When congregations, with all good intentions, make plans for change but don’t seem to get anywhere, they may be experiencing the very common phenomenon that 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. There are approaches that we, as leaders, can take to get beyond this tendency.
First, 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 myopically—that is, 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 is possible. Instead, we need to be able to evoke the possibilities within the congregation that are inherently self-motivating. The following practices, drawn from an “appreciative inquiry” approach to leading, may help.
First, ask members to reflect upon and talk about the times when the 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 particular 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 the root causes of these common best experiences. 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 know actually works—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 that are built upon your understanding—grounded in actual experience—of the best of what can be, 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, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton 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.1
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.
1. Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton,The Knowing and Doing Gap (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000)
Adapted from “Ask Alban” in Congregations Spring 2009 (vol. 35,
no. 2), copyright © 2009 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Creating the Future Together:
Methods to Inspire Your Whole Faith Community
by Loren B. Mead and Billie T. Alban
Congregations today face a multitude of challenges in trying to adapt to a quickly changing world. Balancing new concerns with core values is a complicated process that can leave too many members feeling that their voices and needs are not being met. Creating the Future Together explains how congregations can use large group methods to navigate these new waters. This book is designed to familiarize leaders with these whole-system approaches and to provide a conceptual framework for evaluating their potential usefulness against any given challenge.
Heart, Mind, and Strength:
Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership
by Jeffrey D. Jones
Leadership, observes Jeffrey Jones, is never about you. What happens to you as a leader stems from a vast array of issues and dynamics over which you have little or no control. Leadership, Jones also insists, is always about you—Christ’s disciple, part of the system, an individual with your own anxieties and a personal life that shapes both your personhood and your relationships. Heart, Mind, and Strength is about dealing with the tension between these two realities. It will enhance your practice of ministry by providing well-grounded theory related to the practical concerns you encounter in the daily work of balancing what you know with who you are.
The Power of Asset Mapping:
How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts
by Luther K. Snow
Asset mapping isn’t a new system or theory. It’s a way of thinking, a doorway into an “open-sum” perspective rooted in the Bible and common experience. The Power of Asset Mapping, by long-time community developer Luther K. Snow, shows congregational leaders how to help a group recognize its assets and the abundance of God’s gifts and to act on them in ministry and mission.
Mark Lau Branson demonstrates how concentrating on needs and problems can mire a congregation in discouragement—and how, by focusing on memories of the congregation at its best—members are able to build on those positive experiences as they shape the church’s future. Grounded in solid theory and real-life practice, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations is a groundbreaking work of narrative leadership and the first book to apply the principles of Appreciative Inquiry to the lives of congregations.
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