How to Have a Better Conversation

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Board leaders long for meaningful meetings. Instead, many participate in mind-numbing meetings that repetitively chase topics, with little forward momentum. Agendas are rigidly structured around the receipt of reports, with little work that actually impacts the future of the congregation. What would it take to foster more fruitful board conversations?

BetterConversationRecently, I observed a board conversation about declining worship attendance. The decline followed three years of slow, but steady growth. The topic appeared on the agenda as “worship attendance.” The conversation was introduced by the pastor as part of her regular monthly report. The pastor pointed out that every other indicator of church health looked positive; membership was up, the budget was growing, more people were serving in volunteer positions, and new programs were well attended. The pastor wondered aloud what the dip in attendance meant, and whether or not the dip was a foreboding indicator of future decline.

Immediately, the gathered leaders plunged into frenzied dialogue with a lot of “worrying about” attendance numbers. There was some brainstorming about cause, some speculation about how to solve “the problem”, and lots of worrying about long term budget implications. The conversation lasted twenty minutes, without any clear consensus as to whether the congregation actually had a problem, and no plan of approach as to what should happen next. Leaders agreed to watch the situation, and the conversation was tabled until the following month, where it was re-introduced again, with much the same outcome.

During my visit with the board, I asked the leaders if they would humor me in an experiment. The leaders agreed and I introduced the language of Richard Chait, et al., in their book Governance as Leadership. We discussed the differences between fiduciary, strategic and generative modes of governance, all of which must be nurtured within the life of a board. I introduced the following distinctions.

The fiduciary mode of governance focuses on the effective use of assets. It concerns itself with preventing theft, waste or misuse. It explores issues related to budgets, assets, compensation, facilities, fundraising and staff team performance. It considers the ethics of a situation, the safety of the constituency, the legality of things and appropriate boundary setting.

I asked the board to talk about the dip in worship attendance, purely through the lens of fiduciary governance. They talked about possible budgetary impact, and the long term correlation between attendance and giving patterns. They engaged in some worrying behaviors, but their overall conversation was directed towards specific asset areas. They asked themselves if giving patterns were historically correlated with attendance patterns. They wondered what a plateau in growth would mean for long overdue salary increases anticipated at the end of the year. They asked themselves what percentage of the operating budget was actually allocated to the production of the Sunday worship service. If people were changing the way that they participated in the life of the congregation (by worshiping less), should the assets devoted to worship attendance be re-allocated?

Next, I introduced the language of strategic governance. A board is operating in strategic mode when it explores the long-term impact on identity and future of the congregation. It examines the topic for its intersection with the questions: Who are we? Who are we here to serve? What is God calling us to do or become? Strategic governance builds authority, responsibility and accountability into the system by empowering others to act in pursuit of an agreed upon strategy.

I invited the board to wade into the conversation about attendance again, this time purely through the lens of strategic governance.

They had a rich conversation about the link between worship attendance and their identity as a disciple-making congregation. The wondered if less face time in worship actually reduced spiritual growth and relationship building within the congregation. They explored whether or not their mission suggested a particular sized worshiping community. They wondered aloud how they would know if they were being successful in worship, and whether or not worship attendance was an appropriate indicator of discipleship success.

The group decided that they needed better information to determine if the dip was problematic or not. Had some people dropped out of worship entirely, and if so, who were they? Or, was the dip reflective of a stable but growing body of worshippers that were attending with less frequency. The board decided to assign the research of these questions to the Director of Membership and asked for a more complete reporting, by demographic group, at the next scheduled meeting.

Finally, I introduced the mode of generative governance. This mode of governance seeks to unleash the power of creative thinking. Generative thinking invites meaning making about the knowledge, information and data. It involves re-framing problems/challenges so that the congregation can understand and approach them in new ways, by introducing paradigm shifts. Generative thinking typically requires noticing cues and clues, choosing and using new frames of reference, and intentionally constructing a dominant narrative.

Board leaders began their conversation again, this time adopting the generative lens. They began with open brainstorming about all of the challenges, problems and opportunities that might contribute to worship decline. They discussed the busy lifestyles of the congregants, the increase in competing activities on Sunday mornings, and the presence of a new mega-church across town. Someone suggested that members might be experiencing more authentic Sabbath by staying home on Sunday mornings. They talked about a recent article from ABPnews/Herald on national trends in reported worship attendance, and they explored whether or not the article had anything to do with this congregation. They brainstormed possible ways to infuse more energy into the existing worship experience, and they suggested potential new worship venues to better meet the needs of congregants. They wondered what qualified as meaningful worship. Ultimately, they decided that they weren’t ready to create a narrative about worship attendance. They wanted to see more information first.

At the end of our experiment, leaders agreed that this conversation had been more meaningful and future focused than previous attempts. The board agreed that they wanted to delegate more of their fiduciary work, so that their future conversations could take on more generative and strategic overtones. They agreed that artificially separating the three modes of governance was an interesting experiment that they would adopt from time to time moving forward.

Most importantly, the board chair and pastor realized that they had important work to do in framing agenda items before bringing them to the board. The framing of an agenda item influences the mode of governance that the board assumes as it enters a conversation. The board chair decided that the agenda item for the following month’s meeting would read, “Changing patterns in worship attendance, by demographic group.”

And the conversation moved forward from there.

Will You Be Joining Us?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

(On the need to separate assimilation and membership)

Once upon a time, people understood that the way to assimilate into the life of a congregation was to join that congregation. The typical indoctrination process began when newcomers attended the Sunday morning worship service and registered their presence on a pew pad. The act of registration triggered a series of welcome communications from the congregation, and perhaps a visit from a church or staff member. Within several months of the first visit, the newcomer was invited to attend a “newcomer” class, which connected them with staff and church programs. The class almost always resulted in an invitation (actually, an expectation) to join the church. Upon joining, the newcomer was paraded in front of the congregation. It was a well-orchestrated process that helped the newcomer become known to the congregation. Being known was instrumental to being connected, and being connected was instrumental to being accepted and ultimately assimilated.Join Us Button purple

We know at a cognitive level that once upon a time is long gone. We understand that many of the newcomers who explore our congregations are suspicious of membership, but they do want to belong in community. More specifically they want to feel that WE belong to them. They are not interested in being assimilated and becoming just like us; but they are interested in acculturating. (They want to belong to a community that will change itself to receive them, as much as they will adapt themselves for that community.) People want to be known and accepted, but they don’t see what any of that has to do with membership.

We say that we understand these things, but our behavior suggests otherwise. Our behavior towards newcomers is very much about assimilation, not acculturation. Our behavior towards newcomers is still deeply rooted in unstated assumptions about membership, and still deeply tied to our membership processes. How does a person who is not interested in membership get acculturated into the life of your congregation?

Let me offer myself as a case study. In the last year I began attending a new congregation. I believe that my experience of assimilation into the life of this congregation is pretty typical of what many people experience in our traditions.

I attended my new congregation for a period of three months before deciding that I really wanted to invest myself in the life of these people and this community of faith. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, becoming a member was not appropriate for me. But, I very much wanted to belong.

So I kept up my semi-regular attendance and I met with the pastor, declaring my intention to be a part of the community. He assured me that I could participate fully in the things I wanted to do without becoming a member, and that membership wouldn’t really matter to people. I signed up to have an official nametag made so that I looked like I fit in. Over time I attended all of the available worship services; volunteered to help with housing the homeless; made several tentative visits to a Sunday school class that didn’t fit me well; stood awkwardly in the fellowship area after church hoping that someone (anyone) would talk to me; and generally hung around the edges of the congregation. Two rounds of newcomer classes came and went, but they were clearly linked into the membership process, so I didn’t sign up.

Each week attendance pads were passed around in worship, inviting me to register my presence. The form prompted me to check off whether I was a visitor or a member (no other option). After the first three months it seemed silly to keep checking off visitor, so I just left that section plank. The act of completing the form each week, and leaving that section blank, is a constant reminder that I’m not one of them.

During worship we greet one another during the passing of the peace. During this ritual people often approached me with, “Where have you come from?” After trying to answer that question in a variety of ways, none of which seemed to satisfy the asker, I came to understand that they wanted me to tell them what church I had previously been a member of. People sometimes asked me if I planned to join the church, and their eyes quickly glazed over when I tried to explain why I wouldn’t be joining (TMI… we didn’t really want to know, we were just making small talk and wanted you to know that we have a usual process for how this all works). I never saw or received a church directory, nor did I receive the electronic newsletter, or information about the church budget, or an invitation to participate in the financial stewardship of the congregation. Several congregational meetings were held for “membership” business. I didn’t feel welcomed and didn’t attend.

At the end of my first year I hadn’t formed a single meaningful relationship with anyone in the congregation. It was frustrating, and it was becoming painful to attend worship. I thought hard about moving on, but decided that the church really was a good fit for me and that I needed to try harder.

So, I finally bit the bullet. I signed up for the newcomer class, announcing my intent to stop just short of the act of joining. I realized that my assimilation was going to depend upon getting to know more of the staff and church leaders who could help me connect, and I knew that meeting other newcomers would introduce me to people who had not yet formed solid relationships in the church and might be open to friendship. And I was right! After three sessions of the newcomer class I met enough people that I actually began to feel a little more known, and a little more at home. I was starting to feel connected. But my progress didn’t come without additional awkward moments, of needing to explain why I wasn’t joining the congregation.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to berate my new congregation. I love this place. My assimilation would have been warm and wonderful if only I could have/would have embraced membership. And I suspect many of your congregations would have offered me the same experience. Our cultures of assimilation are deeply embedded with assumptions of membership.

So, what does that mean for all of the people sitting in our pews that cannot or will not invest in membership? It means that they are regularly sidelined and reminded that they are not really one of us. It means that many of them leave us before we ever get to know them, because it is just too hard to find their way in. I know that this is not what we intend. It’s time to wake up and be more intentional about our behaviors and processes.

We have a lot of adaptive work to do in this area!