Center for Congregations President Tim Shapiro spoke with Hayim Herring, consultant, nonprofit organizational futurist and author of Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. Below are snippets of their conversation.
Tim: Thanks to you and your colleague Dr. Teri Elton for introducing us to the phrase “Foresight is 20/20.” In your CRG blog, you link foresight to agility. How far into the future do you think a congregational board can think strategically about programs and purpose?
Hayim: I think at least five years and here are some reasons. The further out we think, the less accurately we’re likely to forecast. Yet, we’re also in an age of accelerating velocity of change. For example, could we imagine how quickly we’re moving from electronic wearable fitness devices to wearable medical devices, like Apple’s newest watch that has an FDA approved heart monitor? Strategic issues that leaders estimate won’t surface until another five years are likely to happen much sooner. And as congregations are often slow at planning and executing on relatively simple changes, it feels like congregations must learn to accustom themselves to look out at least five years. That way, if a change comes sooner leaders will be prepared, and if it takes longer, they will be one of those congregations that will pioneer their desired future.
As a corollary to your question, I’d like to add, “How do we develop leaders who can stay rooted in the past, look deeply into the present, and anticipate and shape the kind of congregational community that they desire?” This is deep cultural change work for a congregation, even beyond compressed strategic planning that happens every three years. It calls for developing a culture that understands that exercising foresight is now a required leadership attribute and one that should also be fostered more broadly in the congregation.
Tim: The Center in Indiana worked with a congregation a few years ago that decided not to set an annual budget. This was during a time when the town, and members of the congregation, were experiencing economic hardships. It wasn’t just that household budgets were tight, people were losing their jobs. The board decided to vote on a budget every quarter, rather than annually because they couldn’t see far enough into the future to make firm plans. They called this flexible implementation. Is something like this what you mean by agility?
Hayim: It’s very easy to play armchair organizational analyst, especially because I am literally sitting in recliner responding and not in a congregation that is making quarterly budget decisions. Clearly, their commitment to meet and review finances reflects their tremendous love and concern for their congregation – this is not work that one volunteers for to receive accolades! But from my vantage point, their approach has the potential to unintentionally accelerate the demise of a congregation. Budgeting on a quarterly basis, especially as a response to financial duress, constrains longer-term creative thinking at the time it’s needed most. It fosters a mindset of the anxiety of existing from one budget quarter to the next and crowds out time to envision a completely different kind of congregational community.
A few alternatives: in a crisis, leaders lock themselves into a room and don’t emerge until they have drafted an emergency plan with milestones that they communicate transparently to the congregation. That plan may contain any number of outcomes. Leaders might determine how to gracefully merge with another congregation or keep the community but sell and lease back the building. They could think about renting other space or meeting in people’s homes. They could seek new sources of revenue through tasteful corporate sponsorships (in the way that corporations advertise on public radio or television). The congregation might repurpose and rent space in the building that stands empty much of the week to struggling startups whose values are consistent with those of a congregation, even if they are not “religious” startups.
This congregation was fiscally responsible and clearly wanted to do right as stewards of congregational funds. But was there was a parallel working group considering out-of-the-box options? I don’t mean impossible to achieve alternatives, but ones that are at least remotely possible. If a group of leaders had been cultivated to anticipate trends, it’s possible that they might have at least mitigated this dire situation. But a congregation under extreme financial duress cannot financially cut its way out of a crisis. Renewed congregational life may happen from seeing and seizing opportunities that add meaning and purpose unavailable from other congregations or organizations, from merging with another congregation or functioning as a semi-autonomous congregation within a larger congregation, or from a bold re-envisioning of the purpose of forming a congregational community.
Tim: Hard trends become future facts. In addition to generational differences and the handling of devices as if they were human (as you note in the blog), what is another hard trend which congregational leaders might want to track?
Hayim: The Pew Research Center recently developed new typologies for categorizing Americans by religion that include provocative categories like “Spiritually Awake,” “Sunday Stalwarts,” “Religion Resisters,” and “Solidly Secular.” It would be very helpful for congregations to use local resources at universities to help them understand the implications of these new typologies and possible impacts that they may have on congregational participation. Another trend is moving into a mobile future, where religious services, rituals, financial payments, and tracking one’s spiritual growth are ripe for development. Returning to a theme from my last blog post, I have many questions about the impact of immersive technologies on congregational life. When individuals can use smartphones to generate a holographic image of a congregation and watch their favorite pastor preach, what will that do to their relationship with physical space and community? Will we find holiness in holograms? Perhaps most important of all, it is no longer acceptable under any circumstance for congregational leaders to enable or to cover up the actions of those who verbally demean, sexually harass, or assault another individual. That obvious religious imperative of treating all individuals as inherently worthy of dignity cannot be taken for granted.
Tim: Many congregational leaders are exploring what innovation means. In your book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World, innovation is defined as an act, and entrepreneurship as an organizational state. Many in the religious sphere, and the broader non-profit sphere, are trying to understand innovation. If a group is stuck trying to define innovation, how might a group try to act into, live into innovation?
Hayim: You’re right, congregational groups can become paralyzed even by the thought of becoming innovative. After all, innovations often occur in public and even with the best of planning, there will be some glitches and congregants can sometimes respond harshly to well-intentioned efforts that flop. Here are a few suggestions on how to get “unstuck”:
- Based on years of experience, my mantra on innovation is, “think big, start small, move fast, evaluate/modify, and determine whether to close down our scale up an innovation.” Cultivate a practice of ongoing pilot programs (or betas) that are designed for learning – from success and from failure.
- Don’t go for the “low hanging fruit” because that approach doesn’t satisfy either those who are interested in fundamental innovation, or those who like things as they are, don’t want to innovate, but also want to be good team players and put forth effort for some change that they don’t support in their hearts.
- Also, look toward other places in your local community that have successfully undertaken innovation – another nonprofit, an art museum or symphony that had to engage audiences differently than in the past, or some other organization that had to reinvent all or a part of itself. Don’t only look to other congregations, but outside of the congregational world to those who share similar struggles.
Tim: Give us a glimpse into a way of congregational life which you’d love to be a part.
Hayim: The congregations to which I belong and like to work with share some commonalities. They are places in which people are kind to one another, have a broad concern for their local community, and are much more concerned about their own authenticity than what others who belong elsewhere say about them. They balance spirituality with intellectual challenge. They trust that their members can handle big ideas and grapple with difficult issues. They hold on to a reliable core mission and experiment – although it’s difficult to find congregations that have spiritual incubators to complement their ongoing offerings. I also feel that aesthetics – the thought and attention that go into the flow of services and programs, music, art, and the performance of ritual – are critically important. So much of congregational life is about a reenactment of the past that reawakens the demands of my soul, or the momentary creation of a microcosm of a better reality that motivates me to work with others to make it permanent. That intentionality and forethought of experience are much-appreciated ingredients of a congregational community.
The purpose of youth ministry is to foster the personal development of faith, theology and relationships for young people ages 6th-12th grades. This usually happens through a variety of lessons, games, resources and relationships. But how do you know if your youth group is hitting the mark?
The Center for Congregations has worked with more than 60 congregations to create vibrant youth ministries. Here’s what we discovered about the most successful congregations.
Effective Youth Ministries
• Devote financial and human resources as a priority to nurture young people.
• Equip youth to use their faith as a lens for making life plans and decision-making.
• Incorporate young people into congregational leadership and the planning process.
These larger goals will likely take time and decisions from your leadership. Below are small ways to strengthen your youth ministry.
Small Changes, Big Impact
You can make subtle changes to integrate youth into the fabric of your congregation. Recruit adult volunteers to connect with the youth and build intergenerational relationships. Allow the youth to step into meaningful and appropriate roles of responsibility. That could be mowing the lawn, assisting in worship or serving in the nursery. Small changes over time will help youth ministry become a natural part of your culture.
Many elements make you the person you are. You are shaped by your race, your geographic location, and your genetic structure. Your personality is formed by your family, your friends, and the choices you make along the way. You are influenced by education, social affiliations and friendships.
All of us are formed by the company we keep. The company we keep includes the congregation you attend. Whether you are aware of it or not, the activities of your congregation create certain thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make you who you are. In this way, your congregation has formative power.
I was reminded of the importance of being part of a religious community when a clergy person described a project happening in his congregation. He told me about a booklet being produced by the staff called Rule of Life. The Rule of Life is a guidebook outlining what it means to be part of the congregation.
The pastor says, “We want to encourage people to live a certain way of life.” Part of the guidebook is written as a catechism with answers to be learned and recited. Other parts of the guide describe specific practices in which one participates as a member of the congregation: at noon every day we are going to pray this Psalm.
If you read Psalm 23 every day, that Psalm is going to become part of who you are. The virtue of trust represented in the lines of the Psalm will more likely become part of your heart, mind and soul.
What elements are most formative in a congregation?
Of course, it depends on the particular congregation. I have observed and experienced the following activities having a positive impact on adherents:
Here is an exercise to consider doing with a congregational board, team or class.
Remember a time when a congregational experience formed or reinforced a positive attribute in you. Write down the experience. Take turns sharing the stories out loud. Listeners are invited to ask open, curious questions to enhance group reflection. What themes are evident? What further growth might the congregation support?