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The Practical Implementation of Appreciative Inquiry

In recent years, many congregations have asked about the use of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry is the process of identifying, considering and leveraging strengths. It is inclusive, engaging the entire congregation, in asking important questions such as, “what gives life to our congregation when it functions at its best?”

Implementing AI

Many pastors and congregational leaders have asked us about the practical implementation of this process. How is it used, where do you start and what is my role?

Here are some important things to consider:

The Center for Congregations, through the CRG, recommends many resources on Appreciative Inquiry and positive change to help you get started. As always, we stand ready to answer your questions.

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Three Questions for Every Building Project

There are three questions to ask regarding almost any building project your congregation is considering. Addressing these questions can help your project succeed. When building projects go well, they add to the effectiveness of your faith community. When they don’t go well, they can have long-term negative effects. These three key questions can keep you on the path of positive outcomes.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Your team should be able to answer this question in two sentences or less. Clarity is essential. You should come to agreement about what dilemma or prospect the project is addressing.

I know one congregation whose leaders completely renovated their sanctuary. Afterwards, and several thousands of dollars later, the board realized that the problem they wanted to solve, the presenting issue that started the entire project, had to do with lighting. They spent far more money than they wanted and still hadn’t solved the problem. Get clear about what problem you are trying to solve.

What resources or vendors will you use?

Once you have clarity around the problem your building project is solving, you’ll want to focus on this question. While not every building project warrants engagement with an outside resource, larger projects do require some combination of architects, engineers and construction contractors.

Such consideration leads to questions about whether to use a design-bid-build process or a design-build process. In the former, you use an architect and then you seek bids for the construction process from building contractors. In the latter, the architect and contractor typically are part of the same firm.

When your project requires helpers, remember that not all helpers are equal and not all helpers will understand what you are seeking to accomplish. Establish a process to find the best resource. You can talk to other congregations about building vendors they’ve used. Take time to prepare interview questions ahead of the conversation. As you explore possible vendors, make sure they understand the essence of your project and your congregation. You want to be able to make good use of the resource, not have the resource use you. Interview multiple vendors. You will learn from the interview process. A good process will help you avoid hiring the wrong vendor for the wrong job.

What are the full costs of this building endeavor?

For almost any building project there are unanticipated costs. Some of these unanticipated costs involve money, while some involve time and inconvenience. Some involve spending congregational goodwill. Do a full accounting of all projects.

Even a job as small as painting a restroom with volunteer labor needs to be well planned. In addition to the cost of paint, brushes, tarps and tape, don’t forget that the bathroom may be unavailable for use during that community meeting on Tuesday night.

The real costs of large projects include more than the architect, engineer and construction costs. There are continuing, new costs related to upkeep, cleaning, utilities and so forth.

Considering a new building project is an important task. It is important to address three key questions early in the consideration of a project:

Resources you can use

The CRG has information about many helpful building issue resources.

The book Holy Places provides information to consider regarding almost any building project you might address. The book helps you think about your building project in terms of three stages: discern, decide, do.

Many projects do require architects. An excellent architect who is a good fit for your congregation can make your project even more successful than you imagined. We know many building teams that distributed the article Questions to Ask Your Architect to every member of the building team.

You can do your own search of the CRG to find building issue resources for your particular challenge. Here’s a starting page.

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Disappointment: Learning from Inevitable Setbacks

New projects fill congregational life with excitement and hope. They can be a time of community cooperation, deep visioning and relationship-building. No matter the project, though, you are likely to experience disappointment somewhere along the way.

In my book How Your Congregation Learns, I’ve written:

“Congregations aren’t magically protected from disappointment. All kinds of good projects grind to a halt. When this happens, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Natural and inevitable feelings of sadness arrive. That is the way of disillusionment. Almost every successful congregational endeavor contains some dissatisfaction.” (How Your Congregations Learns, page 73, published by Rowman & Littlefield).

The experience of disappointment invites the possibility of three different responses regarding the initiative: “No,” “Not yet” and “Yes, let’s continue working but with some adaptations.”

Essential values

To discern which of these responses is the best, reflect on how the new initiative aligns with the primary religious claims and commitments of your congregation. Or, put another way, how does the initiative support, in its current form, the essential values of your faith community?

If there is strong alignment, then it is often worth moving beyond the disappointment, making appropriate adaptations.

If there is a gap between what you are trying to achieve and the values you espouse, then perhaps this is not the right time to continue, or it is best to explore initiatives more in line with your commitments.

In chapter 5 of the book, I provide additional considerations about how to address disappointment in relationship to a new congregational activity.

Resources

If you would like to talk more about this dynamic, email me at tshapiro@centerforcongregations.org  If you would like a free copy of the book How Your Congregations Learns, let me know via email.

You may also want to consider the articles Evaluating Your Ministry and Why We Aren’t Learning.

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Program Planning and Congregational Learning

Your congregation is likely working on something new right now. You may be exploring the possibility of a youth mission trip. Or maybe your finance team wants to take an entirely new approach to the annual fund drive. When your congregation takes on something first-hand, your organization actually engages in learning to do something new.

What is it like to plan a new activity for your congregation?

You instinctively know that you have to learn skills and new ways of thinking to accomplish a new project. That learning process is important. After working with more than 1,000 congregations, I’ve observed how congregations learn. Leaders and members go through discernible passages of learning, what I call the learning journey.

The Learning Journey

When you intentionally embrace the learning journey, program planning and implementation are often more successful. The learning journey helps you do more than a “quick fix” to sustain the congregation’s operations. The learning can help inform and align your congregation’s activities, so you can ultimately impact people’s lives.

For the last five years, I’ve been exploring how congregations learn and how such learning leads to effectively addressing challenges and opportunities. I’m excited that the book on this subject How Your Congregation Learns, published by Rowman and Littlefield, is now available. It will help you walk through the exploration, disappointments, rewards and challenges of your learning journey. Another excellent book on the subject of program planning is Projects That Matter by Kathleen Cahalan.

Let me know your thoughts on congregations as learning communities and the challenges of program planning by emailing me at tshapiro@centerforcongregations.org

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A Dollar in the Offering

The ritual of making an offering to a congregation has changed over the years. In one representation of the Reformed tradition, offering plates are passed from pew to pew after the sermon. I’m most familiar with this ritual, which is a response to the proclamation of God’s sovereignty and grace heard in scripture and sermon.

There are other traditions regarding offerings to a congregation. Some congregations set membership dues. These annual dues are not uncommon in synagogues. Some congregations, instead of passing the offering plate, have offering receptors in the lobby or narthex for use after worship. You may attend a congregation that does not take up an offering during worship, but instead receives gifts via checks in the mail or online credit card transactions.

The congregation where I worship does pass the offering plate. I notice many people not putting anything in the offering plate. No judgment, just an observation. I imagine that these folks already gave – before or after worship, maybe via check or online transaction.

Communal act of generosity

I appreciate the power of the ritual. I like passing the plate as a communal act of generosity. Liturgical scholar Geoffrey Wainwright has noted that all essential practices of the Christian faith have ritual expression in the worship service. If no actual gift is offered during worship, then the power of the ritual is subsiding. What’s more, the diminishment of the ritual may be a sign that the practice of giving and generosity in the lives of members may be diminishing too.

The power of the offering

My friend and mentor Dr. William Enright (see: http://thecrg.org/resources/money-and-faith-william-g-enright-and-the-big-american-taboo) has an elegant solution to regaining the power of the offering. He suggests that even if you have given your offering via credit card or check for the month, place a dollar in the plate. For many worshipers, the extra dollar is not a burden, and it represents full participation in the ritual. One is indeed responding to the message of the worship service. It is a signal that one is not resigned to be a spectator just because technology makes it possible to give in different ways.

What do you think?

What drawbacks might there be in encouraging the one dollar practice in congregations that pass an offering plate? What other extra benefits might there be?

Resources you can use

If you are interested in the rituals and practices of offerings, I highly recommend this thoughtful and practical volume, Celebrating the Offering by James Amerson and Melvin Amerson:

I also recommend Giving and Stewardship in an Effective Church. It is an older book, but we hear from congregational leaders that it is still a trustworthy discussion starter for a board or a team talking about giving in your congregation.

Whatever your offering practice, my prayer is that your congregation experiences generosity in many different forms.

 

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Relationships: Clergy and Congregation

The vitality of the relationship between clergy and the congregation is almost always an indicator of the degree to which a congregation is flourishing.

In the best situations, the relationship between clergy and lay leaders is characterized by a particular kind of affection that is unique from other relationships.

It includes respect, but it is more than respect. It is more than the honoring of office and roles. This affection includes friendship, but it is a particular kind of friendship. This kind of friendship is professional. It does not typically include spending a lot of time together socially. It is not shaped by the sharing of intimacies, that is, the sharing of deep secrets and wounds.

I have observed that the healthiest relationships between clergy and congregation is characterized by closeness that comes, not so much sharing vulnerabilities, as it is from sharing a common purpose.

This noticeable affection in successful congregations is exemplified by the clergy person’s competence and character in the pursuit of common God focused goals.  This dynamic is what brings a lay leader to tell her friend, “We just love our pastor.”   This affection is what leads the clergy person to look out upon the congregation and think, “I love these people.”  And it is one of the primary conditions that helps a congregation to learn how to accomplish new things.

Check out these two resources that can help clergy and lay leaders attend to their relationships: the book Boundaries for Leaders and the book Healthy Churches, Faithful Pastors.

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Your Building Project in Three Steps

The priest stands in the sanctuary. He is near the front pew, facing the back of the sanctuary looking at a tall stained glass window. The image is abstract – it is bright, blue, red and orange. With his arms crossed, the priest says, “We spent over $100,000 taking care of this sanctuary last year. I can’t keep going a year at a time reacting to everything that needs fixing.”

I couldn’t agree more.

The purpose of your congregation’s building is to serve your mission. Yet, like this priest has experienced, many congregational leaders feel they are servants to their buildings.

This is why the Indianapolis Center for Congregations hosted a Sacred Space project. We worked with leaders from 50 congregations in central Indiana who wanted to improve their buildings to serve their greater purpose.

The three-step process

With these 50 congregations, my colleague Nancy DeMott and I learned a three step process to help leaders match their congregational building to their missions.

 

Here are the three steps:

We learned that those who effectively address their building issues, whether shoring up older buildings or constructing new ones, follow this clear three step process.

Questions to ask yourself

Discern includes addressing the following questions:

Decide involves addressing these questions:

Do contains these questions:

Those who thoroughly answered these questions moved successfully through their building projects.

Resources you can use

We captured this knowledge in a book titled Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission.

Getting started in the right direction is essential. If you think you are at the discern stage, the book titled When Not to Build is a good resource. It is not as negative as it sounds, and it provides solid advice for decision making.

How is the priest faring with his building concerns? I heard from him recently, and he said that the building was no longer sinking the parish’s energy. He said, “One night at council, I stopped a discussion about the latest needed repair with a question: ‘Who is God wanting us to be?’ That changed everything.” The priest said someone suggested they begin a building feasibility study and get their house in order. “Since then,” he said, “We are one step ahead of the leaks and creaks!”

Discern. Decide. Do.

May your building project lead you to deeper and richer life as a congregation.

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Does Your Congregation Need to Change?

It is no longer comfortable at the council meeting. Alex brought a 12-page financial report. “These numbers show that our congregation won’t be in business four years from now,” he says, “We will be out of money.”

The group is silent. It is a nervous silence, like when someone brings up politics at the family reunion. The pastor breaks the hush. “How should we talk about this, Alex?” he asks. Alex responds, “I don’t know, but this congregation needs to change, and it needs to change right now.”

Does your congregation need to change?

This is a difficult question to address. I encourage you to reframe the consideration from “does our congregation need to change?” to “what does our congregation want to learn?” All congregations need to learn new skills. This is natural. Life is a progression. Religious life is a process. Few things are settled once and forever. Challenges faced are inevitably going to test your congregation beyond its comfort level.

Your congregation can learn new behaviors. The dire 12-page financial report is not a predestined verdict. This predicament can be an invitation to take a hold of the challenge so that the challenge doesn’t bind your faith community.

Learning involves choice. Change also involves choice, but often we see change as something placed upon us, something we do not want.

No wonder we resist change

Too often our experience with change is lodged in events where our initiative is stymied. Yet, congregations can take hold of challenges as learning experiences over which they have agency. Challenges like “we will be out of money” are invitations to a learning experience. Before you consider the need to change, consider the desire to learn.

Take a look at some of the resources on the CRG related to this subject: the book Managing Transitions and the article The Learning Congregation.

 

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Interviewing Potential Clergy and Staff

It doesn’t matter if the workplace is a hospital or a grocery store, finding the right people is key to effectiveness. This is true for congregations too.

How does your congregation find staff?

Many congregations spend much energy selecting the best clergyperson. Sometimes the match is wonderful. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. A lay leader told me not too long ago, “Our congregation is just one step away from closing. Everything depends on who our next pastor is.”

Additional staff

Many congregations have staff in addition to the pastor. According to the National Congregations Study, about 65% of United States congregations have two or more full time staff persons.

Behavioral interview

A behavioral interview is one kind of interview process that helps a congregation find the right person. A behavioral interview process is based on the reality that past performance best predicts future effectiveness. It is also based on the assertion that gathering stories about past performance that relate to what your congregation most needs is a helpful interview approach. It helps you see beyond a person’s assertions that they have a gift or ability while providing no data to support such claims.

We use this approach at the Center for Congregations. I think it is helpful to any workplace including congregations. Below is a summary of a behavioral interview approach, with thanks to Sandra Herron from Middledge.

A recommended approach

1. Start with naming the purpose you are seeking to achieve. For example, we seek to hire a _______________in order to ____________________. You might have multiple, primary purposes, but you shouldn’t have more than two or three.

2. List the roles and functions involved in this position. These roles and functions should relate directly to the purpose or purposes noted above. They should be able to fit on a page. For example, 1) Serve as head of staff. 2) Function as the primary preacher.

3. Guided by the roles and functions list, describe what it looks like when this person effectively accomplishes the tasks in your setting. Do this for the top six or so roles and functions. Think in terms of watching this person in action. Think in terms of a video that can be observed or a story that can be told. What is this person doing when he or she is succeeding? How might this role or function be complicated by a challenge. Be as specific as possible. Like this: Our head of staff will be able to handle two conflicting requests from other staff persons in a way that honors both even while disappointing both.

4. Then move it to a trait. What trait is this person demonstrating when fulfilling the function described. In the example above, a potential head of staff is displaying the traits of wisdom and willingness to disappoint honorably.

5. So, now you have a behavior oriented inquiry. Tell us about a time when you needed to manage two opposing requests with wisdom while disappointing honorably.

The questions

When constructing interview questions, you want the behavior question to relate to a predictive trait that relates to a role that serves the greater purpose. This is the logic model behind behavioral interviews.

The behavior questions can be framed about three to one positively. In other words, frame a few negatively, but not too many, to hear how the person learned on the job.

You will probably end up with eight to 12 behavior type questions.

Gathering information

This kind of process doesn’t guarantee a great clergy selection or great hire. But it minimizes the potential for a hiring mistake. One can’t predict the future, but one can interpret the past. And a trait/behavioral interview helps give you enough past information to interpret. Interviews based only on roles, resume experience, education and ability are easier to do but don’t provide rich enough data.

A few more things

Sometimes candidates need a little help in constructing good stories. It is okay to prompt a better story with an open ended question or two. Especially early on in an interview. But if you have to prompt too much to get a rich story, that itself is a sign. The stories you receive should have depth. They should have conflict. They should demonstrate that the candidate has a comprehensive understanding of the situation and insight into his or her behavior.

You can’t do traits/behavioral interview with everyone in the process. This process has the most value when it is used with the top or finalist candidates.

Staffing is key to congregational vitality. A behavioral interview model has worked well for many congregations.

Recommended resources

Here is a resource that helps you think through other issues related to finding the best pastor for your congregation: Leadership that Fits Your Church.

You can also take a look at the book When Moses Met Aaron. This book was written with the large church in mind, but much of it is helpful in many settings. In concert with this blog, I recommend the chapter “Hiring Right to Manage Easier.”

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