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.

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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.

Unmasking Truth — Recent Podcasts

Friends, as the weather closes in the gardening, yard work, and time in the wood shop decrease. So, I find myself with more time on the treadmill walking away the calories. I’m not one who likes to spend that time unoccupied, so I fill it with my favorite podcasts. Today I want to briefly highlight two of them.

The current release of the “TED Radio Hour” features conversations about truth in our time under the title of “Warped Reality.” Discussions focus on “deep fakes” as a profound symptom of the truth crisis in our digital technology, on the nature of free speech in the internet age, and the continuing power of systemic bias in the algorithmic world of social media and digital hiring and law enforcement — what the speaker refers to as the “weapons of maths destruction.”

The podcast can be accessed here: https://www.npr.org/2020/10/29/929115189/warped-reality.

We ELCA Lutherans are just coming down from our annual Reformation reading of John 8 — “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” What does it mean for a congregation to be a community committed to “truth”? Beyond the obvious theological and faith commitments involved in such a a discipline, shall we now be communities who take the time to teach our members new skills for discerning factual accuracy in the media we consume?

I think this may be one of the agenda items, for example, when we help people come to terms with the 8th commandment on bearing false witness against the neighbor. I know this is part of the conversation in many confirmation programs these days. This is certainly an invitation to audit our own congregational social media presence for assumed “algorithms” in how we present ourselves online in terms of skin tone, gender dynamics, orientation assumptions, etc.

It’s definitely worth the listen. I most appreciated the work of the “Algorithm Justice League,” and I will look for that work to continue. It’s near the end of the pod, so wait for it.

I also heard the recent “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” episode entitled “The Enduring Impact Of COVID-19.” Dave Davies interviews Nicholas Christakis,  a doctor and a sociologist who has studied the science of infectious diseases and how plagues of the past have altered societies. Christakis is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, where he directs the Human Nature Lab. The conversation revolves around his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.

I think I’ll get a copy of the book and perhaps review it in the near future. For now, I was struck by his prediction of the near-term impact of COVID-19. He suggests that, vaccine or not, we will deal with the immediate effects of the virus into 2022. We will, he believes, deal with the social and economic collateral damage in its most obvious forms through 2024.

This is, of course, very distressing news. The Christian congregations with which I have connections are struggling mightily to determine a strategy to get from now to the end of 2020. There is intense pressure on many pastors and other rostered leaders (sometimes to the point of bullying and even threats of termination) to return to “business as usual” in terms of in-person, maskless activities.

I’m not sure there’s the will or the energy to consider a strategy to get through 2022 with masks, social distancing and group gathering restrictions still in place. Nor do I hear any conversation about ways to mitigate the longer term effects and losses that are sure to be part of this path to the future.

My spouse works for a global banking organization. They have no plans to return to in-person work in any significant way until they are well into 2021. Many in her organization will never return to in-person work. In that organization there is no question about putting worker safety second to doing business. Nor is there any pressure related to employment or compensation to do anything other than be safe. I wish that would be the case for all Christian congregations.

I’m grateful for that wise and caring perspective from a large, international business. What will that mean, however, for the various venders, for example, who made part of their living on the commuting habits of these workers? It is in many ways the end of the world as we know it.

At the moment, her company is doing well financially. They anticipate that at some point, however, the corona-piper will need to be paid. They have built into their strategic model sequestered funds for if and when that downturn in revenue happens. The congregations I know are wrestling with how to make it to next month financially. They have no luxury to strategize about next year or five years from now (with a few notable exceptions). I wonder how many congregations will simply no longer be “in business” five years from now.

The podcast can be accessed here: https://www.npr.org/2020/10/26/927796954/the-enduring-impact-of-covid-19. It is also worth the time.

The two podcasts are, of course, connected (although not intentionally). Our relationship to truth is to a large degree determining how we deal with the pandemic and how we might strategize for the future. If we cannot come to terms with reality, we cannot develop effective strategies to move forward. A commitment to truth is critical to making effective plans. Denial always leads to disaster.

What strategies should Christian denominations, judicatories, and congregations adopt now based on the assumptions that truth is under fire and that the virus will be with us from another 18 to 24 months in force? I have no idea, but I do wonder if “the people in charge” are seeking answers to this question.

Christakis’ book can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Apollos-Arrow-Profound-Enduring-Coronavirus/dp/0316628212/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1604072640&sr=.

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“Treadmill” by www.metaphoricalplatypus.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0