The First Congregational Church of Darien, Connecticut, found itself in crisis. Its pastoral and lay leaders had all resigned; attendance, so high the year before, had fallen back to earth. Church members were asking how they had come to this pass, and if the historic congregation had been through anything like it before.
My guess was that it had. Even though the church saw itself as fairly progressive for a conservative town, I sensed that it mirrored the town in significant ways—particularly in how it reacted to leaders in times of change. Admittedly, this hunch could have been colored by my bumpy tenure.
As an "unintentional interim" senior minister, I wondered what, if anything, I could do given the difficulty and brevity of my position. Could I find recurring patterns between events in this congregation's history and contemporaneous events in local history—patterns that might help the congregation, under new leadership, choose a better future?
I suspected that Darien's culture of affluence and privilege colored the ways that townspeople responded to civic leaders. Drawing on the family systems theories of Friedman and Steinke, with the help of faculty advisors Darrell Guder and Sally Brown, I posited that these behaviors might also be found in church life.
Out of numerous periods in which church leaders had been tested, I took as an index case the contentious early 1960s, when the minister had led a campaign for open housing. Archival research and interviews turned up some fascinating local events from the same period, when one local leader after another had been forced to resign.
In meetings with focus groups, I explored possible parallels between church and town, as well as between that period and our own. These focus groups did find a pattern of behavior towards Darien's leaders. However, we also noted significant differences in the cases, and I came to reconsider aspects of my leadership—what might have been, in Friedman's term, my "failure of nerve." Whether this project brought about a metanoia, or self-recognition, for congregants is hard to say: but at the very least it did for me.