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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About Rev. Alison Hyder

My name is Rev. Alison Hyder and I am a Unitarian Universalist parish minister from Baltimore, MD. I am a professional Clergy Coach, with degrees in divinity and social work. I specializing in parish issues, helping ministers and rabbis determine their goals in areas like pastoral counseling, congregational relationships, worship, administration, and social outreach, and then develop practical steps for improving their skills and achieving their vision. I find that a fulfilling ministry is often the cure to spiritual malaise. The more confident we feel about our abilities, the better our relationships with other people, and the closer we feel to God. I also find spiritual sustenence in music and painting. I am a sometime artist, performer and handyman. Please visit my site at www.ClergyCoaching.org.
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