Many congregations maybe yours—are tempted to “play it safe” or “tweak” a little here and there during this time of unprecedented change in our culture and in our various religious traditions. Not so different from many of us in our individual lives, as well, is it? We may be tempted to try to survive the tough times by holding steady, hunkering down, and fending off more change and upheavaleven in the midst of what we may be calling a planning process!      

I believe that we are living in times calling us to take the journey not only toward the known, but also toward the unknown. From my perspective, the question is not only “Can just getting by sustain us?” We must also ask “What possibilities are we missing?”     

The Why before the How    

Our traditions point us to our tendencies to enshrine what we are so used to doing. Remember all the Biblical stories that show how people of faith can be frozen in what is or what used to be—often to their own peril.    

Of course, change for change sake is not a worthwhile goal. Whenever we are considering a change in our congregation, we must ask, “Why?”    

Sometimes congregations rush into changes and actions before they really have developed a grounded and collective commitment: a “why” before the “how.” I have seen this again and again as the reason that most “action plans” do not get off the ground or don’t break new ground for the congregation.    

Peter Block speaks about this tendency to put the “how” before the “why” in his excellent book, The Answer to How is Yes. It is not that our “hows” (that is to say, our strategies, our actions, our specific plans) are not important, but these should follow an understanding of “why” the change is important. The “hows” should express, not substitute for a commitment within the congregation. So, when you have a plan, always ask: “Are we committed to being what we need to be in order to act in these ways?” If your answer is “yes,” you will find energy to move forward. If not, you may want to back up.    

Another pitfall of the status quo is that moving off dead center usually takes more than one try.  In planning terms, the first draft of an action plan may not necessarily sufficient. Remember that Moses went up and down that mountain a few times before! After you have developed your action steps, ask: “Are these actions going to break new ground and get us to where we are committed to being as a congregation?” If not, back up and ask, “What innovations do we want and need to make?”    

Innovating or Stagnating     

In strategic planning processes I lead with congregations an important step is the point at which the congregation makes a commitment toward a common-ground vision.  At that point, I invite them into “innovation teams.” I used to call these “action planning groups.” However, I have realized over the years that sometimes an action planning team focuses too much on actions. Action steps alone do not achieve and move a congregation toward its common-ground vision.  Instead, the dynamic that will sustain excitement and engagement is the congregation’s capacity for continually innovating in the service of its calling and commitment.    

I like to invite congregations to include practices, in addition to actions, in their innovation plan. Practices are commitments that we do over a period of time in order to be, ourselves, changed.    

Applying the insights of The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation (by Peter Denning and Robert Dunham, MIT, 2010), into my consulting and coaching work, has led me to understand that sustaining innovation requires leaders and congregations to engage in some distinct and interrelated interactions and practices. These include (adapted from Denning and Dunham):     

  1. Sensing possibilities rather than problems     
  2. Envisioning new realities and the ways to get there     
  3. Offering new outcomes     
  4. Executing plans     
  5. Adopting new practices     
  6. Developing a supportive infrastructure     
  7. Leading with care and courage, with a focus on a larger purpose     

An Offering     

The critical watershed practice, as Denning and Dunham point out, is the third practice in this list: “offering new outcomes. “When a leader makes an offer it may be refused or accepted. The innovative leader, rather than seeing an “offer” as an event, comes to see it as a conversation that evolves over time.    

It is through the interaction of making proposals for new actions and strategies, listening to concerns, and modifying proposals that will move a congregation toward its purpose. It is within this kind of dynamic interaction that a congregation comes to define and refine what it wants to offer to others. In this engagement a congregation is innovating—rather than stagnating.      

As people of faith, we should hear the word “offering” in a multi-faceted way. It should have spiritual as well as leadership significance for us. An offering is often understood as a giving of ourselves in response to what we’ve received. From a faith perspective, an offering is an on-going interaction that changes us.    

For the Sake of What     

The choice to change or to innovate is not a merely a “yes” or a “no” question. Instead a congregation should ask, “For the sake of what…are we making these shifts, implementing these changes, taking these actions?”    

When we engage in the practices of continually innovating toward the larger commitments toward which we are called, we venture toward being changed as a congregation instead of merely making changes in what we do.  


Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable Blog   


“The Danger in ‘Getting By'” originally appeared as the Ask Alban column in the first 2012 issue of Congregations magazine. Copyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.



AL278_SM Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change    
by Marc Lau Branson 

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. By focusing on memories of the congregation at its best, members are able to construct “provocative proposals” to help shape the church’s future.   

AL276_SM Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations     
by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann  

Gil Rendle and Alice Mann cast planning as a “holy conversation,” a congregational discernment process about three critical questions: Who are we? What has God called us to do or be? Who is our neighbor? Rendle and Mann equip congregational leaders with a broad and creative range of ideas, pathways, processes, and tools for planning. By choosing the resources that best suit their needs and context, congregations will shape their own strengthening, transforming, holy conversation. 

AL387_SM Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation     
by Sarah B. Drummond 

In Holy Clarity, Sarah Drummond explores the most basic reason leaders of religious organizations conduct evaluations: To find and create God-pleasing clarity regarding the organization’s purpose and the impact of its activities. Leadership and evaluation are not separate disciplines, she argues. Effective leaders evaluate because they need to know what is happening in their organizations and how those activities are effecting change .  

AL271_SM Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities     
by Shawn Israel Zevit  

Setting aside the financial/spiritual split with which many congregational leaders operate, Zevit brings the depth and breadth of Jewish teachings on money and the spiritual life to all faith communities. He demonstrates how faith communities can create values-based approaches that are rooted in the very sacred traditions, principles, and impulses that bring us together.  


Learn to use asset-based planning tools to revitalize your leadership and your congregation.

Peers,Larry 120x Aligning Strategy and Spirit: Whole Systems Leading and Planning  
Presenter: Larry Peers, Alban senior consultant 
July 17-19, 2012
Techny Towers Retreat Center, (near) Chicago, IL



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