Handling the Hum of Bright Ideas

by Dan Hotchkiss

When someone gets a new idea in your congregation, whom do they call? The clergy leader? A board member? Often it’s the front-line office person—the executive director, secretary, or administrator—who handles the incoming stream of helpful hints, complaints, requests, suggestions, and reform proposals. The hum of bright ideas is a sign of life, part of the soundscape of a healthy congregation.

The hum is worthy of attention quite apart from the content of the ideas. If the hum rises to a roar, it may be a sign of discontent or conflict leaders need to address. If it subsides to an intermittent murmur, that can be a danger sign as well, indicating lack of interest or fear of conflict.

How does your congregation pay attention to the hum? How does it respond to new and different ideas? What guidance has it given to the person in the hot seat? Congregations’ attitudes toward bright ideas come in three types, like the beds that Goldilocks found in the house of the Three Bears:

Too hard: “Unless your idea fits the leadership-approved vision, we’re not interested.” A lot of the advice directed toward church leaders over the last twenty years has encouraged a purpose-driven, mission-focused attitude that favors a critical approach to bright ideas. A fresh focus on first principles has been healthy, especially given the chaotic, playground quality of so many congregations, which seem to exist mainly to keep their active members busy and satisfied. The ability to say no to some ideas has been critical to the success of new and renewed congregations, allowing them to say yes to more ideas that fit their vision.

I like to say that the true “owner” of a congregation is its mission—not its members, leaders, or denomination. But a mission is a mystery to be discerned, not a fact to be engraved in stone. A mission statement represents one generation’s effort to describe something large and intangible. The mission is the thing the mission statement tries to state.

If you itemize the activities and accomplishments your congregation feels proudest of right now, the list will almost always include some items that your congregation—or others like it—would have condemned 50 or 100 years ago. Healthy congregations grow and change in their ability to see what faith requires. Too censorious an attitude toward fringe ideas leads to oblivion instead of growth.

Too soft: “We work hard to help everyone to implement whatever ideas they happen to have.” Too many congregations see themselves as clubs or co-ops, whose implicit purpose is to facilitate whatever their members want to do, so long as it seems more or less religious or charitable. Or they understand their work in economic or commercial terms, and do whatever will attract and please their “customers.”

The mission statement of a “too soft” congregation gives no help in sorting out the flow of bright ideas. Often it consists of a catalog of the main things the congregation does, rather than a statement of its reasons for doing them instead of something else. The mission statement is updated whenever what the congregation does has changed.

The “too soft” approach partly results from what historians call declension: the well-documented tendency of religious movements to lose zeal over time. But leaders often defend the soft approach on philosophic grounds: “Religion is about people. Why should leaders impose a single vision as though we knew better what was right?”

This attitude amounts almost to a denial of the congregation as an entity in its own right—as anything more than a collection of individuals. Unfortunately, such denial is a strong theme in American culture. If we can buck this theme, religious leaders can contribute to the social and political renewal well beyond our congregations.

Just right: “We are looking for ideas that support our vision, but appreciate that the best ideas often come from the periphery.” Unlike Goldilocks, our search for a middle way leads to a better wakefulness, not sleep. “Just right” leaders passionately advocate for mission-centered judgment of new ideas, while remaining just as passionately curious about what is happening at the fringes, the periphery, of congregational life.

What does this mean for the person at the front desk who has to respond to bright ideas as they come? What does it mean for governing boards and staff and other leaders—who are responsible not only for accomplishing the mission but for setting a tone, establishing the boundaries, and choosing how hard or soft the congregation’s culture will be? Each congregation has to find its own way. Here are some hints I’ve gleaned by watching masters of the craft:

  • Articulate the vision first, and actively invite ideas that support it. One reason so many of the bright ideas are off-base is that leaders are shy about saying—over and over again—what the vision is. Leaders who state clear, general goals and then ask for suggestions about how to achieve them get a richer mix of good ideas.
  • Recognize the value of seemingly off-vision projects and experiments. Google is well known for its “20-percent time” policy, encouraging employees to spend one day out of five experimenting with their own ideas, is a useful counterpoint to simplistic notions of alignment. The point is not to be less mission-driven, but to recognize that a worthy mission is too large for anyone to grasp it fully. Sometimes it makes sense to say “yes” to bright ideas as a way of letting leaders learn from what is happening at the periphery.
  • Learn to say no with respect. Most of the time, it does make sense to say no to ideas that don’t fit the mission as the leaders understand it. Having a clear, prompt process for delivering an answer shows respect. Sometimes offering a referral can be helpful—many good ideas can be carried out in other settings. Ideas that don’t fit a given congregation at a given time may still flow from a person’s faith. What is out of bounds today may one day be just what we need.

A congregation’s owner is its mission, but a mission is a mystery. The real mission stands behind the mission statements congregations write from time to time, but is never fully captured by them. And so “mission focus” is a paradox. It calls for leaders to hold on to both sides of some challenging polarities: alignment and creative openness, respect for leadership and space for dissident activity. Most congregations err on one side or the other, handling the hum of new ideas with “soft” indulgence or “hard” discrimination. A few creative, mission-driven congregations manage to be “just right.”

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Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, which has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.

 

 

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