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.

What do your metrics say to your members?

Nickels and noses are the two most common measurements of a congregation’s vitality. That’s because they are the easiest to track, not because they are the most useful metrics. Income as compared to expenses tells us whether we’ll be able to keep the lights on and make payroll each month, which is no small deal, but a simple spreadsheet of revenue and expenditures reveals little else. For example, how many giving units does our church have this year as compared to last year? Did repeat givers increase or decrease their contributions, and what are the pastoral care questions posed by these patterns? We don’t know. Similarly, average worship attendance is just that: a flat number with no nuance to it. How often are unique individuals coming? What patterns do we notice among newcomers? ASA doesn’t give us any of that.

There is another problem with the nickels and noses approach to metrics. What do those approaches to measurement say to our members? When we emphasize a strictly numbers-based view of budgeting, we tell givers that their relationship with the church is transactional. You come, you put some money in the plate, and we’ll give you a feel-good Jesus experience. There’s little theological reflection on how we’re using our finances or education around the spiritual impact of giving on the giver. When we make a big deal out of ASA, we imply that we don’t care who is coming, why, and how often – as long as there are butts in the pews. It’s no wonder that congregations and denominations who put a lot of stock in these metrics are hemorrhaging members and seeing a lot of transitions among pastors, who are told that their effectiveness depends on growing these “vitality” stats.

What, then, would it look like to develop measurements that are meaningful and useful? I suggest using the following factors to name metrics that truly assess vitality:

  • The measurement must be, well, measurable. “Spiritual growth” is too vague to be quantifiable. The number of unique people who volunteer (as opposed to being voluntold) for leadership positions can be counted.
  • The measurement must be within the church’s control. You have zero say in how many people actually come through your doors on Sunday morning. Your church members can control how many potential newcomers they personally invite.
  • The measurement must give ownership to the members. Yes, the pastor needs to be accountable for her ministry. But the church is actually stewarded by the members, who were here before and will be here after the pastor leaves.
  • The measurement must take impact into account. It does no good to track how many pairs of gently-used adult shoes your church donates to a local organization when said organization deals in providing formula and diapers to low-income families with newborns.

Metrics that measure the wrong things can send churches and pastors into shame spirals and anxiety about survival. Measurements that are meaningful for your setting can be a means of discernment and a way of encouraging your congregation and leadership, however. Take care to set your mileposts with intentionality.

Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash.

Making time for deep work

Do you ever feel like you can’t get around to the meat of ministry because you’re chained to email, constantly interrupted when trying to write or plan, or unable to get momentum on more mentally-intense projects due to the way your schedule is broken up by meetings?

You’re not alone. Most professionals struggle with distraction, making it harder for them to tap into the fullness of their gifts and to spend as much time as they’d like on the tasks they consider most important.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer science professor Cal Newport lays out his case for making time for uninterrupted work that pushes professionals to their cognitive limits and offers strategies for creating that space.

Newport’s suggestions have to be adjusted for ministry, because sometimes “interruptions” such as pastoral care crises turn out to be exactly what we need to focus on. But setting up a schedule and conditions for deep work will allow us to prepare sermons we feel good about with less strain, plan further out for liturgical seasons, create curricula trajectories and content, and flesh out new ministries. Without this intentionality, we’ll fill up our time with activities that are easy to cross off the to-do list and remain frustrated about all the “real” ministry we don’t have time to tackle.

Here are some approaches that might be worth mulling:

Build in and protect blocks of deep work. Set aside 1.5-4 hour blocks for bursts of undistracted work. Settle into a location that promotes good focus. Turn off your internet connection. (If you need it for your work, ensure that email and social media are off limits.) Ask your admin to come in – or allow others in – only if there is a pastoral emergency. (Be sure to clarify what constitutes an emergency, and tell your admin how this deep work enables you to minister better so that your admin can then repeat this explanation to others.)

Make a work flow. Plan for your day, assigning all of your deep and shallow work to time slots. When tasks take longer or shorter than expected or an unexpected ministry need arises, hold your schedule lightly and revise it for the rest of the day. The point is not to be rigid but to be intentional about how your time is spent.

Create start and shutdown rituals. Establish a pattern for entering your focused work time to signal your brain that it’s time to close down all the other tabs. When you are stopping work at the end of each day, go through a routine that tells your body and mind that you are bracketing work until tomorrow. (Your shutdown ritual might include a plan for completing remaining tasks so that you can rest in the confidence that everything will eventually get done.) Then honor the shutdown ritual, knowing that rest will allow you to reset fully.

Retreat for intensive planning periods. A couple of hours each day might not be enough to do medium- to long-range planning. Allow yourself to spend entire days (or multiple days) offsite for this work. Let others in your church know what you are doing and why, and be prepared to show your work. If you really want to settle in for deep focus, use study leave time and/or find pastoral care coverage.

Deep work allows us to give more fully into our calls. It also helps us remember what is important as opposed to what is urgent, and it reminds us that there are very few interruptions that cannot wait a couple of hours for our attention.

How do you build in deep work? Which of the suggestions above might you try?

Lessons from the Lego expo

Last weekend my family went to our first ever [insert fandom descriptor here]-con. For four hours we meandered around an exhibit hall, looking at everything God has ever made re-created with Legos. It was pretty amazing. There were entire downtowns. Moon bases, along with all the vehicles needed to reach them. Rube Goldberg machines. Assault weaponry. (Not my favorite, but works of art nonetheless.) Famous monuments. Celebrity portraits. All of these designs were made exclusively with tiny bricks, with the exception of a few stickers and motorized parts.

It struck me that there were some takeaways from Brickfest with applications for ministry, and I’m not just talking about the Lego Jerusalem temple that took up multiple tables.

Pay attention to the big picture and the minutiae. Depending on the personalities involved, it’s easy to default to one or the other, yet both are needed. Master builders must be able to see the brickwork on the side of one building, but in the context of the whole cityscape. Otherwise parts of the design will get out of proportion or the Legos will run out. The same is true for a congregation’s vision and its resources.

Sometimes you need just the right piece, but at other times several different bricks might do. There are so many different kinds of Legos, and I’m not just talking bricks. There are plants, cups, hats, ladders, fire, and goodness knows how many more kinds of accessories. For some design aspects, one particular piece in that certain color will add to the overall aesthetic, just like it’s important to get lay leaders into roles that align with their gifts and call. In other areas, a range of pieces – or people – could work.

Show as much of your work as you can. Transparency is essential to trust, which is a key to good ministry relationships. In the world of Legos, it’s easy to see what kind of and how many bricks were used in a design. Of course, there are always a few hidden threads – no one needs to know that the innards of your Lincoln Monument are red and green! – just as there are occasions when not every parishioner has to see how the ministry mettwurst is made.

Make ministry modular. Massive Lego creations have to be movable, so they are built in big chunks. Encourage your people to make their ministry portable as well so that the good news of God’s love travels far.

Know when to be serious and when to inject humor. While a Harley Quinn minifig would not have been the most appropriate choice to mill around the Lego temple, I took great delight in finding Batmen and Unikitties strategically placed in a downtown Nashville scene. Likewise, well-timed humor can bring a sense of play into an otherwise (too?) serious meeting or service.

Big projects take time, but the rewards are great. Some of the displays took no less than a year to create. Yet instead of sharing this fact ruefully, the builders took great pride in their investment. In the world of church, we often get bogged down in the length of our projects and processes. What if we could accept the timeline and – gasp! – enjoy the ride?

I wonder how we as ministry leaders might bring in actual Legos to our worship, work, and play to come to new awareness of these truths and to open up our thinking to new ways of being disciples. I think this would bring delight to our ultimate Master Builder.

How to close the church for good

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, positive psychologist Adam Grant offers his thoughts on how to champion new ideas. (If you haven’t read the book, I recommend it. He backs up his suggestions with engaging stories and with hard data.) In one of his illustrations, he talks about one CEO’s approach to helping his company get unstuck: telling his executives to brainstorm ideas for putting the company out of business. For two hours these leaders named all the paths to shuttering the doors, their energy building all the while. And when the executives were out of ways to kill the company, the CEO turned the tables and asked the gathered body to come up with ways to insure against these realities. Now understanding that it would be lethal not to take risks, the executives felt the urgency of innovation.

I wonder if congregational leaders would benefit from a similar exercise: “how could we kill this church?” Get all the options out on the table. (Maybe even think about which ones the church is already – or has considered – doing and what the loss would be to the community if your congregation closed.) Then consider what the opposite approach to each might be.

The goal would not necessarily be to take on all of those opposite approaches – they would need to be weighed against the energy and purpose of the congregation – but to move from a mindset of “we can’t afford to change” to “we can’t afford not to change, and we have some ways forward.” This exercise could help communicate the need for urgency to the participants’ minds and hearts and could illuminate some of the opportunities in challenge, two of John Kotter’s strategies for moving people out of complacency.

Consider using this approach, then, next time a visioning process for an individual ministry or the congregation as a whole yields the standard answers. I’d love to hear what ideas are gleaned and what shifts are made.




Feeling the pinch

I’d had pretty much the same hairstyle for twenty years. Somewhere between chin and shoulders in length, with long layers. This look suited me well enough, I guess. There was no complicated styling involved. I didn’t have to buy any product. I could throw my hair in a ponytail when I wanted. Still, I was craving something different.

I researched short hairstyles, asking friends with cute hair to send me pictures and details on what it took to get their coiffures to look that way. I set aside some money for a cut in a real! salon! because it seemed too risky to make a big change for $7.99 at Great Clips. I asked around for stylist recommendations. I was ready…or was I? I kept putting off making the appointment. No time for a haircut this week…I don’t want to still be figuring out how to tame my new ‘do when X event rolls around…I remember being confused when I was in preschool and my mom made a drastic hair change, and I don’t want to do that to my son.

And then said son began protesting whenever I pulled my hair back into a ponytail, which was most of my at-home hours. “No! Take it out!” He even became quite adept at pulling out my ponytail holder before I even realized what was happening. It was time for the haircut.

So I did it. I went to the grown-up salon and had all the hair that had been weighing me down whacked off. I had been wanting and plotting for a while, but I had to feel a pinch to get myself in gear.

This is the state that many of our churches find themselves in. They want to follow their evolving call from God. Often they already have the resources and have even made some concrete plans for how to move forward. Something, however, is holding them back. Maybe it’s fear. Maybe it’s comfort. These congregations need to feel the pinch before they’re willing to make the leap.  

Sometimes the pinch happens naturally. A staff transition necessitates re-evaluation of leadership needs. The property next to the church goes up for sale. A local service agency invites the congregation into a partnership that would benefit both entities and the community as a whole. A shrinking budget prompts discussion about the best use of resources.

Sometimes, however, leaders who have latched onto God’s dream for the congregation need to help their constituents feel the pinch. How might you help the people you minister alongside discover both the opportunity in and urgency for potential change?

Creative Commons image “Pinch.” by Marie-Claire Camp is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Benefits of coaching: leading processes

The church, like the culture around it, is evolving quickly. This means that strategic plans have a very short shelf life and that ministers are called upon to lead visioning-type processes more frequently.

But where do you begin? The thought of not just structuring the process but also inviting helpful participation and managing congregational anxiety around change can be so daunting.

I have worked with several coachees who were leading their churches to discern what God is calling them to be and to do – in this time and place. Coaching offers space for ministers to consider both the big picture and the tasks that will move the congregation toward realizing it. In our conversations we talk through interpreting the work theologically, making space for the Spirit to speak, involving various parties in healthy ways, naming available assets, sparking creativity, troubleshooting obstacles, managing polarities, and taking concrete steps.

Coachees are able to lead change processes with increased boldness and sensitivity when they feel more equipped. If your church is stuck in a rut, or if you’re already knee-deep in a visioning time and not sure what to do next, let’s talk.

Creative Commons image “Vision…..” by Kamaljith K V is licensed under CC BY 2.0.