What does marriage have in common with congregational life? There is one thing in particular: both flourish when the ratio of positive validation to negative criticism is five to one in favor of the positive.
The magic ratio
Dr. John Gottman is a therapist who works with married couples. He has researched what he calls the magic ratio. He observes couples interact over time and predicts the staying power of the marriage. One of the key indicators is the ratio of affirmation to negations. If a couple share five validations for every one negative statement, there is an excellent chance that the marriage is flourishing. Not all complaint is wrong, but criticism needs to be balanced with positive messages to result in growth.
The same is true for congregations
Congregations flourish when they focus on their strengths. When too much attention is given to the negatives, then congregations fail to receive important nutrients. The community becomes more a desert than a thriving field of grain.
No wonder so many congregations have found planning processes based on Appreciative Inquiry helpful. Appreciative Inquiry was created by David Cooperrider of Case Western University. He and colleagues like Diana Whitney note the importance of human communities to value the best in people. Valuing the best in people leads to more health; the nourishment of validation results in progress.
The best in a congregation, what is strong and right and beautiful, can be revealed through inquiry. You can uncover hidden strengths through a process of exploration in which problem questions are reframed as possibility questions.
Reframing the question
Members of a worship team from a midwest congregation talked about worship. Someone said, “Our worship has become stale. Where’s the joy?” The leader of the worship team had been trained in Appreciative Inquiry. She changed the question. She responded, “Let’s take a moment and recall our most joyful worship experiences.” For the next hour, the members of the worship team shared their stories of powerful encounters in worship. One person remembered his baptism. Another recalled an Easter service. Still another person told the story of worshiping with three generations of her family.
Reframing a negative question to a positive question is just a part of the Appreciative Inquiry process. The entire process leads a congregation through four steps, or the four D’s: Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny.
Here is a short description of each phase:
All through the process the emphasis is on affirmation and validation. Yes, the five to one ratio is an enchanted construct, not just for couples but for communities too. Perhaps the magic ratio is a construct woven into creation by our Creator. Positive energy is like a rain shower for parched land.
Your congregation has many good things happening. Discover these good things. You will likely be drawn to a destiny abundant with faith, hope and love.
Here are some of my favorite appreciative inquiry resources: the article “Doing Change Differently: An Appreciative Inquiry Approach” and the book The Power of Appreciative Inquiry.
Yes, your congregation is a special place. Celebrate! Validate! And learn.
Leadership is leading people to the place they’d go if they only knew how. This is the definition of leadership I learned from my friend Dr. James Rafferty.
Such leadership happens in the small exchanges between people in hallways, on the phone or as the work day ends. Congregational leadership happens in these subtle connections as much or more than in grand pronouncements about mission and vision.
We’ve trained clergy to be active listeners. We’ve taught clergy and laity the importance of collaboration. Our clergy and lay leaders know to accept many points of views.
Relational and directive
Sometimes the demands of congregational life require leadership to be open and highly relational. On other occasions, congregational life requires leadership to be more directive.
Yes and no
Yes, in some instances, it is important that a clergy person’s “yes” be “yes” and his or her “no” be “no.” But it is important to remember: a clergy person with a non-directive, sensitive temperament can be trained to be more directive and resilient more easily than a person with a direct, tough temperament can be coached to be more non-directive and sensitive.
What kind of temperament do you have?
More directive? Or more non-directive? Either way you will need to exercise the other muscle.
If you are more non-directive, look for those who will nudge you to be more clear and straightforward when the situation demands that. If you are more directive, look for people who will stay after you to work with a lighter touch, particularly when dealing with relationships. This will be hard for you, but you can do it.
Remember, you are helping people go where they want to go if they only knew how.
Congregational partnerships can be challenging.
If a congregation needs help with something beyond its grasp, its leaders are often advised to join efforts with another congregation or another group. This is common when exploring community ministry. Partnering comes to mind often when mergers are considered.
Why it’s challenging
The advice to partner can be counterproductive for two reasons.
An alternative solution
Rather than seeking partnerships, you can right size the project so that your congregation can handle the task without the extra challenge of partnering. Then, once more capacity is gained, move to looking for partners.
If you are entering a partnership, keep this primary hint in mind: Partnerships are most effective between equally yoked congregations or entities.
Is your congregation seeking to reach out to young adults? Many congregations are. There can be both excitement and anxiety about engaging the generation commonly called millennials.
Not every congregation is going to be seen as a possible faith home for a 25-year-old. There are so many variables. There are so many roadblocks. The variables and roadblocks include practical matters like time of worship, location, congregational demographics and much more. The variable and roadblocks also include sacred factors like style of worship, theological worldview, opportunities for service and much more.
Level of religiousness
In the book Souls in Transition by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, the authors summarize the dynamics that make it most likely for a teenager with strong faith to become a young adult with what they call low “religiousness.”
The statistical data is impressive and a bit overwhelming. If I’m reading it correctly, there are three primary factors that lead a teenager with high religiousness to becoming a young adult with low religiousness. These factors are lack of strong parental ties to religion, doubts about faith, and decrease in the practicing of faith activities, such as worship, prayer and service.
The authors note that consistent high religiousness of young adults contain the same dynamics, but expressed positively. Check out Chapter 8 of Souls in Transition, which was produced by the authors noted above and Kyle Longest.
Welcoming young adults
These results suggest some principles for congregations that want to be in relationship with young adults. The principles include:
Additionally, relationships and a sense of community are important to young adults. Young adults want to contribute to the design of programs. They don’t want congregational life all organized for them.
Engaging the individuals
These are principles. There are no best practices providing a magical answer for your congregation and its relationship to young adults. In fact, the use of the word “they” is a sign of the challenge. In this short piece, I’m already referring to young adults as an undifferentiated mass of folks.
You will know your congregation is engaging young adults when this group is no longer a “they,” but people with names and faces: Jill, Jose, L.D, Samson, Lori and a holy host of others.
This is sacred ground. There is much to absorb. If you are interested in learning more about your congregation and young adults, search young adults on the CRG.
Are you a clergyperson starting at a congregation? I’m sure you want to start well. It can be a challenge to prayerfully navigate all the demands placed upon you.
Most clergy don’t move often enough to get good at starting, so it’s hard to get it right. It’s like so many important things in life that happen seldom enough that we never quite reach the level of competency we’d like. I only got one chance to care for my mom through her last illness. I hadn’t done that before. Thanks to grace and my mom’s graciousness, I was good enough. Competent? Just barely.
Common advice is this: Don’t change anything for the first 12 months. In some cases, this is good advice. Don’t claim a new congregational vision to sell the 130-year-old structure, which is still in excellent condition. Your congregants probably won’t go for that. But if the congregation is used to mediocre preaching, then, for heaven’s sake, change that. Preach well!
If you are a new clergy person, you are going to learn things about the congregation that you didn’t know. Some of it is good. Wow, the music here is wonderful! Some of it is worrisome. Hmmm, the monthly income is a lot lower than I was told.
The clergy leader is the carrier of both the possibility and the sin of the congregation. As the new congregational leader, you are the vessel for that which is unsolved, unredeemed and just plain troubling about the community. During the first 100 days, a primary spiritual task is working out with God how you are going to tolerate whatever uncomfortable you are experiencing.
Is it possible to just sit with this for a while? Actually, you can do more than be still. You can use this time to begin to develop the competencies being called forth. New occasions teach new duties.
Type this into a CRG search: New Pastorate. You will find some helpful resources.
Entering Wonderland is a resource that might be helpful to you on this new journey.
Many congregational leaders know the importance of clear mission and vision statements. However, congregational leaders are less capable at enacting plans.
Years ago, Kennon Callahan described this as “calling plays the players can play.” There are lots of visionary congregational leaders, but not so many who can pull off Vacation Bible School. There need to be more leaders who learn to put plans into action. There need to be more who can manage annual festivals, start a small group ministry or spearhead an outreach trip. As a congregational leader, dreaming the big stuff can be seductive. But sometimes leadership means being able to design an operational infrastructure that can support a new Advent program.
After all, what good is a vision if the website hasn’t been updated?
The difference between management and leadership
I know there is a difference between management and leadership. But I also think the difference of the two apply more distinctly to very large organizations. Given the scale of most congregations, the distinction between leadership and management is certainly smaller than for a Fortune 500 company.
The link between leadership and management in the congregation is learning. Effectiveness at both means a commitment to learning how to do something new. Sometimes it is not so much vision that is needed as the ability to learn to accomplish tasks. This dynamic is true for many in the congregational system. The dynamic of learning is not limited to the lead pastor or to the chair of the board.
Congregations that flourish function as a learning community. This is true even if the congregation doesn’t call itself that.
There is an observable pattern among congregations which learn to do new things. This pattern goes beyond the distinctions between leadership and management. The specifics of this pattern differ from congregation to congregation. However, this pattern reveals the importance of plans and behaviors as a congregation moves through:
Is all this not theological enough?
This pattern is interestingly close to the pattern of revelation, identified by James Loder in his book The Transforming Moment. This pattern is at least as important, however less enticing, than having a vision. Sometimes good management is excellent leadership.
In terms of organizational learning, the book Immunity to Change from Kegan and Lahey provides a powerful perspective on how to manage any number of relational and missional challenges while leading and managing a congregation.
Many congregational leaders know the importance of clear vision and mission statements. Some of us have experienced positive energy working with a team that articulates congregational hopes and dreams. It can be a creative endeavor. It can be fun. There is a sense of standing in the presence of hope.
What’s the difference between the two?
Many have identified careful distinctions between a mission statement and a vision statement. I like to simplify the difference.
A vision statement imagines an ideal. It states what your congregation wants to become. It is a mental picture of a desired future.
A mission statement defines purpose. Such a purpose statement describes what your congregation does. Who does it? How does it get done? It tells others why your congregation exists.
A friendly warning
Don’t create either a vision statement or a mission statement if you don’t intend to let such statements guide you every day. Your congregation should allow those tools to focus your thoughts and actions.
How many ways can you use vision and mission statements to shape congregational life?
If your vision and mission truly represent your congregation, you will find repeating the words of such statements will come naturally in many different settings. When this happens, you experience the satisfaction of serving a congregation that is clear about what it stands for and what it hopes to be.
For many, the condition of United States congregations and denominations is worse than reported by sociologists. In sundry settings, the decline is now irreversible. See Jim Collins’ research about the irreversible decline of other once strong institutions, How the Mighty Fall.
It is upsetting to be the one who has to tell a congregation that a full time clergy leader is no longer affordable. It is upsetting to be a denominational representative reporting that the judicatory camp is closing. It is one thing to read a statistic. It is another to be the statistic. The social science research does not capture that pain. “My congregation is going to close. This feels so sad.”
Addressing the grief
There is anticipatory grief related to the decline. The grief is experienced by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. There is also loss that has occurred because of the natural desire to delay the deep pain that goes with closing a congregation. That is, the closing of the congregation has been hindered partially to fend off the understandable pain of actual loss. Perhaps this is inevitable. There may be no other way than the long way. There is much actual loss that has occurred that has not been lamented by members, clergy, judicatory representatives and others who serve congregations. We are not good at holding loss when it involves congregations. How could we be?
When decline is inevitable, let’s attend respectfully to grief so that the pain is not needlessly prolonged.
If there is any truth that the condition of congregations and denominations is worse than reported, it is also true that, in many settings, there is inspiring vitality.
For every sociological data point about congregational decline, there are exceptions to the rule. This is an observable reality. For example, walk through the front door of the new congregation hosting 200 worshipers the average age of 22. Another exception is the rural congregation in the middle of nowhere (well, almost nowhere) experiencing a 30% increase in attendance over three years.
These vibrant experiences are not commonly captured in social science surveys. Many thriving congregations are new. They aren’t included in the researchers’ databases. Also, their stories do not fit a normative pattern of problem and then solution. The stories are personal. The stories are idiosyncratic. They are signs of God’s free Spirit. They are about new creations. They are signs of leadership courage and maturity. Such exceptions often are dependent on a leader’s particular charisma and thus not replicable.
Sharing the stories
The story of such exceptions should be shared more widely. I visited a brand new urban congregation last year which welcomed 40 people in worship. This year, the average attendance at that congregation is 140. Besides worship, their primary activity is befriending the homeless. Everything they plan, everything they do, involves the question, “How can we include our homeless friends?”
There is plenty of bad news about the decline of congregational life in the United States. But there are even more stories we haven’t yet heard about congregations that are flourishing.
Increasingly, all kinds of congregations are actively externally focused. I’ve observed this since 2008. The change is remarkable. Really!
The energy is so powerful. The conversations exciting. The possibilities abundant.
At the Center for Congregations, we receive calls daily from congregational leaders and members inquiring about outreach.
“We want to start a partnership with the local public school.”
“Our congregation has started a new mental health support group.”
“How do we establish a separate 501 (c) 3 related to job training?”
The academic work of the missional church movement has filtered down to the local congregation in positive ways.
There’s a generational shift too
Many young adults find it deeply meaningful to be of service to others. Congregations with young adults are looking at social service and social entrepreneurship. I have been in contact with numerous congregations that have active young adult membership. The focus of these congregations is faith formation, relationships and community engagement. I’m convinced the appearance of these creative, often flourishing, congregations are underreported when we talk about the state of congregational life.
It is ironic that sociological studies report that congregations are declining when their social impact is increasing. Ram Cnaan writes about the effect of congregations on their urban communities. This kind of outreach must be intensifying across the country. Check out Cnaan’s book The Other Philadelphia Story: How Local Congregations Support Quality of Life in Urban America at http://thecrg.org/resources/the-other-philadelphia-story-how-local-congregations-support-quality-of-life-in-urban-america.