By Daniel R. Gangler

Congregational leadership in a transition church can be a difficult task, however Jill Y. Crainshaw's, recent book Keep the Call: Leading the Congregation Without Losing Your Soul, gives useful advice to both newly ordained or seasoned ministers and is well worth the read. The book is one of the Bishop's Bundle of Books recommendations by Bishop Mike Coyner. Crainshaw serves as associate dean for vocational formation at Wake Forest' Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C.

From the beginning after reading the title, I was not drawn to the book. I think it's mis-named. A better title comes as a kicker on the back cover - "Keep Faith with your call to ministry while becoming an engaged and effective congregational leader."

Crainshaw doesn't give answers in how to keep one's faith while strengthening a faltering congregation in a transitional neighborhood, but gives readers a process to follow to revitalize waning congregations in socially-transitional areas. First and foremost, she believes each established congregation and neighborhood has its own personality and culture that needs to be understood.

For her, there are no easy answers for transforming congregations. If a pastor, no matter how smart or experienced, applies changes to strengthen a congregation without listening to the congregation and the community, he or she will probably fail. Crainshaw believes a different approach is needed and spends 116 pages outlining a process used in two transitional inner-city congregations.

With a conventional three-point sermon style, she outlines what she sees as three aspects of congregational ministry: Ministry as proclamation, ministry as formation and ministry as transformation. She begins where unsuccessful newly appointed pastors don't begin - by listening, which she describes as "hearing God's voice." At one point, she literally instructs readers to walk their neighborhood and listen to the sounds. She writes, "Theological reflection is central to the process."

This is uniquely important to United Methodist pastors who are appointed not only to a congregation, but to a community. What does the community sound like? Are the sounds of the congregation in tune with the sounds of the community? If not, how does a congregation tune itself to the community? Without this tuning together, there will be no growth and the congregation will probably die as the members no longer can keep up with the financial challenges of a dwindling congregation.

Crainshaw sees a congregation tuning itself to the community through a sharing of the stories of faith. She says the role of pastors is two-fold in this process - "They must listen theologically and pastorally to congregations, biblical traditions, and broader cultural soundscape. At the same time, they must seek the authenticity of their own voices (p.17)."

Having set the foundation for her process to strengthen transitional congregations, she unfolds a process with questions and exercises for congregations to do to seek their potential in ministries that lead to transformation. In this process, she does not accept that declining congregations necessarily mean a declining income to keep the parish alive and vital.

According to Crainshaw, once a pastor and congregation hear their neighborhood, their community, the process of formation can begin. Members and pastors need to ask themselves, who are we, and what are we to do as people of God? She says when those two are in sync, congregations flourish. She believes that formation happens when people of faith share their personal stories, which lead to communal stories as a congregation in transition begins sharing its stories with the community coupling stories with biblical stories. She believes congregations that are in transition, spend too much time sharing the stories of what the congregation used to do, rather than telling new stories about what the congregation is doing now.

Formation, finally leads to transformation. She instructs her readers to watch for four threads that lead to vitality - transformation, just values, responsibility and possibility, and imaginative questions. These four threads will lead the congregation beyond its walls to the community and world.

She ends with the claim that transformation only becomes reality with short-term and long-term goals. To a great extent, congregations determine their own destinies even if they are in the midst of transitional communities.

Keep the Call is worth the read even if a congregation is already vital in a growing neighborhood or community. The process the author outlines and the questions she asks are questions every congregation can consider for its own well-being. Keep the Call is about making a difference in the lives of people, words very familiar to us as Hoosier United Methodists.

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