Many congregational and nonprofit leaders are still setting annual organizational goals. Good goals (the “what we want to accomplish”) begin with good questions (“why is it important for us to accomplish this work?”). We therefore offer a few crucial questions for your organization or congregation to ask as you assess your hoped-for impact this year and beyond. We know that these questions are important, for they flow from for our fresh research on both “start-up” and established congregations across Jewish and Protestant denominations, and nonprofits with historic ties to faith communities, which you can read about in Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platform, People and Purpose.

What would it mean to make “engagement” an organizing principle and not just a series of activities?

Shifting toward engagement as an organizing principle is to become a community where people come together or take part in something that is meaningful to them. It is a community where passion or purpose hold the community, not membership status. The shift may seem subtle, but this slight change in focus made a big difference in the organizations in our study. Leaders shared with us that the routines of committee work, communications, and programs as they “have always been done” no longer have the holding power to keep people connected to the organization’s or congregation’s mission.

However, when they shifted their focus from membership to engagement as an organizing principle, it not only ignited the passion of members and participants but it also rippled through the organization and changed the culture as a whole. Pastor Greg Meyer of Jacob’s Well, MN, one of the thirty-four leaders whom we interviewed in our book, expressed this idea beautifully when he said, “Of all the things we are stewards of with our community, their attention is one of the biggest, and it is almost the hardest. It is almost easier to get people to give than to get their attention.”

What will it require for congregations and nonprofits to hold together diverse communities when social media make them so fragile?

Congregational and nonprofit communities are very fragile these days! When we asked congregational and nonprofit leaders profiled in our book about pressing challenges, they consistently responded with one word: “Community!” We could feel their anxieties around this issue and, from our perspective, for good reason. Congregations are at their best when they are inclusive. Diversity is not its own goal, but a value that enables people to engage with the “other” – a person from another generation, a different background, a spiritual orientation or political view. In that encounter with an “other,” both people have an opportunity to grow by experiencing difference.

Holding together diverse communities requires time and sensitivity. But people involved in congregations and nonprofits may create or be caught in destructive digital debates that can spill over into face-to-face meetings. Alternatively, conversations that happen when people are physically together may continue publicly online, where others who were not present and lack the context can join. While social media have significantly increased opportunities for connection, they have also multiplied the likelihood of misunderstandings. What kinds of “conversations” are effective on digital platforms and which are best held in a physical space? What happens when a professional or volunteer publishes information about an issue that is unintentionally misleading or inaccurate—or simply false? Congregations and nonprofits may be among the last institutions designed to take people from diverse backgrounds, at all stages of life, and grow with them over time. How will they continue to be those places in a fractured world? These questions are urgent and need to be explored openly.

What would it mean for congregations and nonprofits to reorganize more like “platforms” instead of being structured as “top down” hierarchies?

In our book, we recommend that congregations and nonprofits restructure themselves more as platforms, or what we name “Organization 3.0.” Organization 3.0 is a blended model of hierarchy and networks that is present both in digital and physical space, characterized by dialogue, more shared-decision making and creation of content and meaning. It values are based on deep engagement between individuals and organizations. (Spoiler alert: on page 11 we even give the date on which Organization 3.0 first became possible—June 29, 2007.)

The fundamental difference between Congregation or Nonprofit 2.0 and 3.0 is an acknowledgement that the individuals do not need existing organizations to express and explore sacred meaning and purpose. They have the ability to bypass them and find or create new platforms to do so. But if congregations and nonprofits can make the pivot and become platforms for people to engage in purposeful work, they have a good chance of engaging new and existing audiences more deeply. Unlike startups, they have the advantage of doing so in physical and digital space.

Hayim Herring is CEO of HayimHerring.com, whose mission is “preparing today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations.Terri Martinson Elton is associate professor of leadership at Luther Seminary.

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