Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines — “Cracked and Broken”

The Second Sunday after Christmas, 2021; Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18

“Adversity does not build character,” said James Lane Allen, “but reveals it.” This is perhaps a kinder, gentler version of the oft-cited line from Nietzsche that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Regardless the source, we have had quite enough character revealing, thank you very much. If current events are any clue, the truth is different. Whatever doesn’t kill you may still get you in the end if you’re not careful.

So, before we go on, let’s acknowledge how hard and scary the past nine months have been for us. Let’s grieve the losses of people and community and tranquility we experience. Let’s admit our distress, disruption, and despair. Until we look inward with clear eyes, we can’t look forward to ways that give life.

Photo by Matthias Groeneveld on

Adversity may reveal character. It also reveals the cracks – the flaws in ourselves, in our systems, and in our safe and settled views of the world. We may not be as brave and resilient, as selfless and compassionate, as we thought. Racism, sexism, classism, egotism, and moral cowardice may be harder to root out than we had assumed. Life may be less reliable and more dangerous than we had hoped.

There’s a lot in this life that wants to kill us. It doesn’t care if we get stronger or not.

The first reading for this second Sunday after Christmas comes from people who know all about what wants to kill us. Their homeland was invaded and conquered. Their cities and farms, their homes and schools, their temple and capital were destroyed. They were scattered in exile among the nations. Many of them would never see their homes and homeland again.

The chaos and crisis of the last nine months have been challenging. But it’s been a picnic in the park compared to the trauma of the exiles in Jeremiah. But now, for them, God is on the move. Rescue and redemption are on the way. The scattered flock will be gathered. The captives will be released. The hungry will be fed, and the farms will flourish.

The Lord says, “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.’” God tells the exiles to ask for salvation because it’s already coming. Don’t just ask, the Lord says. Advertise it to the nations so they can spread the word. “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,” God tells them, “and declare it in the coastlands far away…”

Adversity reveals character, all right. But it reveals God’s character, not just ours! In the midst of the distress, disruption, and despair, there is a declaration of hope – “for I have become a father to Israel,” God tells them, “and Ephraim is my firstborn.”

Adversity reveals our cracks as well as our character. Jeremiah’s people know all about the cracks.

Their world became so fractured and fragmented that it fell down around their ears. Their greed separated them from one another and left the vulnerable to die in the dust. Their lust for privilege separated them from their own humanity and blinded them to the political realities around them. Their worship of self turned them away from God and left them hungry for a meaning they could not make on their own. Their pursuit of empire left them naked to the games of world power, and they lost.

The thing about cracks is that they also let things in. I return over and over to the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem.” The lyrics contain such wisdom.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Cracks are how the light gets in. Adversity can break us down. It did that to Jeremiah’s people. But it can also break us open. We can, as Parker Palmer writes, “imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about—a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid.” Or, he says, we can “imagine the heart broken open into new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.”

Jeremiah’s people had their hearts broken – first down, and then open. When their hearts were broken open, then God’s light could shine into their hearts. It’s not surprising that the most vulnerable lead the redemption parade – those far from home, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor. They come weeping for their losses and singing with joy. The vulnerable are the first to lose their illusions of invincibility. They are the first to recognize God’s rescue and redemption.

We are broken down in many ways. We can be broken open, if we’re willing. The cracks in our hearts are how the light gets in. We celebrate that Light in the season of Christmas. “In him was life,” the Gospel text reminds us, “and the life was the light of all people.” Sin, death, and evil seek to break us down, but they cannot win. “The light shines in the darkness,” the Gospel declares, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jeremiah promises that hearts broken open are hearts made new. Later in chapter thirty-one, he finishes his prophecy. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The law of God’s love will shine through us and into a world wrapped in darkness. If we let ourselves be cracked open by life, the light will shine through us. If we let our hearts be broken open to love, we will grow and learn and flourish.

We stand at the beginning of the end of this particular crisis. I pray that this will prompt a time of reflection in our community, our state, and our nation. Will we return to a time of retreat and rejection, of paranoia and pain, of competition and complicity?

Or will we take this as an opportunity to grow in compassion and courage, in humility and honesty, in partnership and peace? Our society faces a billion small choices and a thousand large ones in that process of reflection.

More to the point today, we church people also have a choice. We can retreat once again into the cold darkness of the safe, secure and stable ways of the past. If we do, I believe we will continue our gentle slide into decline and death. There is no “going back to normal.” There is going toward life or toward death. Times of adversity simply make that clearer.

Perhaps we can stay open to the new possibilities this time in history has created. As our pastor often says, it’s a shame to waste a good pandemic. So, I hope we are praying and reflecting together on some important questions.

1. What can we learn from our own history and from other organizations about surviving and thriving after organizational trauma?

2. What strengths have we seen in ourselves and the church and our community and our world that we need to keep, to ponder, to build on and build out from?

3. What have we done without over the past nine months that we didn’t miss? What did we miss that we can’t do without?

4. What have we remembered or learned about our mission as a congregation that we didn’t see or confess, or appreciate a year ago?

5. What hopes and dreams, plans and promises, do we need to uncover as we prepare to go forward into God’s future?

I believe that congregations that see where they’ve been broken open to the future will find new joy and gladness in the journey. I pray that we and many other Christian communities will celebrate our cracks and choose to be broken open to God’s grace and love.

Let’s pray. Save, O Lord, your people. Bring us from our isolation and desolation into the light of your faithfulness, hopefulness, and lovingkindness. Use our cracks and brokenness to reveal your redemption in us and to the world through us. Fill us with songs of joy for the journey. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Appreciative Inquiry Tool: “A Night to Remember”

As we come out of The Pandemic, we will likely find ways to re-gather intentionally as a congregational community. Most of us have been physically distanced from one another for months, and we’re anxious to re-connect. It’s probable that we will come together as a community around food and fellowship. Such a gathering or gatherings can provide the ideal framework for beginning the process of Appreciative Inquiry in a congregation.

I have used an event called “A Night to Remember” in a number of congregational planning and visioning processes over the years. You can find the model for this event in Oswald and Friedrich’s book, Discerning Your Congregation’s Future. This is a sense-making event that can help congregation’s craft the story of their experience during The Pandemic and use that story to begin to discern the strengths of the congregation which can carry you forward into a healthy and vital future.

I will describe the event and point to why it’s useful and important. I’m assuming a time when it will be safe to gather and pretty early in the weeks and months of our reunions.

First, schedule a group gathering for your congregation (if practical) or a series of group gatherings (if you have a larger congregation). It’s best if the event involves food but preferably not a full meal in order to have more time for processing and discernment. A dessert party or ice cream social work well for this purpose, and any leftovers are much more fun to manage!

Photo by Teejay on

The group members will share stories and memories from the Pandemic time, both personal and congregational, as they feel comfortable. It’s best to have an outside facilitator, if possible, so that congregational leaders can participate fully and also not unduly influence the input. This isn’t a complicated facilitator role. In my experience a person with moderately good group facilitation skills can pull this off with just a bit of orientation.

Of course, I’m glad to offer coaching to anyone who’d like to give this a try. Just reply in the comments below. I’m going to talk now somewhat from the position of a facilitator as well as consultant and coach.

If the food and fellowship begin at 5:30 p.m. (for example) it would be well for the discussion to begin by about 6:15 p.m. Ideally people will be seated at round tables, but that’s not a deal-breaker. It’s best to have no less than four and no more than eight people at a table.

Be sure that you have some sticky notes at each table and reliable pens for the participants. I would cover a wall with one row of newsprint in preparation for the event. And I would divide that newsprint by the month, beginning in January of 2020 and ending with the month in which the event is held.

I know there are other more hi-tech ways to record and maintain feedback. If that works in your setting, you should use it. I like my gadgets as much as the next person, but when it comes to facilitation I find that “old school” still works the best for me.

It’s also important to have a least a couple of sheets of newsprint at the end of the timeline for input that isn’t tied to a particular date. In addition, the facilitator will need separate sheets labelled “Losses” and “Learnings” and a place to put up sheets that will receive large group input. The sheets are intended to be visible and available for prayer, reflection, and comment for at least two weeks after the event.

Begin with a centering prayer. Then the facilitator can take no more than ten minutes to explain the purpose of the evening – to spend time together re-connecting and sharing our Pandemic stories with each other. In addition, a goal of this gathering is to help us as a congregation to make sense out of our experience and to move forward in a healthy, constructive way. The facilitator should give people permission to get up for more refreshments and/or to use the facilities because there won’t be an official break in the schedule before we adjourn.

Making sense out of our experience and moving forward in a healthy, constructive way doesn’t mean that all the stories need to be positive or that all the endings need to be happy. Some of the stories don’t work that way. If we need to grieve some things together, that will be part of the process that leads us toward health and growth. If we notice positive things in the midst of our losses, that’s to be expected as well.

It’s not necessary for everyone to agree on “the facts,” because we have had quite different experiences of these months, and we’ve seen them through different eyes. The story of the congregation is the accumulation and interconnection of all our stories, so no one story will be the “right” or “official” one.

The facilitator now invites people to share in their table groups about their experiences during The Pandemic. Ask participants to go around the table and take up to two minutes each to share one thing that was hard during The Pandemic. If it was a particular event, ask participants to try to put a date or at least a month to that event. Ask the person to the left of the story-teller to write a summary (with the date, if available) on a sticky note. When the story-teller is finished, the recorder gives the note to the story-teller. Tell the recorders that it’s not necessary to put the story-teller’s name on the sticky note.

From my experience, there can be a problem here. Some people have handwriting that’s hard to read. Others may have some trouble writing because of personal situations and differences. Facilitators need to tell folks that if they don’t feel comfortable recording for someone else, for whatever reason, they are encouraged to ask another person at the table to fill in for them. This can save some unnecessary discomfort for participants.

The facilitator then asks participants to go around a second time and take up to two minutes to share one thing that was a learning or discovery or surprise during The Pandemic. Again, if there’s a date, try to attach that to the story. And repeat the process where the person to the left of the story-teller writes a summary of the story on a sticky note. When the story-teller is finished, the recorder gives the note to the story-teller. Remind the recorders that it’s not necessary to put the story-teller’s name on the sticky note.

This sharing might take up to forty minutes. The Facilitator needs to help groups stay on task and make sure everyone has a chance to respond in each round. When the groups are finished, participants will have their personal sticky notes in front of them. Ask the participants to keep their personal notes for now.

Then ask each group to appoint a recorder who will jot down the notes for the next phase of the discussion. You might suggest that it’s probably the one with the most legible handwriting! And it’s important to note that the recorder will read the answers from the table group to the larger group in a little while. So, the recorder needs to be someone who is comfortable with that or is able to recruit another group member to do that.

Ask each group to reflect together on their conversation and to answer two questions. The first is, what are least three significant losses the congregation experienced during The Pandemic. The first round of sharing focused on personal stories. This round focuses more on the experience of the congregation as a community. The appointed recorder can jot down a summary of each of the “losses” on its own sticky note. Groups can take up to twenty minutes to respond to the question.

The second question is, what are at least three significant learnings the congregation experienced during The Pandemic. Again, this question focuses more on the experience of the congregation as a community. The recorder can jot down a summary of each learning on its own sticky note. Groups can take another twenty minutes to respond to the question. Again, the Facilitator needs to help groups stay on task and make sure everyone has a chance to participate as they wish in the discussion.

At the end of the time, the Facilitator asks for a brief report from each group. Remind the reporters that several groups need to report, so there’s not time for a lot of commentary. Even if there are duplications in the reports, each group should have each note reported. Be sure there is an appropriate microphone or other amplification available, especially for those who might be hearing impaired.

The reporting will likely take about thirty minutes. The Facilitator should ask participants to hang on to any comments, questions or observations that may come up during the reports.

The final discussion is for the large group. The Facilitator needs to have additional newsprint or another visible recording medium available for writing responses and probably should have someone else do the recording at this point. The Facilitator begins to help the group frame their stories and observations as opportunities. In particular, I would suggest a conversation about the following questions.

  • What strengths did we uncover and/or enhance in surviving The Pandemic?
  • How can we sustain and build on those strengths for the future?
  • What has this time of traumatic disruption told us about how we understand our mission as a congregation?
  • Is that the real mission we want to pursue after The Pandemic?
  • What has the Holy Spirit taught us about ourselves and our mission in the last year and how can we put that learning to work in the future?

For the best results, these questions could be printed on response sheets available to each participant. Some folks will be comfortable speaking to the group. Others might wish to write their responses and turn them in at the end of the evening. Some might wish to take the questions home and reflect on them before responding.

All feedback is information. If you provide feedback sheets, be sure to have a central place to receive those responses. Remind participants that it’s not necessary for them to put their names on the response sheets. It will be necessary for someone to put those response sheets up on the appropriate newsprint as they come in.

The Facilitator brings the conversation to a close with words of thanks for those who made the gathering possible and to all the participants. All of the sticky notes will be attached to the appropriate places on newsprint and will be available for viewing, reflection, and prayer for at least a couple of weeks.

The Facilitator will note that following a closing prayer, participants can put their notes up on the newsprint if they are comfortable in doing so. If the story has a date to it, the participants can put the story under the relevant month. If the story isn’t related to a particular date or event, they can put the note at the end of the timeline.

Some participants won’t wish to walk from their tables to the timeline, so encourage other participants to offer to take those notes up for their neighbors. The recorders will take the “losses and learnings” notes and put them on the appropriate newsprint as well. And remind folks to put their response sheets in the appropriate receptacle if that’s an option you chose.

“A Night to Remember” can be healing and instructive as a stand-alone event. It is most useful, however, if it is part of a larger move toward Appreciative Inquiry as a vehicle for making the most of this traumatic chapter in congregational life. Whether it is part of a larger process or not, a team or committee should be recruited to collate the information into a single or a few documents for the church council, board of directors, or an Appreciative Inquiry team or work group.

If this is part of an Appreciative Inquiry process of discernment, you have developed and have access to a rich set information for developing additional questions and processes that are part of such an inquiry. And even if you don’t do one more thing with this information, you’ve had an experience that offers the healing of memories and a positive focus on the future.


Please see my previous post entitled “What the Hell Just Happened?

Roy M. Oswald and Robert E Friedrich, Jr. Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach. New York: Alban Institute, 1996.

What the Hell Just Happened? Congregations and Pandemic Sensemaking

A few days ago I posted a discussion titled “Waste Not, Want Not.” How can congregations and similar organizations move beyond surviving the current crisis and into flourishing in the future? I am certain that “getting back to normal” is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, now is the time for active discernment of the opportunities for vitality and growth that have been uncovered during the crisis of the last nine months.

This is not what most congregational leaders will want to hear or do. Covid fatigue is real, understandable, and powerful. I do not want to skip over the need for grieving what has been lost during this time. That’s necessary for moving forward. But it’s not sufficient. Organizational Posttraumatic Growth (OPTG) does not and will not happen “naturally.” Congregational leaders will need to choose that path if it is going to happen locally. In the post I mentioned, I outline in general, some ways that local leaders can be intentional about this.

Photo by Dylan on

The first step in this intentional process of OPTG will be “sensemaking.” Maitlis and Christianson define sensemaking in these terms: “a process, prompted by violated expectations, that involves attending to and bracketing cues in the environment, creating intersubjective meaning through cycles of interpretation and action, and thereby enacting a more ordered environment from which further cues can be drawn.”

That’s a mouthful and a half, but here’s the deal. We’ve been through a bit of organizational hell that has turned things upside down and inside out. During that descent, we’ve had the chance to observe and learn things about ourselves and our community that we would not otherwise have noticed. Now we need to construct a story about that journey, discern the unexpected gifts that can take us into a vital and healthy future, and design actions to make it happen.

That’s how not to waste a good crisis.

As individuals, congregations, judicatories and denominations, we will try to make sense out of our experience during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Making sense of our experience is not optional. Making sense is what we humans do.

The question is, “What kind of sense will we make of our experience?” Will we make sense in such a way that we will move toward greater congregational health? Or will we make sense in such a way that we will continue (at least in most cases) our previous gentle, and now accelerated decline into irrelevancy and oblivion?

In Deuteronomy 30, God challenges the Hebrews to move forward into the Land of Promise. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV).

This is a challenge for the people of God in that moment to discern God’s blessing both in the past forty years and in the challenges sure to come. It is a matter of choosing how and what to see. If we choose to see life and blessing, we can then find the ways to act that give vitality and hope. If we choose to see death and curses, we can then find ways to act that give decline and despair.

The covenant renewal ceremony is Deuteronomy 30 is a “sensemaking” ritual. It is a way to account for the struggle and sacrifice of a generation. It is a way to build on that sacrifice and struggle as they enter the Land of Promise. But that sensemaking is not a “given” thing. It is a “chosen” thing. Congregations are, I think, in a significant “choose this day” moment.

“Sensemaking” is the term of art for those who study organizational development. This area of study has been an academic focus only in the last forty years. It has been the work of human religious, philosophical, and wisdom traditions for as long as such traditions have existed. I think a word we Christians might understand for “sensemaking” is discernment.

Sensemaking and discernment are not mere synonyms. Sensemaking is an act of individual or social construction. It neither assumes nor requires a pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being. So, sense is “made” rather than uncovered.

Discernment, on the other hand, assumes a pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being. In the Christian tradition, we name that pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being “God” (or God’s will, plans, desires, etc.). Discernment uncovers something previously unseen rather than creating something that wasn’t there in the beginning.

Sensemaking and discernment operate in two different frames of reference. However, I think we can make translations from the one frame to the other. I think we can use information and insights from the study of sensemaking to help us discern the congregational disruption, discernment, design, dreaming, and destiny linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In “Waste Not, Want Not,” I described five areas of inquiry to help us make sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going. I want to refine those areas into more specific questions. I think these can be useful questions for dialogue with congregational leaders and groups as we come out of The Pandemic and construct the meaning of the experience as well as possible paths into the future.

What can we learn from our own history and/or from other congregations about surviving and growing after traumatic disruption? How can we apply those learnings to our life after The Pandemic?

Where have inertia, tradition, and fear kept us from considering new ways to carry out our ministry as a congregation? How have we (if we have) overcome obstacles to engage in new ways of being and doing church during The Pandemic?

What strengths did we uncover and/or enhance in surviving The Pandemic? How can we sustain and build on those strengths for the future?

What has this time of traumatic disruption told us about how we understand our mission as a congregation? Is that the real mission we want to pursue after The Pandemic?

How have we supported and nurtured our leaders, staff, and volunteers during the pandemic? How will we intentionally thank them for their service “above and beyond the call”? How will we help them recover and then flourish after The Pandemic?

If you use some or all of these questions for self-reflection and/or for conversation with congregational leaders, I’d love to hear the output of such reflections. Will we discern God’s call for new life after the crisis? Or will we close our eyes and ears to that call?

Discernment is not the end of this conversation or process. Rather, it is the beginning. I want to suggest that it is the beginning of the process of Appreciative Inquiry in congregations. That method of change management lends itself quite readily to organizations seeking to move from crisis to flourishing. I’ll be sharing more in the coming days.


Maitlis, Sally, and Christianson, Marlys. “Sensemaking in Organizations: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.” The Academy of Management Annals, 2014. Vol. 8, No. 1, 57–125,

After the Disaster — Appreciative Inquiry and the Path to the Future

I am writing a little guidebook on Appreciative Inquiry and the Church during and after the Disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic. This has been a challenging time for congregations and similar organizations. We have been unable to meet and worship face to face. We have been unable to teach and administer in ways we’re used to. We have been unable to visit the sick and homebound, to comfort the grieving, and host funerals in the ways we know are good for people. We have been unable to mark and celebrate the life transitions of birth, baptism, first communion, confirmation, graduations, weddings, and anniversaries in the ways we want. Our lives in congregations have been thoroughly disrupted.

Photo by Pixabay on

In the midst of the disruption, we have experienced tremendous organizational and personal resilience and even growth. In our culture, we are somewhat familiar with the idea and experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We have that experience through returning military personnel, survivors of relationship-based abuse, the traumas of white supremacy, male supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, and the maldistribution of wealth and resources in the population. We see the effects of PTSD in individuals and across generations.

Post-traumatic stress has been and is being studied in great depth and detail. We know much more than we did, and we have some modestly effective ways to deal with some of the symptoms of PTSD. In particular, the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been a boon to a number of sufferers of such distress.

On the other hand, many people who come through similar situations demonstrate great resilience and even significant growth as a result of the experience. We should be quick to say there is no fault or blame for those who struggle. PTSD is not a result of personal choice or moral failing. That antique perspective, which is still out and about in the culture, is mistaken, wrong, and destructive. In spite of the trauma, however, more than a few people come through the experience better, stronger, and more able to deal with the realities of daily life.

Until recently, few people were studying how that happens. These days the study of Post-traumatic growth is a real discipline in the world of positive psychology and positive organizational development. As we come out of the Disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic, we can make choices about where we focus our attention and energy. That is especially true of churches.

I can’t help but think about Mary, the mother of our Lord, as I write. Today you will hear her story from Luke and wonder with her about the meaning of the words she heard. I would invite to think as well about how she came to flourish in spite of the utter disruption of her life and world. There may be some insights for us at this time in the church.

Let’s focus on the things we had to learn and learn quickly to get through this time. Many of us have learned a whole suite of skills related to the use of media in online settings. We have discovered a variety of platforms and packages, techniques and equipment, to make the best use of those settings. We have secured the equipment, set up the environments, trained the people, and created the audiences this reality requires.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We had to learn how to relate to one another and communicate with one another in different ways. Much of that was online. However, many people rediscovered the power of letter and note writing. Even introverts like me learned how to initiate conversations with people even if we didn’t have specific business to do with them.

We learned once again just how important it is to be in and connected to a faith community. We learned once again that there are no solo Christians. And we learned a lot about mute buttons and background activities. In fact, a whole new genre of comedy has arisen, based on the amazing things that happen in spite of our best online efforts!

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We had to make significant changes in our congregational life quickly. I want to repeat that. we made significant changes quickly. We demonstrated that such change is not impeded by the capacity to change. Instead, what is needed is a demonstrated necessity for change and a willingness to make the change.

More than that, we have experienced the value of an experimental culture, where we tried things without knowing how they would turn out. If things didn’t work one way, we had to try another way, until we found a workable solution. We also learned that “good enough” is often good enough, and “perfect” is a luxury of the privileged.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We learned once again that “The Church” is more than our individual congregations. It has been a joy to be part of a number of worshipping communities over the last several months. That doesn’t motivate me to abandon ship and join another community. It does remind me that other folks are out there, part of the great cloud of witnesses.

And it does all me to see a variety of solutions to a common set of problems. We have seen the wisdom of the crowd applied to the situation of the church, and many of those solutions have been nothing short of ingenious.

This time has made it possible for me to reconnect with pastoral colleagues and to see them in action in their ministry settings. I am often skeptical and cynical about the institutional Church and the future of the ELCA.

That jaundiced view, however, is tempered every week by the amazing work of congregational leaders in our churches. I think that many of our pastors and other leaders are preaching some of the best messages of their lives under tough conditions. I feel privileged to be able to some of them in weekly. They are exercising some of the best leadership skills of their ministries. We will see the fruits of this work in the months and years to come.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We learned that our people are generous with their time, talents, and treasures, even when we can’t gather face to face. The amount of serving that has happened under duress is remarkable and beautiful. The ways that people have found to organize themselves in study groups, serving groups, support groups, and fun groups, has been wonderful to observe.

The variety of platforms for congregational giving is astonishing, and people have adapted to the variety. About three-quarters of the congregations I know have experienced stable or increased financial giving during this crisis.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

I have no idea what the answer to that question is for any particular congregation or denomination. But I do know that now is the time to ask that question with focus and intention. It will be some months yet (but no more, please God) before we can return to something approximating “normal.” So we have time now to reflect on this question and start to make some plans. We have the opportunity to go forward rather than merely trying to recapture a “normal” which shall never come again.

The question is an appreciative one. It focuses on how we can build on and build out from what we have experienced. I think that Appreciative Inquiry is well-suited as a technique and worldview for such a time as this in the Church. That’s why I’m putting this little book together now.

If you’re interested in discussing the question and ways to discern answers in your setting, please feel free to let me know. I’d like to be a useful resource for congregations and congregational leaders who want to proactively ask and answer that question.

What will we keep and grow from this learning? Thanks to all of you are who part of this astonishing “natural experiment.” Nothing is too wonderful for God.

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.

Photo by Pixabay on

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.

Photo by Pixabay on

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.

Photo by David Bartus on

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)