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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

Saying Yes Like We Mean It

Most churches of any size have a process for saying “yes” to a set of goals we believe are in response to God’s call, whether that call be to grow in size or grow in the Spirit or to be more active in the community. But when we say “yes,” do we say it like we mean it? Or do we approach our goals as if they were New Year’s resolutions—expendable as soon as we get tired or busy or bored?

In my non-profit work, the answer was clear. When we set goals, we meant it! Goals adopted by the board were commitments, expected to be executed by me and the staff unless the board subsequently made a different decision.

Any goal worth having usually involved money—spending more of it, spending less of it, or spending it differently. Efforts to create a new product or program required research, the creation of new job descriptions, hiring or contracting with new staff, establishing specifications, setting deadlines, multiple design trials, implementation, and ongoing assessment. We regularly reported back to the board about our successes and failures as well as any budget implications. Frequently, the new product or program required the board to reexamine its existing priorities, sometimes making the decision to let another product or program go.

What made the process work was largely accountability. I did my best to be an inspirational leader, but staff also knew they were accountable for their work—that I had ways to recognize good work and to impose consequences if a staff member was half-hearted or uncooperative. I was accountable to the board for the work of the staff, and the board had accountability mechanisms to use with me.

Good Intentions

In contrast to that kind of professional goal setting, many of us try to improve our personal lives by making resolutions. New Year’s resolutions in particular are usually more…  provisional. We may adopt them with great energy and specificity—“I’m going to exercise for at least 30 minutes every morning before I start work” or “I’m going to buy local.” We may even spend money on an exercise bike or a local food coop membership, but most of the time our execution falls short. We like having a time of year when we resolve to do better, but then we buy memberships we never use and hang laundry on our exercise bikes. When we write “get more exercise” in our journals, “whenever possible” is always implicit.

The process fails, at least in part, because of a lack of accountability. Unless we make the effort to identify, inform, and regularly communicate with a partner, New Year’s resolutions have no accountability mechanisms. Positive rewards are almost always deferred and there are no negative consequences other than the ones we’re already used to—obesity, for example, or a high Amazon bill. When we become distracted, when life events disrupt our good intent, when we’re too tired to keep going and it’s just easier to stop, the only real consequence we face is that inevitable sign of defeat.

Resolutions or Commitments?

Churches fall somewhere between these two poles of firm commitment and provisional resolve. They look like organizations in that they have:

  • A structure that includes articles of incorporation, bylaws, and some kind of governing body responsible for making decisions
  • Income and expenses, most of which are captured annually in a budget
  • A vision or mission statement, annual goals, and sometimes longer-range strategic plans
  • A leader and a staff, most of whom have something resembling a job description
  • Staff accountability for outcomes

But every church’s ability to reach its goals is dependent on the good intentions of individual members, who may hear the church’s goals as provisional resolutions rather than firm commitments. Members participate actively in the formal structures of the church, but they are rarely accountable to anyone for the speed and energy with which they do their work or their willingness to pursue the church’s goals. Each individual member is subject to the same distractions, disruptions, and exhaustion that undercut their New Year’s resolutions. Without accountability, churches too easily accept the consequences they are already used to—declining attendance, volunteer burnout, a dearth of children and youth.

Setting Goals As If You Mean It

Churches are right to set goals. Given our current cultural chaos, in which churches are declining in not only membership but also cultural significance, each congregation needs to have a clear, shared vision for the work to which it believes God calls it, as well as a plan for its next steps. But the whole congregation needs to say “yes” to these goals and say it like they mean it, rather than assenting to the goals provisionally. And members need to find a way to hold each other accountable in the same way staff are held accountable. This may look like:

  • Being much more intentional about who is asked to do which tasks
  • Writing job descriptions for volunteer functions that are clear about the job and realistic about the amount of amount of time volunteers can give
  • Eliminating or professionally staffing any programs, tasks, or committees for which adequate volunteer hours are not available

Most importantly, though, member accountability means that lay leaders are willing to have difficult conversations with members who are distracted, disruptive, or resistant, and being willing to have those same conversation about our their work as well.

There is an alternative, of course. We could reconstitute the church to be less like an organization and more like a fellowship of Jesus-followers whose only discernable structure is the kitchen table. On bad days, you’ll find me sitting there.

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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