Theology If we are called to become or do something, whether as individuals or as congregations, God has provided the first things needed-not everything, but enough to get started.
Consequently, part of discerning God’s call is to look around ourselves and see what God has been able to arrange to be there, dealing with all the variables that human free will throws in God’s way. Seldom, if ever, will all the people, skills, money, and other resources be present when we start, but enough will be present to get going in the right direction.
An identity statement can be one of the tools of seeing what God has provided already in gifts and ministries, and therefore where God may be calling us to be next.
General One way of thinking about an identity statement is that it is a summary of the gifts from God currently present in the congregation expressed through the most vibrant ministries of the congregation.
An Identity Statement for a congregation is formed when we hold a mirror up to see who we really are right now. It is not a vision or mission statement, which are usually focused on the future and speak of ideals. Instead an identity statement is based on the concrete ways in which the congregation can be experienced by a person today.
It is a brief description consisting ideally of four to six sentences. Each sentence should be as objective as possible as it describes an aspect of the congregation, and able to be tested with current data or examples. A single sentence could include more than one ministry of the congregation, but no ministry should be mentioned in more than one sentence. The idea is to describe at least four things that are going well right now in the congregation, since those are places where new opportunities for ministry are most likely to be found.
Identity Statements are both for the congregation to use for better self understanding and more faithful ministry, and also as a way of presenting the congregation to people and groups outside the congregation. A parish identity statement can be seen as the “elevator presentation,” meaning that if you said it to someone while riding together in an elevator who did not know the parish, enough would be learned to be able to decide whether or not the parish is worth visiting.
The process can be intimidating because it can reveal difficult truths, but the process can be exciting because it can reveal overlooked strengths. Identity Statements take time to do well since the process includes so many folks, both in the congregation and in the wider community.
The process can be a wake up call for greater and more faithful ministry development in the congregation as it becomes more evident what ministries are actually happening and which have remained only good intentions, or have not been considered at all.
Process Identity Statements are developed on a “Here and Now” basis rather than where we would like to be, where we think we ought to be, or where we used to be.
The leadership of the congregation, usually the Rector/Vicar and Vestry, should be aiming for 4 to 6 concise statements describing the current ministries of the congregation.
Start with a small group, perhaps the clergy and Vestry. Some congregations choose to delegate the first stage to a group gathered for this purpose, or invite more people to work with the Vestry in doing the initial work. It can be very helpful to have newcomers part of this first stage so that their relatively uncorrupted viewpoints enter the process at the beginning.
An inventory of how money is spent, where volunteer hours are offered, and how parish space is allocated can give the first data set for conversations about what is happening right now in parish ministries. No more than fifteen or so ideas should be developed, all of them positive, that describe ministries happening in the parish this year. If the formation group is unsure of its work or feels key people are missing from their group, they can call together a one time meeting of a focus group to seek reactions and input. Meeting just once makes clear the temporary nature of this focus group in the overall process.
The Rector/Vicar and Vestry then discusses, modifies as it chooses, and approves the list of ideas to begin the congregational discussion.
The congregational discussion work should use communication patterns and techniques that are part of the parish’s normal experience. Existing approaches of congregational interaction are used so that the process does not feel unusual or like a crisis If these are not sufficient, new tools can be introduced, but carefully. Some techniques include all parish publications, town hall style parish meetings, discussion times in existing groups and guild meetings, one on one conversations with clergy and Vestry members, Sunday bulletins with a blank index card that can be put in the offering plate with reactions and ideas, a Facebook “conversation,” etc. etc. Whatever works is what should be used.
It is crucial that the Clergy and Vestry communicate frequently with each other about what they are hearing in these discussions and interactions so that they can all be in prayer together about what they are hearing and perceiving throughout the process.
The Clergy and Vestry now begin a more intense discernment time of listening and editing, processing all the gathered information, praying about it, discussing it, and beginning to edit it into a rough draft. When the Clergy and Vestry are happy with their rough draft of an Identity Statement for the congregation, the same instruments of conversation as before are utilized to check in with the congregation about whether the work has stayed on track.
This point is a good moment in which to share the Identity Statement draft with people outside the congregation to see what their perceptions are of the congregation in relationship to the proposed Identity Statement. Sometimes those outside perspectives can be crucial to understanding the reality of the congregation today. Members of outside groups that use the church building, leaders from other churches, members of civic groups, politicians, newspaper editors, and so many others can give valuable feedback if they sense their insights are truly welcomed.
Out of all the internal and external conversations, the Clergy and Vestry produce a final draft of the Identity Statement, and cycle it through the congregation for more comments, especially being alert to the prophets who are willing to say difficult and dissenting truths. At times such voices could be revealing enough to lead the leadership of the congregation to back up the process any number of steps in order to have a more faithful and effective product.
When the Identity Statement is complete and approved by the Clergy and Vestry, it is important to celebrate the process, perhaps with an unveiling party for everyone who participated in the process, both within and beyond the congregation.
The Identity Statement is now a tool ready to use, in ministry planning (as opportunities for ministry have probably been revealed in the process), newcomer orientation, publicity programs for the parish, mutual ministry reviews, and numerous other uses.
An example of an Identity Statement, from St. Matthias in Whittier, California in 1999
St. Matthias is a welcoming Christian community of the Episcopal Church that stresses
Eucharistic centered worship with skilled music
Education for all ages
Pastoral care to its members
Local outreach to the needy
Ministry of all Christians
Reflecting God’s diversity in creation in our membership