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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Getting on the Same Page Now

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.

When I ask people what they want to accomplish with a planning project, I typically get this response: “Well, we have to figure out what people are interested in doing together. We have to begin with a unified vision of our mission and ministry. Don’t we?”

Still in Liminal Space

We are still in liminal space. Reopening our buildings and regathering the congregation physically will not resolve our disorientation. We are still stuck between something that has ended and a new thing that is not yet ready to begin.

You cannot resolve liminality by planning your way through it. You must learn your way through it. Guide your leaders through cycles of observation, experimentation, adjustment, and iteration. You need a learning agenda, fluid action plans and containers for reflecting on your learning. You do not need a leadership body in full agreement about which way to go. That will come later—maybe.

In the unsettled state of liminality, people are more likely to accept strong direction from a leader or small group of leaders. Consensus is not required. In liminal seasons, people grow frustrated with prolonged periods of listening, pondering, and planning. More immediate action is needed. Just tell us what to do next!

Do We Need Unanimity… Consensus… or Something Else?

Unanimous agreement means that all stakeholders have had their say and are in full agreement about how to proceed. We rarely find true unanimity even in the best of times. We may approximate unanimity by watering down our options until we can get to a choice that offends no one. Or stakeholders may silence their own dissenting opinions because they do not want to be seen as obstructing progress. Neither of those conditions produce authentic support.

Many prefer to work by consensus—when stakeholders, by general agreement or accord, decide to move together in a direction. In consensus, not everyone needs to be in full agreement, but everyone must feel that they have been heard. Those who don’t support the proposed action are asked to stand aside and support the will of the whole.

However, reaching consensus is time consuming and difficult to achieve in polarized or rapidly changing environments. While working towards consensus, the naysaying voice of one unhealthy stakeholder can halt action. And action is important now.

In a liminal season, you should not be pursuing unanimity or consensus-building. Your goal is to get a critical core of stakeholders to pursue a learning agenda. How do you go about doing that?

Adopting Innovation

In The Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers explains how and why new ideas and technologies are adopted in organizations. He introduces five categories of constituents who populate the typical organization as it adapts to change. The makeup and behavior of these five groups help us understand the tipping point for action—when we have enough support to move forward.

Innovators. Approximately 2.5% of the people in the organization. This group is eager to pursue information and is well connected to sources of innovative ideas. They are ready to take risks and often have the financial liquidity to support their risk-taking behavior.

Early Adopters. About 13.5% of the people. These are the opinion setters in the organization. They tend to be younger and better educated than the majority. They also relish new information. They are more discerning and more cautious than the Innovators about the risks they will support.

Early Majority. About 34% of an organization. This group offers support once they are confident a new idea will succeed. They are pragmatists. They usually have above average social status but rarely demonstrate thought leadership in the congregation.

Late Majority. Another 34%. They demonstrate a high degree of skepticism. Are often seen as “the guardians of tradition.” They offer their support eventually—if and when most others have already done so.

Laggards. About 16% of the people in the organization are diehards. They have smaller circles of friends and experiences. They have an aversion to risk or change. They seek out people who agree with their opinion. Some may grudgingly acquiesce to new direction over time. Others never come on board.

Leaders are cautioned not to invest too much energy bringing the late majority and the laggards along for the ride. The tipping point for a change initiative is when the innovators, early adopters and the first segment of the early majority are on board. That is the moment when the organization is primed to act. The rest of the early majority and the late majority will come along over time and the laggards may never support a change initiative, so your energy is wasted trying to get their support.

Building Commitment & Moving Forward

So, what are your leadership tasks for the next chapter of this liminal season?

  • Identify and work with your innovators and early adopters to create a vital learning agenda for the next year. For example: Learning about the needs and interests of the worshipping community that chooses to remain online. Or: Exploring digital partnerships with other organizations because we do not have adequate resources to offer vital in person and online educational experiences.
  • Ask your governing board to approve the learning agenda. This authorization will help you to prioritize the organization’s time and resources for the designated learning period.
  • Create an innovation team for each learning area you have named and have those teams create flexible action plans for advancing learning. These teams should be made up of innovators, early adopters, and the early majority. Action plans must be fluid enough to evolve as the environment around you evolves.
  • Listen to and address the concerns of the laggards, because the late majority also listens to their concerns and the majority need to hear you address the reservations raised. However, you should not let the concerns of the laggards stop forward momentum. You probably can’t make them happy—so don’t make that your objective.
  • Name new metrics for monitoring and evaluating the success of your learning initiatives. Be sure your metrics measure learning, rather than rewarding premature “right answers.”
  • Embrace failures. Charge the innovation teams with reflecting on both successes and failures and find ways to loop your larger leadership body into the learning. As you learn, iterate (adjust the experiment and repeat).

Moving forward calls for imagination and resilience. It does not require getting everyone on the same page with consensual action plans. Vital congregations will resist the impulse to plan their way out of liminality. They will act first. See what they learn. Adjust. Try again. Save consensus building for later.

How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going
Inside the Large Congregation cover
When Moses Met Aaron cover

Susan Beaumont is a consultant, coach and spiritual director. Susan is a practical contemplative. She works at the intersection of organizational health and spiritual guidance. Specializing in the unique dynamics of large congregations, Susan’s work focuses on staff team dynamics, board development and leadership in times of transition. Rev. Beaumont is the author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going and Inside the Large Congregation and co-author of When Moses Meets Aaron.

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