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