The Season of Striving

In the months between Labor Day and Thanksgiving our congregations yield to the god of achievement. Institutionally we plan, we organize, we count, we spend, we cajole and we 3195267875_0d575b56fahope that our striving will be rewarded with upticks in participation, membership and giving.

And then as we move into Advent, we admonish our people to drop their compulsions and busyness.  We tell them that they cannot “achieve” spiritual wholeness.  We invite them to watch and wait, to trust in the slow work of God, and to live in a spirit of unfolding.

We cannot have it both ways.  We cannot set up the church to pursue achievement, and then expect that same institution to nurture the slow work of the Spirit in our congregants. Our frenzy around excellence and programming negates the very work we claim to be about.

How do we break our well-intentioned habits of busyness, compulsion and achievement? We begin, of course, by walking the talk.  We tend our own spiritual disciplines.  We slow down.  We pay attention to the Spirit unfolding in our own lives.

Beyond this, we also need to cultivate two organizational practices that are difficult for many of us. We must gain clarity about organizational outcomes, and we must learn to fail more gracefully, so that the work of God might be made manifest.

Naming Outcomes: Our achievement-oriented striving in congregations is often driven by a lack of clarity about outcomes.  We aren’t clear about what we are trying to produce. We are working harder and faster at more things, in the hope that our hard work will produce some type, any type, of growth and vitality.  We are afraid to stop anything, because we aren’t certain how to distinguish between programs that simply keep us busy and the more purposeful work of God.

Gil Rendle, in his excellent new book “Doing the Math of Mission: Fruits, Faithfulness and Metrics,” draws an important distinction between counting inputs and measuring outcomes.

Counting is what we do with resources and activity.  How many people attended? How many hours did we invest? How many members did we acquire?  How many people were served? How much money did we make or spend? The greater our devotion to counting inputs, the more compulsive we become around busyness, and the harder we work to achieve on our own.

Measurables, on the other hand, depend on descriptions of what we feel called to do, and hope to be able to produce or become, with God’s help.  Outcomes are different for every context, but include things like: people are engaging in ongoing personal spiritual disciplines, youth are becoming more aware of their agency in the world, children are demonstrating personal prayer practices, and congregants are demonstrating compassion in daily life.

If we can describe and measure the change that we are called to make, then we can also have discerning conversations about what activity will move us meaningfully toward that change over time.  This allows us to engage in more purposeful, less compulsive activity and programming.

Failing Gracefully:  If our congregations are not free to fail, then they are not free to learn, discern, or follow God’s prompting. If we are not fee to fail, then all of our striving is vested in maintaining image.  If we are not free to fail, then we are not capable of hearing the still small voice of God whispering grace. Failure produces fortitude, humility, clarity and a renewed sense of purpose.

Many of the congregations that I work with are located in affluent communities.  Large, affluent churches have a very low tolerance for failure. In fact, in my experience, they simply cannot comprehend or process it.  The failure is quickly framed as an anomaly, or success of another kind. Leaders move immediately on to the next activity.  There is no pausing to grieve the loss, to discern a shift in directions, or to learn from what just happened. There is only more striving.

Naming our outcomes more clearly and learning to fail more gracefully are two organizational practices that will move us away from compulsive striving, and towards the slow but steady pursuit of God.