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.
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.