Four Key Aspects to Understanding Renewal in Faith Communities

“Kindness eases change
Love quiets fear”
― Octavia E. Butler

In a lot of my classes and work at Guilford College, I talk about renewal. I think that much of my work is focused around renewal, not because of a failure in the institution but because change is constant, change is inevitable, and with each new shift in leadership, change can be dramatic. These shifts unfold within the larger community and political systems in coordinated and inevitable. Therefore, some intentional approach to renewal is needed and necessary.

Without renewal we get stuck in the past.
Without renewal we devalue all that has been done before us.
We need someways of approach change-work that helps us hold these various pieces of the puzzle together.

Plenty of books have been written on the subject, including my own, which most readers of this blog are familiar with. A few other books that have been instructive to me in the past are: Managing Transitions by William and Susan; A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman; and Originals by Adam Grant.*

Regardless of what you draw on when you are working within a community, large or small, you will draw on something. We all have our own desires, ethics, and biases. If we’re not paying attention and being intentional with what we do and how we approach this work, it is very possible that we can do more harm than good. Secondly, while it is important to be aware of the things we bring to this work, it is equally important to know what the communities we are in or are working with bring. What are their own contexts, histories, biases, successes and failures? How will all of this play into the final mix?

I believe that a strong framework around renewal can help our organizations move forward through change and transition without losing their identities.

This is not easy work, nor is it something that will make everyone happy, but there is a path that can be followed if the goal is to honor the tradition and identity of the organization, while also making sense of new questions, data, and contexts. In order to do this though, you will need leadership that is strong and able to stand on their own two feet, remain focused and direct, while also caring and kind.

“Kindness eases change
Love quiets fear”
― Octavia E. Butler

For the past four years, I have taught a class on the renewal of the Quaker tradition. I’ve been researching and writing on it since at least 2003, leading small groups, Sunday school lessons, and speaking on this subject to whoever will listen. I am passionate about it because I am curious about it. I am still very much learning what it means to bring renewal and how one goes about doing such a thing. But even the sheer bafflement of this exercise drives me. Recently, however, a more simple question struck me. When I talk about renewal what do I mean? Could I break it down? Could I describe it in an elevator? Is there a picture that describes this in a few words?

I thought I’d try here for you and I’d welcome your feedback below if you care to offer it.

Let me start with an image that is recurring in a lot of what I write and present.

A Nurse Log from Stewart Butterfield

Are you familiar with a nurse log?

A nurse log is a tree that has fallen in the forest and other organisms over time begin to grow on it, using the fallen log as nutrients and a base to be grounded in. I became familiar with the nurse log living in the Pacific Northwest, it is something fairly common to see there. Renewal is a lot like this “nurse log.” Renewal draws on the nutrients of the older material, the history, the tradition of that community or organization, allowing new growth to emerge, both are locked together but both are differentiated. It is clear that the new growth is actually new, often different plants and species, but that it’s absolutely connected to and dependent upon what the nutrients of the fallen logs. The nurse log is a beautiful image of what it looks like to say “Tradition is the ground of innovation.”

In human society and community, we don’t always get to this kind of nuanced picture. We like our traditionalism. We want it the way it was and we don’t want it to change. If it changes, it is wrong, it is failing, it is unfaithful. Or we like our innovations and dramatic change. Traditions are old, not worth our time and patience. Too slow for the time we’re in. But to strike some balance, to hold both tradition and change together is essential, even if it is very difficulty. Brent Bill put his finger on this recently when wrote about when he wrote about Retirement, Remixing, and the Religious Society of Friends.

Building on this image of the nurse long, I see four critical parts to renewal in communities and organizations that I’d like to outline here:

Appreciating and Drawing on Tradition

There are many ways to do this: Learning and respecting the past. Honoring those who went before you in how you talk about them but also how you differentiate from them. Taking time to listen to the constituents and incorporate their feedback. Work to become a true member of the community. I like to use the social change approach called “appreciative inquiry” because at the heart of this approach is a desire for drawing on the “life-giving forces” of that particular community. I do not know of a better place to start when it comes to thinking about change.

Recontextualing the organization for new questions, new incoming data, new constituencies

Renewal work is about taking into account the new challenges, the new shifts in culture, constituency and location. If you do not know what these are, you need to learn them. What does the community face now? I remember doing some field research on homelessness. Everyone in town pointed to one organization as the central hub of helping the poor in the community because they’d been doing it for 25 years. But that was working from old data. When we actually went and asked those suffering from poverty they were going to a few other, newer organizations in town because that older group was actually very mean to the people they worked with. We needed to adapt the overall data we were working with to better reflect what was happening right now, and then begin to address our practices and support accordingly. In both the first and second points here the leaders of renewal are involved in a dialectal practice of listening, formulating, getting feedback, implementing, etc. from people both on the inside and outside of the community.

Moving from a birthright culture to a convincement culture

I plan to write more on this soon, but part of renewal is to shift from a culture of implicit knowledge that gets passed down by a few family members, experts, or bearers of the tradition, to an explicit community rooted in collective intelligence. That is to say, one where ownership, understanding, and apprenticeship is more readily available for those who have historically not been insiders or, in some cases literally “born into the community.” In a word, to move from a birthright culture to a convincement culture is to have better, clearer systems in place for on-boarding, mentorship, and human development. This builds into the overall system and culture a more participatory community because everyone knows what is going on, what is expected, and how to succeed within this community.

Creating new systems that can help sustain the changes

Finally, in renewal work, systems, processes, practices, need to be put in place so that it can sustain the changes. It is one thing to be in a church or a meeting that wants to have a safe place for children, it is quite a different thing to create policy and practice and follow-through with doing this. Often the word “system” is though of in negative terms, as in “oppressive systems.” There are plenty of these out there of which we can draw counter-examples. But here I mean systems in a different sense. Systems that enable us to create the kind of community we all want to be a part of. Systems that create containers and boundaries around what direction we intend to go, and which directions, behaviors, or mindsets are harmful to that which we are pursuing. This is not easy and will require hard and possibly long conversations, but it is also very rewarding when you are able to help bring people along.

It’s not exactly an elevator pitch, but this is an attempt to put some arms around the idea of renewal in our communities. All of this points to renewal as a revitalization of the tradition embodied by the community, rather than renewal as in numeric gains, bigger budgets, etc. though in my limited experience a more compelling and vital community is one that will “grow” in other ways as well. Thanks for reading and thanks for any feedback you have to offer.

If you are interested in going deeper into this topic around renewal you can download and read my e-Book “Remixing Faith: Seeds of Renewal.”


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  2. While I haven’t touched on the issues written about in this post I want to nod to and say “Amen” to Transition Quaker’s post “What is Renewal?”