This congregational assessment from Holy Cow Consulting provides benchmark data to inform decisions about identity, clergy search, strategic planning or a financial campaign.
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.
“Foresight is 20/20” is not a typographical error. Rather, it relates to a theme that Dr. Terri Elton and I wrote about in our recent book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. Foresight is one capacity that will enable congregations to thrive in the future. The velocity of change is accelerating so swiftly that even being agile is insufficient insurance for future survival. Agility, which involves pivoting to a change, still places leaders in a reactive mode. But when leaders learn how to regularly exercise and act upon foresight, they’ll have a better chance to proactively shape the future of their congregations.
When do we invoke the phrase “20/20 hindsight?”
We do so to make sense of how we either missed an opportunity or threat. But 20/20 foresight suggests that we can turn knowledge of what is very likely to happen in the future into practices of what can be now. With 20/20 foresight, congregational leaders can focus more on igniting people’s spiritual sparks instead of “worrying about how to keep the lights on.” They’ll have a better chance at deepening and broadening their mission and positively influencing more people’s spiritual lives.
Hard trends and future facts
In our book, we described several processes that leaders can use to peer further over the horizon and anticipate potential issues, policies, and innovations. Since that time, I’ve become more familiar with Dr. Daniel Burrus, a global innovation expert and futurist, and his most recent book The Anticipatory Organization: Turn Disruption And Change Into Opportunity And Advantage. Burrus introduces two interrelated concepts for getting smart about the future: “hard trends” and “future facts.” He writes, “A hard trend is a future fact that can provide something that is very empowering: certainty. Hard trends will happen, no matter who you are…. None of us can stop hard trends from occurring, but there are ways to see them coming.” Once you’ve become better at identifying “hard trends,” you can use “future facts” to your advantage because your congregation will already be where its existing and potential constituents are.
Here are two examples of hard trends that are future facts:
These two hard trends – six generations alive at one time and a VR world – are replete with spiritual implications that anticipatory leaders could be acting upon now. For example, how do we foster ongoing intergenerational relationships where young and old engage in reciprocal learning? What happens to our innate holiness when children grow up with “parents” named Alexa and Cortana? There are few venues in our communities that are structured for ongoing interactions between young and old (and “old” means 55+!) but that’s also a great opportunity for congregations. They are theoretically ready to become spaces of intergenerational meeting, where puzzling through these issues becomes normative.
A true story to concretize this opportunity
A 14-year-old teen whose grandmother was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease raised money by crowdfunding to develop an app with AI (artificial intelligence) and facial recognition software to help her grandmother remember family members. This teen initiated conversations and sought ideas and support from caregivers, family members, and tech mentors by herself. You can read this story in Adele Peters article “A 14-Year-Old Made An App To Help Alzheimer’s Patients Recognize Their Loved Ones” from Fast Company. Given their access to multiple generations and talented volunteers, congregations could create a standing intergenerational council to harness the wisdom, technological savvy and multiple generational perspectives to address opportunities and rapid changes. Congregations also have the advantage of drawing upon inherited spiritual wisdom to weigh advantages and disadvantages of maintaining the status quo versus initiating a change.
Finding a balance
The capacity to better envision the future is admittedly difficult. Religious leaders must calibrate the balance between our inherited spiritual past and contemporary realities so that future generations will inherit a spiritual legacy. That sounds like an impossible task, but the routine act of driving a car suggested an analogy of how we already do so. When driving, we balance past, present and future because we learn when to accelerate forward and when to slow down and brake, while simultaneously looking ahead through the windshield, behind through the rearview mirror, and at our present surroundings in the side view mirrors.
As religious leaders, we bring humility to our efforts to better anticipate the future, which holds mysteries beyond our perception and imagination. On the other hand, the greatest religious leaders have been rooted in the past, looked deeply into the present, and provided a vision for the future. Speaking from the Jewish tradition, I’m inspired by a question that a first-century rabbinic sage, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, asked a group of his students. “Which is the best characteristic for a person to acquire?” One student, Rabbi Shimon, said “One should learn to anticipate the future.” His response can empower us to think more about the hard trends and future facts that we can use to keep congregations vital.
Is your congregation planning something new? If so, there are five key questions you can ask yourself and the group with which you are working. The five questions apply to almost every kind of congregational project. These key questions provide focus. Responses to these questions will provide structure for your work. You and your colleagues can meet your goals when you use these questions throughout a process.
Here are the five key questions:
Try weaving these questions into the agenda of your next meeting about a new endeavor. Listen carefully to the conversation. Observe when the energy in the room rises. Observe when the energy lags. Share this back to the group. Ask others to interpret responses to the questions. Form your work plan based on what you are hearing.
This is how your congregation learns to do new things.
Resources you can use
You can learn more about these five questions in chapter nine of How Your Congregation Learns.
As you have probably observed, asking questions is a powerful learning and leadership behavior. Two recommended resources on asking questions and congregational leadership include: The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action and Encyclopedia of Positive Questions.
Congregations have long been places that nurture the care of souls. Long ago, the early church created strategies and tactics to care for widows and children. Nowadays, care in congregations involves visits to the sick, end-of-life care, support for grieving families, celebrating life transitions, encouragement for older adults, befriending those who experience loneliness and so much more.
Perhaps your congregation is looking to strengthen its care ministries. There are two ways to think about this. One way is to consider structures and operations. Who is responsible for organizing care activities? Are there ways to streamline communication? What might you do to improve the way in which care ministries are implemented?
A manual for care teams
Karen Lampe has written a useful resource titled The Caring Congregation that serves as a manual for care teams. There is much spiritual wisdom in this book. The book also addresses various practical issues. For example, the appendix contains a job description for a congregational care minister.
Listening and caring skills
Another way to enhance care ministries is to learn more about the process and practice of caring. Listening is one of the most powerful skills God has given us. John Savage’s book on listening, Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry, is an excellent volume about how to enhance caring relationships through listening. The book addresses skills such as paraphrasing, productive questions, describing behavior, truly hearing a story and so forth.
You can use the book as a guide to improving the skills of those providing care to congregants. Yes, there are two ways to address congregational care issues. You can address the structures and operations of your care ministries. And you can increase the capacity of those who are providing direct care services. Here are even more congregational care resources for you to consider.