They need to decide tonight. That’s the message. The church governing board is deciding whether or not to enter into an unofficial partnership with the public school located next door. The after-school arts program needs more volunteers. Would the church members be interested in volunteering twice a month, providing snacks and oversight for the fifty kids that stay after the closing bell rings? The request came three weeks ago, right after the last board meeting. The first program of the year begins next week. So, it is time for a decision.
But maybe not so fast. The Indianapolis Center for Congregations is learning that congregations often make their best decisions when they slow down. Of course, some issues in congregations need prompt attention. However, when it comes to strategic endeavors, slowing the pace leads to better decisions and actions that have greater impact. Whether the strategic endeavor involves expanding mission, changes to worship, raising funds, leadership development, or any number of important strategic issues, moving deliberately paves the way for effective action when the time is right and the plan is more fully developed.
What does slowing down look like? It is as much a way of thinking about strategy as it is a literal time line. The slowing down may take many forms. It might be as subtle as slowing the pace of a particular conversation so that questions can be asked and answers can be explored. Slowing down might be as evident as lengthening the process in order to explore the religious claims and commitments of a potential new approach.
Decelerating congregations’ strategic thinking is a way to counter the inevitable rush to judgment that many groups experience while making decisions. Such haste is rarely because a quick decision is absolutely necessary. The haste more likely reflects the leaders’ need to be less apprehensive. If the problem is solved or the decision is made, then the leaders don’t have to worry about it anymore. While quick decisions often lower the immediate anxiety of the congregation, they also often sacrifice long-term results.
But lowering discomfort is not a good enough reason to act urgently, particularly if there is no crisis. Excellent strategy requires clear thinking, and that requires time. Congregational life has many emotional dynamics that do not contribute to clear thinking. Slowing down allows the thinking to catch up with the feelings.
The Center finds time and again that a congregation’s best thinking occurs when their own creativity is matched with the best outside resources. Excellent strategy and outstanding programs require both. The outside resource might be another congregation that has addressed a similar challenge, or it might be a book about the task at hand, or perhaps a website—any resource that encourages the leaders to think more accurately and to move the group from private opinions to an accurate appraisal of the situation. This takes time.
A congregation we work with in Indiana wanted to share their building with another congregation or not-for-profit organization. Why? They sought another income stream for their budget. The building is in a good downtown location and the likelihood was that there would be several options. They were ready to move ahead with a decision—the budget deadline was looming—when someone said, “Hey, shouldn’t we be thinking about what kind of match best serves our mission?” This slowed the process.
Of course, slowing the process sharpened their thinking. They sought counsel from other congregations who share their buildings. They found a document online that described several positives and negatives of sharing a facility. The committee consulted with an attorney about rental contracts. They began thinking about the long-term mission of the congregation and its buildings. It is taking longer to find a building partner (the budget process survived the delay). However, the opportunity space is widening and the leaders have sharper clarity about their congregation’s mission.
The Hebrew word for day is yom. “God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:5). The word denotes a day not necessarily as humanity understands it, but a day in God’s time. It is not necessarily an orderly day but the Day of God. It contains the practical stuff of life tracked by the luminous long clock of the Creator. Time is a moment of undetermined length in which something special is unfolding.
Special things are unfolding in our congregations. Over time. Our congregations are stewards of the highest claims and commitments of our faith—over the long haul. Such claims and commitments are worthy of our extended attention. Take a breath. Slow down. Pay attention. Think accurately. These things take time. ?
Tim Shapiro is president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations