November 28, 2016—Roy Phillips’ Letting Go (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 1999) starts with the assertion that ministers need to “let go” of their need to control every aspect of their congregation, and to let the members take charge. Phillips talks about how bringing people into congregations can be seen as a five-step process: inviting people, welcoming them, orienting them, helping them join, and then assimilating them into the congregation. He says that this last step is where most congregations fail. In order for congregations to become transformed for ministry, Phillips proposes four major changes, each to which he dedicates a chapter.
The first necessary change is from membership to ministry. Many ministers have assumed that the best way to maintain membership is to keep the members busy and give them something to do. However, people do not always come to church just looking to find something else to keep them busy, and ministers need to be aware of deeper issues that congregants may be seeking. He says they may be seeking individuality, community, meaning, and hope. Often this may be difficult for many ministers, however, because they have not been able to “let go” and let their members do ministry. Ministry has become just another profession where most think that it is only for skillfully trained people (clergy), and the rest (laity) are left to assist them in more menial tasks. This mentality needs to change.
A second transformation that must take place is from entitlement to mission. Many people get involved in church ministry because they feel a sense of entitlement to their particular role. This may be out of a need for recognition, power, or control, and ends up looking like them doing their own thing instead of being involved in the church’s shared mission, which is what God is calling the church to do. Phillips talks about how a healthy view of congregation is one that is incarnational, in which God is in the here and now, and what we do in this life matters. He says we need to focus not on the negatives, but on people’s assets, skills, and gifts.
A third transformation that must take place is from education to spiritual development. Education often gives one person the sense that he or she has all the answers, and has to give these to people who do not have them. Spiritual development is more about listening and learning from each other. It is more of a partnership than a one-way relationship. It is a way to help people deepen and develop spiritually, not just giving out information. Ministers need to develop a vision, and seek out and encourage leadership among the congregation to ensure this happens.
The last transformation that needs to take place is from toleration to engagement. Many people tolerate diversity, but this is a neutral stance which although may seem safe, creates distance between people. Engagement is an approach that is genuine, intimate, risky, and encourages people to be creative. This requires people to be more vulnerable, but this advances the kingdom, and is what Jesus did.
I am normally pretty hesitant when authors take such steps at simplifying something so complex as transforming congregational ministry and saying these “four” specific things need to happen. People are complicated, and congregations made up of people are just as complicated. I do, however, appreciate the way Phillips went about this task, and I do not feel that he oversimplified things. Sometimes it is necessary to break down complex issues into more manageable topics, and I feel this is what he did in this work.
I am especially appreciative of my own congregation after reading this work. I realize that no congregations are perfect, as they are imperfect representations of the Church. However, I see that my pastor has already put into place (or attempted to do so) many of the transformations Phillips details in his work. My pastor has recognized that ministers sometimes tend to make idols out of power, prestige, and control, and he has sought to relinquish much of this as he empowers the congregation to do real ministry. Just recently he gave me the opportunity to preach at church, and I assuming he was going to be out of town, I asked him where he was going. He replied that he was not going anywhere, and that he was simply trying to encourage leadership and ministry within the congregation, which I respect.
I also feel that my pastor has fostered a sense of community as opposed to committees. He has also encouraged involvement in the congregation, and for people to not be afraid to try new things, take risks, and be creative. I especially appreciate his approach during worship, in which we have dialogue, which seems to foster more of a sense of spiritual development, as opposed to a sermon, which is often more one-way.
I think my congregation has a way to go to reaching engagement as opposed to toleration, but it is very helpful for me to read Phillips’ work from my own context, because I am able to realize that he is not just giving us another four-step how-to, but he is dealing with congregations sincerely and openly as complex organisms.
Reviewed by guest blogger Bryan Maupin.
The Center for Lifelong Learning is offering an abundance of courses and events for pastors and lay-persons seeking vibrant learning and cohort opportunities specifically created to build and enhance skills in Christian education and formation, church leadership, spiritual formation and spiritual direction. Our courses are designed for people at all stages of their ministry. Check out our current classes HERE.