Our faith communities are continually concerned about how to raise income or offset expenses especially during the summer months when attendance is lower. There are many wonderful stewardship programs that have been deployed to varying levels of success. I wholeheartedly endorse trying one and staying with it for a few years and where possible customizing for the congregation’s needs. Many stewardship committees simply distribute the pledge forms on Stewardship Sunday and wonder why the same approach yields the same result which is fewer pledge forms being completed and a strained budget.
“Why can’t we just ask people what they want to do?”
Sounds so simple. Logical, even. Why spend months in conversation about history, gifts and values to determine “what God is calling this congregation to do to next” when you could just ask people in one parish meeting for suggestions?
Here’s why. We live in community. Think of your congregation as a microcosm of the Body of Christ, which overall is more diverse than we can imagine. People flow in and out of the microcosm. Let’s think first about those who’ve come. Some have been there a long time – decades perhaps. Others arrived ten years ago, or one year ago, or last month.
In the last three months I've had the opportunity to attend three retreats. The first was a two-day spiritual retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in upstate New York. This was a time for prayer, worship, guided reflections and, most important, silence. All the participants relished the time together to unplug.
The second retreat was a board and conference planning meeting for two groups that meet primarily by conference call. We met at the Maritime Institute in Baltimore, Maryland from noon on Friday to noon on Saturday.
As we begin the New Year 2017, many leaders are planning in earnest the work that needs to be accomplished for the year. For the procrastinators among us now is a good time to start. Within congregations, a Parish Coordinator is essential to ensure that all items planned by the clergy, vestry, and committees are reflected on a master calendar.
Management guru Peter Drucker wrote often about “planned abandonment.” This is the idea that we need to intentionally put to death and bury the activities and thinking that are hindering us from spending time on more fruitful activities. We must put to death the old to make room for the new.
I spend time each year between Christmas and New Year’s Day reflecting on the past year and looking ahead to the next. In my previous career, it was looking at my previous billable hours and workplace accomplishments, and setting goals for the coming year. But it was/is also a time to celebrate what God has been doing in my life and work and ministry, and considering where God seems to be leading me into the future.
Almost like those moments that begin sometime late at night Christmas Eve and continue the next several days, the world begins to hush during Thanksgiving week. People re-connect and spend precious time with their loved ones, and there’s not much noise or commotion. I really like this time of year. I like it for so many reasons – great feasts among them – but I also like this pause, this hush.
A harvest festival, such as what we’re doing this week, does that to us – gives us pause to consider, encourages us to take stock, provides a moment to focus, even strategize about how we can best invest in what really matters. It’s significant that the Thanksgiving holiday and our own stewardship/fundraising practices in the church fall in the same timeframe. For one, they’re both connected to ancient harvest practices. On another level, though, they’re both about healthy practices of looking back and going forward, a dynamic, communal motion that is really one and the same – giving thanks for what God has already provided and, based on God’s good generosity, making sure we’ve put those resources toward where God is leading.
A few weeks ago we gathered in Alexandria, Va., for the Missional Voices Oneday gathering, where we focused on liturgy, music, and the missional church. Dr. Jim Farwell, the liturgy professor at VTS, discussed the intersection of mission and worship. “There is no such thing as a ‘missional liturgy,’” he said. “Because all liturgy is missional.”
What the Church does (or should do) is all missional. But I think too often we forget that.
The leadership of a congregation is responsible for creating a vision, that is, developing a plan that enables the church to respond to the future in a creative manner. Given all the demands of a parish, it takes great discipline to attend to the future but the clergy and vestry need to ask the hard questions such as: What are we called to do in the name of Christ? Who is our neighbor?
Once God’s dream for a church takes shape, the response is naturally to get rather excited and to start making things happen. The leadership will probably share these dreams at a parish meeting and assume the work of communication has been done. There is also a natural assumption that the parish knows about the plans and is ready to get started.
The title of this post may seem contradictory. But I promise you, it’s not. We’ve spent several weeks here talking about ideas. We’ve talked about paying attention to the things that grab your attention, about sharing and building on ideas with others, and about adapting others’ good ideas for our contexts. Like any series, this one must come to an end.
And like any good idea, it actually has to be put into practice for it to mean anything.
The patent for the common mousetrap design was filed in 1899. We’re still using that design more than 110 years later, but everyone keeps trying to build a better mousetrap. The US Patent Office receives more than 400 new mousetrap patents every year, and has granted more than 4400 mousetrap patents since 1899. There’s no shortage of ideas. But fewer than 20 mousetrap designs have led to products that have actually made money. The problem isn’t generating ideas; it is overcoming the obstacles and executing your new idea.
Or, how a remake of a remake of a song became a classic
Starting from scratch is usually a bad idea.
Too often, we assume innovative ideas and meaningful changes require a blank slate. When a project fails, we say, “Let’s go back to the drawing board.” When we have habits we want to change, we think, “I just need a fresh start.” However, creative progress is rarely the result of throwing out all previous ideas and completely re-imagining the world.
Take Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” for example.
Ever since I took up facilitating strategic planning, I’ve carried dots in my supply box. Small, brightly-colored, adhesive-backed dots come in handy when a group needs to determine priorities for the months ahead. Participants use a small number of dots to “vote” on what’s most important. Sometimes it’s amazing how quickly consensus is reached. Unless it’s not.
Here is a methodology for leading a group, such as a vestry, to think strategically about priorities in the months ahead. This can be applied when setting the annual budget, determining whether to continue a struggling ministry, reconfiguring building space, or setting overall goals for the year ahead.
For the past several weeks, I’ve snuck a hour or half-hour, here or there, on as many days as I can to clear rocks from the rectory’s front yard in Valley Lee. My late predecessor, his wife tells me, got a call one day from a friend who offered him stones – a whole assortment of large, extra-large and not-so-small rocks. He gladly accepted the gift and turned them into edges for flower beds – lovely, I imagine, in his time. Ever since his departure and throughout the decade after he left and before I arrived, the rock edges did little more than keep the weeds in and the trimming out. I thought clearing the beds and cleaning up the front yard would be an easy summer job, achievable in a just few days since, after all, the stones didn’t appear very large. Regrettably, I’ve been reminded that heavy objects sink rather well in this porous southern Maryland soil, such that I was only looking at the tip of what are, in retrospect, hundreds and hundreds of extra large boulders!
Last night’s Olympic closing ceremony was a fitting end to two weeks where that saw outstanding performances, unflinching determination, and constant innovation.
One of the brightest stars of this Olympiad was Houston’s own Simone Biles, who amazed audiences as much as she challenged history. And as this NBC Sports story notes, Biles’ feat highlights just how much gymnastics has innovated since doing away with the idea of the “Perfect 10.”
The governing body of gymnastics decided that it was more interested in innovation than it was in perfection, so it changed the scoring system. The new system encourages athletes to try new things, attempt increasingly more difficult moves, and to be creative. In this world, Simone Biles is pushing the envelope and leading the way.
I was well on the way to pursuing my idea. I had completed some interviews, bought a few plane tickets, and was researching innovative ministries across The Episcopal Church to interview. I was going to write a seminary thesis on mission and innovation.
You never read that thesis, because the early building blocks are gathering cobwebs in the deep recesses of my computer.
As we discussed last week, we all have ideas. My idea was all I could see. It took someone else, and their idea, and mixing the two together, to help produce the final product. A better idea, formed from the two.
We all have ideas, but where do they come from? I am fascinated by the ways in which people come up with new things. I’m sure you have an idea that you are toying with, for a business, a ministry, or maybe even a blog series.
You may think that great ideas come from an epiphany, that “eureka!” moment of brilliant insight. Charles Darwin’s eureka! moment supposedly came when he was reading something Thomas Malthus (an English clergyman, no less) had written about population growth. All of a sudden, the basic idea of natural selection popped into his head.
But what if ideas come from more of a slow burn than a flash in the pan?
Author Steven Johnson discusses this in his great TED talk “Where good ideas come from.” Johnson says ideas tend to be more of a slow hunch than a sudden epiphany.
Your ideas come from a lifetime of experiences. Your ideas come from the things that interest you. So let your thoughts build and stew in the back of your mind. And pay attention to those things you are paying attention to.
Imagine yourself in these scenarios: It’s about 15 minutes before your Sunday morning service and an acolyte hasn’t shown up. What do you do? The end of the year is nearing and there’s a small budget shortfall. What’s the next step? You asked someone to write an article for the newsletter and they’ve flaked out. Who do you call?
Many church leaders probably can answer these questions without too much trouble. The Church, with our congregations relying on volunteers and success being measured not just by revenue but by intangible things like spiritual growth and health, is an unpredictable organization. It requires flexibility from its leaders.
In researching for his book about productivity, Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg found that the best decision makers tend to envision possible scenarios. “By pushing yourself to imagine various possibilities—some of which might be contradictory—you’re better equipped to make wise choices.”
I’ve always enjoyed flying. Not the security lines or those times when I’ve been squished into a small seat in an overbooked plane, but the moment when you’re seated and you’ve just taken off. You can’t use your laptop or your phone and you’ve got a book to read or maybe you’re just sitting with your thoughts.
I’ve just returned from vacation abroad and I had many moments like that. I didn’t have cellular service so I didn’t walk around with my phone in my pocket as usual and only checked email every now and then. I found that it was a bit of a relief to leave my device in my room and pick up a book or write without distraction.
I, like many of us, am somewhat addicted to my phone. I know people often say that technology is simply a tool, like pen and paper, but there is evidence that it can mess with our brain, each notification or new status update giving us a little high. It’s ultimately about how we choose to use it, but you could say the same thing about sugar. Some of us just need to keep the Oreos out of eyesight so we don’t eat them all in one sitting.
So my vacation was a reminder that being connected all the time is not necessarily good for me.
I receive some pretty interesting responses when I tell people that I facilitate strategic planning for congregations. By far the most frequent response is a blank stare followed by a polite, “Oh, that must be interesting.” Sometimes an enthusiastic affirmation about the value of strategic planning is offered. Less frequently, fortunately, are those who stare as if they suddenly imagine horns growing out of my head as they question applying corporate gobbledygook to a community of faith.
A simple definition of strategic planning is: Setting priorities to enable a desired outcome to be achieved. It’s about setting a goal and making decisions and taking actions to achieve it. The goal is our VISION, and the actions are our STRATEGIES.
Vision provides direction. This is valuable for congregations because members are each traveling their own diverse faith journeys. Out of our individuality, God calls us into community to seek Him and to bring others to His Kingdom. The church community to which we are called is special because God has uniquely assembled its members and many other gifts to use to seek and evangelize.
In congregations, members can run off in scattered directions, or remain complacent in our pews just having our own needs satisfied. Vision calls us to follow a particular path, together. Without vision, “the people are unrestrained.” (I love that translation of Proverbs 29:18 in the New American Standard Bible). Unrestrained might sound fun, but the point is to be obedient in following God’s direction so that His will is accomplished.
Celebrate. Listen. Be inspired. Plan.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. never listed the laws that were needed to make discrimination illegal. He did not define federal code or detail what enforcement agencies were needed.
Dr. King described a vision. Within two years after Dr. King's speech, several federal acts created sweeping civil rights reform. Dr. King’s ability to describe a vision for the IMPACT of the mission of the Civil Rights movement was a critical turning point that finally got hearts and minds to work together for change.
Articulating a vision is a vital exercise for anyone in leadership, including vestries. A vision statement is a powerful strategic tool. Because it describes desired outcomes, it has the power to harness activities, ministries and resources to pull in the same direction. It turns everyday thinking into strategic thinking.
This has been a serious and lofty post so far, but here’s where it gets fun. For your Vestry retreat, try this: