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.

Thinking about church size in relationship to mission

Last week I shared discussion questions to help a congregation understand what exactly its church size is and how this size relates to 1) expectations placed on the pastor and 2) the ways newcomers are welcomed and included. These reflection points are important because they help leaders pinpoint why the numbers aren’t increasing – or why they rise, only to be bumped back down. But much more than that, the accurate assessment of size enables a congregation to consider what God is calling it to do and be and to make needed cultural and structural shifts toward those ends. Here, then, is part two of the discussion guide.

Opportunities

Who comprises our community? A demographic study could be helpful for gleaning this information. Even better, take a prayer walk or drive around your immediate community, making an effort to notice who your neighbors are. Once you have identified your neighbors, ask them about their concerns.

What organizations meet the needs of the different populations? According to the different populations and service organizations, what needs are not currently being met? There’s no need to re-invent the wheel. Where might there be opportunities to come alongside agencies or churches doing good work? Where are the gaps your church might consider filling? (Hosting a panel discussion with representatives from city leadership and/or the service sector is one way to get at these questions. Talking with social workers and school counselors is another.) Think in terms of physical, spiritual, relational, mental, and emotional challenges.

Assets

What resources for ministry do we have at our disposal? Consider but don’t limit your thinking to money on hand and the physical plant. Other assets include spiritual leadership, ministries/programs, relationships/contacts/spheres of influence, special skills/knowledge, work ethic, and the willingness to try something new.

Capacity

What is our capacity for ministry? Every congregation has a sweet spot in which members feel a healthy sense of urgency and deep engagement but aren’t in danger of burnout. What is your congregation’s capacity in terms of relationships, leadership, energy, finances, and physical space?

  • In which areas have we maxed out our capacity?
  • What do we need to give up to create more capacity?
  • In which areas do we still have capacity left to use?

Represent the different areas of capacity with pie charts or thermometers, then color in the percentages.

Convergence 

What is God nudging us to consider? Given what you have noticed and prayerfully considered, what is your congregation’s mission in the coming months and beyond?

Are we the right size for taking this on, or do we need to size up or down? You have discussed your church’s size, culture, and expectations. Now it’s time to lay those over the vision God has given you and see where there’s alignment and where changes need to be made.

If church size needs to change size to fulfill calling, in what ways can we begin to function at that size? The system will always bump your congregation back to the size it was if you don’t make infrastructure changes first. Given what you know about various church sizes, what might those changes include? Think in terms of pastoral/staff leadership, lay leadership, inroads for newcomers, and procedures. If you can articulate the why for making these shifts – your mission – you will have a much easier time executing them.

Raising awareness around your church’s size dynamics

“How can we grow our church?”

This is the question that haunts a clergyperson’s dreams, whether it wells up from the minister’s own mind and heart or is voiced by laypeople every time they look at attendance and giving patterns. It’s not necessarily a bad question. It does make a couple of big assumptions – that we need to grow and that we are in agreement about what growth looks like – unless it comes at the tail end of discussions about the congregation’s culture and God-given purpose.

Boiled down to its essence, a church’s size is based on two factors: the role of the pastor and the way newcomers enter the system. (Descriptions of the various size designations are available here.) Ministers can use questions and storytelling around these two dynamics to help leaders begin to understand how the church works and what might need to change for growth to occur.

Pinpointing the church’s actual size

  • How many members does our church have? What is weekly attendance? How do we define regular attendance?
  • What do you love about the size of our church?
  • What limits does our church size put on us?
  • What is your favorite story about this church that relates to its size?

Understanding ministerial functioning

  • What is the role of our pastor(s) – from pastor’s point of view and people’s?
  • What engages and energizes our pastor?
  • What would our pastor like to do if there was time/energy?
  • What leadership support does the pastor have? Need?

 Examining systems of welcome and inclusion

  • What is our system for recognizing and welcoming newcomers?
  • How do we follow up with visitors?
  • How do these systems relate to our size?
  • When is the last time a visitor came 3+ times?
  • How did our newest members know they wanted this to be their faith community?

These prompts are designed to help laity get up on the balcony and see the congregation from a new perspective. Next week I’ll share questions around discerning mission that can bring another level of awareness, such that the congregation can consider whether and in what way(s) it needs to grow to live toward its vision.

Dealing with the shoulds

Do you have a case of the shoulds? (I have a chronic condition that I struggle to keep in check.)

“I should finish this sermon before I go to bed.”

“I should visit my homebound member, even though I saw him two weeks ago.”

“I should count my calories more closely.”

“I really need to marinate on my response some more, but I should send this email reply now anyway because my board chair is expecting it.”

“I should go to that third evening meeting this week, regardless of whether I have much to add to the discussion.”

“I should tackle that pile of dirty clothes in the floor.”

I should…I should…I should. 

Now, there are a few worthwhile shoulds. I should eat more veggies. I should make an appointment with the dentist. I should be kind to everyone I meet. But in most cases, this is how I’d describe that big pile of should:

Originality: How do I know what I’m capable of if my life is ruled by shoulds?

Understanding: How will I grasp who I am, what my call is, and where others are coming from if I’m too busy doing shoulds?

Leisure: How will I ever get time to rest and re-center if I’m playing whack-a-mole with shoulds?

Deeper connections: How will I ever create time and space for knowing and being known by God and my loved ones if there’s always – and there is – one more should to check off the list?

Shoulds are loud, persistent, confidence-kicking tyrants. Next time a should pops into your head, ask:

Who says I should do this?

Why is it important to that person that 1) this get done and 2) that I do it?

What do my head, heart, and gut tell me about this should?

How will fulfilling this should help me be the minister, family member, friend, or person God has called me to be?

You are valuable, you are beloved, just as you are. You don’t have to earn it.

Tips for creating effective surveys

Your [insert committee here] chair has just suggested that a survey be sent out to take the congregation’s temperature around that committee’s area of ministry. You groan inwardly, because your experience with surveys is that they tend to solicit personal preferences more than information that can be used to shape the ministry’s direction.

It’s true that surveys can muddy the waters if they are not executed well. But surveys can help clarify the church’s needs because they ask the same questions of everyone, yield responses from a range of congregants, and collect a lot of written information. Here, then, are some tips for making your survey as useful as possible.

Identify the goal(s) of the survey. What does the committee hope to gain from this exercise?

Ask questions that elicit the most helpful responses. How will the questions focus respondents on the church’s needs rather than the survey-taker’s preferences? What information will be most useful to the committee? What kinds of survey questions will draw out that information?

Decide on the right number of questions. What survey length will be comprehensive enough to get needed information but not so long as to discourage people from taking it? What is the proper balance between multiple choice/rating questions and free-response questions?

Provide multiple means for taking the survey. Utilizing electronic and hard copy options will allow church members to complete the survey no matter what their comfort level with/access to technology and attendance patterns are.

Determine the best window for survey distribution. Don’t send out the survey in the midst of active conflict or while everyone is on vacation. Do send it out so that the committee has ample time to process the returns before making important decisions. Ensure that the survey is available for a long enough time that everyone will see it and have a chance to respond, but not so long that people will put off filling it out.

Be clear about who will see the survey responses and how the responses will be used. Transparency about the handling of the survey will build trust in the committee and send the message that the congregation’s input is important.

Use the survey in tandem with – not in place of – congregational conversations. Surveys can be conducted before churchwide discussions, and the survey responses can help shape those events. Surveys can also be used as follow-up after congregational conversations.

What wisdom about surveys would you add to this list?

Creative Commons image “survey” by Sean MacEntee is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Discernment 101

Discernment: we talk about it. We encourage the people in our care to engage in it. But even so, sometimes we’re not sure exactly how to define it or how to wade into it. This post offers a starting point.

Decisions are intellectual exercises. People gather information from a number of sources, evaluate it, and create actions and a timetable based on the outcomes of their analysis. When people make decisions, they seek to control the outcome. Discernment is an attentiveness – cultivated in the head, heart, and gut – to God’s work in the world so that we might join God in those efforts. Wisdom about the matter for discernment unfolds in God’s time and through many of the same sources upon which decisions are made, plus some that might be discounted when acting purely on logic. Below are some of the key elements of discernment.

Create an atmosphere for discernment. Consider the location, room arrangement, and touchstones that would make your space most conducive to listening for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

Set aside distractions. Name and turn over agendas and worries that could keep you from focusing on God’s yearnings.

Worship in your space. Read scripture. Pray. Sing. Remember and acknowledge that God wants good for you.

Refine the question for discernment. You are more likely to get a clear response if your question for God is finely-tuned.

Pray for indifference. Indifference means that, because you trust God’s intentions, you will refrain from nudging the outcome in one direction or another.

Gather relevant data. Use every resource at your disposal, including but not limited to hard data, conversations with others, scripture, individual and collective memories, pro/con lists, imagination, intuition, feelings, and your senses. No data source is off limits in discernment, because God speaks in a number of ways.

Discuss the data. Name what you have discovered through gathering the data – especially the surprises.

Pray for wisdom. Ask God to weave the data together and to help you step back and view the interwoven whole.

Make friends with silence. We are so unaccustomed to silence that when we do experience it, we often feel uncomfortable with it. Start with short spans of silence (30 seconds or so) and build capacity from there. In doing so, you give God a bigger opening. Wait on God to speak.

Identify the resolution that seems to be emerging. What are you hearing?

Test the resolution. Ask God for confirmation that you have discerned correctly. (See criteria for identifying, “is this God?”) Tweak the plan as needed.

Take action. Honor the faithfulness of God by moving forward boldly with the action you have discerned.

While this outline is for individual discernment, you can tweak it at any point to involve others.

Image courtesy of Hermano Leon Clip Art.

Leavin’ it behind for Lent

Tomorrow is the first day of Lent, the season of preparing ourselves for the good news of Christ’s resurrection, with all that it means for us. Lent is a prime time to clear away – with God’s help – the obstacles that keep us from growing in our relationships with the divine and with humankind. Often that spring cleaning involves taking on a particular discipline, whether giving up a distraction or adding a spiritual practice. Both are great means of creating more space in our lives for love. I think I’m going to tweak those approaches a bit and focus on the barriers themselves, using different means to try to shrink them.

Shame. As Brene Brown so helpfully names, shame is a feeling of unworthiness. It is different from guilt, which is regret about an action or an omission. God has fearfully and wonderfully made me. God has fearfully and wonderfully made everyone else too, including people I do not know, like, agree with, or understand. I will seek to be more attentive to when I feel shame and when I use shame as a tactic against others.

Inaction. I have always liked to think of myself as someone who does her part to help others. In the past month – as circumstances for a number of populations have become more dire – I’ve realized I have not been doing nearly enough. I will ask God to open me to opportunities to be generous, vulnerable, and bold…and to kick me in the pants to take those opportunities.

Defensiveness. My mind screams “I’m a good person!” when someone challenges me on what I believe and how I live out those tenets. The truth is, I’m a privileged person, one who has unwittingly perpetuated a number of isms. I will engage in intentional learning about the shortcomings I’m aware of – and, no doubt, unearth more in the process. Not to feel shame, mind you, but in knowing better, to do better.

Withdrawal. It is really, really hard right now to resist pulling my head and my limbs into my shell. In some of the spaces I inhabit, very human opinions are given the weight of gospel, and the outflowing strategies are heralded as salvific. It does not feel safe to share from my heart, or even from my greater comfort center – my mind. I will effort to stay present, because conversation is one of our greatest hopes for unity.

Despair. It feels like every day another heavy, wet blanket is layered onto my tired body. Things are changing so quickly in our country and world, and (to my mind) not in a way that reflects God’s yearning for creation. I will pray continually for hope, using the scriptural phrase, “I believe, help my unbelief!”

What discipline(s) will you take up for Lent?

Creative Commons image “Prayer” by masatoshi_ is licensed under CC BY 2.0