Task Forces as Ministry Tools Too often people avoid parish ministry involvement when the primary avenue is a committee
Some congregations are doing fine with a committee structure in which most activities are created, planned, carried out, and then evaluated by a long standing committee of one kind or another.
Others, however, are finding that people are treating church work like other community activities, as something they are reluctant to join in for fear of being tied down to a long term commitment. People see joining a committee as a life time sentence, or at least an experience with many strings attached.
There are also limits as to how quickly a committee can change its work to meet new opportunities.
When commitment phobia is present, especially in a changing congregation, switching to a task force model can overcome people’s reluctance to be more involved. Task forces can be short lived structures that channel the energy, creativity, and enthusiasm of folks because they are, by definition, limited in their duration, goals, and activities.
Both commercial and non profit organizations are finding that using a task force approach to organizing common work is both more efficient and more welcoming. Less time needs to be spent maintaining a task force since by definition it will have a limited life span. Because of the limits of its life span and work, members of a task force are more likely to welcome the stranger into their midst since no one is making a long term commitment to common work together, so relationship risks are easier to take.
Just as relationship risks are easier, so are creative risks. Particularly if the congregation recognizes that failure is always an option but never fatal, its task forces can try all sorts of new approaches and perspectives, knowing that no long term commitment needs to be made to any of them. Those that work can be embraced by future task forces, and those that fail can be put on the “learn from it” shelf.
Task forces work hand in hand with the nimble planning approach to congregational life. A task force can quickly be formed to address a new opportunity, as talked about in the “Nimble Planning” page of this web site. A task force can also be quickly dissolved when new information or wisdom shows it is no longer needed.
Therefore it is often easier for task forces to be more welcoming of new people and new ideas, while responding quickly to new opportunities, allowing the congregation to grow in ministry and membership.
Nimble Planning and Benchmarks for Faithful Ministry Churches can learn the art of nimble planning and therefore be more ready to respond to God’s call to new ministries and changing conditions. Too many congregations get bogged down in long term planning exercises that create a marvelous vision of an unattainable future. Grand plans sit on a shelf gathering dust, with resulting guilt and cynicism about strategic planning.
Rather than creating a ten year or five year plan, most business strategy experts are recommending no more than three year goals for an organization. Churches would do well to heed this approach.
To help shift thinking, changing vocabulary can be helpful. So rather than using long term goals, benchmarks can be developed that let a church aim in the right direction, work towards big accomplishments, but be short term enough to plan for times of evaluation and rethinking to respond to inevitably changing conditions.
So rather than a five year goal of increasing congregational membership numbers, the Vestry could plan a nine month program of increased advertising and better newcomer follow-up, with a planned evaluation at the end of the nine months to see what has gone well, what needs improving, what was a failure, and what would make sense for the next benchmark in congregational growth.
One strength of this approach is that few people in parish ministry have the skills for effective long term planning, so often when it has happened, the product is more wishful thinking rather than realistic goal setting. Taking a shorter term approach meshes better with the skills and experiences parish leaders have developed in their everyday lives, it is more of what comes naturally to them and probably how they will best operate as leaders.
Another strength is that congregations and communities are often changing at a fast rate that makes our planning today obsolete very quickly unless we frequently and intentionally revisit our plans, goals, and techniques and adjust them to the changing conditions we encountering. Institutions, including congregations, that rely and enforce too long a planning process. Saying yes to new ideas in a matter of weeks rather than months can make a major difference in the relevance of the resulting ministry and therefore it success.
So it is important that the leadership of a congregation, both lay and ordained, have a strong sense of what the identity of the congregation is, so that when new opportunities arise it is easier for everyone to see quickly whether and how those opportunities mesh with the life of the congregation or otherwise make the congregation stronger and more faithful-or would these new things be a distraction and lead the congregation off in the wrong direction. Another strength of the nimble planning approach is that new parishioners can quickly propose and lead new ministries. Again, the leadership should evaluate such proposals in light of the congregation’s identity statement, and if it is a faithful fit, quickly give support and an accountability structure to the new person’s proposal. That new member is much more likely to stay with the congregation, and to invite others (if for no other reason than to staff his or her new ministry), than if they were asked to wait until the next annual planning meeting to put forward their idea.
In terms of implementation of new ministries, a good technique is to push gently until the anxiety in the congregation as a whole gets to the "just before too much" point. Frequent and accurate information about the temperature of the congregation is key information for the leadership of the congregation to have and analyze on a frequent basis. This gentle pushing approach is to avoid congregations getting too comfortable or stuck in their ways without getting bogged down in multiple conflicts over changes, things added and things lost.
Often there is a certain amount of trial and error in this work so an occasional failure should not lead the leadership to abandon the technique all together, but instead to be more careful in their listening and interpretations of the congregation's ability to experience change. Few congregations can stay as they are, so careful pastoring of change is crucial for them to remain faithful and vibrant heading into the future.
Nimble planning frees God from the box we humans have often shoved God’s love into, that can only come out at times we find comfortable and orderly. When life changes, God tries to love the world in the new ways needed, and as life changes quickly, quick responses by God’s faithful people are needed to express that love. Nimble planning is one approach to institutionalize the sharing of God’s love quickly and effectively to the people in and outside of the congregation.
What is the Problem? Context is king. People often recognize the value of outside perspectives, particularly in church work. Fresh eyes can see things that church staff and parishioners have overlooked or just were not seeing for one reason or another. But before offering viewpoints on what to change, it is important to ask the question “what problem is/was being solved?”
Sometimes people create complex practices and traditions that at first glance serve no good purpose. Sometimes the people living out those ways of doing things cannot answer right away why things are done the way they are done. But before such things are dropped, it is crucial to listen carefully to the stories and other context around those practices. It may be that their creation was a key moment that formed part of the healthy identity of that particular congregation, and so are worth saving at least in some form so that the character trait is not lost. The presenting problem may have long passed, but the symbolic need may remain.
Similarly, the problem may be still present but forgotten from conscious thought because the practice in question has answered it so well that no one has had to consider it for years. People love to solve problems, so when they are solved, our attention shifts elsewhere. Drawing conversation out about what problems were being solved helps a congregation gain a greater appreciation and joy about itself, and avoids reactivating problems that had been settled.
The wooden ducks in the above picture are not uniform in their dress. But before I either dressed the middle duck or took the galoshes and coat from the other two, I would want to know the meaning of the wet duck. Maybe it symbolizes the need to remember not everyone is warm and safe in our society. Then I could ask about the coated ducks- are they to make us laugh at our own fear of rainfall? Or maybe the varnish is not yet dry on them? The only way to know is to ask, and then carefully listen to the answers, which hopefully come in the form of a complex story full of multiple characters and plot twists.
With wooden ducks probably the answer to what problem is being solved is straightforward. With congregations, it almost always is multi-layered and complex both in its context and content.
Who Is Missing From The Table? “Who” is in the conversation can be more important than the “what” of the discussion Frequently congregations are well aware of the need for open processes when making major decisions, and so are careful to publicize key meetings and do their best to help everyone feel invited to those gatherings.
But we can never clearly evaluate ourselves or our groups as to our openness or welcoming ability on our own, and so instead need to step back and see both who has shown up and who is missing.
This information tells us how we are structured in terms of hospitality. If we have good participation by all the different types of folks who could possibly attend the meeting, then we are doing well. But if repeatedly a segment of the possible attendees are absent, then we, probably unintentionally, have organized ourselves to exclude those people.
We then are eliminating the information and perspectives those excluded people uniquely hold. For some activities this exclusion will not be important, but for others it can be fatal to the faithfulness and success of a ministry. Anytime a ministry or project is going to affect more than a handful of people, special care must be taken to get people to the table whose voices otherwise would be missing, even if it takes changing the planned approach to the process.
Meeting times and locations, communication tools used to publicize the ministry or project, presumptions about how things will be carried out, and whether or not there is room for new leadership in the activity all help determine whether or not people other than the usual suspects will participate.
If a group cannot imagine shifting its meeting, uses only the communication channels its current participants receive, starts with a limited and fixed vision of how to do what it does, and only allows new members to be minimal participants until they learn the ropes, then that group will not grow in either its numbers or its ministry. Many if not most people in our current culture join groups in order to make a difference in the world and become more connected with others, and these goals cannot be accomplished in a setting where the newcomer’s ideas and talents are not quickly utilized and the value of the new member as a person quickly recognized.
Joy and Fear, Failure and Forgiveness in Leadership Too often we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear rather than guided by Christ’s joy in and for the world. A paralyzing fear of failure denies the power of God’s forgiveness. We must always remember that God is doing the heavy lifting, rather than ourselves, in any given situation. Fear is the current universal language. In advertising, politics, economics, theology, entertainment and even interpersonal relationships people draw on fear to determine for themselves and to communicate with others what is most important.
Yet the Good News of God in Christ is that we are freed from fear, and instead are called to live as people of Christ’s Resurrection, people of new life. Our point of reference is not to be what we fear most, but instead who loves us most. Then we can look at life as God does, with a view of joy, hope, and love.
This divine perspective gives us the ability to see new possibilities, new ways of being, both for ourselves and the congregations in which we live. Fear drives us to seek simple quick solutions that satisfy our own desires. Living in faith opens us to the ways in which God would have us live for others with generosity.
Living in fear leaves us with Peter the night before Jesus died, when Peter denied he even knew Jesus, let alone followed him. Living in Christ’s joy means we live as people of the Resurrection, when Peter was given new and more challenging tasks as Jesus asked him to feed and tend the sheep and lambs. Freed of fear by God, Peter went on to give up so much that he once thought was foundational, such as purity laws, so that God’s love could be spread among all the people of creation.
Peter’s story also tells us so much about failure. He failed miserably the night of Jesus’ arrest, and yet became the cornerstone of the church. If Jesus had used the standard of too many congregations, he would have seen Peter fail at this key moment, and then relegate him to only the least important tasks.
A congregation’s manner of dealing with a failure is a clear demonstration to all of how much it believes in the forgiveness of sins. If a congregation cannot gracefully deal with a program falling on its face, with a leader fulfilling his or her responsibilities, or with a the occasional typo in the Sunday bulletin, then that congregation is failing to embody the forgiveness that fuels our faith as Christians. Worst of all, that congregation is guilty of a public display of hypocrisy that chases off the perspective member who is looking for a place where Christian values are truly sought to be lived, where forgiveness is practiced both by individuals and by the group in ways that are public, genuine and generous.
As we try to live in joy and forgiveness, it is important to remember that it is God who is doing the heavy lifting in any situation, particularly the more difficult ones. Even as we strain and stress over doing the right thing, God is working even harder and with more persistence. God also knows well each person’s and group’s limitations, and so is not surprised or disappointed when we can only do what we can do, or even when we do less. Again, forgiveness is something we believe in, both with God and with one another. As Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).
So joy and fear, failure and forgiveness, all walk together in our everyday lives as Christians and especially when we seek to live in a Christian community through a congregation, and all need to be embraced in order for us to be faithful.