W hen we think about renewal and “rebuilding” our faith communities, practices, and programs we are a part of, it is important that we focus on the strengths and places of life so that we are building on that which is most alive, rather than spending so much time or focus on the pathologies and weaknesses of the places we find ourselves. I have found that these weaknesses and pathologies persist whether you give them energy or not, but containing them within a framework of strengths helps the community not become overwhelmed by the issues.
One of the tools I have found extremely valuable for doing this is the social model of Appreciative Inquiry, a model of renewal that I have had the privilege of walking a number of communities through. Appreciative inquiry is a participatory change process that helps a community focus on the life that is already within the community. While there is a whole process to Appreciative Inquiry, it all starts with the kinds of questions you ask. A.I. puts a lot of care into the designing of questions that are meant to stimulate passion and gratefulness for the community, in order to draw out the kinds of insights that might help us to build upon the strengths.
For instance, A.I. asks questions such as:
- What brought you to this community and what keeps you here?
- What are three dreams you have for this community?
- In your opinion, what is the best part of this community? What is the core?
- What do you bring to the community – this could be something that is common knowledge or things that people may not know about?
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask these questions as a part of a series of Sunday morning sessions I led on the topic of renewing faith traditions at a Quaker meeting. The class was a combination of some of my work and Brent Bill’s great pamphlet: A Modest Proposal for The Revitalization of the Quaker Message. There were about 20-25 of us who worked through this reading and topic over the course of about 5 weeks.
I think the conversation was worthwhile and would highly recommend Friends wanting to have a discussion around renewal of their meetings to reading through Bill’s pamphlet. As a part of the discussion series, I also put together an eBook with some of my thinking on the subject that can be found here. I think both resources work well together.
Asking the Question: What is the core?
I want to draw upon this question for a few moments, “What is the core of your community or tradition?” I have found that it can create an energized conversation and it gives us some basis upon which to proceed in a change process.
One Sunday morning during our class, I asked people get into small groups to discuss this question, and then when we were done, we wrote responses on a big sheet of paper. What I didn’t expect was that the list we generated pretty quickly had broad consensus within the group, and it became the basis for subsequent conversations around renewal and change. When we talked about changing the bulletin or moving pews in the sanctuary, we went back and reflected on how bulletins and spaces used for worship can “help us go deeper into the core.” We all agree, even if indirectly, that the bulletin as it is now, or the worship space as it is currently arranged is not the core of who we are. In fact, the list of items that this group generated are pretty flexible, open-ended, and can provide great guidelines for being innovative. In other words, they really do reflect core principles. When we put things in perspective and ask, what is the most essential aspects of who we are as a community, this gives us new shared ground for listening and dreaming.
In our discussion that Sunday morning, here are some of the things that were generated:
- The importance of a direct relationship with God, “the Light.”
- Focus on seeking instead of being creedal, you find truth in relationship with God.
- Sharing personal journeys with one another
- The authority is the Spirit within
- All are ministers
- Simplicity of the meeting
- Teachers come from a lot of different places
- The practice of communal discernment
- The importance of apprenticeship
- and more…
For Quakers reading this: Notice that some of these things are more localized – they wouldn’t be true for every Quaker community, while others are broader and perhaps a bit more universal.
In a longer, Appreciative Inquiry process, we would ask more people these same questions, get a broader sample of the community and add to this list. Then we would begin listening and discerning together major themes and images that we would distill down into 3 or 4 things that could help guide the change process in the community. I love that the list that was generated was deeply participative and it really formed a kind of “common language” as we went forward.
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if faith communities did a process similar to A.I. every 4 or 5 years, not only gauge where people are at, but to continue to narrate together those really essential stories that shape our community, as well as help us remember that we change and evolve, that everything we do – from the bulletins we create to the spaces we worship in and how we worship – may evolve and change, but what matters is continuing to nurture the core of who we are right now.
If you are interested in knowing more about how to do this within your faith community feel free to reach out. I’m happy to offer help you think through this or come talk with your group and/or guide it through exercises like this.
I created a basic online website for each session that can be found here if you’re interested in the structure of the conversations.