booksThese days our congregational leaders are more empowered than ever. With more complex and specific information on the internet, members have a lot of resources, whether Biblical interpretations, mission statements, professional pay scales and guidelines for growth. They can compare the websites of different denominations and ministers, and read thousands of sermons. Our lay leaders want to bring their professional skills to help their congregations. They know that in this consumer culture, we want to understand what attracts and motivates members, where we fall short, and why people leave. And with tools like survey monkey online, it is easy for committees to develop a questionnaire that will let members express their opinions.

Don’t let them.

Newton’s Third law of Physics states that “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” That is usually true of surveys. Even mature leaders rarely foresee the effects that subtleties of wording and the juxtaposition of themes can have on our feelings. They don’t spend the time discussing the varying responses they may engender or even the validity of the findings. But the very act of doing a survey sends a message to the congregation that is as unsettling as it is disruptive.

Few things are more dangerous to a ministry than to encourage complaints, no matter how they are worded. Most of us believe that progress is a matter of discovering what is wrong in order to fix it. But this kind of focus recalls old injuries and conflicts, breeds dissatisfaction and empowers detractors. It often widens the conflict that the survey is meant to address.

Whether the survey is generated by the Worship Committee, Membership, or the Stewardship team, inevitably the reactions will focus on the minister. From the quality and style of worship, issues of friendliness and connection, the amount of pledging (especially from the big donors), all the areas of member satisfaction are embodied in the symbol of the clergy. The buck – and the blame – stops here.

Ministers aren’t immune. Surveys are a particular temptation when the congregation is working through an issue or a time of transition. But Susan Nienaber warns:
“If you are a congregational leader, don’t create a survey or send out a questionnaire to the congregation. I’m not saying that this is never appropriate but, generally, it is not helpful to survey a congregation in distress. It is helpful to get information but most surveys are problematic in my experience. Here’s why: First, congregations in distress often don’t ask the right questions. For example, a question like, ‘Are you going to leave the church if . . . happens?’ is a really problematic question and will likely make things much worse. Second, surveys build expectations in members who fill them out and leaders are often not equipped to meet those expectations. Third, it is easy to get into disagreements about the outcomes of surveys – what does the information mean and how should we respond to the information? Fourth, it is easy to get bogged down with too much detailed information. Fifth, it can be difficult to figure out how to appropriately get information back to the congregation. If you must use a survey, better to spend the money on a well-researched tool like the US Congregational Life Survey than to risk creating your own.” [from “What not to do in Turbulent Times” at

What should we do? At the very least, we should create policies that curtail their use. No committee or team should be allowed to generate a survey. Only the Trustees or Executive Team should be authorized to instigate them after serious discussion. Particular care must be taken in wording and themes to make sure they are positive and purposeful. We should work with our denominational experts and resources before turning to the tools available online.

Better yet, the congregation should engage in a more personal process such as Appreciative Inquiry, which builds on the congregation’s strengths and achievements. You can find more information in my blog of February 18th, 2011 and there are numerous resources available online. There are trained experts who can help congregations at all levels of the process, priced accordingly.

Whatever you do, make sure you’re involved. Otherwise you could be creating a monster that will wreak chaos and pain on you and your congregation. Let the buyer beware!

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Coming and Going

My apologies to my subscribers and regular readers for my long silence. I have been in transition, busy moving from a small pastorate and beginning work as an interim minister in a multi-staff congregation. It has been a busy summer.

All ministers are in transition. We know that we do not own our congregations. We are temporary stewards, lucky to be a part of an honored tradition of service. But we always need to have a suitcase packed, ready to relinquish our role when the time comes. With luck, we will know it in advance and be able to plan for a positive and gracious experience. Even if we eventually leave under duress or sadness, there are ministry tasks that will curtail, if not eliminate the damage.

As always, good boundaries are key. The more that we can maintain a healthy self-containment, the less we will need to get our emotional needs met from within the congregation. Although some members might seek a special relationship to satisfy their own ego needs, we have to maintain the maturity and understanding to see this for what it is worth. While it can be dangerous to reject their overtures and push these people aside, we have to remember that in most cases, it is not friendship that they want, but recognition. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind the powerful symbolism of our title. They may not like Terry Godly, but they still expect the Reverend Godly to pay them a call. We can never overdo pastoral care.

We can also acquaint the congregation with their history by honoring their past ministers. This will both celebrate the role of ministry within their congregation, and remind them that the church is larger than any one pastor. At the same time, we can ensure that their structures and policies are strong and clear. Write down procedures for regular tasks and events so incoming leaders do not have to reinvent the wheel. Make your legacy an organized and functional organization that includes a culture of consideration that will bind the congregation. And make sure that the congregation has a healthy connection to the larger denomination. Not only will this give them perspective and context for their issues and changes, but it will serve as support during their times of transition. And you will need it too. As leaders, sometimes we forget to reach out for the help we need. We think we’re doing fine with what we have when wisdom is just a conversation away.

Finally, we have to remember our calling and the values that cradle our work. All that we really own is our personal integrity. If we act with kindness and honor, everyone wins.

Change keeps us from stagnating, but that doesn’t make it easy. The right attitude and a little preparation can help us minimize regrets and move forward with grace and confidence in the journey.

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Praise Be

Sometimes ministers feel that they are carrying the entire congregation on their shoulders and that the church would crumble without them. But no matter how much we do as religious leaders, we know that we are not the church. Our temple are communities of volunteers who keep it alive with their hands and thoughts, their phone calls, prayers, casseroles and committee reports. Without the many hours of service members give to their congregations, we would be out of a job – or out of our minds.

Gratitude is fundamental to religious faith. We give thanks to God for our blessings and sing psalms of praise. But we must also create a culture that recognizes and celebrates the many contributions members make to their religious homes every week.

Of course, it is their duty to shape and maintain their church. Ministers come and go, but the members are the stewards of the congregation. Even so, it is to our benefit to model God’s grace by evoking feelings of confidence and belonging, of happiness, pride and achievement. The more we can find ways to acknowledge volunteers, the greater the commitment they will feel to the congregation, and the more willing they will be to take on new challenges and roles. Volunteers are more likely to talk about their church activities with friends and spread the good news of their faith.

I’ve been in congregations that voted for a volunteer of the year. Perhaps it was motivating, but it struck me as a very fallible system. It was too prone to chance and the power of popularity. So for a while we had an annual volunteer recognition service, where all the committees and contributions were acknowledged. It was nice for members but the lists tended to get tedious. Some congregations have volunteer dinners, and others leave it to the committee chairs to celebrate their members, and so on in a chain of hierarchy.

I support anything that works. I think that we can also encourage and supplement these methods by modeling and facilitating more spontaneous forms of praise. For instance, At AT&T in Jacksonville, they keep sticky pads of a globe with “Thank You” written all over it in different languages. Anyone in the company can write and send a message of thanks to anyone else. In four years employees there have used over 130,000 notes. Some companies create a floating award, like a bunch of flowers or a special medal. The recipient gets to keep until he or she finds someone else that they want to recognize and thank. The feelings of pride and belonging get spread throughout the community and create a network of stewardship.

Some of us are very good at writing thank you notes. This is something all religious professionals should perfect. But why not add spontaneity to your repertoire? Keep little party favors on hand. Surprise your board with a bunch of balloons, or give your administrator a cupcake of thanks. It’s the little things that make life sweet.

Mostly, just keep at it. Change is incremental, so we may not notice any difference. But each time we praise and thank someone we affirm their place in the web of creation. We strengthen their devotion. And we renew the wellsprings of our vocation.

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Just Kidding!

Preaching is an art, but it comes with old conventions. One common practice is to start your sermon with a joke. There are several reasons for this. Some preachers use it as a way to grab the congregation’s attention after the distraction of the offering. Others like to warm up their audience and get them into a good mood. Others use humor to make them seem more human and approachable. In these cases, the joke need not have anything to do with the theme of the service. It’s simply good for a laugh.

I don’t have any objection to laughter, in or out of worship. In fact, I’m all for it. But humor, like everything else in the service, is a form of communication. Therefore, it must be used fittingly and with awareness, if not intention.

Obviously, we would never tell a joke that embarrasses someone or insults any group of people. The core of religion is always God’s love and beneficence, so demeaning anyone, no matter how different, will inevitably hurt our ministry. We no longer live in a homogenous society. We can never know whose nephew, boss, or college roommate we may be hitting with our barbs – or how soon they will boomerang back on us. Even if people laugh, we wind up looking mean, supercilious, or both. Neither trait is exactly pastoral.

But at times the joke is on us. There’s a lot of religious humor out there and some of it is quite funny. There’s a light bulb joke for every denomination. Garrison Keillor routinely makes gentle fun of his Lake Wobegon Lutherans, and he often takes a poke at my denomination, too. In fact, there are an awful lot of Unitarian Universalist jokes. We tell them on ourselves. Like all humor, they are based on an element of truth, for we couldn’t recognize ourselves in them, they wouldn’t spread.

Last week I led my workshop on *Humor in the Ministry* for a Unitarian Universalist ministers’ retreat. Some of the most vibrant discussion was about UU jokes. Despite a few favorites here and there, most of the ministers felt that the jokes weren’t worth the risk. For one thing, they set up barriers against the newcomers who wouldn’t get the joke. But even worse, they had the potential to upset or even insult the new members as they embraced their new faith. It hurt them to hear it maligned or made fun of, even by the minister.

Of course, the one way to kill a joke is to try to explain it, and yet I do think that humor can be used as a teaching tool. I’ve given sermons contextualizing UU jokes, and regularly use the Persian stories about Nasrudin the fool. Jesus used humor, too; some of his parables are quite amusing. At its best, comedy is a way to speak the truth. Our laughter often includes the surprise of recognition and an acknowledgment of our common humanity.

Life is ridiculous and hard. Laughter is a gift that makes it easier to bear. We just need to be sure of our target. The funny bone is very near to the heart.

*For more information about the Humor in the Ministry Retreat, see my website, or simply email me at It’s fun and educational, too!

Posted in boundaries, humor, mission, Nasrudin, parables of Jesus, pastoral role, preaching, respect, roles, stereotypes, worship | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sacred Sensations

Poet David Brendan Hopes tells this story:
“A literary friend and I walk a whole day in the Ohio woods. By main force we keep the topic of conversation away from books.
‘Well, what did you see?’ he asks at the end, fumbling for the car keys.
I tell him, ‘I saw white pine, wild geranium, sassafras, raccoon sign, mayapple past its prime, beech, chestnut shoots.’ I cease enumerating, catching the look of flat astonishment on his face.
He says, ‘I saw greenish light under low leaves, how the radiance shifted from red to blue as the day went, purple now toward evening, the undersides of things paling in contrast…’” [A Sense of the Morning: Field Notes of a Born Observer]

One man experiences the woods as a world of familiar and interesting items – birds he can identify, plants he has learned to notice and understand, and a web of interacting lives. The other man experiences the world through his senses, noticing the play of colors and the interaction of sun and shadow and form. Both of them find something of mystery and wonder, and yet their language – and their approach – are completely different.

Maybe you feel more attuned to one of the two responses: to Hopes’ tendency to observe and catalogue his surroundings, or to his friend’s more visceral impression. Each one of us tends to favor certain abilities. We have different learning styles. And just as some of us prefer rhythm to melody, or sailing to crossword puzzles, so too, we each have our own individual religious impulses. Some people are uplifted by the comfort of familiar rites and prayers. Some are transformed by the physical experience of ritual dance or meditation, or lighting a candle of hope. Others need the intellectual challenge of ideas. Some people need the solitude of a forest path or a quiet room. And other people have experienced their deepest sense of connection in a busy emergency room or the middle of a meeting … when they suddenly know they’re a part of something deep and holy.

As ministers, we know (intellectually, at least) that every experience allows us to serve God. But how do we help our members feel a sense of divine purpose in an alien practice? Calling something a “ministry” may help, but it doesn’t change their basic orientation. For instance, I have no appreciation for liturgical dance. In fact, it frequently irks me. I know the dancers feel they are praising and worshipping God, and I’m glad when others validate their art. However, I chose to ignore an attractive parish opening because of its liturgical dance troupe. I could feel myself resisting before I even started.

Perhaps I sold them – and myself – short. I may have engaged with the dancers and learned from their art. It might have brought a new rhythm to my own worship, or at least made me more cooperative and flexible. It’s good to know our parameters, as long as we aren’t limited by them. We have as much to learn as our parishioners. I think the real key is to listen to each other with an open heart and a knowledge of the great scope and diversity of this holy creation.

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Conforming to the Brand

Ministry can be a minefield of mishaps, injuries, and misunderstandings. It is easy to take a wrong step and hurt someone’s feelings, or expose a long-buried resentment. A sermon, or even a chance comment, can unleash a chain reaction of anger, accusations, and explosions that can permanently damage our ministries.

But we all know this. As ministers, we know that we have to take risks in order to speak the truth as we know it, and live with spiritual integrity. We have to be true to our calling, which is the basis for our service to God throughout creation. We recognize that we will make mistakes in our attempts to live fully and courageously. We already have God’s forgiveness. But what about our parishioners?

I believe that clergy should be role models for a creative and imperfect humanity. We are not meant to be polished and seamless, but real, approachable, and sympathetic to the common human struggle. This is not to say that we should wallow in our faults – just recognize them.

This is especially important in the days of social media. Our names are out there on the web. Every one of us is subject to a Google search, appearing in denominational registries, church w3ebsites, newspaper articles, old job postings, and even family blogs. Strangers may quote our sermons. Our past is never dead. And quite a few of us have pages on Facebook and LinkedIn, and other social sites.

This is the issue with branding in ministry. There’s a difference between truth and full disclosure. There are aspects to our lives that we may not want to share with our parishioners or part of our public persona. We deserve to have a private life, and we deeply need personal time away from the pressures of scrutiny and judgment. We need to be able to wear sweats and shop without shaving. But we also have to be vigilant about our presence on the web and in public.

You must keep your personal Facebook page secure and private. Go to the Accounts page and set it up by invitation only. Resist the temptation to friend your parishioners and ministry contacts and invite them into your personal site. Don’t forget that postings, causes and comments reveal details about your life. Anything someone else posts to your website can be seen as a reflection of your character and interests, no matter how random. It’s guilt – or wackiness – by association. At the least, it distracts from your pastoral message. So make sure you maintain good boundaries. You never know when you’re letting off a bombshell.

But mostly, I think we have to make sure that our congregation’s brand is truly consonant with our own calling. If they are going in another direction, we can either follow and grow along with our members, or we must acknowledge that our service may have fulfilled its potential. Then it is time to move on to another setting where we can lead with commitment and belief in a common purpose. We have to be true to ourselves. Our image depends on our integrity.

Posted in blogs, boundaries, branding, Church Leadership, communication, consistency, Facebook, God's work, growth, image, LinkedIn, mission, newsletters, perfection, privacy, publicity, roles, Social media, websites | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Branding Your Ministry – pt 2: No one’s perfect

Last month’s post dealt with the concept of branding a church so that presents a consistent image that can drive both mission and publicity. Conversely, you could say that a strong mission identity can mold all aspects of the ministry and public face of the church.

But where does the minister fit into this? Do we have to mold ourselves to match this brand? Most of us were called into existing churches with beloved traditions and set identities. We know this going in. But we are never going to conform to every aspect of a congregation’s culture and style when we learn it from vastly differing perspectives.

On the other hand, a brand is designed to create a forward momentum. It has to honor the congregation’s history while identifying a realistic unifying purpose. In other words, it should be both aspirational and inspirational. But most importantly, it has to be accurate. There is no pointing in attracting people with a great website and bright new banners if no one greets them at the door or talks to them at coffee hour. We may need new members to staff the Sunday School and volunteer at the bazaar, but we can’t wait for them before we get started. We must have a vital mission, or we will lose the people’s trust.

In other words, the brand cannot fall solely on the ministers’ shoulders. No one person can be responsible for embodying a church. For one thing, faith is far too complex and nuanced for one person to manifest. We should encourage people to find their own expression of the Divine. Nor should ministers allow people to give over to us that much power. It’s not good for them, and it certainly isn’t healthy for us.

No one is perfect. We have all known leaders that take on so much responsibility that they crack under the stress. The ministry is difficult enough without the isolating effects of power. It may be a heart attack, or it might manifest in drinking, depression, or affairs. At its worst, the adulation can lead the clergy to abusive acts of sexual coercion, fiscal malfeasance, and unholy political alliances. Next – the tabloids.

No one can maintain an ideal image. And I don’t think we should. Our congregants need to know that they can make mistakes, have failings, and still be part of the family of God. We are growing, just like they are. The mission of our faith should be to help each other through the difficulties and the opportunities of life. It’s better to be a helping hand than a shining star. Easier, too. At least, that’s what I think.

But enough. Next week, I may finally get to the vexing issue of Conforming to the Brand.

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Branding your Ministry (pt 1)

The ubiquitous nature of social media has changed everything from corporations to churches. While branding used to be reserved for products like Barbie and Kleenex, or a corporate image such as American Express that was built on the public trust. It was used to create customer loyalty and confidence. Brand identification was formed around logos, jingles and memorable slogans. The right mascot can serve a product for life.

In the last decade, the concept of branding became a unifying tool, not just of marketing, but for managing, recruiting, and planning company strategies. The idea is to create a holistic unifying principle – or mission – for the organization, which will motivate and direct the decisions of corporate executives, accountants, designers and mail clerks, and thereby create a consistent public image. An excellent introductory book on the subject is Integrated Branding by Seattle-based consultants Lynn Parker and F. Joseph Lepla.

It was inevitable that churches should latch on to this method. After all, most churches have a specific mission that directs their efforts. Christians pride themselves on living in accord with certain tenets and values, and they have always enforced certain standards. People guarded their reputations from public attitude and cultural taboos. Long before newspapers, public image was important. As Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit… Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:18,20) Consistency is a mark of morality.

But branding is about more than integrity or even evangelism. Branding is essentially a corporate model. It is market-driven. The question is, should we be directed by polls and popularity, or by service? And are these motivations mutually exclusive?

There are (at least) two books about the spread of religious marketing. Brands of Faith, by Mara Einstein, (Routledge, 2007) is about the author’s religious journey as a Jew, which led her to examine religious observance and attendance across the board. She studied how synagogues, churches and faiths market and identify themselves, and offers some advertising tips along the way. Einstein now has a blog with the same title, which can be found at Phil Cooke, the author of Branding Faith, examines the use of faith branding throughout the world. More of a manual, Cooke describes marketing plans and how the steps can lead to a higher public profile. However, he also warns against the dangers of branding, including “technology, chasing relevance, and conflict with the concept of marketing.”

As a minister, I can appreciate the importance of creating a positive and honest public image. But our websites are no more important than the depth of our worship, or helping the outcast. We need to do good works before we can advertise them.

If our mission motivates our actions, then it can be a powerful tool. But if its just a slogan we fall into the same media mentality that we should counter. Where do we put our faith? The question remains.

next week: Branding yourself?

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Children in the Church

I attended Sunday School throughout my childhood. While I don’t retain very strong memories of the lessons, I do remember the converted house where we met for classes, sitting on folding chairs around the table. There were shelves with the usual supply of crayons and construction paper, and numerous books. But what I really liked was to go to the service. I enjoyed sitting between my parents in the pews, surrounded by their friends, while Mr. McPherson preached. All the while, I could gaze up at the domed ceiling where plump cherubim peeped over clouds. The sight of all that heavenly glory kept me quiet and content throughout the worship. At least, that’s what I recall. I did not aspire to the angelic, but we were trained to be polite and considerate children.

Most children have an innate wish to please. Kindness is central to our social natures. But of course, good manners must be taught. We have to learn what others need and how to cooperate. Every culture has its own customs. But all of them include self-discipline, respect, and fairness.

A recent post on the blog Empowering Families ( gives some good guidelines for creating discipline in children. I’ve excerpted some of it here:

#1 Have realistic expectations
Be sure to remember that every child is different and as such, to some degree, we need to have varying expectations with our children. No two are alike. Are the expectations you’re placing on your child realistic? Example: Expecting a 2 year old child to sit patiently for one hour is NOT a realistic expectation.
#2 Be consistent
Are you consistent in doing whatever the action is that you are attempting to instill in your child’s life? Example: If you want your child to read their Bible every day… you need to read your Bible every day as well. Your consistency will help instill this pattern into your child’s life.
#3 Use a reward system – catch them doing good
The younger the child is, the greater the important the reward system plays. When you reward your child for doing well, you’re forced to spend more one-on-one time with your child and this will reap great rewards.
#4 Be sure to offer them more praise than correction
Children need to see that they are making progress. As parents, we don’t want to lead our children into discouragement. Praising them will help keep them on track and in the game.
#5 Remember that it’s not always about wanting to…
In years past parents understood that anything worth having… takes a lot of work. Today, it seems as though many parents are afraid to “force” their children to do anything they wouldn’t want to do on their own. The reality is… not all kids like to read, BUT all kids need to read. Moral of the story: it’s not always about wanting to do something.

As a minister, I welcome children in worship. I believe that it was a good discipline for me to sit still for an hour, and learn self-control. I knew that the price of attendance was respect: for the minister, the members, and for the occasion itself. In fact, courtesy developed into a continuous point of pride and amusement – it surprised the adults so much! I don’t mind the occasional childish noise or prattle. Frankly, the parents’ scolds and shushes are usually much more disruptive, and often upsetting.

Erma Bombeck gives a great illustration. One Sunday, she was in church and noticed “a small child who was turning around smiling at everyone.” As Bombeck reports,
…he wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnal, or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling. Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theater off Broadway, said, “Stop that grinning! You’re in church!” With that she gave him a belt on his hindside, and as the tears rolled down his cheeks she added, “That’s better,” and returned to her prayers. Suddenly I was angry. I wanted to grab this child with the tear-stained face close to me and tell him about God. The happy God. The smiling God. The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of us….
I wanted to tell the child I’ve taken a few lumps in my time for daring to smile at religion….What a fool, I thought. Here was a woman sitting next to the only light left in our civilization, the only hope, our only miracle, our only promise of infinity. If a child couldn’t smile in church, where was there left to go?

Church should be a place of gladness, friendship and peace. Let us teach our children the joy of worshiping together in a community by setting realistic boundaries for them – and reasonable expectations for their parents. The future of the church is in their laps.

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Appreciative Inquiry

Of late, it seems that ministers are regularly advised to take lessons from business models. Whether inspiring volunteers or organizing a fundraiser, we’re urged to look to corporate gurus like Tom Peters. Being masters of human psychology, these people do have a lot to teach us. But sometimes these consultants get their ideas from us, and adapt them to change the corporate culture.

One method that has gone full circle is Appreciative Inquiry, which was informed by spiritual movements that stress positive thinking and creative imagery as a way to envision possibilities and create change. The founders, David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University and Suresh Srivastva, say that “an organization is a miracle to be embraced rather than a problem to be solved.” They determined that effective inquiry into organizational life should be
• Appreciative
• Applicable
• Provocative
• Collaborative
In other words, it should get people involved in positive applications AI is based on the assumption that organizations change in the way they inquire and the claim that an organization that inquires into problems or difficult situations will keep finding more of the same, but an organization that tries to appreciate what is best in itself will discover more and more that is good. This improves morale and increases possibilities for the members and the organization itself. David Cooperrider, the founder or Appreciative Inquiry describes it this way: “More than a method or technique, the appreciative mode of inquiry is a means of living with, being with and directly participating in the life of a human system in a way that compels one to inquire into the deeper life-generating essentials and potentials of organizational existence.”

Since then, the method has been reclaimed for congregations, most notably by consultant Mark Lau Branson. He has learned that concentrating on needs and problems can mire a congregation in discouragement and distract it from noticing innate strengths. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.

I heard about Appreciative Inquiry at a monthly district ministers’ meeting. The materials made their inexorable way to the middle of a stack of papers. Then, during a day of filing, I stumbled upon them and realized they were just the tool I needed for my church’s Visioning groups. My congregation was stuck in some limited patterns and was far from living up to its potential. There were the usual systems of group relationships and hierarchies of ownership. And there was an underlying sense that the congregation had outlived its glory days. It was struggling for identity and purpose.

There are a number of very helpful books on Appreciative Inquiry that describe the methods and techniques for organizing the approach and enlisting the involvement of the participants. I’ve listed some at the bottom of the post. However, I wound up adapting my questions from Branson’s narrative, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change, which movingly describes with his work with a Korean Presbyterian church. Not only is the story inspiring, but Branson frames his language in the context of faith and religious tradition.

I did not use the method to arrive at a concrete goal or develop a project. The main purpose was to change the culture, expand the vision, and thereby enlarge the potential of the congregation itself. While it didn’t solve every problem, I believe our Appreciative Inquiry groups created a momentum that changed the focus and the energy of the church forward.

Every member was asked to sign up for one session, with a maximum number of 5 per group so that everyone had a chance to think and be heard. I took notes and transcribed them later, but in a larger congregation, members could be trained in teams to conduct and record the conversations. These are the questions that I used with my congregation:

Appreciative Inquiry – Envisioning the Future of the UU Meeting House

1. Reflect upon you entire time at the UU Meeting House. Remember a time when you felt most alive, most motivated and excited about your involvement. Describe the circumstances and your involvement. Who was involved? How did you feel? What was happening?

2. What are the most valuable ways you contribute to our church – your personality, your perspectives, your skills, your activities?

3. What are the most important things the Meeting House has contributed to your life? Who or what made a difference? How did it affect you?

4. What have been the most important spiritual experiences, lessons in belief, or steps of growth that have occurred for you at the Meeting House? Describe what and how they happened. What was most helpful?

5. What are the essential, central characteristics or ways of life that make the UU Meeting House unique? What is most important about our church?

6. Make three wishes for the future of the Meeting House.

As you can see, these questions focus all of the members on achievements and positive relationships. It helps people to identify what works, and what their particular congregation has to offer. It reminds them of the importance of their church to their religious journeys. And it provided me some of my most fruitful, pleasant, and rewarding moments of ministry.

Appreciative Inquiry is a valuable part of my Clergy Coaching practice, for it helps free us from our limitations and fears. We can then set higher goals based on a truer picture of our strengths, experiences and unique gifts. It is applicable to families as well. In fact, I recommend it to anyone who values hope, creativity, and tangible growth.Here are some more resources that you can use:

Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution by David L Cooperrider
Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions: 21 Strength-Based Workshops by Robyn Stratton-Berkessel
The Power of Appreciative Inquiry: A Practical Guide to Positive Change by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom
The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry (2nd edition) by Sue Annis Hammond

Good luck!

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