Every congregation is unique. It is located in a specific place, has a particular history, and evidences a unique culture. Yet dynamics and patterns of behavior recur across denominations, polities, and locations. Following are a set of congregational constants that I’ve observed across religious traditions. Each reader can decide whether they are true of your congregation, and if so, how they might help you to become a more effective leader.
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” This military paradox, memorably stated by President Dwight Eisenhower, is particularly salient for congregations in this moment. So much has changed, so much is changing. Planning can seem useless when we are so likely to be forced to lay our plans aside and improvise. Some say the world is changing so fast that “planning” is outmoded altogether.
Buildings are reopening and in-person engagement is slowly coming back. As leaders look to the future, many wonder how to build consensus about the next chapter. Over the past several weeks, my phone has been ringing off the hook with clients looking for help with planning. It’s not surprising. Planning has traditionally been our go to approach for getting people motivated to move together from point A to point B.
But getting everyone to agree on a direction should not be your objective now.
As I met with a governing board during a planning session, one member asked, “How are we ever going to develop a communications strategy without the appropriate staff?” I responded, “We won’t know what the appropriate staff is until we have a strategy. Don’t you have some members who work on communications and marketing in their day jobs?” “Of course! We have some people who are outstanding in that field,” came the reply. “Then why are we talking about this instead of having your members who have the skill sets and experience to do it?” Folks took my question as though it was a revelation. Actually it was common sense.
Every busy person knows that if we want to add something new to our schedule, we need to let something else go. (You know this, right?) Religious institutions face the same dilemma—unless blessed with unlimited dollars for additional staff, they know that programs and projects need to end in order to start something new. Letting go is hard, though. It disappoints members, who are usually not only fans but donors. How does a church decide when to let go?
Over this past year, we have had to pivot—in our personal lives, as religious leaders, and in our organizations. We have found ways to be resourceful in ways we didn’t know we could. Perhaps we have even sensed a capacity to be resilient in order to navigate intense and unforeseen challenges. Resilience is often understood as the capacity to “bounce back,” but I prefer to think of it as the ability to return again and again to what matters. In other words, to cultivate resilience, we must practice pivoting.
Given the extreme polarization that now infects American society, many wonder what they can do to reduce divisions in families, communities, and congregations. Fortunately, there are strategies any of us can adopt to become agents of depolarization. They range from the intrapersonal (changing attitudes and behaviors) to the systemic (advocating for social change), but all can be implemented at the local level. All the ideas that follow come from When the Center Does Not Hold: Leading in an Age of Polarization, a book I wrote with several colleagues in 2019, published by Fortress Press.