practices, institutions and beliefs that exist within its gathered and scattered existence. Historical perspective makes it possible to see how a local culture grows and changes, lives and dies.

Talk about congregational culture should make us aware that none of us is culture-free. Each of us carries one or more cultures along as we move through life. The exploration of congregational culture will push us into critical consideration of what those cultures are. Are they distinctively Christian, Jewish or Islamic cultures, or do they reflect more the civil religion of the American culture?

An especially fruitful way to observe the formative and destructive sides of congregational culture is to consider carefully the experience of children. Given what I have said so far, it will not come as a surprise when I suggest that the place to begin is not with curriculum materials or the special programs created for children. Rather, we need to learn how children actually experience congregational life. It is not enough to review catechetical programs or youth group offerings. We need to follow children through the full life of the congregation -- in both its gathered and scattered forms. What happens to children as they sit through worship services? Have we ever really watched them? Have we talked to them about their experiences?

We need to follow them into the hallways and see what they pick up from parental and adult behavior during coffee hours and church meetings. What patterns of behavior or moral norms are they appropriating as they eavesdrop on the gossip of the congregation? When difficult moral issues come up at home and at church? What do children learn about dealing with these issues? Do they learn to keep their beliefs and doubts private? Do they learn how to listen only to one point of view, or do they learn how to engage different opinions and beliefs? Do they learn how to draw upon a faith tradition to respond to life's challenges? What do they learn about how to face death and illness as they attend funerals or hear about people who are suffering? Are they given opportunities to practice compassion and to speak of the faith that is nurtured within them? How do they fit within a congregation's ecology of care, and how do they learn the voluntary spirit which is at the heart of so much American philanthropy and social service?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be asked about the life of children in our congregations. Behind them is an assumption that they -- like the rest of us -- are being shaped by cultures all the time. Often that shaping takes place at great distance from the formal educational programs that we offer. We need to identify those means of formation and assess their adequacy. In addition, we need to discern and develop relationships between our formal and our informal teaching. Pastors and teachers can do that by asking: Taken as a whole, what is this institution really teaching?

Many people express doubts these days about the social, economic and cultural systems that shape our lives. Many are calling for a new localism. Yet local communities and cultures are also in trouble. In What Are People For? the poet/farmer Wendell Berry says that the "work of making local culture" is of the utmost importance. At the same time, he bemoans the ways in which our economic and political systems have eviscerated these precious local realities. Berry is right: we desperately need thriving local cultures that can root and ground people so that they are able to care for more than their own individual well-being.

Local congregations have long provided those kinds of cultures. They need help because they bear the burdens of a very confused society. With new resources and leadership, they can be places of alternative imagination, places where people are given a different status than the world gives. They can be places where deep reservoirs of belief and value can be set loose in the larger culture. They can be that if we will learn to care for those cultures and learn to work with them rather than against them. But they cannot thrive if there is no one to cultivate them. That role, it seems to me, is a worthwhile and challenging one for those who wish to teach and lead.


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