Insights on Church Renewal from Jim Harnish

The leaders of Duke Memorial got to hear Dr. Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park UMC, Tampa, on the subject of congregational renewal.  Out of the dramatic turnaround Jim led at Hyde Park, here were the insights gleaned on the things that really matter if a church is to grow into the future:

The PAST really matters.

God shapes our future out of our past. It never works to try to be just like some other successful church. You must be true to your core identity as a congregation.  Fortunately for historic congregations, young people like to be part of something that’s been around a while.  One way to begin is to identify the moment in your congregational history that tells our unique story of hope and build from that.  The innovation that you are proposing has got to be seen as building upon who you are as a church at your best.

VISION really matters.

We must be very clear about God’s mission and vision for our church, be able to articulate it succinctly.  What is God calling this church to be at this moment in our history?

Commit to fight the important battles, not those that don’t matter—like re: carpet in the parsonage. Focus on mission-level concerns.  Distinguish between mission (what/why) and method (how).

“If we’re sure next year is going to be 1959, then we’re in great shape. If we think it’s going to be 2014, we have some challenges set before us.”  Warning: the greater clarity you achieve in articulating the vision, the greater the likelihood that you will lose members (some of them quite faithful members) who just can’t commit to the new, clear vision based upon mission.  They have been functioning in a very different congregation.  However, when you are clear about the most important thing you must do (such as welcome more people from more diverse constituencies) then your vision will attract new life for the congregation.

FLEXIBILITY (“surrender” is the biblical term for it) really matters.

The potter needs wet, malleable clay to do what seems best to the potter. We must surrender to God’s will.  If it’s God’s will for us to become a more mission-minded congregation, a congregation less concerned with internal issues and more concerned with external needs, then we must surrender and adapt to God’s will.  The right question is not “Are we ready to grow?” instead, it is, “Are we ready to change in order to grow?”  Death/resurrection paradigm—we have to die in order to live again. This death/resurrection is a continuous cycle in the life of a church, the only way that your congregation can have a future.

FAITH really matters.

This is a spiritual issue. What do we believe? Whom do we trust?  Who is the God we must obey?  God really wants churches to flourish.  Do we know how to pray? Do we do it?

Jim’s church tries never to vote on anything because it divides people. They focus on the mission/vision and the way forward becomes clear.  They move on perceived consensus rather than waiting for everyone to vote to be on board with the forward movement.   It takes a minimum of 5-7 years to change a congregation’s culture.  Your newest members must be called to leadership, for it’s most likely that growth will come through your newest members.

Thanks to Gair McCullough for helping me get these notes together.  And thanks to Jim Harnish for initiating a fascinating conversation within the Duke Memorial Congregation!

Will Willimon

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