87. Why it Works, and Why it Fails

I recently heard about a church consultant who helps congregations develop long-range plans, strategic new initiatives, and even helps them evaluate whether they should build additional facilities, remodel, or relocate.  At the opening of the conversation and planning meeting with the congregational leadership, and before anyone has a clue about what proposal will finally arise from the process, he asks a couple questions.

First, he asks the leaders to imagine that it is five years from now and whatever proposal they have adopted has completely and utterly failed.  “It didn’t work, and every element disappointed, didn’t meet expectations, and fell through in the worst possible ways.   Now imagine that you are asked to do the postmortem on the project and to answer the question, “Why did it fail?”  What would your answers be?”

Immediately people start calling out responses:  It failed because…it was all talk and no action, because of unclear and diffuse goals, because the laity didn’t buy into it, because the laity didn’t hear about it or understand it, because the pastor didn’t push it, because the largest donors didn’t support it, because of lack of communication, because it was not related to our purpose, because the long-term members didn’t support it, because it didn’t involve young people, because we changed priorities two more times during the five years, because people wouldn’t follow through, because people lost interest and got distracted by other things, because the pastor and lay leadership weren’t passionate about it, and on and on.

Then the consultant asks the leaders, “Now imagine that it is five years from now and the proposal, whatever it is that we adopt, has succeeded beyond all expectations.  Imagine your work in this congregation has become a model for other congregations, and that all your goals were met or exceeded, and lives were changed through this ministry in incredible ways.   Now imagine that you are asked the question, “Why did it work?”  What would your answer be?”

Again, the answers started coming:  It succeeded because…because the pastor led it, supported it, and was passionate about it, because it was tied to our purpose, because it really changed lives and really met human need, because the laity supported it and followed through on it, because one or two people kept pushing and never gave up, because it energized giving, because we kept a single focus from beginning to end, etc.  (Not surprisingly, many of these are the reverse answers from the previous list.)

What I find particularly helpful from this exercise is the realization that without even knowing the details of a bold and audacious plan, we already intuitively know what will make it work and what will cause it to fail in our own congregational context.  And knowing this should help us reduce the factors that lead to failure and enhance the elements that lead to success, from the very beginning of the planning.

If we know that a new plan cannot succeed without passionate lay leadership and support, then it becomes absolutely critical to involve laity from the ground up.  If we know that the plan must be tied to a deep sense of purpose, meeting real human need and changing lives, then why not make that purpose, goal and outcome crystal clear in every single communication about the project from the beginning?  If we know that broad and deep communication and engagement is necessary throughout the congregation, then why not intentionally plan conversations, house meetings, town hall gatherings, a series of high quality communications pieces and opportunities for congregational feedback and engagement from the earliest stages?

Why did it fail?  Why did it succeed?  Sometimes we know the answers to these more clearly than we realize, and knowing these should help us avoid some of the pitfalls and develop more positive strategies for congregational leadership.  

Grace and peace,