Leadership — Asking Good Questions

Let’s talk Leadership. What is it?

I’ve been given the opportunity to return to some work and reflection on Appreciative Inquiry and congregational health. Here’s a resource piece I have worked on several times over the last few years. Perhaps it will be helpful.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9 NRSV)

How much time does your congregation spend “thinking about these things,” as Paul puts it? That’s the basic leadership question.

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Leadership is about asking the right questions. Leadership, framed this way, is an adventure of discovery and not an unsolvable puzzle. And when framed in this way, we know that anyone can be a leader, because anyone can ask questions. When we ask questions, we initiate change. Inquiry is intervention. The questions we ask determine the answers we get. Forming the right questions in the right way is a primary task of leadership. A powerful way to ask productive questions is called “Appreciative Inquiry.”

Congregations grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about. Persistently asking unproductive questions results in stagnation, decline, and destructive conflict. Persistently asking productive questions results in health, growth, and constructive conflict.

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This is a deficit-based approach to change. Answering unproductive questions is like watering the weeds instead of the grass. All you can ever do is pull the weeds with one hand and tip the watering can with the other. Is it any wonder that ministry is so frustrating in this framework?

Productive questions fall into the category of “What’s right with our congregation?” These questions are always looking for the root causes of congregational success. These questions work on an unknown rule of congregational life – Build on the strengths and what’s wrong often takes care of itself.

This is an asset-based approach to change. Answering productive questions is like watering the grass instead of the weeds. The grass grows and gradually chokes out the weeds. The weeds never go away, but they are less and less of an eyesore. Ministry is much more fun in this setting.

Unproductive questions assume that congregations are problems that require fixing. Productive questions assume that congregations are God’s answer to problems in the communities we serve. Unproductive questions focus on weaknesses, deficits, and scarcity. Productive questions focus on strengths, gifts, and abundance. Focusing on weaknesses, deficits, and scarcity deforms congregations. Focusing on strengths, gifts, and abundance transforms congregations.

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Here are some activities for reflection and discussion:

1. What are the three most persistently asked questions in your congregation? Are those questions “depreciative” or “appreciative”?

2. Think about how many positive and how many negative stories you have heard and/or told about your congregation in the last month. What is the ratio of positive to negative stories in that time?

3. Tell yourself or someone else a story about a time when you experienced your congregation at its best. What is one way your congregation could get more of that?

4. Is it popular to be positive in your congregation (be honest!)? Why or why not?

5. Meditate on this text and what it means for your congregation’s ministry and mission.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21 NRSV)

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