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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

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As I remember it, the first time I visited Ed in the nursing home, his bed included some kind of sling apparatus that helped the staff get him up and out of bed.  I don’t think I ever saw it used, but I was certainly clear that he didn’t get out of bed often.  He also didn’t respond very much when I talked with him, even though the family had assured me that he was still quite mentally sharp.

I was in my forties by then, and this was not my first encounter with dementia.  It was, however, my first encounter with a family who had not noticed, or didn’t want to notice, that Uncle Ed didn’t understand much anymore.  As I watched them over the next several weeks, I realized what must have happened.  Slowly, gradually, over a long time, the family had created a verbal “dance” with Ed – a set of questions which narrated family history for him (“Do you remember the time…?”) but required from Ed only a nod or a spoken “no.”  They even telegraphed which response was appropriate by doing it themselves.  But I didn’t know any of the cues, so with me he had no idea what he was supposed to say or do.

At what point do we finally notice that the things we’re looking at have changed and aren’t at all the same anymore?

I see the same thing happening with congregations.  We’ve known how to do Sunday School our entire lives, for example.  We grew up attending, we volunteered when our children were young, we recruited other teachers, we went to committee meetings, and now we expect the next generation of young parents to do what we did.  We’re frustrated that no one is “stepping up” to take their turn teaching Sunday School, which means that we’re still having to teach year after year after year.  We haven’t noticed, or don’t want to notice, that young families have changed and aren’t following the script anymore.

Ready to notice

My point here has nothing to do with dementia or even with Sunday School.  My point is that, in the church as in other organizations, we create strategies in order to achieve goals like educating our children or serving our community, but we don’t put any time into sensing that the children or the community might have changed.  To put this in organizational terms, when strategy bumps up again reality, we’re not always ready to notice that our strategy might need to change.

This was explored years ago by McGill University management professor Henry Mintzberg in The Strategy Process (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1998, paperback, revised).  He talked about what happens when an intended strategy bumps up against complex realities, triggering a further evolution in strategy, which he called an “emergent” strategy.  The “bumping up against” process also creates “unrealized” strategies, pieces of the work that we thought would be important when we created our plan or wrote down our goals, but which turn out to be irrelevant or unproductive as we move forward.

I thought about this idea of emergent strategy recently as I was working with a congregation that is physically moving to a newly-remodeled building in a different part of town.  Even though the construction work hasn’t even begun yet, the staff is already being asked to approve proposals for what to do with all kinds of wonderful space that will be available in the new building.  (Closets, gardens, art, language programs!!!)  What is becoming clear is that strategies that have worked more or less well in the current, space-limited building may not be necessary in the new building (unrealized strategies) and strategies that haven’t even been imagined yet may be exactly what the community will need once the congregation has moved (emergent strategies).

But, and this is a big “but,” for now they can’t tell.  For now, everyone needs to be engaged in noticing what’s going on around them as their environment changes.

For them, this means, first of all, taking it slow.  They had to move fairly quickly when it came to buying the building, but now that it’s theirs, they have time – time to move their small classes into larger spaces, time to welcome new people in old ways, time to be who they’ve always been in order to see whether it still works.

Being Curious

They’ve also realized that noticing change might mean being curious more than being convinced that they already know what to do.  We all tend to think we know exactly what is needed in any particular situation, even when we don’t know anything about it yet, but the world probably needs us to be curious much more than it needs us to be correct.  Every person in the congregation, including the children, can be encouraged to be curious about what the new setting can teach them.

And noticing change means being unafraid of whatever emerges.  As we take time for unhurried curiosity, we might learn that a deeply-held belief is wrong, or that a tried-and-true method doesn’t work anymore, or that something that feels incredibly risky is nonetheless the new thing to which we’re being called.  But nothing new can emerge if we’re afraid to let go of what we already have or afraid to try, and perhaps fail, with something new.

At what point do we finally realize that what we’re looking at has changed and isn’t at all the same anymore?  At the point that we’re ready to let go of everything unrealized in order to take hold of whatever emerges that is right and true.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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