Archive for October, 2009

Weathering the Financial Crisis

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

weathering the storm

The 2009 Congregational Economic Impact Study has just been released jointly by the Alban Institute and the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving at the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University. The report indicates that the large congregation is weathering this financial crisis better than the small to mid-sized congregation.

“Growth congregations,” those where attendance and finances have been growing over the past five years, were more likely to report positive fundraising results. Congregations with $600,000 to $999,999 in revenue, weekly attendance of more than 300 people, younger congregants (average age under 50), and those reporting a higher average income of congregants (greater than $60,000) were more likely to report an increase in fundraising receipts.

“Survival congregations,” those where attendance and finances have dropped by more than 10 percent over the past five years, were more likely to report a decline in fundraising.  Other congregations that were more likely to report a decrease included those with annual revenue of less than $150,000, weekly attendance of less than 100 people, older congregants (average age 61 or older), and those where the average income of congregants was less than $40,000.

The report doesn’t attempt to explain why larger congregations are better able to weather this particular financial storm better than smaller congregations. I suppose it simply stands to reason that larger institutional bodies have more stability, deeper pockets, and more leadership resources to cope in times of economic recession. On the other hand, larger churches have huge payrolls and large facilities to maintain. Those costs rarely decrease during a recession. And congregations that rely on endowment income (or whose congregants rely heavily on investment income) have been particularly hard hit by this economic crisis. So why are larger congregations doing better? Check out the report and let me know your thoughts.

Photo by

Deer in the Headlights

Monday, October 26th, 2009

deerThere is a small wooded area at the edge of my suburban neighborhood that is home to several families of deer. In the last several weeks a drain construction project has encroached upon the edge of the wooded area and the deer have taken to wandering through our subdivision in search of …I’m not sure what.  At any rate, their presence has stirred up quite a reaction among the neighbors.  There are those of us who simply love looking up from our daily work, in awe, to see these gentle creatures roaming among us. We’re hopeful that they’ll stick around and figure out a way to coexist with us in busy suburban life, provided they don’t hurt us or themselves. The gardeners among us are worried. They’re convinced that the deer are going to destroy all of the vegetation that we have taken such care to tend. The animal lovers among us are fussing. They are certain that this does not bode well for the deer that are eventually going to be maimed or killed by the dangers of modern civilization. And the hunters are secretly fantasizing about grabbing the bow stored in the attic and taking out Bambi to demonstrate their prowess. But none of us is actually doing anything about the situation.

As I watch the varied reactions to the deer I am struck by the similarity between this phenomenon and membership assimilation in the large congregations, where demographic differences are concerned. Many large congregations are regional draw institutions, with long established patterns of drawing demographically similar people from large distances. It’s not unusual for people to drive 30-40 minutes to attend a weekend worship experience in a regional church or synagogue.  But the demographics of the communities immediately surrounding the congregation have changed and the people worshipping inside the walls of the congregation don’t look much like the people just outside its walls.

When the people from the surrounding neighborhood wander into our midst (like the deer wandered into my neighborhood) the folks inside of the church don’t quite know what to do. So, like my neighbors, congregation members stand back and watch the visitors with different reactions. Some immediately worry about the well being of the visitor, but don’t know what to do to appropriately tend to their needs.  Some are not really interested in interacting with the demographically different; they just want to stand back and stare in awe and appreciation. Some are most interested in protecting their turf from these different ones who might threaten our carefully tended structures and practices. And some are secretly plotting to figure out how to take the newcomer out, without looking bad in the process.

What is your congregation learning about dealing with the deer in the headlights (the demographically different) that you long to embrace, but can’t quite figure out how to assimilate?

The Danger of a Single Storyline

Monday, October 26th, 2009

storybookA client congregation is preparing for an upcoming pastoral transition. As part of that preparation we determined that it would be good to “tell the stories” of previous pastoral transitions, in the hopes of surfacing unstated assumptions and previous lessons learned in times of leadership transition.

We began by recollecting the story of a pastoral transition that had occurred twenty years earlier in the life of the congregation. It was easy for congregation leaders to tell a succinct story of success in short paragraph form. When asked to tell the story, leaders consistently recited identical phrases ending with a sunny summarization.  The problem was that the story they told left out a lot of the struggle and anxiety of that transition, which we later uncovered through an interview process with the pastor who entered the system during that transition. Had we not heard his side of the story we wouldn’t have understood the real complexity of that time.

Then we began to tell the story of a more recent transition, a transition begun with great hopes and dreams that ended in failure (the identified candidate accepted the job but left the congregation within an eighteen month time frame). It wasn’t an easy story line to tell. It was a less than successful story which was difficult for these leaders to tell, given their identity as a “successful” congregation. People hadn’t spent much time talking about the experience and as a result there were no “easy to tell” versions of what happened. Nevertheless we muddled our way through the telling of various versions of the story and in the process  came to a more complete understanding of what had happened during this transition, gleaning valuable leadership lessons along the way.

The danger of a single story line in telling congregational history is that it presents a very flat perception of what the struggles were, who the people were that engaged those struggles, and what real values were brought to bear on difficult decision making. If we discipline ourselves to tell more complete and well rounded story lines that represent a variety of perspectives on what really happened we stand to learn better leadership lessons.

Congregations often ask me to tell them the story of other congregations who have gone through what they are going through. I’m always stymied by these requests. Whose version of the story do I tell?  If I were to tell the story my version would be a composite of a variety of the viewpoints expressed to me during a consultation. Who is to say that the story I would tell is any more or less accurate than any other version?  And, do I have the right to try and represent any congregation’s story for them?

This video reflection by novelist Chimamanda Adichie does a beautiful job of addressing the danger of a single story line. She addresses the topic in the context of cultural storytelling, but I think that the points she illustrates apply richly to congregations.

Photo Credit: Children creating the background sketches for Walker Art Gallery Storybook ‘Something Wild…’
October 2008
©National Museums Liverpool.

Whack-a-Mole Strategy

Monday, October 26th, 2009

whack a mole

Remember Whack-a-Mole? It’s an amusement park or pinball arcade game that features seven “moles” that pop up through holes in a game board directly in front of the player. Each player is given a club- “a mole whacker.” As the game starts, moles pop up through the holes at random.  The object of the game is to whack the mole on the head before it drops back into its hole, and to make contact with as many moles as possible in a two minute playing period. The players who are best are the ones who can hover ever so lightly over the playing board, moving with remarkable precision to focus on whatever mole happens to emerge next. I love playing whack-a-mole, but I have never been any good at it, mostly because I lose my focus, laughing at the hilarity of the mad moles long before my two minute turn is over.

I’ve just finished reading “Executing Your Strategy” by Mark Morgan, Raymond Levitt and William Malek (Harvard Business School Press).   The authors use whack-a-mole as a metaphor to characterize the ‘flavor of the month’ organization that moves quickly from one strategic initiative to another.  Without a systematic framework, strategic execution ends up degenerating into a “whack-a-mole” experience that exhausts the overall organization.

I love the analogy and I am struck by how well it describes many large congregations. In a congregation without strategic clarity the latest and greatest idea always captures the energy of leadership, and the focus of leadership shifts rapidly from one emerging mole to the next, until all congregational leaders are quite exhausted.  There has to be an alternative to whack-a-mole execution so that our staff teams are not so exhausted!

Is it possible to create a congregational culture that is permission giving and creative, and still able to maintain strategic clarity?

Are Mission Statements Still Relevant?

Monday, October 26th, 2009

mission statement

At Alban we do a lot of strategic planning consulting work in congregations, under the umbrella of Holy Conversations.

Increasingly, in my practice I find myself steering clients away from writing an official mission statement as part of the planning process. My reasons for discouraging the practice are three-fold:

1)    For most of us, the basic mission of the congregation is already defined in the scriptures we embrace, and by the religious institutions that guide us. Every congregation, on some level, seeks to bring people into the congregation, transform them through their involvement with the congregation, and send them out in service to the larger world. We can spend lots of time trying to choose language that describes our spin on that transformative process, but the basic mission has already been established for us.

2) Every congregation has limited energy to invest in and sustain dialogue around strategic planning. The amount of time that it takes to get a planning team to agree upon the specific wording that should go into the mission statement is considerable. Those who vested themselves in crafting the specific words and phrases are highly invested in the final product, but others seldom connect with the mission statement, regardless of how much involvement they may have had in contributing input into the larger planning process.

3) There are better tools for creating strategic focus and buy-in. Specifically, I advocate for creating a set of core values that will guide the future work of the congregation, naming the strengths that we want to preserve moving forward, and claiming 2-4 strategic priorities that will guide the work of the church in the next chapter of its life. Once these strategic elements have been defined most congregations have everything they need to provide good strategic direction.

So, this is what I’ve been telling congregations, but I’m open to a good challenge. Is your mission statement still relevant to your congregation?

Photo credit: Eridony