March 2014
Building Strong Teams

Try This at Church: What Do You See?

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

As a child, I remember being amazed by a phenomenum known as the Rubin vase, or as it is more commonly known, the face-vase image. For those unfamiliar with this reference, the image shows either the outline of a white vase against a dark background or, the profiles of two faces looking at each other separated by white space. Why people see one image and then the other relates to the way our eyes and brain interpret what we see. And, as our brain tries to distinguish between the figure-ground elements of these black and white images with almost equal figure and ground elements, it is our higher level cognitive function of pattern matching that permits us to see first one, then the other, object.

What does this have to do with building strong leadership teams?

Recognizing that what we see may not be what others see is a valuable skill for leaders. Being able to set our own perceptions aside and actively listen as other members of a team share what they see, can lead to a richer conversation, one that allows us to delve deeper into relationship, and open up options for strategic thinking and problem solving.

Howard K. Williams and Birdie Blake-Reid, from St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, New York used this exercise at the recent New Community Gathering. Designed as an icebreaker to help workshop participants gain an understanding of the congregational contexts represented in the room, it can also be used to help members of a leadership team learn more about their peer’s perception of where the congregation – or the leadership team – is at this point in time.

This activity can be done with any size group; breaking larger groups into smaller ones gives everyone an opportunity to respond to the two questions. The group can then be brought back together to summarize the conversation from each group.

Material needed:

  • Four images: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, and Image 4. These can be projected via a computer or printed and shown to the group. 
  • Newsprint pad and marker or black or white board.


  • Show the four images to the group, one at a time. Then post all four images for all to see. If you're projecting the images on a screen, download the Combined Images file, to show all four pictures together.
  • Ask participants to consider this question: Which of the four images visually represents where you see your congregation today? Share why. 
  • Give each member of the group the opportunity to briefly share their response. Within each group, you may want to allow time to discuss how each member interpreted what they saw. 
  • Ask participants a second question: Do you see the need for change and if so, in what areas? 
  • Again, give each member the opportunity to share his or her response. 
  • Coming together as one group, hold up one image at a time and ask for a show of hands indicating how many chose each image. Post the tally for all to see. 
  • As you show each image, invite one or two of the people who chose that image to briefly share why they chose that image, encouraging them to describe what the photo represents to them. You may want to ask for a show of hands to see if any others had a similar response. 
  • It may be helpful to the group for the facilitator to summarize and record the ways members describe how they see the congregation. Are there any patterns? 
  • Invite each group to report out on their responses to change. Again, you may want to ask for a show of hands to see if any others had a similar response. 
  • As you wrap up this exercise, ask the group to think about and name:
    o Any responses that surprised them
    o Any responses that made them think differently about where the congregation is today
    o Any responses they would like to explore further

Scheduling this activity during a vestry retreat would allow time for extended conversation, providing the opportunity to tease out nuances, as well as shared understandings and/or misunderstandings. A group might also consider breaking this into two sessions, discussing one question at a time.

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Nancy Davidge is editor of ECF Vital Practices.


Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Combined Images

This article is part of the March 2014 Vestry Papers issue on Building Strong Teams