Planning from abundance, part 5 – gifts of your broader context

Planning for ministry initiatives is incomplete without considering context. Just as individuals are part of a larger congregation, churches are part of larger communities. Often this look at the surrounding neighborhood is focused on needs, on ways that the people around us can be recipients of our care. While Jesus urges us to respond to serious lack and systemic injustice, it’s important to notice the gifts and stories of our neighbors as well. Then we can build relationships and find out where we fit in our community’s ecosystem, not just rush in with well-meaning but wrong-headed (and sometimes destructive) “fixes.”

Considering context first involves knowing who your neighbor is. Here are some ways to identify the people who live and work around you:

Conduct a demographic study. Check with the judicatory or denomination to find out if it has contracted with a demographic service. If not, contact your local chamber of commerce or search online for demographic information. Look for age, gender, race, ethnicity, age, family composition, population concentrations, economic levels, education levels, and any other available statistics. Put the demographics of the community with the demographics of the church side-by-side. What do you notice?

Learn who the local leaders are. Brainstorm (as a team or by a mini-survey to the congregation) or look online for the following:

  • Local government officials
  • School principals/superintendents/deans/presidents
  • Librarians
  • Chief emergency responders
  • Business owners
  • Directors of organizations/agencies/associations
  • Clergy of other congregations
  • Other influencers

Collate the above information and pray for the people in your neighborhood.

Considering context doesn’t end with information-gathering, however. It also involves interacting with your neighbors. Below are some ways to go about that. (Note that the first three suggestions below are particularly family-friendly.)

Go into the neighborhood. Create a scavenger hunt to encourage church members to go into nearby businesses, particularly ones they might not normally patronize. (Be sure to contact businesses ahead of time to let them know about the purpose and date(s) of the scavenger hunt and to get their permission.) For example, go into the home insurance office and get a business card. Go into the comic book shop and take a picture with the life-size cardboard cutout of Spiderman. Go into the local diner and order a slice of its famous cherry cobbler. At each location, introduce yourself to at least one employee. Make note of the people you meet and your experiences going into the businesses.

Take a prayer walk or drive. Give church members a map of a fairly small walking or driving radius. Go in groups or families, praying for the people and places along the route. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you along the way.

Lower the barriers for church members to volunteer. Create a list of local service agencies or opportunities as well as conversation prompts for interacting with people. (Where is your favorite place in the neighborhood? What is something that makes you smile? What are you good at?) Go in groups or families to volunteer. Make an effort to talk with the people – particularly the “clients” – in that place. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you.

Encourage church members to attend a city council meeting, community forum, and/or a school board meeting. Listen for the good that is going on as well as the needs being expressed.

Invite community representatives to a panel discussion at your church. Ask them what they love about their jobs and the community. Encourage them to share where they see neighborhood gifts, both individual and collective. Get them to tell about good things happening in the community, challenges they observe, and places that the church can join in either.

Next week I’ll share some ways to process the information your church gleans and the experiences congregation members have in the community.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 4 – celebrating gifts

Over the past few weeks I have been offering ways to unearth all of your congregation’s gifts so that you can plan out of faithfulness to who you are and what you do well. Once the gifts have been identified and their current uses assessed through the survey and congregational conversations, it is time to celebrate these strengths! Chances are that your congregation will be floored by the volume of previously-unnamed blessings, providing your church with a reason to be hopeful about the future and fodder for some real creativity.

Here are some of the ways you can celebrate the full range of gifts:

Create a visual display of all the gifts and ministries gathered from the surveys, congregational storytelling, compilation of financial, physical, relational, and leadership gifts, and committee reflections. Ask one or more people who enjoy making art and/or organizing information to help with this task. Make all of the information movable so that it can be rearranged. Put the display in a high-traffic area where most church members will be able to see it over the course of a few weeks.

Use a number of communication means to point people to it, such as:

  • Moving the display around the building when events take place on different parts of the church campus.
  • Taking photos of the display and sending them to church members who cannot be physically present.
  • Creating one or more liturgies out of the gifts for use in worship.
  • Preaching or giving brief testimonies about various gifts or ministries.
  • Interviewing members with previously hidden or unusual gifts for the church newsletter.

As part of the display, write the following prompts and include space and writing utensils for people to respond to the following:

  • What surprises us?
  • What delights us?
  • What challenges us?
  • As we look at these gifts, what are we realizing about our congregation?
  • As we look at these gifts, what do we believe God might be saying to us?

On the display or at a congregational event, ask people to group gifts that complement one another or that could potentially be put together in new ways for greater impact. (For example, the church has a patch of unused land, a couple of adults with a propensity for gardening, and a youth group looking for a mission project. These could be combined into the creation of a vegetable garden, with the proceeds to be donated to a local food bank, or a flower garden, with the flowers taken by youth to people in nearby nursing homes.)

Celebrating the gifts will open hearts and minds to new possibilities, and getting curious about the gifts will start to move the process from naming strengths to designing actions.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 3 – assessing what your church is already doing

Over the past couple of weeks I have shared a survey to get to know the gifts of individuals in your church better and some questions to help your congregation reflect on its collective blessings. This noticing is essential for planning out of abundance rather than out of worry. It brings subtle invitations from God to the surface. But to be able to respond to these nudgings, congregations must consider how gifts are already being used. Some that are newly noted will be completely untapped, while others are likely being stretched in unsustainable ways. The assessment below will help your church zoom out to see the current concentration of gifts.

With the help of the church calendar, meeting minutes, and/or newsletters/bulletin announcements, ask each committee to list every ongoing and one-off ministry of the church that comes under its purview.
Categories might include but are not limited to:

  • Worship
  • Christian education/spiritual formation
  • Congregational/pastoral care
  • Welcoming newcomers
  • Outreach to community
  • Service to community
  • Fellowship

Using their lists, ask committees to reflect on the following. Make sure each committee has a scribe.

What gifts does each of these ministries utilize, and in what ways?

  • Person power
  • Time
  • Money
  • Physical space
  • Talents/skills
  • Relationships

Whom does each of these ministries reach?

How long has each ministry been running?

What do we need to celebrate about each ministry?

What are the hoped-for outcomes of these ministries?

What are the actual outcomes?

Thank God for all of the gifts that have been offered to make these ministries happen.

Leaders will gather the lists and responses to reflection questions from the committees, take time to mull them, and then discuss the following:

  • What people or groups are lightly or not at all involved in ministries (participation or leadership)?
  • What gifts are going untapped?
  • Which gifts are being stretched in unsustainable ways?
  • How are we out of balance with how we leverage our gifts and capacities
  • About what are we feeling some excitement?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance part 2 – congregational gifts

After the first Sunday of Easter, the air begins to crackle with transition. Much of that has to do with the season – seminarians are graduating, ordinations are being scheduled, and pastors who accompanied their churches to the empty tomb are now announcing their moves to new places of ministry. These latter changes in particular (hopefully) prompt deep congregational reflection.

It matters greatly how churches frame these conversations. If we start with all that we aren’t and all that we don’t have, it will be incredibly difficult to imagine what is possible and discern what God wants us to do. But if we begin with gifts, we will be encouraged and creative and – most importantly – faithful with what God has given us.

Last week I shared a survey for taking stock of individuals’ gifts. Below are some discussion prompts for a churchwide gathering to unearth the intangible gifts of the congregation as a whole.

Personal connections (Be sure to include all ages in this part of the conversation, adapting the questions as needed to varying developmental levels.)

  • When did I become part of this congregation?
  • What drew me here?
  • What keeps me here?
  • How has God been at work in/around/through me since I joined?
  • When/where do I feel most engaged with church members and/or God?

The communion of saints

  • Who are the saints (dearly departed) of our congregation?
  • How was God at work in/around/through them?
  • What legacies of these saints do we carry forward?
  • How were their values our values?
  • What ministries (formal or informal) did they begin that we carry on?

Congregational history

  • What are the key moments/turning points in our congregation’s history?
    • Pastoral changes
    • Physical plant changes
    • Conflicts
    • New ministries
    • Rapid change in membership numbers
  • How was God at work in these seasons?
  • What did we learn or how did we grow at these critical junctures?
  • Where is additional healing or resolution needed?

Close conversation with a prayer of gratitude for God’s faithfulness or a ritual of celebration. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses from the discussion for further use.

Of course, not all congregational gifts are intangible. Leaders (staff and lay) can brainstorm/record and note responses to the categories below, which are based more on records and spreadsheets.

Financial

  • Giving units
  • Cash on hand
  • Reserves
  • Special funds
  • Endowment

Physical

  • Space currently utilized
  • Space currently not or (under-) utilized
  • Accessibility to people with disabilities (mobility, hearing, sight, etc.)
  • Location
  • Movable items (communion sets, tables/chairs, tools, etc.)

Relational (congregational level)

  • Name recognition
  • Reputation
  • Community partners
  • Denominational partners
  • Global partners

Leadership

  • Staff
  • Recognized lay leaders
  • Informal lay leaders/influencers

As with the intangible gifts, be sure to give thanks for these more measurable blessings as you record them.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 1 – individual gifts

In many congregational visioning and planning processes, discussion is centered on the church’s needs and members’ personal preferences. These foci are largely the results of internal and external (e.g., denominational) pressures to grow and the desire to be the most attractive “product” for potential newcomers. They are also the key ingredients for lopsided community relationships and wide-ranging expectations that are impossible to meet, leading to discouragement or outright conflict when they are not satisfied.

Over the past year I have been developing an approach to planning that is grounded in an ongoing exploration of gifts, both of the congregation and community. This process is not intended to be a denial of the very real needs that our church members and neighbors face but a means of starting to address them out of possibility, strength, and sustainability. It is intended to re-focus the individual and collective gaze from buying into a manufactured narrative of scarcity to noticing the often-overlooked workings of God all around us, honoring gifts from God in each person, and inviting ever closer a reign of God characterized by hospitality, connectedness, and abundance.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing elements of this planning process. To kick off this series, I offer to you a survey that answers the question, “Who are the people in my congregation?” The prompts are designed to get beyond Sunday morning small talk, digging deeper into each survey-taker’s engagement with the church, gifts, networks, aspirations, and spiritual journey.

Survey pre-work

Plan well for survey distribution. The survey will have the highest rate of completion if it is handed out and worked on during some sort of extended gathering time (Sunday School, congregational meeting, etc.). Everyone who is able to communicate should take at least part 2. Helpers can read the questions, adapting them as needed, and record the responses for those who don’t read or write well. Be sure to mail, email, or make the survey available online for those who are unable to fill it out in person.

As part of an invitation to take the survey, communicate some key information for transparency and trust-building. State clearly the overall purpose(s) of the information-gathering, which information will be collected anonymously and which will have names attached, and who will collect and collate the information.

See the people survey

Part 1 – Demographic survey – anonymous

  • Age
  • Gender identity
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Family composition (e.g, number of adults and children in the home)
  • Distance from residence to church

Part 2 – Individual gifts survey – named (detachable for submitting separately from demographics)

  • Name
  • Address
  • Phone
  • Email
  • Length of membership at this church
  • Church leadership roles held (past and present)
  • What are the three things about our church that you love most?
  • Relationship-related questions
    • Where do/did you go to school?
    • Where do/did you work?
    • Where do you volunteer in the community?
    • What clubs, organizations, or professional networks do you belong to?
    • What businesses in the community do you frequent?
  • Gift-related questions
    • What skills or talents do you use in your work (paid or volunteer)?
    • What do you make/create?
    • What do you most enjoy doing?
    • What do others tell you that you do well?
  • Aspiration-related questions
    • What community issues do you care most about?
    • What would you do if you had unlimited resources, including time?
  • Faith-related questions
    • When you feel closest to God, what are you doing or where are you?
    • When you feel most distant from God, what are you doing or where are you?
    • What would you most like to learn related to the Bible, your faith, or church life?

Survey post-work

Collect and collate the survey results. Offer a prayer of thanks for people’s gifts and their willingness to share about them.

Next week’s post will focus on taking stock of the congregation’s collective gifts.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

Getting in the flow

[Note: a version of this post originally appeared at Searching for the Called.]

In the field of positive psychology, focus is placed not on the diagnosis and treatment of maladies but on creating the conditions for human flourishing. A key aspect of thriving is engagement, when we are so into what we are doing that everything else fades into the background while we are doing it. The flow model developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says that for a person to be deeply engaged in an activity, her skill level must be in relative balance with the challenge of the task. If her skill availability is high while the difficulty of the task is low, she will quickly get bored. If the challenge outweighs her talents, her anxiety ratchets up.

What does the flow model reveal to you about your work? Specifically:

When are you deeply engaged in ministry? At these moments you are most likely living into your God-given calling.

When are you bored? Though you might have developed some reliable skills to carry out these less scintillating tasks, you are not building on your innate strengths.

When are you anxious? There is such a thing as a healthy stretch, which is a challenge that fosters our personal or professional growth. When we are overextended, however, we can start to believe that we are frauds and worry that we will fail those who rely on us.

Take a look at your responses to the above questions. What are the percentages of time spent on engaging, boring, and anxiety-producing tasks? Everyone has some tasks that fall into the latter two categories – that’s part of work life (and adulting in general, for that matter). But if those aspects are disproportionately large, it’s time to look at ways to revamp your job description. What dull or stressful assignments can be eliminated or shrunk if they’re less essential or redistributed to others who can do them better and with more enthusiasm if they are truly important? Your personnel committee or pastoral relations committee might be able to help you assess this.

If there’s not much that can be changed, then it’s time to consider whether your position is still a good fit for you. If not, what might a great fit look like? Your gifts are too valuable not to be fully engaged.

Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash.

The value of boundaries

[Note: this post originally appeared on Searching for the Called.]

As a minister with standing in my region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I am required to attend boundary training at least every ten years. This is important work, not just because abuse by clergy is (sadly) in the news so much these days. It’s also essential because the emphasis in these conversations shifts. For example, we spent much more time discussing preaching in this iteration of the training than in my last go-round. That’s because the political climate is such that pastors have to check their motivations and their theology every week so that the pulpit doesn’t become, well, the bully pulpit.

The increased attention to preaching was not the only new piece for me, however. The training materials lifted out that boundaries aid ministers’ work; they allow pastors to recover from the emotional, spiritual, and sometimes even physical demands of their roles so that they can come back to lead another day. That seems obvious enough. For the first time, however, I heard that boundaries themselves actually are the work.

I bristled at that statement initially. Surely ministers are not being encouraged to walk around wrapped in caution tape! But the materials clarified that we are constantly crossing boundaries – anytime we step over the threshold into a homebound member’s home or a hospital room, get buzzed into a school to eat lunch with a youth, hear the intimate details of a parishioner’s hurt, embolden our leadership in the midst of conflict, share a bit about our lives to let others know they are not alone, or enter the pulpit to preach. It is the minister’s job, though, to acknowledge those boundaries, to be clear on why we are or are not pushing through them, and to ensure that those reasons are to help the people in our care grow closer to God.

At the same time, spiritual leaders are called to help others recognize the boundaries they have set up between themselves and God and between themselves and their fellow humans so that they can remove these obstacles. Clergy do this through preaching and prayer, teaching and serving the community alongside church members.

Boundaries, then, are in fact the heart of ministry, recognizing and then either holding to or tearing them down. The hoped-for end is the same, regardless: to see and celebrate the image of God in all people and to remember that rootedness in relationship to God is essential for us all.

May we thus be aware of boundaries, sometimes using and other times obliterating them to promote connection and wholeness.

Photo by André Bandarra on Unsplash.