I first heard of Appreciative Inquiry in Chicago in the late 1990s. I was dealing with some very thorny congregational issues as a young minister. In consulting with my mentor, I said “We have so many problems, I just don’t know where to start.” She looked at me and with a calm voice said “Don’t start with the problems.” I was incredulous. “What do you mean don’t start with the problems? Problems are all we have!” I exclaimed. “Are they?” she asked, “Why not start with your solutions; start with your strengths, not your weaknesses.” “What kind of Jedi mind trick is this?” I thought to myself. She continued, “When your conversations begin with what is working, you will find the solutions to problems are easier to come by. It’s a little like Dorothy’s red shoes from the Wizard of Oz…the way home was always there.”
She then went on to teach me about Appreciative Inquiry (AI). She explained that we use curiosity about your strengths as a way to affirm your worth as a community. I took a brief training and took it home to my people. At first I got all the usual objections: “We need to get real about this.” “How does this help us with what is wrong?” “This sounds like some hippie nonsense.” But as we began interviewing each other about what gifts we had as individuals and what our congregation had as a community, you could feel the energy building in the room. It was almost hypnotic. After the first “summit,” we took those strengths and looked again at what was not working in our congregation. One of our biggest problems was a lack of newcomers to the church. We were an older congregation, led by me, an erstwhile younger minister who was supposed to be attracting young families. And while young families were coming, they weren’t staying.
As we applied our strengths to this issue, what we came up with was: Food. We were really good at food. We loved to eat and there were some amazing cooks in the congregation. Suddenly someone said, “Monthly potlucks and I will invite the families to come, they don’t have to bring a thing.” Someone else said, “Magic! I do magic shows!” and the monthly “Enchanted Evenings” were born. Someone else offered to pay for childcare. And suddenly families were staying.
It’s easy to point out problems and wish we were different. Appreciative Inquiry teaches us to go around the problems to what is working first. It doesn’t ignore the problems but it reframes them with a new insight.
Our congregation is such an amazing place. We have a strong and vibrant multi-generational community that is growing again. We have kids in worship and leading worship. We have our beloved elders making sure that things get done and those in need are cared for. And, especially, this month, we have people pledging more money to make our dreams come true. Believe that! I see it week and after week. More people giving more than we had planned for. And wow, do I appreciate that!
This Saturday from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM there will be “AI Summit” in our sanctuary. Everyone is invited! This will be a fabulous opportunity to join our hearts and minds together and celebrate what is working in our beloved congregation. This is not to be missed!
You can RSVP HERE. Lunch will be served!
I hope to see you there, Rev. John