Q: When our congregation has made plans for change, we often seem to have good intentions, but we don’t seem to get anywhere. What can we do differently?
A: It sounds as if your congregation is experiencing what some have called the “knowing and doing gap.” You know what you need to do, but can’t seem to do it. The situation is not hopeless, however.
First of all, I would suggest that change that endures mines the best of what has been in the past, responds thoughtfully to the challenges of the present, and discerns wisely and prayerfully a future among possible scenarios. If we attempt to solve present problems without this broader perspective of the interrelationship between the congregation’s past, present, and future, we may be cutting ourselves off from the congregation’s enduring strengths. If we focus only on solving present problems, we may not ask ourselves what’s possible. Instead, we need to be able to evoke the possibilities within the congregation that are inherently self-motivating. The practices below can help you as you seek to lead in such a way. I draw these practices from an “appreciative inquiry” approach to leading.
First, ask your members to reflect upon and talk about the times when your congregation was at its best—at engaging members in the life and work of the congregation, at making a difference in the surrounding community or in the spiritual lives of its members, or whatever else your focus may be. For example, you might ask: When have you felt most engaged in the life and the work of this congregation? What did we as a congregation do to help bring that about?
From these lived examples you will be able to discover some common themes. You can then ask the congregation to consider what qualities and practices helped to bring these experiences about.
Next, focus on the question: What would be possible for us as a congregation if we did more of what we do when we are at our best? A distinction is important here: rather than envisioning possibilities out of a mythical “clear blue sky,” we are imagining these possibilities from what we have already actually experienced, and we are considering what would occur if the congregation intentionally did more of what it knows it can do to bring about these best experiences among its members.
Once you have clarified some future possibilities, focus your efforts on asking: What shifts in our perspective and ways of being can help bring this about? What behaviors and actions would we see more of? What changes in our approaches would we need to take to support what is possible for us as a congregation?
It is at this stage that you would proactively anticipate obstacles to your congregation’s future directions and plan for what you will need to do differently in order to overcome these obstacles.
Once a possibility has been clarified, it’s important to identify the specific, feasible steps needed to make it a reality, along with a time line for accomplishing them. At this stage, it often helps to extend the discussion beyond the usual committee working on the project. Innovation often comes from inviting fresh eyes and voices into the process.
In their book The Knowing-Doing Gap, Jefferey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) identify some of the tendencies that often lead to this gap, including:
- Because we’ve talked about it we feel we’ve done it.
- Because we have made a plan we feel that is equivalent to doing the plan.
- We fear moving forward because of the unknown.
- We have set ourselves up for too much change too soon.
To address these stumbling blocks, I have found it helpful for a congregation to develop a prototype of some new practices they will try over a period of three to nine months, with the explicit purpose of learning through doing. As a leader, you would need to intentionally build into this process opportunities for reflecting on the results of your new actions as a congregation, for harvesting your learning, and for making course corrections from what you have learned.
In the Protestant tradition there is the understanding that the church is always reforming. As leaders, we have the opportunity to guide that reformation in our local congregations, for the sake of our congregations and the church as a whole.
Larry Peers is a senior consultant for the Alban Institute. In addition to coaching clergy leaders, he utilizes whole systems processes (Future Search Conference and Appreciative Inquiry Summit) with congregations. You may listen to a recording of Larry’s Alban webinar, “Leading Appreciatively,” at www.alban.org.
Larry Peers is a senior consultant for the Alban Institute. In addition to coaching clergy leaders, he utilizes whole systems processes (Future Search Conference and Appreciative Inquiry Summit) with congregations. You may listen to a recording of Larry’s Alban webinar, “Leading Appreciatively,” at www.alban.org .