Quick Wins

Yes, it is a gimmick. But it is a gimmick that works. When creating a strategic plan, I always encourage congregations to include one or two highly visible changes that they can accomplish in a matter of one or two months. I call these quick wins.

In many congregations, things remain the same for years, even decades. At least to the naked eye, nothing changes. In some ways this is good. No change represents stability needed in an unstable world. However, when a congregation’s basic metrics and ministry model are in decline, slightly or dramatically, members usually interpret a lack of change as a sign that their congregation is headed in a bad direction, with no effort at a mid-course correction.

A quick win undermines the doubters who think a strategic plan will not succeed. In a matter of weeks to months, they see something accomplished. A quick win encourages teams working on longer term strategies. They see another team’s success and think, “Wow, they did it. We can also do it!” Equally important, a quick win encourages the entire membership that maybe change is, in fact, going to happen this time around.

Rearranging the chairs?

Fresh out of seminary, I went to work as an assistant pastor for evangelism at a Presbyterian congregation in Houston, Texas. When I arrived, people raved about Head of Staff Maynard Smith’s problem-solving abilities. Many were the members who told me, “Maynard fixed the chair problem.” It struck me as odd. My ministry idealism unbridled, I sought to change the world. Maynard had changed the chairs!

The St. John’s campus had four buildings built around a courtyard. One of the buildings was the original sanctuary transformed into a fellowship hall. But the hall had no chairs. So every time there was an event in the hall, members had to move chairs from the other three buildings and then move them back when the event ended.

Maynard arrived as the new pastor and heard constant murmuring (a la Moses’ people) about the chair situation. He took out his personal checkbook and wrote a check to buy a bunch of chairs for the Fellowship Hall. By the time I arrived six years later, people were still raving about Maynard’s brilliance, action-orientation, etc. His ministry started with a quick win and stayed strong for twenty years. Moses led his people to the Promised Land but in the eyes of the members of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Houston I’m not sure it was any more significant than what Maynard did.

A few quick wins

Recently, I have observed congregations write into their strategic plans relatively simple things like

  • Putting display monitors in the narthex and office entrance to the church with rotating images of the congregation and its ministry, daily calendar, and Scripture quotations.
  • Creating a new mission opportunity such as teams to work with the homeless, abused women, or at-risk children.
  • Recruiting new, younger faces to be liturgists and ushers.
  • Replacing a cranky piece of kitchen equipment that irritates people every time they have to use the church kitchen.
  • Putting better signage outside the church.
  • Instituting a new format for the weekly e-blast—or starting a weekly e-blast where it doesn’t exist.

While none of these strategies will change the world or even the immediate direction of the congregation’s ministry, they will change something very important. They re-establish, in the minds of the members, that change is possible.

We live in a time when people appear to doubt the possibility of change. Nonetheless, in their heart of hearts, they believe change can happen. Note the popularity of candidates in the Republican and Democratic primaries who promise to break through governmental gridlock to generate change. If congregations are to thrive, we must be perceived as agents capable of generating change.

As congregational leaders, we need to look for changes large and small, short-term and long-term that improve our ability to speak and minister to the hearts and minds of our members and the world. A few short term “wins” can give us almost instant credibility as change agents. It is worth a try.

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Is Sunday School Doomed?

Regardless of their theological beliefs, churches struggle with some common issues. Of these, one of the most surprising to me has to do with the future of Sunday schools. No one lacks commitment to educate children and youth in the faith. However, more and more congregations are questioning whether a traditional Sunday school is the way to do it.

Leaders express their concerns about Sunday school with a certain amount of guilt. “Do you know other congregations that are struggling to keep their Sunday school alive? Do you know of any who are going so far as to consider ending Sunday school?” When I respond “Yes!” I hear a sigh of relief.

Different dates are offered as to when Sunday schools began in the United States, but most historians agree that they are approximately 200 years old. I find the dating important because those two centuries represent approximately 10 percent of Christian history. For 90 percent of Christian history, churches were educating their children and youth in some manner or another that was not what we consider today a “traditional Sunday school.” Is it possible that we will increasingly be educating our kids without a Sunday school for the next 1800 years of Christian history?

The reasons congregations are struggling with Sunday school is sometimes related to size and the age of the congregation. When I first went to Washington, D.C.’s Western Presbyterian Church in 1983, there was no Sunday school or nursery because almost everyone was over the age of 60. Many congregations today have similar demographics, leaning heavily toward the oldest generations.

Even when there are some kids in the congregation, the number may be so small as to make it challenging to develop an organized Sunday school. A not unusual situation today is a congregation of 250 with 20 kids. If half of them show up on any given Sunday (and that would be a pretty good showing), they only have ten kids, who may range from toddlers to middle school. How does one develop a Sunday school with those kinds of numbers and ages?

Some larger congregations have the same problems sustaining a traditional Sunday school. They have multiple worship services spreading across Saturday and Sunday. They are wondering “How does one create educational experiences for children across such a timeframe?”

What is causing the growing discussion about whether or not Sunday Schools should continue? It relates to the same forces that impact Sunday morning worship attendance. Sunday morning is filled with interesting things to do. Many people are choosing to do something other than come to worship. As a result, we see a growing number of congregations offering worship at times and days in addition to Sunday morning. Trying to create and staff a Sunday school for different days and times just complicates an already challenging task.

As congregations consider the future of their Sunday schools, a few things are particularly important to the discussions taking place:

Educating our children and youth is not synonymous with a Sunday school program. There are many ways to educate our kids. Sticking with a model that clearly isn’t working will hinder, not help, us to reach our goal of teaching the faith to younger generations.
Most Sunday schools rely on a classroom model of educating that may not be the best way to reach our kids today. The use of and comfort level with cell phones, tablets and computers may lead us to new, better ways to teach the faith than a uniform curriculum used in classrooms.
The risks of saying, “We are going to try something other than Sunday school” are real. Pastors and lay leaders can be caricatured as abandoning children and youth. This creates the need for denominational conversations so a congregation eliminating traditional Sunday school won’t appear to be an outlier.
Will Sunday schools survive the first quarter of the 21st century? Only time will tell. The more important question is: How will our generation teach the faith to our children and youth?

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Organizational and/or Staff Performance Reviews

Almost everyone dreads the annual performance review that remains a ritual in most congregations. The employee wonders if it will be fair. If the pastor performs reviews of staff, she or he wonders if the results will be toxic for the relationship with the staff member. Pastors tell me about problems finding members qualified to perform an annual performance review of the pastor. After all, most members are not closely enough involved in the work of their pastor to perform an informed review. So the thought of annual reviews is not something that warms our hearts!

Despite all of our legitimate fears and trepidation about annual performance reviews, we do them—religiously. Some denominations, like my own Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., require an annual review of the pastor. Other reviews take place because of traditions or policies within particular congregations. Some congregations do them just because everyone else does them.

I have written about this subject before. I write about it again today because, given the dissatisfaction with these processes, there are now clear signs that more and more well-run organizations are doing away with annual performance reviews. The latest to eliminate them isAccenture, one of the largest companies in the world. Accenture is noteworthy because its product is helping other companies become more efficient and effective in organizational practices. In March, Deloitte, another major company that helps companies be more effective by using best practices, announced that it is doing away with employee ranking and performance reviews.

Will congregations, once again, be the last entity to embrace positive trends in organizational behavior? Or will we read the literature and begin to change our ways? Obviously, I hope it is the latter.

Why Annual Performance Reviews Fail

To me, the primary reason that annual performance reviews fail is their focus on individual performance. In my consulting work, it isn’t unusual for a congregation to explain that they have gone through multiple Christian educators without realizing their goal of improving the quality of their Christian education program. While they may have made bad hiring decisions, it is as likely that the problem isn’t in the individual educator but in the internal dynamics of the education ministry.

A second reason annual performance reviews don’t work is a lack of willpower to enforce the results. Congregations typically will tell a pastor or other staff member to do this or that during the course of an annual review. When “this or that” doesn’t happen during the next year, the people doing the annual performance review rarely even comment on failures to perform on stated goals.

Congregations are not alone in this failure to hold people accountable. A recent poll of the federal government agencies revealed that, “Perhaps the most startling finding was that 70 percent of respondents felt that underperforming non-managers were rarely or never dismissed or reassigned. And 64 percent felt action was rarely or never taken for underperforming managers, either.” Annual reviews are painful rituals with little observable impact on performance.

A Better Way

So if we drop annual performance reviews, what do we put in their place? First, we focus on the performance of the congregation, not the performance of individuals or committees. As we do so, staff will be viewed through a different, larger lens. It becomes less personal and more about the congregation accomplishing its mission. Of course, if dysfunctional staff can’t improve their performance in helping the system to accomplish its goals, they will need to improve or move on. But the issue will be the performance of the congregation in meetings its goal, not a staff member per se.

Second, we trust the people we hire. Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme says, “The art of leadership is not to spend your time measuring, evaluating. It’s all about selecting the person. And if you believe you selected the right person, then you give that person the freedom, the authority, the delegation to innovate and to lead with some very simple measure.” He says the old system of individual performance reviews is focused on performance in the past while he wants to position his employees to do well going forward. I would add that the old system is rooted in control while newer management systems are working to unleash individual and group creativity.

In a performance-driven congregation, the head of staff and governing body will focus on whether or not the congregation is accomplishing its stated goals (Hopefully, there are stated goals.). This focus won’t be on once-a-year reviews. It will happen every day, week, and month. Heads of staff will continually coach staff, boards, committees and teams. A key part of coaching is ongoing evaluation of where performance can be improved.

I am confident that Jesus didn’t do annual performance reviews of his individual disciples. Instead, as they gathered every night for dinner after a long day of work, my guess is that Jesus asked, “How are we doing? Did we make progress today on the things we want to achieve? If not, why not? James, how is your work going? What do you need from the rest of us to make it happen?” It is an exhausting process to monitor performance every day. However, I just don’t see any other way to do it.

I am convinced that annual performance reviews have failed to increase our ability to do the ministry we are called by God to perform. We can’t evaluate performance once a year. We need to evaluate it daily.

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Who Is Sitting in the Meeting?

When a congregational board sits down to make decisions, what if we think a bit differently about the participants? Let’s forget their names for a moment and view them as individuals who view the world from the perspective of the sub-cultures in which they work and live. Instead of recognizing Jane to speak, we would think to ourselves, “Let’s hear a word from the lawyer.” As the discussion progressed, we would hear from the plumber, academic, farmer, medical doctor and school teacher.

Such an approach recognizes that, in addition to being part of our congregation’s culture, board members come from secular vocational cultures that consume much of their daily lives. These vocational subcultures have their own values, ethics and worldviews. These sub-cultures become visible when, from time to time, someone violates the underlying ethics and values of, say, the legal or medical profession. These powerful subcultures are brought into every congregational board meeting, influencing the way board members view and decide upon the issues before them.

My father was pastor of a congregation outside Detroit, Michigan in the 1940s and 1950s where the membership was primarily blue-collar workers and executives from automotive-related industries in town. He then moved to being pastor of a congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, a city dominated by state government and university academic-types. He told me that when he was in Michigan, he would bring an idea to his leaders; they would debate the matter; and then vote on it. This was the way they made decisions in their workplaces. Up or down, yes or no.

In Madison, when he brought an idea to his board they would debate it for a while and then create a special committee to study the matter. A year later or so, they would report back their findings. My Dad said, “By the time they came back with a recommendation, it usually was either no longer timely or we had lost the passion around the idea.” The moment for decision-making had passed without a decision. It was a classic government and academia model of decision-making.

Vocational sub-cultures

In both Michigan and Wisconsin, the culture of the congregation was deeply penetrated and influenced by the vocational sub-cultures decision-makers brought to the governing board. I was reminded of the importance of this reality while re-reading Edgar Schein’s classic work on organizational culture, Organizational Culture and Leadership. Schein, professor emeritus of management at MIT, is an organizational psychologist who almost created the field. He helps readers understand how cultures work. I think some of his teaching assistants helped him update the recent edition with helpful insights from the 21st century.

As Schein worked with corporations, he began to see that cultures outside the organizational culture oftentimes had a defining impact on the workplace. Focused on the company’s culture, he initially failed to see the influence of the external sub-cultures on its decision-making. Describing a company dominated by engineers, Schein talks about their infatuation with the ingenuous things they created. The engineering culture celebrates those who create amazing contraptions, whether it be a space vehicle or an iPhone, but–crucially–ignoring whether it is marketable or not.

The problem for this particular company was that many of these brilliant contraptions were not marketable. Because of the engineering subculture they brought to the company, the engineers failed to appreciate the need for keen market analysis which might indicate whether a particular invention, no matter how brilliant, would sell. To help the company change its culture, Schein had to learn to think and talk in terms engineers would appreciate. The company needed to create a culture that not only appreciated ingenuity but utility; not just the power of imagination but the power of marketing.

Values from the workplace

So it can be with the congregational board members sitting around a table. They can be more focused on values flowing from their workplaces than the purpose of the congregation. Let’s imagine that they are considering a major renovation project for the congregation’s facilities. Every board member acknowledges that the building sorely needs to be renovated. However, they differ as to how and whether to proceed.

The attorneys on the board will probably want to be sure that the “case” to renovate is a convincing argument. The teachers may be focused on how it impacts the congregation (students). The nurses will want to know if everyone’s input is being taken seriously and valued (the input of nurses is too often discounted in a hospital). The farmer may want a patient approach, arguing that not everything has to be accomplished in one season. You get the idea.

Much of the literature I read about congregations focuses almost exclusively on the culture of the congregation itself. If Schein is correct, and many of us believe he is, then we need to be spending much more time analyzing how the various sub-cultures we bring to our congregations is impacting our decision-making.

I have focused on the impact of vocational sub-cultures. We also need to consider the impact of sub-cultures that relate race, ethnicity, gender, geographic regions, among many others. When I was in my mid-thirties, I was moderator of a synod whose membership was majority southern. As a classic Yankee, I preferred fast talk and even faster decision-making. I couldn’t understand the push-back I was getting from some of the Synod’s leadership council. Finally, a wise old Southern woman pulled me aside and said, “John, we just don’t think that fast down here. You need to slow down.” With humor and grace, she taught me the importance of regional sub-culture.

As we consider changing the cultures of our congregations, what sub-cultures are present in the congregation and its leadership that need to be considered with special care? Schein teaches us that we fail to analyze organizational sub-cultures at our own risk.

This post can also be found at www.congregationalconsulting.org where my consulting colleagues and I write weekly articles.  Please subscribe to our growing list!

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Mobilizing for Minstry—Using Teams

Fair or unfair, the younger generations have negative assumptions about the way committees function. Teams, however, are something they understand and embrace. Most Millennials and Gen-Xers have been involved in team sports from an early age. Many workplaces today are organized into teams. The high-tech industry, for example, has made billions of dollars using creative, self-managing teams. So when asked to serve on a team in a congregation, younger people understand what they are agreeing to do. A committee feels a bit foreign to them.

Around the turn of the century, I started to notice this generational preference for teams when I asked the growing number of Gen-Xers and Millennials in our congregation to serve on committees. They usually responded, “Thanks, but no thanks.” However, when I asked them to serve on a team, they replied, “What does the team do?” My experiences led me to write a book I am currently finishing on teams. I want to highlight a couple of things from my research that will hopefully help those congregations interested in or already making the transition from a committee-driven organization to a team-driven organization.

My first point is simply definitional. The word team was first used in the English language to describe teams of horses. As a verb, it was used to describe two or more horses “teamed” together. So from the beginning, the word was associated with getting work done more efficiently. A team of horses can do what a human being or single horse can’t do.

In contrast, a committee is defined as a group of persons created by some body with authority, such as a Parliament, corporate board or congregational governing board. A committee is delegated responsibilities by and reports back to the body that creates it. Committees typically have a chairperson, secretary, minutes, etc.

The definitions are important. Teams and committees are not the same thing with different names. Teams are task oriented; committees are more governance oriented. People joining congregations today seem to be more interested in doing tasks (e.g., feeding the hungry, caring for the elderly) than governance. As a result, they are more open to serving on teams and less receptive to serving on committees.

However, teams are, in and of themselves, not foolproof.  In order for teams to succeed, we need to give them proper direction, recruit the right people, provide ongoing coaching, and avoid micromanaging. Let me say a few words about each of those key ingredients to successful teams.

The great thing about teams is their ability to come up with creative ways to do work. When they are not micromanaged from above, teams will perform far more efficiently than almost any other alternative. However, it is not micromanaging to tell a team what they are expected to do. In fact, when a team is established, if there is a lack of clarity about the assigned work, the team will flounder from the beginning.

Recruit the Right People

Not all people are team players. Individuals who don’t work well with others should not be on teams. Find them a job in the congregation that needs one person to do it. They will be happy and so will you.

Teams need specific skill sets to get their work done. A team working on congregational finances needs team members who have very specific skills regarding the management of finances. Putting people on a team because they “represent” the choir, older adult members or any other specific constituency within a congregation is a sure way to disable a team before it gets started.

Research reveals specific traits that are useful when recruiting team members such as 1) the skills or knowledge needed to do the assigned task, 2) good interpersonal and communication skills, 3) a commitment to working on a team, 3) a demonstrated ability to adapt to things as the team faces unexpected challenges and opportunities, 4) the gift of dependability, 5) and an ability to take initiative within the team. Trying to get people with as many of these characteristics as possible to serve on a team will dramatically increase the likelihood that the team will succeed.

Provide Coaching

A team should have a leader. The leader may be designated from the beginning, the team may choose its own leader, or the team may rotate the leadership responsibility. However the leader is chosen, it needs to be clear who the leader is at any given moment. Once identified, the leader usually welcomes some coaching regarding team dynamics. For example, as conflict emerges within the team (most healthy teams have and embrace conflict as part of the creative process), the leader may need a coach to whom she/he can turn for advice. Staff people can be great coaches for leaders of congregational teams.

Avoid Micromanaging

The line between coaching and micromanaging is well trampled upon. Too often, a coach doesn’t coach a team. The coach interferes with or even dictates to a team. Such patterns of outside interference will doom efforts to create effective teams in our congregations. The genius of a team is that it can figure out how to do its work better than those who set up the team. The Japanese taught the world this truth with their success building automobiles with highly independent manufacturing teams. Assembly line teams were given the authority to change what engineers had designed. We need to allow teams to do their work as they think best.

In conclusion, teams are not committees with a different name. They are totally different groupings of people. First in my experience as a pastor and now in my experience as a consultant, I have become convinced that if we employ teams in our congregations, we will mobilize members as never before. Teamwork can set our members free to do the work as they deem best.

Clearly, this model requires trust in the teams. Isn’t the need to trust one another one of the core values most congregations preach? Teams are a prime opportunity to practice what we preach.

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It’s Time to Talk About Performance

When I told the pastor that I wanted to use some of my time at his staff retreat to discuss performance, he responded (with a smile), “Performance is a word we don’t use in our denomination.”  With a similar smile, I replied, “Not to worry, we don’t use it in my denomination either.”  While we were joking, we were also serious.  Performance is a subject that is avoided in too many congregations.

Why is discussion of performance not a major topic in congregations?  It certainly is a major topic in most non-profit and for-profit organizations. Indeed, for successful organizations, a drive to perform effectively and efficiently is at the heart of their vision. To change the world, we need to be performing at peak efficiency.  For example, books written about Dr. King’s civil rights work reveal one of the highest performing organizations in our nation’s history.

Whether it be the performance of the congregational system as whole, parts of the system such as committees or teams, or individual staff members, performance is not a topic we embrace in most congregations. Yes, many congregations have a system of annual performance reviews. However, even many of those tend to be seemingly unrelated to performance.  Following a performance review, under–performing staffers continue to be employed; high performing staffers aren’t rewarded (monetary reward is probably the least important of the rewards a congregation can give an excellent staff person); average performers aren’t coached to improve.

What is our aversion to focusing on performance in the life of a congregation? I think some of it has to do with bad theology. Christian congregations can take Jesus’ words about “judge not lest you be judged” and let under-performing staffers, volunteers or committees continue to under-perform, unwilling to “judge” them. In contrast to such fear of judging, Jesus had no problem questioning the performance of his team. Numerous times, he called out the disciples for misunderstanding or not doing what he expected of them.  A corollary is found in Moses who repeatedly questioned the performance of his congregation as he led them to the Promised Land.

Second, another part of our aversion to performance has to do with fear of conflict. We want our congregations to be warm, loving, safe places. There is nothing wrong with that sentiment.  However when a love of harmony produces a fear of raising performance issues, it becomes unhealthy.

Isn’t performance a factor in a loving family?  In a healthy family, don’t we have expectations of what we will do and how we will relate to each other?  My parents were certainly very clear about my performance when it was less than what they expected!  There is nothing wrong with performance standards in a family.

Third, when we do address performance, the discussion usually focuses on underperforming staff members or committees/teams.  Why?  When that happens, we are sending high performing people and groups the wrong message: “If you don’t perform, you’ll get attention.  If you do perform, we’ll ignore you.”  One reason to focus on performance is to celebrate the accomplishments of high performing staff members, committees and teams.

Fourth, as someone who analyzes the behavior of congregations as systems, I urge my clients to stop focusing obsessively on the low performance of one part of the system.  Think instead of the larger system.  Is it performing?  If not, why not?  The underperformance of a system is usually not caused by one individual part.  It is something, well, more systemic.

How many congregations have we seen futilely change pastors, rabbis, educators or music directors in search of improved congregational performance? While it may very well be that a congregation needs a new staff person in some area, it is just as likely, perhaps more likely, that the congregation has systemic issues that are undermining its performance.

We can replace parts of the system all day and all night.  But if it is a systems issue, a new part will not be any more effective than the old part in creating a solution.  Take the example of the D.C. Public School system.  The vast majority of teachers in D.C. rightly receive high performance evaluations. And yet the system as a whole continues to struggle to meet its targeted performance measurements. There is something in the system that undermines the performance of the individual parts.  Hopefully, one day school leadership will stop firing teachers and principals in search of improved performance and, instead, fix the systemic issues.

Ultimately, the key to strong performance is accountability.  In worship, we preach about the fact that God holds us accountable for the way we lead our lives.  Does that message not also apply to the life of our congregations? Are we willing to hold ourselves and others in our congregations accountable for our/their performance? Are we willing to have the tough conversations that are required to improve performance? Can we celebrate our accomplishments when we perform at high levels?

With all this talk of performance and accountability, you may be surprised to know that I do not consider annual performance evaluations to be terribly effective in increasing a congregation’s or staff member’s performance.  UCLA Management professor Samuel Culbert has written a compelling book in which he is highly critical of performance reviews as a tool to improve performance in an organization.  A summary of the book can be found in Culbert’s The Wall Street Journal article at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB122426318874844933   In it, Culbert argues not just against annual performance reviews; he argues in favor of ongoing attention to performance. The key, he says, to improved performance by members of a staff team  is to “guide, coach, tutor, provide oversight and generally do whatever is required to assist a (staff person) to perform successfully.” Culbert recommends that we improve performance on the go. To me, it sounds a lot like Moses leading the people across the desert or Jesus leading his disciples to this day.

If we can make performance of our congregations (as a system) a driving agenda rather than a dirty word, a lot of nagging things that hinder our effectiveness will disappear.  God is judging our performance.  Dare we do anything less in our congregations?


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On Your Mark—Get Set—Stop (and Reflect)—Plan

Part of consulting is Emergency Room work. When a congregation is bleeding, the bleeding needs to stop before anyone can step back and think big picture. However, in our fix-it-quick, put-a-Band-Aid-on-it culture, another part of consulting is making sure congregations slow down so they can prayerfully reflect upon and discern God’s will for their ministry.

In her excellent book, Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups, Ruth Haley Barton suggests that a key to discerning God’s will is to reach a state of “indifference.”  She contends that to hear God, we need to stop listening solely to ourselves and the world.  God needs us to become “indifferent” to the many worldly and ecclesiastical agendas we bring into a planning process so that, individually and collectively, we can listen for God’s agenda. Striving for a spiritual state of indifference is essential if we are to be truly open to the new things to which God is calling us.

Ruth’s advice is challenging, to say the least. As consultants, we get a lot of calls from potential clients saying, in effect, “Here is what we need you to do” or “Here is our problem.”  We don’t field a lot of calls in which someone says, “We need you to help us get rid of our pre-set agendas so we can reach a state of spiritual indifference.” Nonetheless, slow down and discern we must if our planning it to be effective long-term.

I am drawn to the idea of discernment as part of a planning process because it can help us to name the agendas that drive our ministries.  Our agendas are usually positive, at least, in the abstract. For example, most of us in ministry feel an agenda to grow our congregations, provide quality worship, sensitive, consistent pastoral care, and engaging programs.  Such agendas are not contrary to God’s will.  But if they remain unexamined, will they always guide us where God would have us go?

Three months after I arrived at Western Presbyterian Church in 1983 to begin what became a thirty year pastorate, I was approached by a community activist who made me an exciting offer.  He said that he had about $5,000 to be used to start a feeding program for the homeless who lived west of the White House.  “Are you interested,” he asked. 

The possibility of a major feeding ministry filled me with excitement.  But I wasn’t sure how our tiny congregation would feel about it. While a feeding program was on my agenda, was it also the congregation’s agenda or God’s agenda? Over the next six months, we engaged in a lot of Bible study around issues related to the homeless and hungry; we prayed about what we should do; we had discussions among our leadership; I preached on the subject.  Finally, we had a congregational meeting to make a decision.

At the meeting, people gave pro and con arguments that reflected the various agendas that drive most ministries—some people worried about the poor, others worried about the building, yet other folks worried about liability issues. Then Forrest Agnew stood up. Forrest was a quiet, retired man from Mississippi who had been a pillar of the congregation for four decades. When he spoke, people listened. 

Forrest said, “I have been thinking and praying about this feeding program possibility.  As President of the Trustees, I have to say (no offense, John) that I think it is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard. Our building is old. We have the original plumbing, heating and electrical systems from 1930. I am not sure the building will stand up to a daily feeding program.  But I have also listened to John’s sermons, attended Bible classes on the subject, and prayed daily about what we should do. Even though this is a really bad idea from a building perspective, I don’t think the Bible leaves us much choice about our decision. The Good Book says we need to feed the hungry and give shelter to the homeless.  So I will vote for the program.”

Forrest went through his own personal process of discernment. He emptied himself of all of his worldly agendas and embraced the agendas laid out in Scripture. That day, his words filled my eyes with tears.  They fill my eyes with tears as I write them today.  

In 1983, I didn’t know what a discernment process was.  But by good fortune, blind luck or divine intervention, we engaged in one.  The personal discernment processes of faithful servants such as Forrest Agnew plus our collective process of discernment as a congregation led to the creation of a feeding program that thirty years later still serves about 2000 meals weekly.

As we plan, strategically and intentionally, we need to insure that our deliberations are open to God moving us in surprising ways; moving us to places that are contrary to where reason alone would lead us. Do our planning processes include an intentional openness to being surprised; to being quiet and listening for God’s will?  Even if we are ready to plan, may we stop, become quiet, listen, reflect and discern God’s will before we begin. 

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