Congregational Algebra

Are you interested in launching a thoughtful conversation on what your congregation should be doing better? Most people are. But they don’t know how to begin. If you open the conversation with, “How can we do better?” you get everyone’s favorite complaint – something you have probably heard before. The conversation goes nowhere new. Conversations depend on the conversational frames that introduce them!

General Rule # 1:

Conversations require conversational frames, a way to think about the issue at hand.

We all use such frames, usually just by asking, “What do you think of X” or, ”The agenda now calls for a discussion of Y.” These straightforward frames can be disastrous because they invite people to say the same things they always do. The people who feel strongly (pro or con) reiterate what you knew they would say in advance; the whiners whine all over again; most people have nothing new to say.

General Rule #2:

Inviting conversations but ignoring the frames with which we introduce them is disastrous.

As we just saw, conversations poorly framed invite redundancy. Information theory measures information as ”the extent to which a communication cannot be predicted in advance.” By that measure, most meetings on “what we ought to do about X” elicit little or no information at all. Everyone leaves frustrated and worn out, and the meeting chair is left with copious notes on virtually nothing that could not have been predicted without the meeting even having occurred.

General Rule #3:

Conversational frames should be intriguing, inviting, unthreatening, and compelling

Intriguing: They should shed new light on the way the topic is to be               approached.

Inviting: They should get people to lean in, suspecting they have                               something to say; not sit back waiting for others who are “smarter” or            more expert” to talk.

Unthreatening: They should avoid pressing hot buttons that put people on          the defensive or suggest they should keep quiet lest they sound stupid.

Compelling: They should make the issue sound both interesting and           important – worthy of attention and requiring action.

Not all topics require such careful consideration of frames. Some issues are just “technical”; they call for “fixes” that are pretty straightforward. If the roof is leaking, you don’t need a philosophical introduction about the theological implications of water damage!

But the question of how to make the congregation a better place is not technical. It is what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive” – the answer will emerge only from engaging conversation that determines the actual nature of the problem. That’s where congregational algebra comes in.

I am not sure where the equation comes from (it is cited everywhere, in books and on line), and it occurs in several different forms, but I use the following version as a frame to prompt “How can we do things better” conversations. (My colleagues -Isa Aron, Steven Cohen, and Ari Kelman – and I used it in our book, Sacred Strategies, 2010]). Here it is.

C = D x V x F x B x S > R.

Or, spelled out: Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps x Belief in ourselves x System, all of which must be greater than Resistance.

Next time you have a general conversation about doing things better, frame the discussion by asking, “What gets in our way when we try to improve what we do?”

  • Some congregations are satisfied with mediocrity; they will never feel challenged to change.
  • Others have no large Vision of where they should go. Without vision of something better, they will be leery of voicing Dissatisfaction, even if they feel it. Or, if they do voice it, they will leave dispirited, with no clear vision to guide their way beyond it.
  • Some congregations never manage to take the necessary First steps. They make plans that never even get off the ground.
  • Others lack Belief in their own ability to succeed. They have an institutional inferiority complex. When it comes to thinking big, it doesn’t even pay to try!
  • And many congregations lack efficient Systems, so that bold initiatives get started, but fizzle out and die. By System, I mean such things as good professional personnel; effective communications; mutual accountability, proper support staff; and the like.

My own experience suggests that the two most common problems are lack of vision (and, therefore, fear of acknowledging dissatisfaction) and systemic dysfunction.

Whatever the case, try some congregational algebra the next time your board meets to think through “how we can do things better.” Frame the conversation with an algebraic equation that is actually fun to discuss. Ask them what will most prevent them from succeeding at whatever it is they decide to do: Dissatisfaction? Vision? Taking First Steps? Belief in Themselves? or the System (and if, the latter, what part of the system is broken)?

It will help you generate later conversations that will target your congregation’s weakness and move you to a new level of conversation and problem solving.

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2 responses to “Congregational Algebra

  1. Rabbi Stephen Arnold

    Concerning resistance: “The only human thing — individual or organizational — that really wants change, and accepts it when it comes with no reluctance, is a wet baby”. – Rev Thomas Klink, z”l

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