August 10, 2021

Falling in love again — with a congregation

By Kelly Ryan

Director, Thriving Congregations Coordination Program
iStock / Gerardo Martinez Cons

Now could be the time to rediscover why we chose a faith community in the first place and to consider what’s next, writes the director of the Thriving Congregations Coordination Program at Duke Divinity.

If you have ever doubted that miracles can happen, consider this: I fell in love again with my congregation because of a church committee.

For real.

Last year, in fairly quick succession, both priests left my parish to pursue other calls. Under the double challenge of a pandemic and a discernment process about our property, endowment and mission, this felt like a gut punch.

Parishioners, some already disengaged from disembodied online worship and formation programs, felt shocked, abandoned, spiritually bereft and even angry.

In the midst of this communal ennui in late 2020, I was appointed to the rector search committee as a member of the vestry, the congregation’s governing board. While eager to advocate for my own vision for our leadership, I was steeling myself for the impatience I sometimes experience with the plodding, secular feel of church committees.

But this ministry surprised me.

Over the eight months we met weekly (and then some), we did many of the things church committees typically do. We prayed, studied, discussed, trained, questioned, planned, designed, facilitated, hosted, updated a website, took meeting minutes and wrote reports.

Our group, nine adults and one youth, was guided by a diocesan process we adapted to our parish and the realities of COVID — which meant nearly everything we did was mediated by Zoom.

What distinguished this committee was a palpable sense of hope, genuine affection for one another, and an understanding of the holy responsibility of doing God’s work together. This ministry was heavy and yet light, because we trusted one another and shared the load. But these characteristics did not emerge overnight. As happens with formation, they manifested slowly with practice and with God’s help.

While this experience was particular to this moment and my context, some of the generative practices of our search process are replicable even in seasons of stable leadership.

What better time — as some churches return to in-person worship, anticipate a new program year and wonder about church life post-pandemic — to discern why we choose to live life in community with God and one another and to wonder where God is leading us next?

Center conversations in the movement of the Spirit.

In my experience, some church committee meetings can feel an awful lot like meetings in other sectors. We may sandwich our discussions between prayers, but the meat of the conversation is more about our own opinions or weighing pros and cons than about God’s mission, our relationships with Christ, or how the Spirit is working right now.

One of our committee’s first tasks was to write a collect together.

Developing shared language from the outset and repeating this prayer over many months formed us to engage a process of discernment rather than decision making — aligning our desires with God’s rather than simply meeting our own goals. This prayer helped get us on the same page about our church’s mission, situate our work within our baptisms, and invite the whole parish into the process.

Remember what you love.

One of the candidates we interviewed asked us, “What do you love about this place?” What a good question.

Church life can be aggravating, with its debates about pew cushions or carpet color. We wish the sermons were shorter or longer. We may not agree with the hymn selections or budget priorities. And church can become so familiar that we forget why we showed up and decided to hang around in the first place.

This question invites us to engage church emotionally, not just intellectually. With renewed affection, we remember how the floor creaks, why the same casseroles are always served at fellowship dinners, the predictable jokes about stewardship season.

We remember the saints who departed too soon, the dedicated volunteers who sustain ministries, the young people we have watched grow up. We remember those times we felt nurtured, delighted and purposeful.

Might this question serve as an icebreaker to a routine meeting? Might we answer it when welcoming newcomers? Might we incorporate it into our daily devotions, thanking God for the gift of the church we call home and inviting us into deeper service to its thriving?

Listen, really listen, to one another’s stories.

A centerpiece of our search process was a parish survey and six listening sessions. More than 100 parishioners — including almost 20 youth — showed up on Zoom to share their stories. Some of these parishioners, who spoke passionately and sometimes tearfully, had not been attending worship but were willing to share their histories, hurts and hopes.

The conversations centered on four prompts:

  • How would you describe our church’s mission and values?
  • Remember a high point, when we were doing God’s work and fulfilling our mission. What was happening?
  • Remember when you most appreciated the ministry of a priest. How was your well-being nurtured and supported?
  • Using single words or short phrases, name three strengths of our congregation.

Storytelling, with its power to create healing and hope, is needed more than ever after more than a year of isolation and distancing. The fellowship that sustains us during periods of transition or conflict is nurtured when we stop to ask one another meaningful questions and allow ourselves to be shaped by what we hear.


We concluded our first-round screening interviews by asking candidates what questions they wanted to ask us. One of the candidates posed three questions we returned to later in our discernment process: What was God dreaming when this church was founded? Where has God’s hand been since then? What is God dreaming now?

Imagine what might happen if we considered these questions while preparing our annual budget or hiring staff. Instead of trying to get everything “back to normal” following the pandemic, we might stop and reflect on how COVID has created opportunities to be bold and try something new.

The search committee was not just making a hire but discerning a mutual call. Reviewing resumes and checking tasks off our to-do list was not sufficient to envision building beloved community together. We needed to pause to see ourselves woven into God’s story of salvation — past, present and future.

Make space for individual and communal vocations.

We often enter committee assignments with a point of view we want heard. Effective, collaborative committee work requires that we create brave space for individuals to share their identities and calls — and then knit those together.

Our search committee had difficult conversations. We disagreed. We named our worries. We each authentically showed up. And in the end, we arrived at a moment of clarity, unity and joy.

We announced our new rector at the end of July. And for the first time I can remember, I felt genuinely sad that the work of a church committee was ending. For so many months, it was church for me.

By Kelly Ryan

Director, Thriving Congregations Coordination Program

Kelly Ryan joined Duke Divinity School in February 2008. She became the director of the Thriving Congregations Coordination Program in February 2020 to facilitate a learning community of grantees committed to helping congregations thrive through understanding their changing contexts, exploring their values and mission, and engaging in Christian practices. Prior to that, she spent 12 years as senior director of communications for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, overseeing its online learning resource Faith & Leadership. From 2003 to 2008, she served as a senior public relations specialist for Duke University's Office of the President and Office of News & Communications. Between 1995 and 2003, Ryan was a reporter for the St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times in Florida, where she covered public schools, city government, criminal justice and other topics.

She is a postulant for ordination to the vocational diaconate in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Previously, she was an active lay leader at her home parish of 18 years; leadership roles included two terms on the vestry, membership on the rector search committee and racial justice and reconciliation committee, and service as a children’s teacher in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program. She has a master’s degree in Christian practice from Duke Divinity School and a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.