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Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce


Deborah Bruce (left), Cynthia Woolever (right)March 2004

Chris Fabry, host of the radio program "First Edition," interviews authors Cynthia Woolever and Deborah Bruce about their latest book BEYOND THE ORDINARY: Ten Strengths of U.S. Congregations, which will help congregations recognize the factors that make them unique, discover their strengths, identify areas where change is needed and determine how to implement these changes.

Chris Fabry: Today we are going to take a look at your church through an interesting study based on a survey; I think it's the largest ever survey of U.S. worshipers. Our guests today say there are ten strengths to congregations that we need to maximize in order to fulfill our unique place in God's design. We'll get into those ten strengths in just a moment. First, let's meet the co-authors of a book titled BEYOND THE ORDINARY: Ten Strengths of U.S. Congregations. It's published by Westminster John Knox Press. Cynthia Woolever is a sociologist and director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey for U.S. Congregations and professor of religious organizations, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary. Deborah Bruce is a psychologist and associate research manager in the research services office of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. She is also project manager for the U.S. Congregational Life Survey Project and U.S. Congregations.

Chris Fabry: You two begin a tale that we are all familiar with: Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. How does that fit into this book?

Cynthia Woolever: When we were trying to understand what would make a congregation successful or pursue their mission with passion, we tried to think about the qualities that you would need to have in order to make that journey. We felt the Wizard of Oz gave us a way to express that to congregations by saying in order to make the trip you need to have your intelligence, or your mind; you need to have your heart, in other words your passion or what God is calling you to do; and also you need to have courage. That story tale adventure gives the emphasis of those things that congregations need to have in order to be successful.

Chris Fabry: And really your premise here is that God is working behind the scenes, not like the man behind the curtain, but He is working through the people in each of these congregations to fulfill His purpose.

Cynthia Woolever: Right.

Chris Fabry: Now you two are unabashed positive thinkers. You just come right out and tell us that. Tell us why you decided to look at strengths, because there are a lot of people who would say, "Well, we need to look at the weaknesses, and we need to go after those."

Deborah Bruce: We believe that congregations just beat up on themselves way too much in the typical situation. They complain because "We're too small," or "We're not located in a growing suburb where there's lots of people," or "We don't have the perfect pastor," but that really doesn't help congregations get ahead. We believe that congregations can do much more in terms of doing God's will in the world by determining what their unique strengths are and using those for the benefit of the mission of the congregation.

Chris Fabry: Let's define that term then. What is a congregation as we're talking about it here?

Deborah Bruce: A congregation really is any community of faith. Our project is based on research from over 2,000 congregations of all types of faith groups --- from Catholics, to Methodists, to Presbyterians, to Baptists, including some non-Christian groups as well. We have some Jewish synagogues, some Buddhist temples, and other types of congregations. So, any place where a number of people come together to worship God is a congregation.

Chris Fabry: And as I understand it, there were some 300,000 people who actually responded. You didn't just go to the leader of that church or that group and say, "So, what do you think?" You went to the whole congregation.

Deborah Bruce:There've been lots of surveys conducted in the past that looked at large numbers of congregations, but they typically do go to just one person. That's usually the pastor or the priest, the rabbi, or whoever is in charge there. But we believe that the people who sit in the pews probably have, in some cases, a very different view of what's going on in the congregations than the leaders do. We've really focused on the views from the pews, the people who are participating in the congregation on a typical Sunday.

Chris Fabry: I want to get into these ten strengths, but one of the things that really intrigued me about the book, other than the cartoons (there were funny cartoons in there), were the myths that you've come up with --- the myths in each of these. Maybe we could talk about some of those, specifically the one that says the size of your congregation is really the sense of strength, and if you can simply keep growing that congregation, it means that you're healthy and you're vital. You don't think that's true.

Cynthia Woolever: No, we don't. In fact, that's one of the reasons we wrote the book. When you hear about churches, it's usually because they are very large, maybe thousands of people in worship every weekend, or they have some kind of really spectacular special program. Many churches, as they read about them, know that they can't replicate that in their own setting, and they can feel bad about themselves. We didn't think that was quite fair, so we wanted to look more realistically at what congregations could be strong in, and worship is one of the areas that we looked at.

To our surprise, the size of the congregation has nothing to do with whether or not the worship services are meaningful to the people who are there, whether the services are joyful, or inspirational, whether people feel the presence of God in worship, or whether the services are nurturing them spiritually. All of those things are just not related to size. I think that's really good news because it means that a small congregation can have worship services that really meet the needs of the people who come there. And they don't have to think of having an orchestra or something like that in order for the services to be meaningful.

Chris Fabry: And for struggling churches (I think it's also one of your positions, for lack of a better word) our nature is, as people, to look for one answer. If there's something wrong with the church, we try to pinpoint one thing and fix that. But this thing is such an organism that you can't simply do one thing and fall into that myth trap.

Deborah Bruce: That's right. Congregations are very complex systems, and if we were to identify one strength that every congregation needed to have, it just would be too limiting to congregations. So, we've looked at these various ten strengths, and we know that congregations, each congregation, will have a different mix of those ten strengths, but all congregations will have some strength that they can identify and celebrate as their own gifts in the world.

(c) Copyright 2004, First Edition. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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