Do you ever need to know what the best book about strategic planning or congregational conflict is? The best resources for planning a capital campaign or a building project? The Congregational Resource Guide might be able to help you. For eight years the Alban Institute and the Indianapolis Center for Congregations have worked together to review and recommend the best resources for congregations in over 100 different subject areas. One key thing we have learned is this: while knowing how to choose resources well is crucial (there is a lot of junk out there), knowing how to use resources well is equally important.

Most congregational leaders have a sense that what is good needs to be sifted from a rising flood of stuff that is not. Yet congregational leaders are often taken aback by a question about how they have used a resource. The question, “So, what did you do with the book?” often gets the answer “Well, I read as much as I had time to read.”

It is an unfortunate fact that a resource (book, article, web site, etc.) does little good if it is only read and pondered. In contrast, even a resource of lesser quality can be very helpful, if it raises the right issues and if the right group in a congregation reads and discusses it section-by-section.

In the wake of the popularity of group uses of resources, most prominently in congregations with 40 Days of Purpose but including also such programs as “one city-one book,” there is an increasing discussion of how best to use books and other resources in congregations. The discussion boils down to this question: How can we go beyond the expected approaches: an individual reading the book alone or holding an adult education session about it?

Here are five suggestions to consider as you plan how books might be used:

Create a language. Sometimes at an early stage of working on an issue, having a sufficiently large portion of a congregation read something together can provide a language which makes an issue visible and speakable.

Create a space. A group reading a book—and taking time to discuss it—changes the pace of work on an issue. It can create a place for creative thinking or for building relationships when an issue needs to be approached on a deeper level.

Create a buzz. Someone once said that a leader’s most important power is to influence what to pay attention to. Not infrequently, leaders feel they are caught flat-footed between the extremes of passively wishing that a congregation would focus on an issue and actively demanding or insisting they do so. Announcing the discussion of a book can signal the intention of dealing with an issue, while at the same time allowing people the opportunity to engage and appropriate it for themselves.

Create a starting place. Sometimes a book serves best as a starting point for development or approach to something. Don’t feel that a resource must be used from the beginning to the end, as the author intended.

Create a balcony. Ronald Heifetz suggests that one of the most important things a leader can do is to (metaphorically) take people to the balcony—help them see what they are doing from a broader perspective or vantage point. Doing this well can allow people to see that they are not alone with an issue. It can also help people depersonalize an issue—to see that what they are dealing with is a structural issue rather than simply a matter of personal quirks and foibles. This alone can be a great relief. Getting people to the balcony can help them extend their vision from what is next to what lies two or three steps ahead.


Featured Resources a guide to resources for building congregational vitality edited by Richard Bass

“Anthony Healy grapples thoughtfully with the social and economic transformations that are reshaping American religion. Realistic without being cynical, optimistic without being naive, Healy’s observations and reflections help us to better understand the present state of American religion–and its possible future.” — Mark Chaves

AL305_SM Be Not Afraid! Building Your Church on Faith and Knowledge by Fredric M. Roberts

Be Not Afraid! is the result of an in-depth study of eight diverse, yet “ordinary,” mainline Protestant congregations by anthropologist (and churchgoer) Fred Roberts and a team of field researchers. While these may not be the best of times for mainline denominations, Roberts finds that when local congregations are evaluated by spiritual and religious standards instead of corporate- or pop culture-based values there remains much to celebrate.