Over the past eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to work as a consultant with numerous congregations around the country, trying to help them look directly into the adaptive challenges we all face.

When I talk with them, they know the way they did church 20 years ago isn’t working anymore.  They understand they need to do things differently   Almost everyone agrees things need to change. We just don’t know what those changes ought to be or how to make them. 

Each church presents a unique case – based on factors like size, average age of its membership, financial resources, and the part of the country in which it is located. However,  one of the things with which every church needs to wrestle is the role we give to our policy manuals.

Given our inclination to think about worst-case scenarios, these manuals often turn into long list of regulations.  We add amendments only when someone does something bad. In response, we make another rule everyone has to follow, adding one more entry to the list of things we can’t ever do. 

But what if we were to change our perspective on these documents?  What if we began thinking of them as encouraging us to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and making innovative decisions that respond to the Spirit’s nudges?  

This shift happened in my own tradition, the PC(USA), a few years ago when we adopted a new version of our denomination’s constitution.  It gave us permission to become a far less regulatory, far more permission-giving church.  It gave congregations a whole lot more freedom and flexibility in their decision making, inviting them on joining God where God was already at work in the communities around us. It encouraged us to be open to the life-giving, innovative winds of the Holy Spirit and dare taking risks for the sake of that mission.

And what happened immediately after its adoption: this new freedom scared many of our churches to death.  This new openness meant we were going to have to discern the way forward for each particular request presented to us, rather than having a set of rules that would excuse us from having to do that often messy work.  

So what did they do?  Many with whom I have worked will say they want the freedom to do whatever is best for a church’s or pastor’s ministry.  However, they continue to take a regulatory approach to their work.  They talk a new ballgame, but they still play by the old rules.

I once recommended that a group with whom I was working take all their policy manuals out into the parking lot and burn them.  They were taken back by the suggestion, but it made the point that they needed to let go of their older, more regulatory policy approach and develop new policies more open to the Spirit’s leadership.

If you’re not quite ready to burn your policy manuals, let me make a gentler recommendation.  If we want to be open to the future-facing leadership of the Spirit more than to the precedents of the past, then turn the Holy Spirit loose in your church’s life.

One of the best ways we can turn the Holy Spirit loose is to change our way of reading those policy manuals from “I don’t see where it says we can do that” to “I don’t see any place where it says we can’t give it a try.” 

Making the shift from the language of “shall,” “must,” and “cannot,” to the language of “why not” will help us notice where the Spirit is at work among us in innovative and lifegiving ways.

Will this more permission giving approach create some messes along the way? Sure, but so does our current regulatory approach.  Will it be hard to say “yes” to one group but “no” to another in a very similar situation? Sure, but the work of true discernment always includes having the courage to say either “yes” and “no,” based on which answer will better enhance the church’s mission.

The wind of the Spirit is always blowing through the church.  Let’s risk of unfurling our churches’ sails into that wind and see where God wants to take us.

Jim Kitchens
A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute. He is a consultant for CHC and the coordinator for CHC-West.