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.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
- 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:
Celebrate. Listen. Be Inspired. Plan
With this new year, my ECF Vital Practices blog posts return to offering ways to engage people in prayerful discussions about the ministries and direction of their congregation. Four key practices will be explored: Celebrate. Listen. Be inspired. Plan.
“Celebrate” and “listen” have at their heart identifying the ministry strengths that God has gathered into your congregation. In blog posts last November, I offered some examples of how to discover and celebrate these, sometimes just by listening.
ECF’s Strategic Solutions process, designed to create strategic focus and direction for congregations, begins with looking at assets, what we call “ministry strengths.” Asking, recording answers, celebrating what you find, requires intentional effort and time. Sometimes people get a little impatient when all the joyful discussions about strengths do not address problems.
Recently, a member of the steering committee overseeing the process at an older, downtown congregation wondered aloud if the emphasis on strengths wasn’t glossing over serious issues that needed to be addressed at the church.
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of packing. Well, I’ve been doing a lot of traveling which requires packing—trips for work and trips to visit family—something we are all familiar with.
Packing is always an exercise in determining both what you need and what you don’t. . I need a couple pairs of paints, but I probably don’t need the third pair (I mean, my suitcase is only so big). I need a book to read but I don’t need to bring three. I need a notepad but I probably don’t need my laptop this time.
What do I need? What don’t I need?
I’ve finally stopped playing candy crush. Truth be told, it wasn’t rock-star self-control that pulled the plug but rather a program error in one of the 300 levels that kept freezing the iPad, despite a few (hundred) attempts. Eventually, even I can stop banging my head futilely.
In the open space created by time-not-playing-candy-crush, I’ve begun to wonder: How can the church create something fun and viral? Why isn’t there some fun video game or smartphone app that’s related in some way to faith—or at least to the traditions of the church?
Last week, everyone in my department took a morning to collect themselves and look at the months ahead. We talked about future events and deadlines, about messaging, and about our big ideas.
We could easily have spent that time last week producing something, or planning an event, but it’s important to take time out occasionally to stop and get organized. Summer is often a good time for that.
Church employees and volunteers are probably better than most at remembering the importance of taking time for retreat, to collect ourselves. This is important spiritually, but also practically and professionally.
It’s not just helpful, but necessary, especially in an organization like the church in which the goals aren’t always so easily measured and sometimes the next step isn’t obvious.
Excellence. It’s not an arbitrary thing. Many people use this word like Bill and Ted did [in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure,"] much like some people today, especially youth, use the word ‘epic.’ Maybe the bar has been lowered, therefore ‘really good’ is equated with ‘excellent.’ Perhaps I’m getting caught up in semantics, but here’s what I’ve learned:
You can have a ‘good’ ministry by accident.
You can have a ‘really good’ ministry by accident.
But excellence is NEVER an accident.
Excellent ministries are only achieved with the following 3 things:
1. Intention – You gotta want it. You gotta strive for it. Those who assume their ministries are already awesome are kind of missing the point. There is always room for growth and improvement. So unless there has been a conscious decision to say, “this is who we are and where we are,” then the question of where we want to go is sort of irrelevant.
I was in utter disbelief when I heard Christmas anthems being played on my friend's computer. He had been planning for Christmas Eve services as far back as August, while at that time my mind was focused on a busy September lineup of fall programs.
Granted, as a parish musician for a large congregation, he needed to be thinking that far ahead and putting those pieces together. This is often the case for larger and well-staffed parishes, but ready or not, Advent is upon us. As we have been asking here at ECF VP: Are you ready already?
Calendaring is a best practice and system that must be in place in every congregation, diocese, or organization. What can be tricky in congregations is finding the balance that makes calendaring a practical, well-functioning, and useful tool. Planning things further in advance provides stability: you can count on it, know what to expect, and have plenty of time to prepare. Keeping things open until the short term allows for greater flexibility and to adjust as needed for how things are shaping up. Large, small, or somewhere in between, there needs to norms established for how the calendar is maintained. There also must be at least one person, be it a staff member or leader, in a congregation who is keeping an eye on both the long term and short term.
Here is a story about how a seasonal theme can emerge.
As we were putting together the church school program for the coming fall, we retained the services of a mosaic artist to help our young people create a mural for the church. We held a meeting with the artist and several members of our children’s ministry team and brainstormed what images might be encouraged for such a piece of art. Since we were planning for the autumn season, images of harvest came to mind. Our junior high teachers had said they were planning to address hunger in their class, and at the meeting we envisioned one response to hunger could be that there is enough for everyone. That led us into a far-ranging discussion of how abundant the creation is and how we as humans don’t order our lives in such a way that everyone benefits from this bounty.
What happened next was this sheer flood of images of God’s abundance and someone said, “Not just abundance, but Bountiful Abundance!” That led me to pick up my iPhone and Google “bountiful abundance” and the number one entry described the Korean holiday of Chu Suk (추석), a harvest festival full of joy and the remembrance of ancestors. This galvanized our vision, merging harvest themes with the remembrance of heroes of our lives that our All Saints celebration always engenders.
Every field has its own language, words and phrases that have clear significance to insiders, but which are as clear as mud for everyone else. Richelle Thompson, who also writes for ECF Vital Practices, has frequently said that the Episcopal Church needs to watch its language, that our particular vocabulary (think “narthex” and “thurifer”) has a way of shutting everyone else out. We presume that visitors will know or want to know the intricacies of our denominational tongue, when all evidence points to the contrary.
For me, right now, the language that I am trying to wrap my mind around is that of organizational development. I frequently notice and am part of meetings where words like mission, goals, impact, and vision are used interchangeably. The presumption, I suppose, is that we’ve all got this vocabulary down, that the distinction between something being ‘holistic’ versus ‘synergistic’ is self-evident. It’s not. Or not for me, anyway. The end result is that our conversations can become ungrounded, they start to feel blurry and watered-down.
Do you remember the TV show Bewitched?
Samantha, a witch played by Elizabeth Montgomery was married to a mere mortal Darrin Stephens, played by Dick York and later Dick Sergeant. Remember the way Samantha would twinkle her nose and all would be well to every embarrassing or uncomfortable situation. Samantha converted magical thinking to produce her desired states through her magical powers.
Samantha was not a dreamer or visionary. Dreamers and visionaries are active in their communities. Samantha was a magical thinker with her passive hopes magically delivered with no effort but the twinkle of her nose.
Vital congregations flourish with the contributions of dreamers and visionaries! At the same time magical thinking propels congregations into irreversible decline.
What were the characteristics of Samantha’s magical thinking?
Is our fast paced, change driven culture compatible with congregational spiritual tranquility?
As Episcopalians we pray each week "Sanctify us also...that we may serve you in unity, constancy, and peace." - Holy Eucharist II
We pray for what it is we desire and what we most need.
How do congregations make urgent vitality and viability decisions at the most spiritually ripe time? Simply, congregations must experience spiritual tranquility and constancy.
At one of our Mardi Gras celebrations, a cook set up his fancy digital camera and it shot one frame every five minutes to create a time lapse video of the event, from start up to clean up.
With the program year approaching, I am thinking I might do the same thing to capture a week in the life of St. Andrew’s.
It would take multiple cameras because so many different spaces would be involved. The one in the sanctuary might actually capture the least amount of action. Sunday would be a blur with the altar guild arriving at 7:00 am, followed by the 8:00 o’clock parishioners, then the choir streaming in for practice then segueing into “big church.” A forum might get set up and shut down then a brief period of stillness until the evening worship team came to set up for the 6:00 pm Taize service.
I’m packing our bags.
This weekend, half of the church is heading to the diocesan conference center for retreat. Since this is our first time, we have had lots of recommendations for packing: Sturdy shoes for hiking, bathing suits for swimming, coolers for refreshments (adult and non-adult options).
There’s no set agenda for the weekend. Some might spend the time exploring the mountains deep in Kentucky. Spelunking might be in order too, with curious souls checking out the caves – and bats. Others might find a shady spot and a hammock, perfect for reading a book or sky watching. Each morning and evening, we’ll gather for prayer, and each afternoon, we’ll enjoy another Episcopal tradition of happy hour.
More than 100 people have signed up to spend a weekend in cabins mostly air conditioned by nature, to wear flip slops while showering, and to sleep on inch-thick mattresses on a top or bottom bunk. For our congregation, the 110 people represent about half of Sunday morning attendance.
How do congregations decide the spiritually ripe time to make their most difficult decisions?
Many Episcopal congregations are facing urgent decisions on the ways they can grow their parish, increase their pledges, and bring in more young families. Some Episcopal congregations have the added concern of asking if they should try one more growth initiative or decide if it is time to close their church building due to a steady decline in attendance and extensive operating costs. These are hard decisions that leave many Episcopalians with a mixed sense of dread and urgency.
[Post #2 of 5 - "Do You Recognize the Signs of Your Congregation's Spiritual Crisis?"]
Spiritual desolation occurs when we cease to experience and or question the reality of God's love for us. Augustine's words bring us back to our spiritual center, "our hearts are restless, until they rest in you."
Congregations in desolation are restless and experience extended periods of disquiet, anxiety and fear. They struggle with all their energies to merely keep their churches open, maintain some communal fellowship, and administer the sacraments. These congregations may experience communal fragmentation, mutual distrust, anger, severe judgment of others, and manipulation of truth for their short-term gratification. Congregations such as these are not available for alternative ministerial paths nor are they open to hear the call to new missions.
Spiritual Health of Congregations: Anxious Decisions or Passionate Urgency: Part 1
In the next five blog posts I will introduce congregations to the principles of the spiritual life, discernment, and making Spirit centered decisions. There are many kinds of spiritual practices. Ignatian spiritual practice is unique due to its principles of discernment that are central to an Ignatian spirituality. In this first post I introduce the necessity and value of spiritual discernment. In the next three posts I will introduce the three spiritual states: spiritual consolation, spiritual desolation, and tranquility. In the final post I will introduce spiritual freedom and the manner in which congregations need to shed "inordinate attachments" to be spiritually available to make urgent decisions.
"Urgency" is the lens I will use to help congregations make the necessary judgments of when urgency is a symptom of anxiety and when urgency is a grace, a gift of spiritual maturity and the result of being in a deep and intimate relationship with Christ. These five posts offer the reader the characteristics of spiritual desolation, spiritual consolation, and spiritual tranquility coupled with reflection questions to help congregational leaders determine the spiritual state their congregation is at this time.
Post #1: "The Value of Spiritual Discernment"
Spiritual discernment is a collection of practices that lead people and congregations through a group decision-making process grounded in the wisdom and blessing of the Holy Spirit. The group nature of this decision-making process does not necessarily lead to consensus but rather to dominant patterns of the way the Spirit manifests God's self to each community and congregation. Spiritual discernment takes intentionality sometimes manifested in length of time and sometimes in depth of listening. Discernment flows out of prayer and reflection on the scriptures and the way these texts intersect with our life experiences. Through discernment we learn to sharpen our listening skills. We learn how to know if we are moving closer to God or away from God in the choices that we make. We learn to differentiate our desires and voice from the desires of God and the Spirit's still voice.
Part 3 of 4: Exercising Leadership with Viability Threatened Congregations. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
In my chaplaincy at a level 1trauma center I learned new meaning is often found when people experience extreme losses that fundamentally change their lives. Times of traumatic loss can become a paradoxical space of resurrection where loss and mini deaths often lead to new life. I recall movies about people whose traumas have revealed to them new meaning and transformation. Two such movies come to mind:
The Dolphin's Tale
(2011) - Winter, the dolphin whose tail was injured found hope through a prosthesis and a young man injured in the service of his country finds renewed hope in Winter's story.
The Shipping News
(2001) – The main character has a childhood experience of "drowning," an uncaring father that affects his life, and is able to find new life in new place, is able to see how the past gets dragged into everything, and finally how to break free of that past. See http://www.textweek.com/movies/themeindex.htm
In a similar manner viability threatened congregations, i.e. "churches at risk" or "churches in decline" have the potential to teach the rest of The Episcopal Church about grief over loss and discovery of radical new meaning. As the Episcopal Church begins the process of rethinking its governance and structure, we will need to hear congregational examples of rebirth to lead the way to discover new life. Like people who have undergone sudden trauma, viability threatened congregations who successfully rediscover their viability and vitality did not just encounter and rely on iterative change processes but rather were open to and accepted radical redefinition of their fundamental identity and purpose.