Leadership: Leaders Discern Context

Leadership Blog



Once upon a time, a congregation learned that a senior community was to be built near their church. In addition to the seniors moving into the new community, the congregation itself had many senior members. The temptation was to invite the new residents to worship at the church. The problem: the church was not handicapped accessible, had Sunday services that were early in the morning, and used a hymnal that was too heavy for seniors to hold—let alone see the text. Instead, the church avoided the temptation and engaged with the leaders of the new senior community. They started a Saturday-late afternoon service at the senior community–which was fully accessible. They used large print bulletins and printed the hymns in the bulletins. They even bought choir chimes which were lighter than handbells and started a chime choir for seniors that played for the Saturday afternoon service. The congregation and its leaders discerned its context and shaped its ministry around the context. Discerning Context is a way that leaders create an environment where mission can thrive.


The Three Listenings
Context is rarely discerned through talking, almost always discerned through listening.


Context can be discerned by listening in 3 ways.1


We listen first to God as God speaks to us through the witness of Holy Scripture about our identity as children of God who are called to share the good news of Jesus, both as a congregation and as individuals. Listening in this way, we discern whose and who we are.


We listen to our neighbors, to those in leadership, and to those who live and work in our community, to learn about the context of our mission and purpose. Listening in this way, we discern the challenges, passions, and fears of those around us.


We listen to each other so that we may join our God-ordained purpose and identity with the context in which we live and serve. Listening in this way, we discern how our gifts and assets might enable us to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in word and action with our neighbors.


The Importance of Intersection
Mission is identified as the place where listening to God, listening to our neighbors, and listening to each other intersect.


Picture each of the 3 listenings as a separate circle. Now, picture these three circles placed together and slightly overlapping. Mission is found at the point where all three circles overlap.


It is important to attend to this point of intersection as the place where mission is identified, because it identifies what the three identities have in common. The intersection identifies where there is commonality among who God is calling us to be, who our neighbors are, and who we are as a particular faith community. Mission can then be authentic, as it is based on the shared identity.


The Importance of Context
Reflecting only on who we are leads us to conclude everyone in the larger community is just like us, while reflection on context leads us to attend to those in the community and recognize their diversity.


A congregation exists in a context— “the area around the church where members live and work.”2 The people of the congregation are a subset of the people in that context but may not represent the full and diverse population of that community.


Discerning the context of a congregation focuses on getting a clear picture of who else is part of the community. In addition, it strives to identify the strengths, trends, fears, and challenges facing the community.


A process for discerning context might look like this:

  1. Have individual and group conversations with community leaders.
  2. Stress the goal of better understanding community needs and opportunities.
  3. Outline questions for those conversations. The questions could include asking about the strengths of a community; population trends; weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for the community; fears of the people in the community; and how the community perceives and thinks about your congregation?
  4. Listen with an open mind, ask questions to clarify, take notes, and compile a list of what you have learned.3
  5. Compare and contrast what you learn from the conversations with what you know about your congregation.


The Importance of Identity
“If I am I, because you are you, and you are you, because I am I, then I am not I, and you are not you. But if I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you, and we can talk.”4


Developing a plan for mission has a strong focus on the context of a congregation. The plan for mission must also have a clear understanding of who God is calling the congregation to be and the unique set of qualities that make the congregation who they are and make them unique.


No two congregations are alike, and no congregation can be all things to all people. The key to discerning mission is to know who you are as a congregation and your strengths and limitations as they intersect with the qualities and needs of the community.


Consider this: A large and historical congregation is found at the heart of a 3rd Class City of about 60,000 people. The congregation has historically been a voice of justice in the community. The pastor of this congregation, in the 1860’s, was the only pastor in the city to condemn slavery. Now, two significant high rise apartment buildings are being built within blocks of the church. These high-rise apartment buildings are senior communities. Most members of the congregation are 60 years and older. The temptation for the congregation is to believe that it will only grow if it is full of children again. However, if one looks at the identity of the congregation and its context, a mission focused on continuing the legacy of social justice and a mission focused on ministry to seniors is a faithful response to God’s calling. When the congregation knows who it is and knows who is in its community, a mission based on commonality can be discerned.


The Use of Demographics
People are more than numbers, but the numbers about people can help us understand what we should do next.


Having a conversation with community leaders is one of the most important tools in shaping a congregation’s mission. Another tool that is helpful in shaping mission is the use of demographics and generational trends. The demographics can help identify the make-up of the people in the community—such as a breakdown of age groups, marital status, numbers of children, level of education of residents, etc.


We can go one step further after identifying the people living in the community by asking key questions about the people: what kind of music is preferred, how many are in the workforce, what technology is preferred, how do they communicate, how do they understand education, and what historical events have influenced them.


I asked my 20-year-old son this question, “Do you know why we say, ‘Hang up the phone?’” He answered, “I have no idea.” I grew up in a time where we had phones attached to the wall at home where you would “hang up” the receiver when done with a call. My son grew up with cell phones, where to end a call, he hits the red END button. Granted, it is not nearly as satisfying to hit a red button on a cell phone as it is to slam down a receiver when you’re angry with the person on the other end of the call. Knowing the population and its ages helps determine how they communicate. A congregation trying to get the attention of young adults like my son will not succeed if they spend their advertising budget on newspaper ads.


Prepare to be Engaged and Changed
We confirm who we are when we spend time with people like us, yet we grow when we engage with people who are different from us.


It is important to have a clear picture of who we are—to have a clear sense of self and identity. One of the ways we do this is to gather with people who are like us. There are important roles for this type of engagement. I can’t have a healthy relationship with another person if I don’t know who I am. I need to be in a community of people who love me for who I am. I need to be in a place where I feel safe and can let down my guard.


It is also important for us to grow. One of the ways to grow is to engage with people who are different from us. There are important roles for this type of engagement. Being with those who different from me, I will have my false assumptions about people and life challenged. I need to be with people who will show parts of life and the world to me that I have never even imagined existed. I need to be in a place where I will feel engaged and challenged.


Discerning the context for mission builds upon both of these needs. Congregations can become clearer on who they are. At the same time, congregations will be challenged when looking at their community and their context in a more complete way. This may mean the congregation changes some of its assumptions about themselves and sees the community in a new way. There have been too many times where I have heard a congregation describe themselves as friendly yet have heard people from outside the congregation talk about how cold and unfriendly the congregation is. The only way the false self-perception of the congregation will be challenged is to engage with those who are different.




Discipleship is an outcome of having heard the Word of God and transformed by its life changing power. The three marks of discipleship are listening to God’s story, listening to the faith stories of others, and knowing and telling our faith stories.


Reflecting upon the 3 Listenings of Discerning Context for the Sake of Mission, we see that it is an act of discipleship. It is what God is calling us to do.


Remember the adage, “We have one mouth and two ears so that we listen twice as much as we talk.”


Listening is at the heart of discipleship and central to shaping the mission of a congregation. Discerning Context is a specific and significant way to engage in that listening for the sake of mission.


Editor’s note: Please contact Rev. Dr. Tim Mentzer, Assistant to the Bishop for Discipleship, Leadership, Engagement to begin a conversation about how to engage in this visioning process in your congregation or ministry!



1 The Three Listenings are outlined by Bishop Suzanne Darcy Dillahunt of the Southern Ohio Synod, ELCA. They are quoted from a cover letter accompanying the Visioning Process Document of the Southern Ohio Synod and originally developed by the Domestic Mission Unite of the ELCA and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod.
2 Part 3: Listening to Our Neighbors, Southern Ohio Synod Mission Plan Resource, page 14.
3 Ibid.
4 Menachem Mendel of Kotzk.