Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Problem Solving Approach to Ministry?

Kathryn Britton, a software engineer and professional coach has an essay at Positive Psychology that addresses some of the concerned that we have discussed here regarding the character of parish ministry. She writes about how "appreciative inquiry" can help communities make "transformational instead of incremental change" in their shared life. For those who are unfamiliar with appreciative inquiry, until our more typical approach to change which focuses "on what is wrong or broken," appreciative inquiry is a systematic search "for the best in people, their organizations and the world around them." Rather than looking "for the problem, [doing] a diagnosis, and [then working to] find a solution," appreciative inquiry directs our attention to "what gives a system 'life' when it is most effective and capable in economic, ecological, and human terms." Appreciative inquiry involves the art and practice of asking questions that strengthen a system's capacity to heighten positive potential. It mobilizes inquiry through crafting an 'unconditional positive questions often involving hundreds or sometimes thousands of people.'" (D.L. & Whitney, D., "Appreciative Inquiry: A positive revolution in change." In P. Holman & T. Devane (eds.), The Change Handbook, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., pages 245-263) In a word, ," appreciative inquiry stresses a "cooperative" approach to community life that begins with a community's strength and seeks, to borrow from St Paul, to help them go "from glory to glory."

So how do we proceed with an appreciative inquiry? Well, Britton writes,

The first step is Discovery, figuring out what is already strong and resourceful in the system, often surprising the people involved. The second is to Dream, to collect aspirations for the future. The third is to Design, to invent ways to reach our aspirations from where we are right now. The fourth step is Destiny, putting our innovations into practice, practice, practice. Let me say a little more about Discovery and Design for sustainability.

Because we typically proceed along the problem solving approach to parish life, if we ever do look at our strengths (the Discovery stage) we do so in terms of the problem or problems we are trying to solve. There certainly is value in doing this, especially when we are in a crisis. But the potential difficulty of approaching our strengths in terms of our problems is that it narrows our understanding of our abilities. This happens in a two-fold manner.

First, looking at strengths in light of our problems, tend to limit how we use our strengths. For example, I am generally considered a reasonably good counselor. At the core of counseling is the ability to listen and understand the other person. Especially important is the ability to transcend sympathy, a feeling for the other person, to empathy, a feeling along with the person, (or compassion). If I only use my counseling skills for problem solving, then I will look at people primarily in terms of their weaknesses. No matter how effective I might be in any particular conversation with them this approach teaches them that they are only "valuable" or interesting to me in terms of their shortcomings. Slowly but surely, my relationships with the people I am called to serve will be structured in terms of power: "I'll only talk to you or pay attention to you if you come to me in need or poverty, so that I (who am rich and gifted) can make you better."

Not only does this slowly but surely result in my crippling the person or community I am trying to serve, it also results in my coming to a very unrealistic—wrong actually—view of myself. In parishes it is not uncommon for clergy and congregates to fall into just this pattern. When this happens, rather than lifting each other up, rather than helping each other grow in the life of grace, each subtly minimize the other. And so, not unreasonably, each begins to resent the other. Instead of growing in love, we grow further and further apart. Not unlike the married couple who, somewhere along the way, simply stopped communicating, the parish community simply evaporates, vanishes.

When resentment sets in the life of the parish becomes merely routine. Because we do not experience each other as life giving, we stop giving ourselves one to another. This doesn't mean that the parish isn't active. Quite the contrary in my experience; if we do not experience each other as life-giving, but only as problem solvers, we frantically begin to generate problems so that we can solve them together. This is tragic. The men and women in the parish, the clergy and the laity, who unite around problem solving, even if it is done in a manner that is wholly positive and strife free, never really come to know each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. The priest, for all his skill and for all the positive sentiment that may surrounds his office, is never seen as a father in Christ. Mere ritual replaces Liturgy, and social convention replaces the life of Christian virtue.

Maybe quickly, maybe slowly, the parish dies. Maybe it dies with drama and conflict; more likely it dies through attrition and with the cry: "Oh Father! All the young people have moved away! There's not work here, there's nothing for the young. They can't build a life here." While this is often expressed in terms of worldly economics, it is also almost always the confession of a parish that has ceased to be a community, it is the confession of men and women who have lost, or maybe never even knew, the ability in Christ to be life-giving.

This leads second difficulty of a problem-solving approach to ministry: When we focus on problems, not only do we limit our understanding of the gifts we know we have, we blind ourselves to the gifts we have yet to discover in ourselves and others. Problem solving not only limit how we exercise our gifts, it limits the gifts we can imagine exercising.

Let me explain.

Often people come to the parish with only a vague sense of the life to which Christ has called them. If we have narrowed that life even further to only a very particular of range gift necessary or the problems we think need to be solved (typically fundraising since, after all, "The church needs money Father!") we tend not even to notice that someone is a gifted teacher or evangelist, to say nothing of a prophet or miracle worker. And if these gifts are exercised at all, we tend to overlook them or, if we do recognize them, we try to put them to at the service of our own agenda rather than use them as God intends.

In either case, the person does not find the parish life giving. Indeed, in this second case, the person is likely to experience the parish as an increasing source of frustration. And very quickly this frustration grows into a vague, and sometimes not so vague, sense of anger and humiliation at being overlooked and unappreciated. It is not uncommon for people whose gifts are overlooked because they do not correspond to the problems we wish to solve to simply walk away. This at least has been my experience as a pastor.

So what are we to do? How do we focus on building on our strengths? I'll address that in my next post. This weekend I'm presenting a workshop at conference in Pennsylvania and so I am unlikely to be able to post until Monday or Tuesday. Given that I have one talk and a series of radio interviews to do next week, it might be longer than that before I can return to this topic. Between today and when I can return to the topic at hand, I would invite, nah eagerly hope for, comments and suggestions based on what I've written today to help me sketch out a strength based approached to parish ministry.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory