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 Pexels.com

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.

Resources

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 Pexels.com

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.

References.

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, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19416520.2014.873177