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.
“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.