Is ‘Pioneering’ in danger of becoming an overused buzzword in the church?

It used to be (when i was growing up) that people in churches were told that they were scared of evangelism, for the decade of evangelism, then people were told not to be scared of the Holy Spirit, either during Pentecost or as a backlash from the heady days of the ‘toronto (or whatever it became) blessing’. And as a result there was a reassurance given about these things, before then the experience was given of them. Both ‘Evangelism’ in its day (is it standing on the street corners or door knocking) or the Holy Spirit ( will i speak in tongues) had a fair share of bad press and ambiguity about them at the time, and so, reassurance was probably needed, and at times still is.

But now there is another ambiguity that seems to be creating the same scared overtones in the church, (no its not GDPR), but Pioneering

The dictionary defines pioneering as ‘involving new ideas or methods’ . Which may be as simple as it need to be as a definition. However, that hasn’t stopped it being used in a plethora of ways in the christian community, notably in the last 5-10 years;

There’s pioneering practices, pioneer youth ministry, pioneer approaches, pioneer course, pioneering clergy, pioneer curate, and probably a whole host besides, there’s probably a pioneer church administrator and pioneer PCC secretary out there somewhere. Some job descriptions ask for ‘pioneering’ people to fill what boil down to the same role someone was doing before (and would take immense culture shift to change)

So, in an attempt to gain insight into the current thinking, frustration or creativity around pioneering, i asked the following question on twitter:

Has ‘pioneering’ become the buzzword no one knows what it means? What might you say it means?

These were the responses:

I’ve just finished my MA in pioneering mission and I still don’t really know what people mean @timgoughuk

Is pioneering the new emergent? @mcymrobin

Getting new stuff done in a place no one is doing it – now define ‘stuff’ @jakesk2

Go to the margins, experimenting, loving, listening, co creating and ultimately annoying the hell out of the centre. Been told many times if they don’t want you dead then you probably aren’t doing it right! @gemmadunning

To pioneer is to go where the church isn’t or hasn’t been for a long time, to journey alongside people and grow a Christian community that is relevant to those people where they are @markrusselluk

Do you mean “innovative stepping out in faith to create something in new wine skins that isn’t encumbered by institutional hierarchy but need to be given permission by same to flourish in their fresh expression of this mixed economy approach to being a witnessing community?” @alicampbell_68

To me pioneering is the Ministry of not fitting in… Never feeling fully comfortable in any church setting because God is always doing something new so churches ‘should’ be open to change but humans are change resistant so pushing for change is a hard place to be in; @JHOsborn

For me pioneering is about ‘stepping off the map’, going to the new place to which God calls me. Laying down my life & agenda.Listening to the community & God. Unconditionally blessing & serving those outside the church context. Sharing God’s love. Joining in with what emerges…@revaliboulton

To break new ground for the kingdom / with the gospel… To take the church to places it isn’t flourishing & cultivating it afresh. @Drmarkscan

Pioneering is living life on a knife edge of not knowing, with no certainties (of establish church) and in everything you do stepping out in faith that God/Jesus is going with you and before you. Pioneering is leaning how to readjust, change and adapt when things don’t work @monty_blog

To pioneer can be a lonely journey being with the people walking alongside people in their natural environments in the community but always showing Jesus ! @suziqvk

Prioritising the cultivation of Christ’s kingdom in unchartered ground over maintaining institutional church practice @greenP

A Pioneer, someone who sees future possibilities and works to bring them to reality, not only dream up new strategies, they implement them, ‘dreamers who do’, seeing prophetically and rightly navigating the edge lands in mission out of love, for Jesus Christ and for the Church.@mummymcalister

Going Before: leading @rachel1946white

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Heading out into unchartered territory which gives the freedom to succeed or fail, and both are accepted. When it goes well it forges a path for others to follow, with understanding of the lessons learnt. Pioneering: Trying out something not done before.@piglets4mum

I thought Christian pioneering was taking Christianity to places devoid of faith… isn’t that what pioneers are?? People that are the first ones to occupy an area and make it into a community that is living and thriving before moving on somewhere new to replicate the experience? @artsytype_83

To boldly go where the Christian presence is least and virtually non existent. @stalbansdyo

Contextual mission that, in the manner of Star Trek, “boldy goes….” @revjonbarrett

a self- confessed minority opinion was given, they stated that they thought pioneering meant;

I say pioneering /ought/ to mean “Ministering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion in such ways as to make sure that the Church is doing what she always has done” 🙂 (@Osacrumcorlescu)

this person also said: I’ve a half-baked theory that when people say “pioneer”, they ought to speak of “permanent deacons”. The ordinal for Deacons states “deacons are to… search out the poor, weak, sick, lonely & those who are oppressed & powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world”

In effect, it might argued that to pioneer is christian ministry is to do what was supposed to be done, and not be consumed by the institutional stuff it has become. In a way its not really pioneering at all, just reclaiming, and reverting to what original practices might be.

One response was a little on the nose, from a new-ish minister, with the title of ‘pioneer curate’: I am reseeding, restarting, refreshing, replanting (whatever the right word) a parish that was allowed to die, in decline to bring it back to a place of living and thriving – I must be a pioneer ! (remains anonymous)

Though talking of on the nose, this tacit response was directed at the systems: Pioneering: Basically, doing traditional parochial ministry, which parish clergy no longer have time and energy to do because they’re busy answering endless questionnaires from the diocese about why their parochial ministry isn’t working.(@fortonchurch)

From the discussion, a range of other questions emerged (see what i did there)

Any thoughts in what we used instead? Sometimes I use old school ‘missionary’ as it sort of says what it does on tin – but also has imperialistic implications, rather than laying down our lives & agenda to serve a new community/context?

Maybe it should be known as Church planting 2.0? (if pioneering has become over used)

Not many people directed me to articles in the field of pioneering at the moment, however, this one was brought to my attention: ”Pioneering Mission is… a Spectrum?‘ In which it looks like someone else has done the same kind of exploratory exercise, looking at the key writers and definers of pioneering. In a way, my survey has been less academic, and may have captured the mood from the ground a little more. However, it is a good piece and worth checking out.

Pioneering in some places might be as scary as ‘The Holy Spirit’ or ‘Evangelism’ might be said to be, it might be as confusing, or even as unheard of. Just a ‘new’ flangled thing’ that Millenials are doing to ‘wreck the status quo’ – when i say millenials, i mean those who grew up in youth ministry and are continuing to shake things up a bit. Pioneering might be too much of a step, or it might be what the church, thats just started a messy church, or a community event, might already be doing without the need to define it. The problem with defining pioneering is that it reduced it to something, the problem with overusing it is that what it could be about becomes lost in over use. There are also many images and metaphors around about pioneering.

as these people also said:

Absolutely a buzz word with a plethora of meanings….it is so over used that it has become meaningless…..!

whenever it works well it (pioneering) is fabulous, Whatever works well actually means!

I am not going to end this piece with my own definitions, as that in itself wouldnt be very pioneering. What is interesting for me is that when i was in the Scouts growing up, if you had said the word pionnering, i would have though you meant to create a structure using raw materials ( rope/poles) as a team in order that that structure did something. Ie was a bridge, a platform, a pulley. It was a team effort to be creative, and was a great way to spend 2-3 hours on a scout camp.

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Pioneering, in that sense was about ideas, creativity, using resources, planning and strategising. It was about making something from nothing, and it was about team work. Sometimes it was about competition. But it wasn’t about doing something alone. The problem in the elevated view of alone working in the church is that it creates many of the issues described in the definitions above. Maybe pioneering needs to be more of a team thing, a deliberate team thing.

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There is also much for the church in regard to pioneering, it needs to learn from those who do it, encourage it an be the team that gives it a go, especially if beyond the buzzwords theres a realisation that pioneering is just about doing what was authentically the mission Christ gave to the disciples in each local area. To go, make disciples, and to do good. The worst thing that can happen is that it becomes another catch all for everything, or derided as something just as a fashion a fad or business speak. If it captures the essence of going to the margins (because thats what might be needed to be pioneering) and planting, creating and developing approaches that are good, that might be new (in that context) then pioneering is the challenge and prophetic voice that the church might be in need of hearing and embodying in its good practical work in every local community.

Some of the definitions from the conversation were from those who are the real pioneers, so learn from them, reflect on their definitions and where their passions are. I thank them all for their honesty, insight and wisdom on this. I would so hope Pioneering does not become the buzzword everyone starts to hate, or the establishment derides as not needed. But language and its overuse might be a problem.

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‘Your strategy’s on fire’- why youthworkers have an STI and its not to do with Sex.

Im not sure the Kings of Leon would have had such a hit with that one.

I think Youth Ministers have a Strategic Thinking Inability, and here is why;

I meet a lot of youthworkers in a variety of places, what are great at what they are good at, and good especially at the things that they thought that youthwork (and youth ministry) was all about. The busy, active, fun, relationship building of developing a great rapport with young people. Every week is a new week of planning, making, meeting, listening, understanding and connecting with young people. Sessions need planning, Subjects and topics need deciding, volunteers need meeting, a few reports need writing. But all in all, for many who choose the narrow path of being a youthworker, there might be much that is done well, much that is in the default DNA of a youthworker .

To accompany the default activist youthworker is the industry of those who support and maintain the resource of this person, seminars on self care, ready to use materials on discipleship and much much more. Usually Sex. Often Sex. If talking about sex with young people, and the broader conversation of sexuality, gender and relationships, was an industry, then im sure someone might be making a packet out if it. Sex in youth ministry chat is the big seller. And for every youthworker especially in the church, being prepared to talk about sex, and being prepared to try and know more about sex is what is kind of expected. (because often no one in the church really wants to do it- i am convinced thats the reason why youthworkers are employed more than ever). It can feel like Sex is the make or break in a youth ministry setting, given the amount of time that seems to be dedicated to talking about it. (or at least in he church at least). Theres even evidence to back this up, or at least there has been some evidence done to show that resources on Sex are what the church needs more than ever. (as a quick plug, my review of Gemma Dunnings book on LGBT and teenagers is here:   https://wp.me/p2Az40-1ga ).

Talking about sex, talking about anything, with young people for the youthworker might just be their bread and butter, their default. As long as theyve got some information, a bit of an idea of the group and knows them and can shape a programme around them, then actually a youthworker is often in their comfort zone. Often, not always, and not every youthworker is the same. But largely. Its what many of us came into the ‘business’ to do.

Its not talking about sex that is going to cause the biggest issue for a youthworker.

Its talking about strategy. Image result for strategy

And planning. or methods of planning

And thinking above the level of the busy-ness

Its putting the head above the parapet every now and again. 

Its not really knowing what it is we’re doing and being unable to really write it down as a plan. 

Its not really knowing whats going on to be able to think how it is ‘working’ – but it is

Its not giving time to ask the difficult questions – how can I/we do things better/more theologically? 

 

Talk about Sex in youth work and ministry is easy, everyone wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about strategy. Yet its not what comes as a default for many many potentially good youthworkers – who arent afforded the chance to become good youthworkers because they’re so stuck in the ongoing swim of the current. (metaphorically, though literally for the river based youthwork practice) . No one wants to talk about strategy. In the same way no one talks about management, closing ministries and what happens during the process of feeling like a failure. (though i have tried, my piece is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1e7

Thinking strategically doesnt usually come naturally to many a youthworker. Thinking strategically doesnt come naturally to many in christian ministry at all. Because usually it is so boring. It sounds like admin. Its sound like something someone else should do (whilst the youthworker does the fun stuff). It sounds so dull. I guaruntee if there was a series of seminars on ‘Sex and Young people’ it would be packed out. A series on ‘developing strategy in youthwork’ and theres a feint whistle of emptiness as two people turn up. Strategy isnt Sexy, but neither does it feel important.

But it is. Well it isnt sexy, but it is important.

And it is even more important is its something that hits you like a bolt out of the blue, when someone asks:

do you have a strategic plan for the youth ministry in the church? 

or

‘The diocese would like you to have  strategy on how we meet the archbishops strategic priorities’

or

‘we just need you to have a plan for what you’re doing – can you present it to the next PCC?’

or

‘can you come up with a plan for how to stop young people leaving the church, in the whole of the UK?’

or

right, you said we need money for the youth group – do you have a strategy for this?’ Image result for planning

It is often at this point that the youthworker is now outside their comfort zone. Talking about sex with a group of teenagers was easy compared to writing some kind of strategy, plan or proposal – where do you start? , And there is literally tons of resources on developing programmes, and approaches and personality and faith withing youth ministry – but where is there a resource on strategic planning?  its not often talked about in ‘youthwork’ magazine for example.

At that point thinking about strategy is in the ‘needed, important and urgent’ category. Unfortunately its also in the Panic category as someone else wants to see it, and soon. Its becomes more dreaded and more important than last nights ‘sex talk’ with the youth group – this has ’employment expectations’ written all over it. This asks us to plan, to think creatively, to show organisation, to think about risks, about evidence, about aims and objectives, it becomes not good enough to say that people showed up to the youth group now, it means that we think more than this. And, given that ‘developing a strategic plan’ isnt part of any school curriculum, this could be the first time that its been a personal requirement.

The other panic, is that not only does it need to be thought through. It needs to be written down, again what does a strategy look like?  I remember once the feeling of abject despondency when i had tried to write up a strategy for youth ministry for a church vision day, and also a church leaders meeting the following month. What i ended up doing was sharing with the whole church a series of ideas, theories and dreams. It may have been colour coded and used great phrases – but it wasnt what was expected. However – it could have been – because for some organisations they operate on dreams and vision – others want plans, processes and detail. In the development of strategy it is worth knowing what might be expected. Though, trust me, no one will be able to actually help you, often presenting a strategy or plan is a sink or swim moment, and guidance is usually limited.

It can feel very embarrassing when you get strategy wrong. Especially if you have tried really hard to think creatively and passionately about your ministry and that of the church, and also have dreams and ideas about what is to happen next. (something often members of the church dont even do that well) . On other occasions its not the lack of detail in the strategy, its that the strategy is going in the ‘wrong’ direction, to the churchs or organisations priorities. At this point it might be worth contemplating your own life or vocation choices with someone who you can do this with, especially if you do have dreams and ideas that now seem different to your employer (that were’nt before) .

However, these might be the result of the strategy. The issue in youth ministry is that there is often a Strategy Thinking Inability. The number of great, enthusiastic youth leaders is very encouraging. From the outset though, part of developing a ministry in any place with any group of young people, make a deliberate step to think about long term and short term strategies, about planning, resources, management and how these things are part of your thinking. It is in the lack of strategic thinking that many ministries fail and are cut short. Either personal or organisation ministries. Strategic thinking is part of good governance and management – and as youthworkers and ministers we are called to be good managers of people, and work with them too.  Its the politics of situations, often, that cause youthworkers to leave, many of these situations can be avoided though better governance, planning and appropriate strategising.  And i say appropriate because there is more than one way of strategising. But in the panic to provide a plan, theres no moment to think about alternatives.

Am I going to tell you here how to make a good strategic plan? Of course not. That requires effort on your part to think through it yourself. Though there are many other articles on this in the ‘Youthwork Management’ section of this website. Though Ill happily talk with you about managing planning and strategising in youth ministry further, and contact me for details, prices and what you might require. Talking of strategy is dull as dishwater, but it might just give you more of a long term ministry in a place, and that makes it important. More important than talking about Sex – well at least a Strategy Thinking Inability can be cured with some hard graft and thinking.

With disruptions to them inevitable, Are strategies in youthwork worth the paper they’re written on?

Its not a negative question, but a realistic one; With all the disruptions to a strategy especially in youthwork- is it even worth bothering with one? Is it even possible to develop strategies for ‘industries’ that are so unpredictable, and people orientated? A possible solution is below, but first the case for the prosecution. Why strategies dont work…

It can feel like a strategy for youthwork practice isnt worth the paper, the time or energy to put together – because its disrupted and in need of change almost immediately.

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Because; ask a group of youthworkers about the successful of the strategies that they have been able to complete, as you will nearly always find a whole load of reasons why this wasn’t the case.

They didn’t have the power to execute it

They ran out of funding

A volunteer pulled out

The Bishop decided upon an event instead and my time was re orientated

Young people just aren’t straightforward

The trustees change their minds on the plan

Its just not how things are done in this organisation

and the rest…

There a fairly common saying ‘Culture Eats strategy for breakfast’ and whilst this is true, this hides some of the other disruptions that affect the implementation an success of a strategy. The problem can then become that a strategy might need then to incorporate the cultural issues – as well as all the potential risks and hazards that affect the strategy- so in terms of the above – it might need to include

A funding strategy

A volunteers strategy

A strategy to affect culture

A strategy to deal the volunteers

A strategy to convince the ‘higher’ powers of the value of youthwork – such as the heads of affiliation

A strategy to be flexible to overcome the potential disruptions………..

And in that way, having a strategy that can overcome the disruptions, and be that flexible when these unplanned disruptions occurs almost defeats the object of bothering with developing a strategy in the first place, or not far off. Even the most creatively created, participatory planned and organisationally owned strategy. It may be concise, communicated and coordinated, it may intend to be effective and easy to understand. The strategy might incorporate values, be step by step, measurable and time orientated – and have all the bells and appropriate whistles. But it could all go to waste because of the so many factors that could still cause it to be disrupted. Though at the same time developing and redeveloping strategy, aim and vision – revising, revisiting and reviewing it then become regular. But doesn’t it seem like a lot of time, and managerial, leadership effort – for something too easily challenged and changed.

It would become so broad to encompass the potential disruptions – that to be alomost meaningless, and so flexible to adapt to them to be unspecific.

Some of the business gurus when talking about strategies say that a strategy is nearly always going to be unsuccessful if there is no attempt to name the problems that the strategy is trying to solve.

I wonder whether in youthwork we have become fixated by outcome orientated strategies, because these are often what we feel we have been asked to compile, as often our management group, committee or clergy have understood strategy through the prism of transformational and visional leadership (which sets outcomes and prioritised conformity to these fixed outcomes, elevating the ‘transformational leader’ to set and create ‘their’ strategy within cost cutting/efficiency/ and setting outcomes and indicators first) that has been adopted relatively uncritically over the last 10-15 years in orgaisations.

However. Outcome orientated strategy is barely worth the paper it is written on. Youth workers require an alternative.

What about this;

Good strategy, in contrast, works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

In short – good strategy is about making the right conditions exist, for the potential for the most opportunities to occur – that are favourable to the aims and objectives, and that use the resources and competencies known to the organisation. It is opportunity orientated, not outcome orientated. Opportunities are things we create the environment for. Outcomes are too unpredictable in youthwork that can be disrupted in too many ways. But we can create positive environments that endeavour to facilitate opportunities.

And in youthwork, those opportunities can happen anywhere. The streets, schools, churches and youth clubs. The problem with an opportunity led strategy is that it needs to be close to the action with young people. Or creating opportunities for training, for supervision, for something else that involves equipping, resourcing and supporting youthworkers – then one step removed from the action – but also close to those who are – but that doesn’t negate opportunity orientated strategy – but that the opportunities might be less frequent than the ‘on the ground’ practice.

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Opportunity orientated strategy might suit the openness of youthork closer than an outcome orientated strategy. It also places the emphasis on the agency of those responsible for the strategy to deliver it – through opportunity creation, not dehumanising young people as numbers or potential outcomes, or being frustrated that ideals, or targets havent been met.

The question is – can we afford to develop ‘opportunity’ orientated strategies in a culture of cut throat funding that often seems to demand targets and outcomes – or have we got in some cases the favour an capital to take a risk and communicate opportunity orientated strategy. Often we are asked in funding bids ‘what are we going to do about a situation’ – which a cue to share the proposed opportunities- but as well we might need to be specific about the outcomes – which goes against the flexibility of an opportunity orientated strategy – pushing and driving it to numbers based. It might be a luxury to be able to construct an solely opportunity orientated strategy for youthwork practice. But – on the other hand – it a luxury we might want to afford ourselves given the almost pointless practice of trying to create outcome orientated strategies – that get eaten alive in the culture of organisations and in need of constant revision.

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If were not able in the culture of our organisations to create opportunities for young people and those who work them – then we might need to question what kind of young people orientated practice we are.

With an opportunity orientated strategy it is less affected, to an extent, by disruptions- because we do have slightly more agency in its realisation. Though even then the level of disruption can still disorientate strategy – especially if the resources become so slim that opportunity creation is minimalised – but again at that point- we will be spending time increasing our resources, changing approaches and adapting to the disruption –which might turn out to have surprising results. We might not have enough leaders to manage the youth club – so we take our presence and provision out onto the streets (for example) a change which might end up creating new opportunities – even more that we hadn’t predicted before hand.

In the opportunities might emerge the disruptions we are looking for. The next bright idea might emerge from the point of action.

References on Strategy and Management in Youthwork can be found on this page on this site: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV- or via the menus above, and many more on strategy in youthwork and managing strategies can be found via the tags and menus. For further on this and maybe to develop the conversation, contact me via the menu and arrange training or workshops on the theme.

Special mention to Jon Ords book which talks about faith based management , and also in his introduction critiques the transformational leadership that has brought forward outcome orientated strategy building.

What might a theology of strategy look like?

Last week I posted a lengthy piece on developing strategy within organisations, for those who read it it got many positive reviews and comments, a link to the piece is here   if you want to read that one first  , but please remember to come back…

Over the course of thinking about strategy and planning, it occurred to me to ask the question, Might there be a theology of Strategy? The reason being, is that there is something critical to be thought of further in regard to the developing of strategies as a theological task with theological intentions and underpinnings. Theologically where might we start with thinking reflectively about strategy?Image result for strategy

What is a strategy in the first place?

Is it a plan, a way of working, a development of ideas? could be all of these things, and a bit more. It is a commonly used word, in sport, business and games.

A Broader conversation, theologically, might start with thinking about planning, and this is an overdone topic in a way. Talk of ‘Gods plan’ and perfect plan, are common, and especially in regard to free will, predestination and also how someone might live their life, and some of this I might come back to later. Before thinking about the content, it might be good to think about the theological method, or what might be meant by a ‘theology of’ something.

A simple, helpful start to think about developing a theology of something is Paul Nashs Grove Booklet – What Theology for youth work? For, whilst youthwork is his object in this – his subject matter is the different theological positions that could be taken. It is a starting point, and worth a quick read to reflect on the different theological starting points, or at least some of them.

Practical Theology and Qualitative research (Swinton) describes how there might be a critical conversation between theology and social science research, one that informs each other, again this is helpful, in thinking how the ‘on the ground’ practice of strategy development converses with what might seem to be the metaphorical and narrative artistry of the Biblical scriptures, written in a vastly different context.

For the purposes of the remainder of this post, I want to focus on Helen Camerons (et al) work Thinking about God in Practice (2010) for thinking theologically about Strategy.

Within her work, Cameron suggests that in the process of theological action research that we might be attentive to FOUR voices within theological reflection;

The Formal: Theological reflection discovered from the Institution, the university or academia, the product of hard study, interdisciplinary work and conversation.

The Espoused: This the Thei=ology that is discovered through the artifacts of an organisations literature, so for example a written constitution, statement of beliefs, creed.

The Operant: The Theology that is uncovered through observation of an organisations actions – it is what is implied in what people do

The Normative: These are the theological positions that are considered as default within the Christian (or any faith) tradition, and encompass the creeds, liturgies and what might be considered official church teaching on the matter.

Cameron is keen to point out that these voices are not invariably distinct or separate, and each voice is not simple. It may even be these as a tool are not helpful on this basis, but for the purposes of this discussion it might be good place to start.

It feels like the use of strategy within organisations is almost normative as practice. Ways of scientifically organising people to tasks and work go back a long way, from the industrial revolution, to the advent of factories and processing people into order to create an environment where tasks are completed. Strategy thinking of one form is almost normalised, to the point where ‘bad strategies’ are critiqued not ‘not having’ strategies. Not having a strategy is frowned upon. Though this isn’t a history lesson on the development of strategy within organisations. What I am saying though is that there is a considerable weight of pressure from businesses and organisations to develop strategies – it is their normative position. Standing counter to this, is going to be difficult.

So, if we started to think theologically about strategy, against the weight of normativity of this in other organisations – where might we start?

We might ask the question – is the church an organisation? And if so what is its type, purpose and nature? In that way we glean something about how a church especially might become inclined towards the normativity of other organisaions in strategy development. Another question we might asked is what is faith? Especially for a church- considered a faith-based organisation. Faith as a definition, ‘to be hopeful in what we cannot see’ might in itself be contrary to strategy planning at all, especially iif strategy planning might be considered as the thinking ahead to mitigate risks. If church instead was created as a movement – its possible intention – then does something need to be rethought again?

So, to continue on this vein, What might be some of the normative teachings on planning and strategizing from church traditions, the Biblical text even? In his work Leading, Managing, Ministering Nelson outlines some of these, though focusses on leadership and management. There are a few others – to be found via this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leading-Managing-Ministering-Challenging-Questions/dp/1853112380/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521800521&sr=1-3&keywords=nelson+leading (and the other similar titles)

Often God plays the role of the great disruptor of Human plans. Abraham has it all in one place, probably his life, and pension all worked out, and then God calls him and his family to something and somewhere new.

Joseph seems to follow God in the midst of an unplanned out life where things are put in front of him to react to, Moses might be similar. The plans of God were hidden, and when disclosed weren’t always obeyed. When there were plans, they seemed to be thwarted. The God has plans, people disobey them is carried through in Jonahs tale, and is indicative of Amos’s warnings of Israel. Through prophecy, Isaiah brings to the attention a pictoral glimpse of the plans that God might have – but this certainty leaves the space within it for Human planning to be minimal. All we have, to a point, is knowledge that God might also have a plan for us, in the oft taken out of context Jeremiah 29:11 verse. In a way this might be reassurance that a human plan and strategy is less required, than it is to trust and have faith in God who knows these things.

Then strategy might be considered in the New testament. In the parables faith is not seen in the man who builds bigger barns – again planning for the future. Stability is in the house built on obedience, not the barn built on planning. When Jesus sees the people of Israel like sheep without a shepherd (might considered as ‘without a plan’) it is a compassionate response, not a desire to organise. Again, many of the livelihood of the disciples is interrupted, temporarily by Jesus call to follow – though some might have used their skills and income in the ongoing movement of faith. Saul/Paul is another whose strategy in life is interrupted, and this continues as the journeys taken by these early missionaries is thwarted by acts of nature, sometimes attributed as active resistance to Gods plan, and other times as Gods plan. The closest we might get to thinking about strategy=ie and organisations , rather than individuals is through the epistles which are letters to new churches, and also to the letters to the churches in revelation.

So, we are beginning to build up a picture of some of the biblical precedents for and against developing strategy, and a part of the overall drama of scripture and the path towards redemption, these should be heard and reflected on.

However; An espoused theology of strategy needs to drill down to the actual practices. Where there are plans and strategies, there also is a belief that strategies are the implied way to do what the tasks in hand require, and a belief in strategy planning as a process. From a fundraising strategy, to safeguarding, mission strategy or youth strategy – by having a strategy as an artefact within an organisation is its own testament to how it should be organised. Whatever might be normative – through biblical theology, could be usurped by an espoused way of doing things that has become the norm. From plans and strategies, can come order and control – and actions, results and behaviours brought in line to the pre determined plan and strategy. The espoused theology might regard highly the biblical warnings – (is a parable a warning?) about ‘without vision the people perish’ or the ecclesial determination that Jesus loves the church and wants it to succeed. (then there is the success narrative) But this in itself is problematic, as it can merely use strategy as a way of ‘keeping the church open’ through planning – and endorsing this as the right way to maintain an organisation. Even the most realistic of plans might not be the best way of causing change to happen. The strategy itself might lose the intention, or virtue of the action.

An Operant theology might be determined by how an organisation behaves. So – actually – what is the talked about theology or reaction to the strategy? (just new flangled ideas..?) does the church congregation act in a way about the strategy that endorses, or deliberately objects the desires of the strategy itself? There might be opposition socially or politically to the strategy – but there may also be prophets who disagree theologically and spiritually too. But I wonder whether at its heart churches aren’t a place theologically where strategies and plans sit very easily. So an operant theology of strategy is one that whilst exemplifying compliance within a structure – usually- is also reluctant to embody the normativity of strategy thinking, causing active disruption. But thinking about what might be the operant theology of strategy is to look closely at somewhere specific. The point of Camerons research method in the first place. So – what does your church or practice operate as – in regard to plans and strategies? Does strategy seem to be ‘the way out of a crisis’ or the ‘way to do things’ – and how is this viewed? How is strategy justified theologically through those who adhere or dispute its implementation or necessity?

Finally, there might be a formal theology of strategy. Through the few published works on this subject, the working practices of theological academia, and the dissemination of research, hypothesis and ideas on this subject all contribute to a formal theology of strategy, that probably, with the weight of normative use in the business and commercial world, contributing to a general endorsement that strategies are a positive and necessary thing. Nelson book seems to endorse planning and strategizing and notably the transformation leadership culture that underpins the strategy thinking in the first place. Others in different discipline to ‘church leadership’ have been less enthusiastic of ‘strategy planning’ especially where is contravenes values and approaches. What is interesting is that the ‘secular’ youthwork approach dismisses strategy planning as something that is against values, and ethics, yet the church – which could have stronger values – does not always. Maybe church sees itself as a stronger organisation and culture- than the youthwork profession.

What if theology itself was more of an improvised play than a planned action? What might that mean in regard to trying to develop a theology of strategy?

Martyn Percy says this:

The belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not an arid set of directives, but rather a faith that is embedded in a community of praxis which makes beliefs work and gives shape and meaning to the lives that believe. So religious belief is not some kind of arcane metaphysics; it is rather, performed-much as one might perform a play. Indeed the beliefs must be performed in order to comprehend the drama. Simply reading the scriptures as a text is about as effective as reading a play as a text. To understand the life of the drama and the intention of the author , the play needs to be witnessed as a performance. Christian faith is, first and foremost the performance of God’s drama”Image result for passion plays

And others the same. Im not going to rehearse these again (just see the Theodrama link on the right)

Do plays need strategies? – they need scripts (we have one its the Bible), they need actors, directors and an audience. There is planning in the acting as actors respond to the cues and know how to respond. Training to act might be more repetition of action than planning of action. Yet whilst the great theatrical performances of the bourgeois need promotion and strategy – the improvised theatre and the mystery plays had word of mouth and reacted in the moment – live. Does the production of the drama of Gods redemption need strategy? Goodness is slightly less good if its planned isnt it – its strategic and false. Authentic reactions in the moment cant be pre planned or strategised. In the great drama of Gods redemption that we are part of – does strategic planning have any place at all? Where there was Chaos – God brought order into creation – but ever since doesnt it feel as though God is continually disrupting the order we try to make ourselves?

I caught a glimpse of ‘Scruffy Vicars’ recent post this week on ‘The Ideal and the Ordeal’ it is here: https://scruffyvicar.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/the-ideal-and-the-ordeal/  and practically this is a problem with aloof strategising. It is to envision the outcome, and not be ready for the actual, normal and effort required. It took me to think about not only what Jon Ord talks about in Critical issues in Youthwork Management – that we should plan for opportunities and not outcomes. But also that when Jesus told the seventy two or twelve to ‘go out’ he gave them instructions to create the right scene – what he barely said was what to do when getting there (except to stay when welcomed) neither was the outcome part of the plan. (aside from leave if unwelcomed). But these instructions we to his own people. In Matthew Jesus’ instructions are that the 12 go to the lost people of isreal. So in effect, Jesus was saying, go and try and find a  welcome in your own land, with your own people. Be receivers of service. It was not outcome strategising, but strategising – or preparing for opportunity.

We need to strategy with an emergence and a readiness on one hand, as well as some thinking and dreaming on the other. In ministry we can be disillusioned with too much dreaming and no reality, or too much thought about strategy before anything is done. Its like in the BBC2 series Red Dwarf, Rimmers Revision timetable takes 4 weeks to put together all colour coded, and only gives him 1 day to actually revise. i digress, let me close. (if youve even got this far)

The four voices of might be needing to be attended to, for the purposes of doing qualitative research into a practice and to work out what a local theology of strategy might be. Here it might be enough to reflect on strategy theologically and critically from a few different angles to begin a conversation. Where there are organisations there might also be strategies, but where there are disruptions – is this the voice of God calling us out from the order we think we have created? God might be in the strategising, but that in itself is action on the stage of the world, and it needs to be performed with the same love and goodness of all the play.Calling to perform his improvised play that is emerging on the stage of the world?

What might a theology of strategy begin to look like…?

References

Cameron et al: Talking about God in Practice – 2012

Nelson Leading, Managing Ministering, 1999

Martyn Percy, Shaping the church, 2012

On Theodrama – Vanhoozer, 2005, 2010, 2012 and many others

Ord, Jon Critical issues in youthwork Practice.  

 

 

7 Steps to a better youthwork strategy

You dont really need to do much research to discover the various business decisions and strategies that have deemed to have failed, as they have lost money, caused the closure of a business or shown to have lacked the foresight required in determining the future. One example of the company Kodak, who spend £millions in the 1970 developing a prototype for the digital camera (delivering a mighty 0.1 megapixels), only for the company to shelve the plans for mass production deciding instead to focus on developing the print arm of its camera sales, an area that was a huge profit making arm of its business in the short term. However, as other companies joined the market and speciailised in digital cameras, and their sales rose Kodak gradually faded from existence.

Another example might be the fast food giant Macdonalds, who decided upon selling Salads and healthier foods about 10 years ago, but this has largely been an unqualified failure, only 2% of its overall sales have been from salads and healthy ranges, though it gained publicity from trying to be healthy at the time. It is also very quick i notice today at giving publicity to the governments plea for healthy eating as of last week, their publicity now has reference to calorie intake recommendations at meal times ( 400, 600, 600 – respectively). The culture around macdonalds for its key customers was not salad orientated, and also quickly news spread that its salads and dressings were unhealthier than the burgers. Hmm – great healthy eating strategy that one…

Image result for salad

Developing Strategies in churches and in youth ministry has become, dare i say it, almost the norm. Examples like the above can be used as a way of encouraging the need for strategies. One of the operant viewpoints theologically in the adoption of strategies is the verse ‘Without vision the people perish’. What is also often said that developing a strategy is a way of bringing together disjointed activities under one umbrella or approach, or to make targets. Having a strategy might be used to develop vision and an aim, and then scope out the steps along the way to get there. However, Strategic management can be used as a tool for conformity, control and containment- and might be a way of management that suits churches, which often have a default culture of conformity within them anyway. And as we know, Culture eats Strategy for breakfast anyway -doesnt it?

Whilst the church, at times as opted in to Macdonaldisation and its key tenets of control, efficiency, calcubility and repetition, and not always in a good way. What might be learned from the example of Macdonalds and its salads for strategy development?

There are a a couple of different learnings we can take from the McDonald’s salad adventure, one of its worst business strategies. The first is simply the fact that as a general rule – companies should decide on what their core competencies are, and stick to them.

Whenever you embark on a new strategy – you need to clearly articulate why you’re doing it, and what problem you’re trying to solve. This shared vision needs to be so well embedded in the strategy that the people involved can recite it easily and quickly, and that it permeates everything around the execution of that strategy.

The McDonald’s strategy with salads started off as trying to mitigate reputational risk. Then it changed to trying to drive extra revenue. That’s fine – strategies are meant to evolve. But the problem is that in moving towards making extra revenue – they forgot entirely about the original reason that they launched salads in the first place! And thus, they’ve come full circle and are once again defending themselves about how unhealthy their menus are – only the products they’re defending are the very ones they introduced to try to solve this problem in the first place!

Image result for strategy

Problem is, is that we’re not dealing with customers, with products and with turnover being the key operational features of the organisation of the church. (even if the treasurer of the diocese says so) And even in a charitable organisation as one delivering youth work and provision – its charitable focus should be its aim, and not profit – although this can be more difficult to focus on in the deep water currents of neo-liberalism, cost cutting, and competition between organisations and churches for survival and the attraction of the few christians around. What is as easy is to talk about the bad strategies, and whats wrong with them – too vague, too broad, too nebulus as they refer to values or goals, and these are said to to be strategy deficiencies in the business world – yet at the same time, churches and youthwork talk up goals, mission, values , vision and principles within strategies – as values, principles and overall vision are core to (it is hoped) the ethical practices within youth work.

So, after dissing the bad ones, thats the easy bit – what might a good strategy need to do?

  1. Realise what the problem is that the strategy is trying to solve. Sometimes a strategy has no purpose in its inception other than to assert power and control to the strategy creator. Its is management fluff and flim flam as they might say. But a strategy that has a purpose to increase our fundraising possibilities or something that solves a problem (rather than creates them) is going to be more beneficial. However, if there are problems within the organisation – then these need to be faced. In the sometimes ‘passive aggressive’ culture of churches a strategy wont avoid the problem.
  2. Determining the Culture – but not afraid to try and affect it; And back onto culture. If the organisation or church has got established patterns of working, established environments and actions – then it has culture. There is culture internal and also culture external to organisations – all of which have a effect on it. So understanding what the cultural norms are that will affect culture is important, but also so is working out the effect of change upon it. You might have a great strategy for discipleship that doesnt take the young people to a summer festival – but this might have an impact on parents (who got a week off from their kids, the church (which liked the reputation of sending kids to it) and also the young people themselves (who got stuck in the same repeated rut), culture had already been set.
  3. Knowing the resources. This is where strategies can as easily make or break. Many a good youthwork strategy becomes affected by a lack of resources. Many a poor strategy is created because there are under used gifts and resources not known to those creating them. We might create a good strategy that is about the people we are trying to ‘reach’ – but what about developing strategies that involve them and give them space to use their own resources? (and not for our gain – but theirs in negotiation)

4. Not forget the principles! If our strategies dont also reflect the principles, ethics or theology of our belief systems, then we should question what they are about, and what direction they are taking the organisation in. And dont give me ‘we prayed about it, so its what God wants us to do’ when its about saving up £millions for a building construction or branding exercise when people in the parish go without food. The ethics and principles are almost pointers to helping faith based organisations have some kind of rudder or plumbline, if a strategy doesnt reflect the same compassionate values – but embraces and encourages it somehow – then its likely to be given disruption along the way.Instead of having values, and putting these aside for the sake of strategy aims that seem to be at odds with them and the culture of them that are already core to the organisation. Strategising through principles may engender more motivation and coherency. But a strategy of only values and a mission statement is too vague.

For example – a church that wants to ‘grow’ through being efficient and developing new services – may sit at odds with congregants within it who ascribe less to the services, but want to do more of what the Gospel says – helping the poor, and mission in the community. An alternative series of questions to frame a strategy is to discover what the core values and principles are of the organisation – what Cameron may describe as its ‘operant theology’ – what is revealed through its practices, but also the points in which there are tensions. But a church growth strategy – might sit at odds with the overarching values and implicit actions required in the gospel – which seem to shift the established view on its head and promote vulnerability, sacrifice, minimalism and reduction/avoidance of self gain. It may go against the grain, theologically or principally to desire successful or profitable organisation , but at the same time the beaurocracy of organisation is now an established part of British philanthropic culture.

5. Put the how into the why; One way that might encourage positive strategy, is to put the ‘How’ to the ‘Why’. For, many people know why they are part of churches or youthwork organisations, the personal motives and values, in voluntary organisations these can usually align with the organisational values and motives (especially when the person is a volunteer within it or a supporter of it) Therefore, putting the how to the why – becomes less about organisational survival (growth, loss and profit) and more about organisational purpose – why its in existence, what it is good at, how it does more, or creates more opportunities that continue to fulfil its reason for existing. So – we might ask:

How might we encourage more participation in young people?

What opportunities can be created so that people are more fulfilled?

How can we love people more?

How might we put ‘loving mercy’ into action?

How might we be more inclusive?

How might we be more aware of our own blind spots – and hear the voice of others?

How might we allow for risk taking that looks like people trying to use their gifts to love others?

I remember being part of an organisation who said that they wanted to help its volunteers to thrive and use their gifts – but in reality that boiled down to shaping them in a way so that they would be consistent and regular in being a volunteer leader in an ongoing weekly youth club – not a bad thing in itself, but its strategy for voluntary participation, empowerment and gifts wasn’t matched in its culture, necessarily. In a way a culture of conformity desires regularity and avoids risk. At the moment the culture of organisations is set in to risk adverse mode. No one wants to be the next scandal, or organisation collapse. Yet this can negates the risk taking that caused the organisation to exist in the first place.

6. Think better- not perfect; The title of this post is steps to a better strategy and this is deliberate, because Im not sure whether there is such a thing as a perfect strategy within the kind of work that involves developing relationships with young people. Rev Hamiltons mantra of developing strategy from the point of contact remains true. A good youthwork strategy is one negotiated at the point of action – but that doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t require plans to recruit volunteers or some help financially. However, it is still a strategy that is participative in itself- and one that is about creating opportunities for further action, an thoughts about further action with the people involved. It’s a better thing that strategizing to work with young people, doing so without young people.

7. Creating strategy is revealing; There are better strategies that others and There are really interesting ways of developing ideas for strategies, however, as organisations, cultures, values and principles can be as much at play within them, sometimes a culture will eat strategy – and that might be a good thing as it says something about the ignorance of the culture of the strategy, other times culture itself needs a shift. There is another way, is what Jesus kept saying. You heard it was said is what Jesus kept saying. Macdonalds may be saying to us one thing – but Jesus might be saying another.

In the imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis says: Whoever loves much, does much, whoever does a thing well, does much, and he does well, he (she) who serves the community before his own interests (p43). Much more doing may be required, and there is doing in the planning, but doing in the doing needs to happen too…

It might be practical for a church to have a strategy – but as ive said before- lets not lose sight of being prophetic too. Love is a verb, an action, a way of life- is this lost through strategizing it? probably. But what might be needed is more encouragement and the opportunities to be more risk taking in loving others and the charitable aims of the organisation which may be about the flourishing of people in communities. Spending less time on strategy may be better, or maybe action first, like theology first, is through its performance and action- strategy itself might be trying too hard to provide control in the divine chaos at times, and bring too much management into a movement of people guided by the spirit, and at other times in need of space and participative risk taking opportunity.

References

Cameron et al Talking about God in Practice 2010

Goetschius & Tash, Working with the unnattached 1964 (appendix)

Ive put many resources on management and community settings on this page here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV which might be of use to think about developing strategy – especially in the current climate of strategy development within a competative managerial culture.

 

Can Disruptions be positive in strategic youthwork practices?

Life is like a box of chocolates

said the great philosopher Forrest Gump.

Is that what might be said about management and strategising in youth work practices? This has much more of a romantic ring to it, than the reality.

Next week, weather and travel permitting I am going to be delivering the first of three sessions on the subject of strategic thinking within faith based organisations, and so today I have been thinking through some of the material, re-reading and looking at some of the resources that I have. There is still much to be said about strategic planning within youthwork organisations – but very little on managing and strategic thinking theologically in faith based organisations. Anyway, the details of the sessions are here, and please do book at http://www.fyt.org.uk  if you want to come along.

So, why ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ – well, when i was gathering and reflecting further on strategic planning and thinking within youthwork, i came across the following diagram, and thought that in reality strategic planning within youthwork is less of a box of chocolates, and more of a series of well thought through intentions that get interrupted and disrupted, and therefore require a considerable amount of contingency and emergent thinking to accomodate and learn through the disruption. To create a new process and plan. And maybe not even to guide this to a new outcome as this diagram shows, maybe the outcome shouldnt be as fixed.

This week is a case in point. I work from home. There are disruptions enough, but two snow days has caused an imbalance as the house is busier with children not in school, theres more to do, around the place than normal. Today i thought id get a drink and then spend an hour working on the planning session, only for me to open up the postal mail, and find a letter i needed to spend time reacting to (that wasnt part of the plan). All the stuff i was going to do, hasnt been done. The same felt like the case in many of the situations I have been involved in recently in youth work. The same in other situations in a busy office. The same when young people arent ‘doing what we want them to’.

Id like to think I am good at planning, good at strategising, good and shaping what needs to happen in an organisation. But planning and strategising within youthwork practices requires something different. There could be a tendency to plan for outcomes, especially in a neo-liberal undercurrent context that shapes funding and the ‘worth’ and value of working practices. It might be better to plan for opportunities, rather than outcomes ( Jon Ord, 2012) It becomes a plan to create the right kind of space and environment- and make this coherent with youthwork practice and values.

 

One of my favourite quotes is this:

The situation in which the community of the Church is set, asks questions of it about the age structure, the class structure, the openness to go out into the world and receive the world. The crucial thing at this stage is that all of us who have this concern (for young people in the community) deeply in our hearts should recognise that any remedial Christian action will emerge only out of painful, searing, physical and mental acceptance, in love, of a generation which is painfully differentWhat we need to know about the strategy of action must be learned at the point of personal involvement, of ourselves or of other groups”

Lecture given to World Christian youth commission in May 1964, Rev HA Hamilton.

And so, planning and strategising occurs in the presence of young people themselves, it is not aloof, pre planning, but from the point o contact. Planning and strategising becomes a participatory activity. So, from a faith perspective, we might want to develop vison and strategy, because we have been guided to think about vision and mission statements recently – but is thought through less is the process of vision and mission strategising. For, this can become an exercise in conformity and allegiance, when mixed with power, structures and unhealthy authority. And, disruptions to coherent plans seen as divisive and said to be against God.

Rev Hamilton may be on to something. What presence based strategising involves in trusting that people want to be involved in the process as well. It demands thinking that young people are worth respecting and their opinions valid, that they are not ‘at risk’ but ‘want to shape their own opportunities’ they are not a project to be a service provision but a contributor.

The tendency to find the method in youth ministry that works – causes it to become aloof from the young people themselves. Strategising might be one area in which participation is low in youth ministry (but getting young people to choose their tuck shop food is more common) . And working with young people will inevitably mean that the ongoing emergent strategy and practice is always changing and being worked through at the negotiation and pace of the young people themselves. But that might be what empowerment is all about, creating the space for participative planning that involves young people- and becomes an opportunity in itself.

Youthwork management might be like a box of chocolates! – its more likely the ability to manage given an ongoing series of coping with emergent strategies due to disruptions and interruptions.

Sometimes, God might be in the disruptions, prompting us to think about the voice of others, the greater cause of redemption and shalom.

So, hopefully, theres no snow days and I can finish planning for next weeks sessions!

and if you want to come along and spend some time with others thinking through strategising in youth work practice, please do sign up

 

PS oh and apology, if this piece in itself is a distraction… hopefully it is a helpful one…

 

References

Leading and Managing youth work and services for young people, NYA, 2005

Planning for opportunities, not outcomes, Jon Ord, 2012, in Ord (eds) Critical issues in Youthwork management, 2012

Working with Unattached Youth, Goetchius & Tash, 1967

 

 

 

Does developing group work offer a clue to growing church?

A recurring conversation amongst many people involved in youth ministry and church ministry overall is

We get loads of people to come to our toddler group – but very few come to sunday worship

or a similar one looks like this

Quite a few people enjoy our lunch club, but even though we try, not make come to the special easter services

In Youth Ministry, the scenario might sound like this

Our monthly special events get 50 or more young people, but they wont come to our youth group every week

It is a scenario that has many variations. It comprises of an open style activity that gives people a social, emotional or physical benefit – such as toddlers, or the church fitness group, or the open youth club, or coffee morning for those too old for the open youth club- but that whilst the individuals who attend find value in the activity itself, there could be a tendency for those running the ‘open’ session to view the activity as a ‘feeder’ activity for something else. Once I was working near to a church and speaking with young people on the streets, they had been inside that evening as the church had put on a ‘battle of the bands’ evening – which young people from across the town went to, however, the young people left pissed off, as those running the evening had used the evening as a way of promoting an upcoming youth alpha series. Young people in this instance felt that they had no intrinsic worth, and that their evening had been a scam. This is one example, a poor one, of where the ‘open’ session was viewed differently by the participants from the attendees.

But the problem might be summarised by the differences between how a form of church/mission might work through a process of activity groups, as opposed to developing peer groups.

Activity groups are already in existence. It is the education format of ‘moving classes’ or ‘moving schools’ at set age groups. Top end Sunday school go to ‘youth fellowship’, or the process of developing spirituality for a person from an ‘open’ type session is for them to make an extra commitment to go to something else – Sunday morning, alpha group, social event, that is put on by the church.

What this can mean is that the individual is having to make an effort to make a change. For a young person might mean leaving their friends behind (as they move up), and make themselves vulnerable in an older group. But that is the same for anyone else. The individual is asked to make a move. The pathway to participation in faith – developing ‘spiritual’ discipleship seems to involve going to another activity. Church becomes the neck of the winebottle where only a few people reach, but many have connections already.

In a way its not just that ‘Sunday is Church’ and the target of all the weekly ministries of a church in this model that is the issue. It is that there are so many barriers that a person may have to undertake to eventually find church and faith as a meaningful thing that is the issue. We might be accused of being so unaware that God could be at work within the toddler session, or the lunch club, that we miss this, thinking that getting people to church on sunday (via another social event) is how God is accessed.

Dont get me wrong, the open sessions that a welcome, inclusive and create spaces for conversation, social, emotional and physical support and help are all needed and positive. But when they turn only into a strategy….

From Activity groups to Peer groups

What happens when we find a group of people in the church who start working really well together? ie – the older sunday school group, the lunch group volunteers, a house group, or, even, a messy church group or confirmation group? – Often the value of this group is only in how this group is able to get bigger by disrupting it. Image result for group work

Instead – why not develop practices of peer group working?

So, instead of individuals moving between groups in a church, what about developing group work with self selecting peer groups. So- all the parents in toddlers who ‘become cliques’ – how might that clique be channelled positively within the life of the church or local community – what are they good at and how might they contribute? And how might this be facilitated…

The young people often thrust together to do a confirmation course – how might this group stay together beyond it – rather than be asked to ‘join’ something else post confirmation with people they dont know/like.

If and it is a big if, people do naturally gravitate towards groups within open sessions, youth clubs, detached work, coffee mornings, then how might in churches we invest in their social connection and help this be built upon? There is much evidence that people in groups gain significantly individually through being part of them, so- might developing peer groups be key?

Community development processes and also Frontier Youth Trust have focused on group work development in their practice strategies. FYT have a process within their detached work which focuses on developing acceptance, recognising peer groups and developing basic small groups, developing risk and then exploring spirituality within the group. For more details and a write up on these processes- see ‘Here be Dragons’ above, which you can order via FYT at http://www.fyt.org.uk.  And though its written with youth work in mind, the same principles apply to any group work. They go something like this:

  • Community Profiling
  • 1 Observation (to discover the groups) 
  • 2, 3 Cold Contact (gaining rapport/acceptance, as this can take a while)
  • 4 Area Group Work
  • 5 Peer Group work
  • 6 Basic Small group work
  • 7 Risky Groupwork
  • 8 Exploration of Spirituality
  • 9 Church on the edge

But though group work principles are pretty common in community development and youth work, they seem largely absent in church & youth ministry practices. Too much focus on individual faith – and the individual person, rather than a number of individuals within a group all exploring faith together whilst being together, call it group discipleship…

Whilst there has been a huge increase in churches and youth practices offering the open spaces in local communities, what might be needed is to reflect on how groups form and are allowed to form within them, and having the resources to facilitate the interests that these people share, whether fitness, reading or hobbies, or the social justice or community endeavour mentioned above. And yes this involves work. The alternative is that people love coming to a coffee morning for a few months, but get sick of being invited to services, there has to be another way. Discipleship instead might start and exist within the toddler session, or the lunchclub, and that doesnt mean that people just ‘hear’ a talk, but that they are given opportunities to participate as groups as disciples. After all – didnt Jesus do discipleship in groups too..?

 

Forget growth strategies for church & youth ministry; meet (young) peoples needs.

I am happy to be corrected by this. But I am struggling to remember an occasion in the last few years where a church or youth ministry organisation who has adopted or created a strategy for growth, has included the notion of ‘meeting peoples needs’. I wonder if this has been bypassed somewhat; for the sake of ‘evangelism strategy’, or ‘social action project’ or ‘organisation objectives’ , i only wonder as i am happy to be corrected. But it feels a little as if meeting peoples needs has got out of fashion. Especially in a climate of organisation survival of the fittest.

Before a few of my esteemed colleagues point out that meeting peoples needs has been usurped by ‘developing their gifts’ , ie Asset Based community development. I am already there, as you might tell, this isnt about developing work from a needs based approach, this is about what it actually means to meet peoples needs, at least getting that part done might be a minimum requirement, or at least recognise that developing gifts and meeting needs go hand in hand in meeting peoples psychological meaning. And this isnt just spiritual needs, I mean human ones. Meet their deepest psychological needs and their gifts might also be part of the equation.

At this point, you might expect me to refer to Maslow. And, i will. Only to say that despite the criticisms of his hierarchy, there is something critical not to be overlooked in what he proposes. Forget the hierarchy for one moment, as these get us into knots. But what if the levels were summarised:

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs

So, consider them as these, starting from the bottom up:

  1. Survival and Security
  2. To know and to live
  3. Affiliation and relationship
  4. Achievement and purpose needs.

So, how many growth strategies for organisations start with ‘meeting the needs of people’, a bit of me wonders whether some initiatives dont get further than ‘base level’ – providing a social service, a valid and meaningful one – like food, or money advice or youthwork conversation, but there become a bottle neck, blockage or barrier to preventing persons starting from this point to have other needs met in the structure of the church or organisation. But what of the people who are already in our youth clubs, churches – in what way are their ‘creativity’ and ‘affiliation’ needs met – in more than status? 

However, moving on from Maslow, Over the last few months I have been writing an essay for my Psychology class on Myth Making, one of the books that I read during this was Jocelyn Bryans reflections on Christianity and Psychology book; Human Being (2016),  in it she argues that Humans develop a narrative identity that provide themselves with a meaning of life that has to consist of all four of the following for a person to consider their life as meaningful:

  1. Purpose – our lives have to have purpose, eg getting a job, raising family, buying a home, being successful
  2. Value and Justification – our lives must be in some way in accordance with a moral standard, and we can present ourselves as a good person, (often we’ll re narrate past events to assert that we have acted morally)
  3. Efficacy – This is where we have the capacity to achieve something, to make something happen, to be in control of that achievement, to contribute to society, a community
  4. Self-Worth – This could be in the achievement of something, the feedback of something, and having a stable sense of self which is evidenced by stories of others and their admiration of us.  (2016, p62, based on Baumeister, Wilson)

If theres an underlying reason that people go to church, or church related activities: that ‘it provides things the world doesnt dish up’ (Marschall, 2004, Youthworker magazine, US)  i wonder whether of all the summaries of human needs described here, that churches, youth groups and youth work organisations have focussed on to the detriement of others.

On one hand it would be easily argued that is the Christian faith that has the capacity to provide a persons needs (and Bryan suggests this) – and so the story that is told, the way it is told and how young people acknowledge their place and purpose in it is crucial. Yet it is not the Christian faith that young people leave when or if they leave the church, it is the organisation of the church, so which of the human needs of young people isnt being met and how might meeting peoples needs become a focus. In recent research, The fuller institute discovered that a ‘healthy place’ was where young people stayed in a church beyond the age of 14. I would be confident that a healthy place might be where young people, and their family and others needs are intentionally met.

This is not a selfish proposition. It is about how communities of faith act as community to enable all the flourish within in it. But we have to take into account in church that human drives, urges, motivations, personalities and goals play a significant part of decision making and being part of a social group. Its not about getting what I need, but being in a space to flourish so that I can contribute in a healthy way. Surely thats ultimately not selfish.

If i had a haunch, then most people leave churches or youth groups because 1 or more of their needs isnt being met. A disagreement leads to loss of belonging, being cast as sinful/guilty/shame doesnt endorse a personal morality, it doesnt fit with life purpose, or what I am beginning to think more and more. Church doesnt fulfil a need to be challenged (healthily), or to build on and use creative gifts for a larger purpose (with the exception of a few creative gifts/music being one). People will stay if church and youth ministry is able to give them meaning and purpose, you can fill in the blanks regarding the opposite. Church is to be a place of deep meaning and where people flourish.

So, if the church is serious about keeping people, or attracting people, our strategies need to include being able to meet peoples human needs in the functioning of the community. What might that mean

  1. Creating places of welcome and belonging
  2. Teaching that provides people with value and purpose
  3. Opportunities for meaningful and ongoing challenges appropriate to the person and for them to have some control over them (and not limited by age, gender, disability)
  4. People have positive feedback. yes thats positive feedback in a church. (uh oh, heres the impossible one, i think i was ok up to point 3 ;-))

There are tons more, that you could probably think of.  And I know this is completely impossible etc etc, but start with the small group you might already be involved in, the youth group, house group, knit & natter group – think ; in what way can we improve on helping people to flourish through meeting their life meaning needs?  do they need to be part of a challenge and stretched, or be commended, or just continue to belong and give them opportunity for this.. – the way that people belong… it when they make the tea in your house. 

Church might offer something different to the world – when it develops peoples needs, facilitates and fosters creativity, purpose and challenge – as well as create spaces of welcome. Its what people need.

Lets have meeting peoples needs, that enable them to flourish in their community as the church mission and youth group strategy. Lets have meeting peoples psychological needs so that the spaces are created so that their creativity is harnessed, their gifts used and as persons they are contributors.

Oh – and youll find Jesus did most of this with his disciples. So its pretty biblical too. He probably over worked the challenges, and that didnt do the worldwide church any harm from those 12.

 

 

Can Biblical doctrine direct organisation strategy?

We need our organisation to be effective!

It needs to be ‘moving forward’ ,

Stagnation is capitulation! ,

Growth is good, efficiency is the name of the game,

Organisations needs to be outcomes orientated!

Image result for effectiveness

Does anyone else wince that these get said in places of work, you know the corporate lingo to often mean job cuts, or reschuffles, or changed focus. Its not far off transformational leadership or management styles. In a way these kind of things are more acceptable in the supermarket chain, the factory or even a building site, but is it appropriate that this kind of language, and the ideologies behind ‘effectiveness’, ‘efficiency’ , ‘growth’ and ‘reinvention’ have become virtually staple language to the faith-based educational organisation like youth work, and even more so the church.Doesn’t it seem a bit weird? that the maxims developed from Henry Ford, Apple and Macdonalds are adapted in and used in the church? Maybe it doesnt seem that weird anymore.

Such as:

 we want the church to have a ‘growth’ strategy,

or a church that gives value for money…

What becomes weird is that the language of business and economics has infiltrated not just the process of organisations, and their strategies, but also in the faith settings become justified as theology.

So, for example, In John Nelsons book ‘Leading managing ministering (1998) he looks at a number of models of management (including those mentioned above, transformational leadership and begins to consider how this type of management can be used in the church, using verses of the bible peppered throughout to seal the models approval to a faith orientated audience. And then as a result it becomes valid to use certain styles of leadership/management in organisations and their associated behaviours because there are biblical resonances. Related image

What i am saying then is the culture of business, and its adopted language becomes the main driver for the theology that is interwoven into faith based organisations. There becomes a need for a ‘growth’ theology, or a theology of decline, or a theology of innovation. Reflecting on organisations, reflecting on how the performance of an organisation in community is mirrored in the character, knowledge, themes or actions of God.

I wonder if this is back to front. Just a little bit.

In Drama of Doctrine,  Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that Doctrine, and theology is for the purpose of directing the performance of the church in the ongoing theodrama, the 5 act play of Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consumation, which the church and present is in the fourth act of five. Theology is for directing and guiding the action, it may also be a dramatic endeavour in itself. Vanhoozer contrasts the kind of Theology that is absolute (epic) and that which is found in community action (lyric) with a directive theology that is dramatic, that maintains Biblical primacy but is for ongoing community participation and is for in real time. The live drama.

So, instead of organisations adopting Business langauge and delivery as the starting point for theological reflection – what about the faith based organisation that performs the doctrine of atonement, or doctrine of love, or doctrine of grace in its organisation culture and structure?

In a simplified example, at some point last year in our team reflections at DYFC we looked at the passages in 1 Corinthians 13 about love. They are fairly well known and get read at most weddings, even 4 weddings and a funeral i think. As a group we looked at the question – is it possible to be an organisation that performs as much as possible the call to be loving, kind, faithful and unfailing whilst also being on the stage of the world in which funding, competition, outcomes, communication, projects, attendance, are all part and parcel of practice? 

Image result for love is patient

This wasnt us trying to perform a theology of love, or atonement not by any means, but it was at least starting to make space for the kind of theology that we might want to direct our organisation, to embody in it, and ultimately to perform. So we did ask – what would it mean to ‘love’ young people – genuinely – how would we do this, what would it mean to ‘love’ each other, to trust and be kind to young people and each other. From these conversations it becomes easier to develop a culture that is theological, and directed by not only propositional statements that show truth, but also the sense that being and performing loving, generous and compassionate propel the theodrama, they reveal and embody God in action, especially in the mini series’s of the drama of every day life in the myriad of conversations. The critical reflection was that it would difficult, and there would be considerable adjustments to be made, but that would only be inevitable. But Theology directs the performances in this way.

In my last piece i was talking about the culture created in a youth ministry setting. Culture creating is a big thing, understandably, Morgan talks about organisations as cultures. So again, in faith settings how might a theology that is performed be culture shaping and creating, even prophetic of others. For in a way what is a faith based organisation that has culture but not love – might it be the crashing symbol?

What would happen in an organisation or church that embodied, or performed a theology of the cross? Its marks would be self sacrifice, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection- there would not  just be ‘acceptable’ behaviour, or ‘enough’  – but beyond compassionate behaviour, laying down life for friends behaviour and respect for others. All actions that propel God at work in people, and the ongoing drama, that foretaste a future existance in the present with shadows of the past.

If churches and organisations are full of saints (rather than heroes) Wells, Improvisation, 2004,  then the saint is someone who is faithful to their call, but also develops community around them. They are faithful to the nature of the call, being gracious, humble and not taking the limelight – that is after all Jesus space in the drama. For many saints they have no choice who becomes part of that community for like St Francis, they identified with the poorest, most needy and shaped theology of the sidewalk, of suffering in the moments of identifying with people. Communities of saints take the rough with the rough and journey alongside and with, because ultimately our Human actions of faith are collective and the land is to be explored together warts and all. Can this happen in organisations who might have other motives, like growth, or innovation, or strategy, or success? where might sainthoodness fit in? or a theology of the suffering of Jesus? But as Christians in groups and organisations, our starting point isnt working out how to biblically adopt Apple or Macdonalds into an organisation – it is that we perform in real time the drama as directed, being wise as saints on the stage of the world, yet start with theology that speaks into cultures.

Maybe Theology as it is dramatic,  comes first after all or least has an ongoing part in being performed.

 

References

Newman – Leading, Managing Ministering, 1998

Vanhoozer, Kevin, The Drama of doctrine, 2005

Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, 2004

 

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