Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment – for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound – with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

Where, then, does your congregation need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 7 – designing initiatives

Over the past several weeks I have introduced ways to take stock of the gifts of individuals in your church, the congregation as a whole, and your surrounding community. I have also offered means of celebrating those gifts and assessing how they are currently being used. After completing all of this faithful work, it is now time for leaders (planning team, if there is one, or board/vestry/session/council) to consider the accumulated information in view of the future. Below is an outline for initiative design that is rooted in Spirit-led discernment rather than human-led decision-making.

Create an atmosphere for discernment. Prepare the gathering space in a way that is conducive to worshipful work.

Set aside distractions. Ask, “What does each of us need to turn over to God before we can focus on the work at hand?”

Worship together. Invite everyone to name where they have seen God at work throughout the planning process.

Review and celebrate all that the leaders have learned from listening and information-gathering.

Pray as Jesus did: “Not my will but Thine be done.”

Discuss the question undergirding the planning process: “Given all the information and reflections we have gathered, what is God inviting us to consider for the immediate future?” Notice where there is excitement or energy as well as where there is a feeling of flatness.

Identify the realization that seems (realizations that seem) to be emerging. Get every concern on the table for the invitations around which there is excitement. Refine ideas that bubble up related to these invitations.

Work toward agreement. What further exploration is needed to confirm or flesh out our responses to God’s invitations? What will faithfulness look like in moving forward with what God is inviting us to consider?

Test the agreement. Let the resolution(s) rest. If your leadership isn’t able to sleep on it/them, take a meal break and then discuss how leaders are feeling in their heads, hearts, and guts about the proposed way forward.

Ask the “next step” questions. What leadership (lay/clergy) will be required for what God is inviting us to do? What current programs do we need to scale back or celebrate and let go of in order to respond to God’s invitation? To whom do we need to reach out to start living into God’s invitation? Who will be the primary point person/group or liaison? When and how will we stop to evaluate our progress toward our vision of faithfulness? (Next week I will provide a ministry reflection form to aid in this assessment.)

Take action. Make detailed plans for action steps. Who will do what? How, and by when? What support and/or accountability is needed? The planning team takes these responses and begins putting detail to potential initiatives, handing them off to standing committees and/or leaders for approval and/or implementation as appropriate.

Offer gratitude to God and ask for God’s help in the coming months.

As the work draws to a close, be sure to celebrate! You have done faithful, hard work on behalf of your congregation.

Photo by Daniel Fontenele on Unsplash.

Planning from abundance, part 6 – noticing together

After taking stock of the full range of gifts in your church and community, it’s time to move from inventory and celebration to getting curious about everything your congregation has noticed and experienced. Invite the congregation to gather around tables for storytelling. Sharing a meal together provides a great reason for people to come and fuels the conversational energy. Set the vibe by bringing the visual gifts display and the accompanying responses into the meeting space, and get people excited by explaining how their participation will contribute to movement into the church’s next season of ministry.

Include the following in the congregational conversation:

Worship together. Invite the congregation, as an offering to God, to name aloud responses to the following. Have someone write them down as they are voiced. Be sure that people of all ages are included in this offering.

  • Skills and stories of individuals encountered in the community
  • Personal experiences in the community
  • Observations about the community, especially what surprised, delighted, and challenged

Distribute the information compiled from studying the demographics and naming local leaders, and gather around tables to discuss the following questions. Ensure there is a facilitator and a scribe for each conversation group. It is important to have someone who is prepared to keep the conversation on track and ensure all the voices are heard.

  • Who are our neighbors?
  • How is God at work in/around/through our neighbors?
  • Where might we join in that good work?
  • What are the challenges in our community?
  • Who is affected by them?
  • Who is already doing good work around them? How might we support them?

Close with prayers of thanks for your neighbors and for wisdom and faithfulness in using your gifts. Be sure to collate the accumulated responses after the gathering.

Next week’s post will take the noticing and curiosity to beginning to put ministry initiatives on paper.

Photo by Bogdan Kupriets 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.

New resource: gifts gratitude calendar

“I don’t have enough time to do all the things.”

“I don’t have anything worth contributing.”

“Our congregation is so much smaller and grayer than it used to be.”

“We’re gonna have to send these church budget requests back to committees to be pared down, because our projected giving is down 10%.”

Do these sentiments sound familiar? They play in loops in individuals’ heads and reverberate through sanctuaries of all sizes. They are the product of scarcity thinking, of focusing on what we don’t have. The scarcity mindset is rampant in our culture, manifesting in the beliefs that we need to guard what we have and prepare for the worst possible scenario. And unfortunately, while we worship a God who created the universe out of a dark and formless void and follow a Savior who was all about opening up the law and the bounds of community, this thinking has trickled down into our churches. The result is that many of our people are afraid to dream and reach out, instead turning inward and wondering how long our congregations will be able to hold on.

The scarcity scourge is a huge barrier to growing our faith in and love of God. Luckily, the season focused on removing such obstacles to our discipleship is almost upon us, and I want to offer a resource that might help individuals and congregations note the abundance that God has blessed them with in the form of resources, talents, connections, hopes, and ministries. The calendar below gives a gratitude prompt for each day of Lent and the first day of Easter. (A printable PDF is available here.) Feel free to download and/or share it. I hope that those who use this calendar will talk with one another about the unexpected ways they have realized that God is at work in and around them.