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What’s Good about That?

by Dan Hotchkiss

It’s good to pay attention to what’s going well. Most congregations—like most people—can accomplish more by building on their strengths than worrying about how to fix everything that could be better. That’s the basic insight of Appreciative Inquiry and other asset-based approaches to strategic planning: Instead of asking “What’s the matter?” ask, “What’s good? What’s going well?”

Sometimes that’s all it takes. But at other times, wise leaders need to add an extra twist and ask, “What’s good about this?” This simple question takes appreciation to a higher level.

For example, I consulted with a church whose strength, everyone agreed, was in its music program. Every Sunday, a superb suite of sacred music rose up from the chancel: organ, solo voice, and choir, with regular appearances by guest professionals. Surveys of the congregation showed high rates of satisfaction. Following the maxim “build on strength,” the church concentrated its resources on raising the level of musical excellence higher and higher.

The church was succeeding … well, not really. It was at that perilous point where all seemed to be well unless you looked closely at the numbers. Membership, attendance, and the number of contributors all had declined in the last decade. But the budget wasn’t suffering, thanks to generous giving by some older members and two timely bequests. In fact, the church’s money situation had substantially improved. You could see a crisis coming if you looked, but with such good feeling in the congregation, few were inclined to do so.

The most apparent blemish in this pretty picture was that pastors came and went, often in frustration with what they saw as a lopsided emphasis on music. “Why can’t we build up the Sunday school,” they asked, “or the outreach ministries, or the women’s fellowship to match our music?”

In response to this line of criticism, the church endured rounds of mission-writing, vision-casting, and denomination-wide renewal efforts, each of which made small differences but never large ones. There seemed to be no way to transfer the well-developed competence in music over to those other program areas.

What finally made a larger difference was the exercise of asking, after celebrating what was good, “What’s good about that?” And then—no matter what the answer—the next question was the same: “What’s good about that?”

Regarding music, the first round of answers included a description of the current program, its admirers, and their testimony to its spiritual, esthetic, and cultural benefits. The answer was so well-rehearsed and eloquent, it was a little shocking to be asked, “What’s good about that?”

After a pause, the people tried again. They spoke about the pride they felt, belonging to a church with such a name for music. Some older folks remembered when the “movers and shakers” of the city, the elite, belonged. Pressed to say “What was good about that?” they talked about the moral influence the church had had on civic life in those days.

“So,” someone observed, “we’re not just a congregation with great music. What’s good about that—or was good—is that we used classical music to make us attractive, so that, forty years ago, we gathered a significant subset of the city’s leaders.”

Someone who had caught the spirit of the game asked, “And just what exactly was so good about that?”

“That was good because it made the church a vehicle for the values of our faith to have an influence in the community. Why I remember, back in 1973, there was a move to stop teaching evolution in the schools….”

They were off on yet another rabbit-chase down memory lane. When they returned, though, they were ready for a different kind of conversation, framed not by the question, “Why don’t young people come to hear great music?” but a different one: “What influence would we like our faith to have in the community today, and how can we gather a community of leaders who can make that happen?”

The congregation’s strength in music was no longer an end in itself, but an asset in the service of a higher sense of purpose, rooted in the past but not determined by it. Ideas started to pop up about how, in ways both musical and not, the church might seek to make a difference in the city of today.

Change needs to be organic, especially where the native soil is old and deep. Planning for the future needs to start with an appreciative examination of the past and present. The most effective planning starts with questions like, “When have we had a positive effect on our community?” and “What do we do best?”

It’s good to pay attention to what’s going well, but right now many congregations do what they do diligently without seeing the results they once did. And they wonder: What’s wrong? How can we fix it?

One not-so-helpful answer is that the world has changed so radically that old-style synagogues and churches are just doomed. Unless you’re willing to tear out the pipe organ, replace it with a drum set, and run amplifier wire all over the chancel, your church might as well just die.

But it’s much easier to found new congregations based on new ideas than it is to graft them onto an established one. That’s why appreciative techniques feel so good—and why sometimes the ideas they produce are too tame bring real vitality. Affirming strength—good as it feels—is sometimes not enough.

One question may be all it takes to move us beyond pointless self-congratulation. After we count our gifts and blessings, we can say “That’s good,” then take a critical half-step back and ask, “Okay. But exactly what about that is so good?”

This article was first publisted in Perspectives for Church and Synagogue Leaders, April 14, 2014.

Left Behind

by Dan Hotchkiss

It was an awkward moment. I stood in a glorious stone room with the remnant of a once-large congregation, doing my best to play the neutral as I facilitated their planning conversation. We went round and round, till finally an older gent stood up and nailed me. “Do you think we can do it?” he said. “We can talk and make good plans for turning things around—but by now you know us pretty well. Do you think we can do it?”

It was a good question. As I looked around the room, I saw a familiar mix of people: long-time members whose idea of progress sounded a lot like the 1950s or the 1960s; newcomers attracted by the grandeur of the building and the smallness of the congregation; and specialists (musicians, mostly, in this case) passionate to hold on to their small plots of turf.

What bound them together? The building. A few conventionalities of faith and practice. A lot of family tradition, and some truly touching care for one another. And the music. Each person had, for the moment, a sufficient rationale for staying. But was there energy enough to drive a turnaround? I frankly doubted it.

As congregations shrink, the members who would be the most help turning them around often are among the first to go: the energetic, outward-focused people with an urgent sense of purpose and good skills for group decision-making. Those left behind have different gifts: loyalty, consistency, steadfastness—and, too often, some bad habits like divisiveness, backbiting, and nostalgia that make it hard for them to help with a turnaround.

Susan Nienaber, an Alban senior consultant who has worked in many high-conflict congregations, says, “It’s very easy to leave church these days. Leaving is easy, staying can be harder, especially when conflict has driven part of the congregation out—sometimes in a way that recycles the conflict over and over again, each time causing more folks to exit.”

Those who remain often disparage those who leave (and vice versa), making it pointless to decide whose motives are more pure. There are some healthy reasons for leaving—the desire for an effective faith community, for instance; and noble reasons for staying, like determination to preserve what is good in a beloved place. Over time, those who are left behind will differ from the ones who left.

It’s a sort of reverse natural selection—survival of the least fit. It can happen through repeated conflict, as Susan describes. Or it can happen by avoiding conflict: a group that decides harmony is more important than vitality silently drives out the very people who could help it to revive.

Declining congregations often feel obliged to fill a long roster of board and committee seats, a frustrating exercise that can accelerate the downward spiral. Having begged people to occupy those slots, you then have to accept what they decide to do with them; you’re left with what one wag (mashing up Karl Marx with George W. Bush) called “the dictatorship of the willing.” Entrenched, well-meaning fiefholders call the shots—hardly a formula for concerted action!

If you are discouraged with your congregation and wondering whether it is time to exercise the exit option, it may help to know about some things you can do that can improve the odds—for you and for the congregation. It helps, for instance, simply to realize that like many others “left behind,” you may be better suited to maintaining a congregation than to reviving one. There is nothing wrong or shameful about this, and it can be extremely helpful to be conscious of it, and to accept the limits of your role.

An outside leader, for example, may be the key to breaking a downward spiral. As a longtime member, you are unlikely to be that leader—who is more apt to be a clergy or lay newcomer, or possibly a consultant or denominational staff person—but you can use your credibility to persuade others to give that leader time and space to work. And you can run interference when, inevitably, criticism comes.

If a new worship service is part of the plan, for instance, it may be better to initiate that service mostly with new people—keeping old-timers at a distance till the service gets established. That is not an easy thing for a new leader to suggest—and the support of a few well-established members can make all the difference.

If you have survived a series of intense conflicts, you’ve probably contracted some had habits. But hopefully you’ve gained at least one gift: you know and recognize your congregation’s special ways of starting a fight. You may be able to nip the next one in the bud. I’ll never forget the governing board of a deeply troubled Georgia church. As the clouds of war began to gather—for the umpteenth time—a frantic board member said, “We always do this. Why do we always do this?” And an elder lady, speaking for the first time that evening, said, “You’re right, we do. Let’s don’t.” And they didn’t. You could be that lady!

It is not easy to be left behind. You have to face the very realistic possibility that you will see your congregation close its doors for good. The most important way that you can help avoid this is to stand aside and support fresh leadership.

At the same time, it’s good to be clear about what you desire and need from your congregation. Often it turns out to be something rather simple; for example, reassurance that you will be buried out of your familiar building. Or that the liturgy you love won’t be abandoned altogether in your lifetime.

Some congregations have found peace and renewal by giving such assurances to long-time members, and then keeping faith with them. In return, new leaders and new people are allowed to see if new wine can, after all, be poured successfully into an old wineskin.

This article was first published in Congregations, fall 2013, and republished in Alban Weekly.

Pastor-centered churches

A reader writes: “I’m aware of the movement away from boards and committees in church life–a movement that I believe was first put forward from non-denominational churches such as Willow Creek. This is a quite different way of viewing church life and governance, but I’m not sure how it works. Is this something your book addresses?”

My reply:

“You’re right that there’s a big trend toward pastor-centered churches where the board is quite secondary. I’m not sure Willow Creek really fits into that category–they have quite a strong board, I believe, though the test of that won’t come till the next change of senior pastors. But Rick Warren, Bill Easum, and Tom Bandy are pretty clear advocates of a senior pastor who “casts vision” on his or her own authority and also directs the daily work.

“The goal of my governance work, including the book, is to gain some of the purpose-driven, permission-giving virtues of the pastor-centered church while at the same time strengthening the role of the board and congregation in making governance decisions. I’m happy to have a staff-led, hierarchical structure for getting things done (ministry) so long as there is also a robust system for engaging leaders and congregants in discernment, vision-setting, and holding the “doers” accountable for their performance (governance).

“You would like my book, I think. You might also find Susan Beaumont’s work of interest. Her book Inside the Large Congregation has quite a bit to offer mid-sized congregations also.”


Putting staff in charge without losing volunteer commitment

Boards that try to delegate authority to staff often worry that volunteers will lose commitment. It’s a realistic concern: volunteers who handled large responsibilities under the board do sometimes decide, when the board passes the management baton to the head of staff, that they are no longer needed.

This used to surprise me. Why would restructuring the flow of authority cause energy to disappear? Why are volunteers who take high-level responsibility under the board respond to the board’s delegation of authority to the head of staff by taking a vacation? I’m no longer surprised, because I’ve found that maintaining volunteer commitment while moving management from board to staff  is pretty much a universal challenge.

The solution, luckily, turns out to be fairly simple: the staff needs to learn to ask people to take big responsibilities as volunteers. For some reason, there’s often a mental block against the head of staff (or a department head) saying to a proven volunteer:

Here is an area of work I’d like you to take charge of. Would you consider serving for a two-year term as Director of ________. You would not be paid, but you and I would set goals and meet on a regular basis, and you would be included in staff meetings as appropriate. I think of this as the equivalent of a quarter-time job. It is a lot to ask, but I am asking you, and I hope you will say yes.”

In larger congregations and nonprofits, staff leaders often have such conversations. Sometimes the volunteers say no, and sometimes they say yes. People have always taken big responsibilities as volunteers. There’s no reason they should stop because the board decides to get out of management so it can concentrate on governing.

Whither interim ministry?

A file-drawer label popped out at me as I moved into my new office: “VACANT CHURCHES.” For a moment, I imagined empty buildings all across the continent. Then I opened up the drawer, flipped through folders, and realized the churches were not vacant. They were full of people—what they lacked was ministers.

That’s where I came in. It was 1980, and I was the new ministerial placement person for the Unitarian Universalist Association. My job was to fill those “vacant churches” up with ministers.

But not right away—first, we filled most of them up with interims.

Interim ministry, we were convinced, helped navigate a moment of importance in a congregation’s life. The year of transition was an opportunity to rethink program, leadership, strategy, and purpose. It was also an emotional transition, similar to grief. As for many other national and regional church bodies, for us, interim ministry was an almost unquestioned good.

Almost, but not quite. Clergy have always accepted the interim idea better than lay people, many of whom find it odd to spend so much time in transition. Larger churches—which have become more numerous since the 1970s—resist cookie-cutter formulas promoted by denominational bureaucracies. The idea that a congregation has to “do grief work” fits small congregations better than large ones, which tend to define pastoral roles more functionally.

Over the last decade, the consensus in support of interim ministry has softened somewhat. Lay leaders question the automatic use of interims in every case. Some of the objections make sense to me—but as an Alban Institute consultant, but I should acknowledge some accountability for the status quo.

Before founding Alban, Loren Mead tested “vacancy consultants” in 23 Episcopal churches under the name Project Test Pattern. Later, Mead kept looking for ways to help congregations in transition. In 1981, Alban fostered the formation of the Interim Ministry Network, an interfaith association of clergy for whom interim ministry had become a special calling.

Transitional ministries were not new, of course. They had existed under many names, and consultants like Lyle Schaller had promoted interim ministers—but this was something different. Equipped with new ideas like the “stages of grief” made popular by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, interims helped congregations talk about what they were experiencing.

No historian has yet mapped the spread of the interim ministry idea, but apparently it spread quickly. In some denominations, most clergy openings are filled by interims, sometimes for two years or more.

But doubts about the interim idea have not gone away. Carolyn Weese and Russell Crabtree, in The Elephant in the Boardroom (Jossey-Bass 2004), complain that the “prevailing stream of thinking about leadership transitions tends to be illness-based. A pastoral transition is treated like a terminal diagnosis….” (p. 19)  Ouch!

A morbid emphasis on “wounds and weaknesses,” say Weese and Crabtree, forces congregations into a supine, patient-like dependence on the expertise of denominational officials and interim ministers.

Whatever the merits of their alternative suggestions, Weese and Crabtree call needed critical attention to some aspects of Alban’s early work on transitions. Some interim ministers do rely rather heavily on the Kübler-Ross grief model—which can sometimes be a bit dramatic. The most effective interims, I find, balance openness to grief feelings with an appreciative approach to congregational strengths, and bring a broad and flexible portfolio of skills and concepts to the work.

Professional interim ministers, as a group, engage in more self-critical reflection and creative thinking than most other clergy. In “Rethinking Transitional Ministry” (Congregations 2012, issue 1), Norman Bendroth, a network-certified professional interim, surveys some of the current experiments among the members of the Interim Ministry Network.

To date, Bendroth observes—and so far as I have been able to determine, he is right—no one has mounted a serious, objective study to evaluate whether interim ministry reduces conflict, improves ministerial selection, lengthens subsequent ministries, or improves congregational self-knowledge or effectiveness. Given the impact of the widespread use of interim ministry, this is an odd omission that some social scientist should remedy.

The widespread acceptance of interim ministry has instead been based on observation and evaluation, mainly by interested parties like me. Though I can’t prove it, I believe interim ministry has done far more good than harm. But any change in institutional practice has both intended and unintended consequences.

A major side effect of interim ministry is that it produces a strong lobby for its own perpetuation. Interim ministers are a self-conscious professional group, a “guild.” The more interim ministry a denomination recommends, the more interim ministers it will end up with. Over time, it becomes politically hard to entertain alternatives that might reduce the number of jobs for interims.

Another unintended consequence of urging congregations to hire interims is that congregations understandably expect qualified interims to be available. Despite intensive efforts to maintain a strong cadre of effective interims, every year some interim ministers fall short of the advertised ideal.

I still believe in interim ministry, though I agree with Norman Bendroth that after forty years, it’s overdue for some rethinking. What works for pastoral-sized congregations differs from what works in larger ones. Weese and Crabtree’s criticism of the “illness-based” approach has merit—though the fact that I prefer to see myself as healthy doesn’t mean I am.

Congregations in transition are not “vacant churches” and should not be treated as such. At the same time, the departure of a clergy leader does create a vacancy of some importance. Even in large congregations that plan ahead for their transitions, the first day after the departure of a long-time clergy leader feels quite different from the days that went before. On that day, leaders, staff, and members look at one another and ask questions like, Who are we? What shall we do next? With whom?

When asking questions of this kind, a companion who has been this way before can be a comfort and a help no matter how much—or how little—health is in us.