Questioning Forward: Bringing What’s Best

Appreciative Inquiry assumes that people have an easier time moving into the future when they can bring parts of the past with them. Another slightly nuanced assumption is an important one:

If we’re going to bring parts of the past with us into the future, they should be the best parts. 

There are some books I love without needing to read them. One such book is called Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers. I love it because it’s so true. Sometimes the most life-giving thing for a church is to get rid of a non-functioning sacred cow and to replace it with something fresh.

To stick with our bovine metaphor, an important part of leading a church into positive change and renewal is discerning what parts of the past are genuinely valuable producing cows and what parts are these overly-protected sacred cows. These cows can come in the form of traditions, worship schedules, volunteer stations, organizational structures, calendar events, decorating aesthetics, and physical memorials and shrines.

We’ve talked in previous posts about helpful questions to use for learning what is good about a group or organization. As people start sharing with you what they consider to be a valuable part of an organization, some cattle sorting will be necessary. Here are a few things to consider:

  • When people speak of the value of a particular cow, what tense are they usingIf people can speak positively about the current positive benefits that are occurring, this cow may be producing. If they can give specifics about the next months and years for what is coming up next, this cow may be producing. But if people can only speak with vague nostalgia about the value of something, you might be dealing with a sacred cow. If they can only speak of the value of a ministry “if people would step up and get it going again” then you might be dealing with a sacred cow. I’ll put it this way: if all of the best work of this program would require a Delorean with a Flux Capacitor to observe, you are probably dealing with a sacred cow.
  • Do people defend this cow, even when you aren’t attacking it? When you ask basic information about a cow, do people push back, avoid your question, or show suspicion about your motives? If a ministry has a budget and it’s actually a ministry, there should be no reason it wouldn’t make its budgeting available if requested. If leaders are secretive about a lack of results for the number of dollars being spent, you might be dealing with a sacred cow. If you ask about the number of people involved in an effort and the response seems defensive or irritated, you might be dealing with a sacred cow.
  • Is this cow protected by ancestral spirits? That’s kind of a joke. People set up shrines and memorials because of other people whom they love and admire. But if people forbid you from making changes to something purely out of respect for the deceased, you might be dealing with a sacred cow. In these circumstances, you want to be very respectful, because people’s positive memories are fueled by nostalgia. At the same time, it may be worth seeking compromises when changes need to occur where a person might be honored in an alternate way. Most people I know who have been honorable leaders in the church would want nothing less than for the church’s future progress to be slowed because of them. To do so would be an insult to their memory and not an honor.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, it is totally fine and beneficial to maintain traditions, rituals, and practices that are healthy, producing cows. Here are some traits of healthy things worth maintaining:

  • They have a purpose in alignment with the specific vision of the congregation. Many congregations don’t accomplish much because they try to be generalists with far too many mediocre ministries. There is wisdom in taking a serious look at your congregation and your community to evaluate what resources are available and what needs are most urgent, and then to prioritize how you align these two areas. It is better to do excellent work in a few focused areas than to do mediocre work in many. If an existing ministry is a good marriage of the resources of your people with the needs of your community, then do all you can to strengthen it. Why reinvent a wheel if a little grease would do the trick?
  • What they actually produce is consistent with what they intend to produce. Empowerment requires clear expectations, resources, and parameters. Leaders at the top level cannot and should not expect they can know all things about all aspects of what happens at their congregation. By getting a team of dedicated, competent Christians to work on a task, leaders can be free to focus on other areas. Establish the goal of a ministry, then let people know what the banks of the river are. “Here are the kinds of things we want to see. Here are things we would not want. Here is what your budget is. Here will be the next time I check in on you unless you need some help before then. Go get ’em!” If this ministry/program/tradition accomplishes what it is intended to accomplish, then keep it around.
  • They have an ability to recruit new volunteers. For any church to grow, it’s crucial that when new people show up, they can find places where they are useful. Any ministry that is ready and prepared to put new people to work in meaningful ways is a good ministry.

It’s fine to bring parts of the past into the future, but let’s make sure those parts are the best parts.

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