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Possibilities, not problems

Building on strengths rather than dwelling on negatives has brought healthy change to many secular organizations. The approach can work for churches, too.

By Julie McGonegal


When Rev. Christine Smaller first took on a supply position at Birchcliff Bluffs United in 2015, she was warned that it was in its final death throes. The small but active congregation in Scarborough, Ont., had been given a couple of years to live.

“They were exhausted and approaching despair,” Smaller recalls. “Despite enormous gifts and profound faith, they felt as if they were simply spinning their wheels.” Smaller was given a nine-month mandate to conduct a congregational inquiry. That process changed everything.

Smaller credits the growth and transformation of the congregation to members’ willingness to fully engage with Appreciative Inquiry (AI), an approach to organizational change that has stoked the passion and faith of a handful of United Church congregations across the country. While many churchgoers will roll their eyes at the prospect of another organizational theory that makes big promises, Smaller insists that AI is different. “What it suggests, in theological terms, is that God has given us everything we need to answer God’s call in our time and place,” she says.

AI isn’t a theological approach or even a new approach. In fact, in the decades after its inception in the 1980s, it mainly gained traction within corporations and post-secondary educational institutions. It’s only now popping up in pockets of the United Church.

David Cooperrider, who along with Suresh Srivastva co-founded AI, first stumbled on the precepts that inform the practice while deep in doctoral research on organizational theory at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Taking a local medical facility as his case study, Cooperrider found that focusing on what is right with an organization is far more effective in creating positive change than focusing on what is wrong. It’s a remarkably simple idea: fixating on our deficits discourages and disillusions us, stymying growth, whereas naming and nurturing our strengths helps us to thrive.

Most organizations, including churches, approach people as problems to be solved, not as reservoirs of possibility. Mark Lau Branson is professor of the ministry of the laity at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and author of Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change. “Most congregations name problems and seek to solve them,” he says. “That cycle of naming the problem is the normal way that boards and committees operate.”

Anyone with some church volunteer experience would probably agree with him. Church culture inhabits what Branson calls “a practice of criticism.” Yet a countercultural approach is arguably more authentically Christian. It asks us to radically change our ways of thinking by cultivating a practice of affirmation and a discipline of gratitude.

Curiously, Cooperrider is the son of a United Church of Christ minister. When he first developed AI, he recognized its underlying Christian ethos. Rev. Paul Borthistle, a retired Anglican priest in Duncan, B.C., who has used AI extensively, explains: “Cooperrider thought that if anyone would respond, it would be the church. Corporate culture adopted it quite quickly, but the churches were resistant.”

While Borthistle resists the urge to align AI with theology in any systematic way, he can’t miss the parallels. “AI is what my mother would have called ‘Gospel-valued common sense,’” he says. “The principles of AI are those of the teachings of Jesus.”

Asked about the theological roots of AI, Rev. Robert Voyle, faculty at the Clergy Leadership Institute in Hillsboro, Ore., responds with a question of his own: “Did Jesus come to give us less, or did he come to give us life?”

AI practitioners like Voyle are skilled at asking questions. AI is all about crafting the right question, the one that stuns a room into silence. AI proponents believe that organizations follow the trajectory of the kinds of questions they ask. Instead of asking what isn’t working in a congregation or denomination, a trained AI facilitator would ask what is. Where has God been at work in our church? When have you seen people transformed? How can we partner with God and with each other to further God’s work?

According to Richard Manley-Tannis, minister of evangelism, mission and church development for Winnipeg Presbytery, these kinds of questions can awaken us to God’s presence in our lives, helping us to move beyond a place of lament. Manley-Tannis is devoting some of his PhD thesis to an analysis of AI, but he’s hardly stuck in an ivory tower. He has introduced the approach to over 30 United Church congregations and is convinced that it has much to offer The United Church of Canada at this precarious time in its history. Yet he admits that not everyone shares his enthusiasm.

When he walks into most congregations, he inevitably encounters resistance: “I say, ‘So let me guess. You’ve had other people come in, and you’ve got reports all over the place.’ They nod, and I say, ‘Let me guess. When the person leaves, you feel excited, you’re pumped. . . . Two years, five years, 10 years later, nothing’s changed.’ There’s body language saying, yes.”

That resistance quickly melts, he says, when people realize that AI isn’t another bureaucratic process led by a professed expert, but a positive, participatory, highly collaborative venture. “There’s an energy in the process. You can actually feel people change,” he adds. “That’s when the Spirit is present: when the energy shifts from heads down, shoulders slumped, to people sitting up, making eye contact.”

In other words, when people realize that AI isn’t another tedious exercise in rehearsing a litany of complaints, they move from blame, dejection and cynicism to passion, creativity and co-operation. 

As an academic studying AI and using it on the ground, Manley-Tannis is attuned to its theoretical nuances. It’s all about social constructivism, he explains. That means two things. First, where we focus our attention is what we are going to see, and second, the words we use actively create reality. Words don’t just hold up a mirror to our worlds; they contribute to creating them. It means we can leverage language to change the future.

So what does all this mean for churches? The moment that Manley-Tannis asks people to share a story about a time in their faith community when lives were transformed, the conversation switches gears: “Behind the underlying lament is the cry, ‘This place has changed my life. This place has nurtured my children. I want to pass that on.’”

What does he say to critics who push back at what they see as AI’s Pollyanna approach? First, he reminds them that AI is not about seeing only the pros and never the problems, but about asking how we can approach the problems in creative and constructive ways. “It’s not about denying the difficulties, but about asking how to deal with them differently,” he claims.

Rev. Todd McDonald, personnel minister for Toronto Conference and a trained AI facilitator, says that AI isn’t some magic key: “It’s not as if, with AI, you wave your wand, and then ‘poof,’ you have a solution. It takes a lot of intense planning, but putting in the work at the design stage can make your dream a reality.”

Almost everyone interviewed for this article sees AI as a methodology, but also much more. It is a philosophy, a world view and, above all, a paradigm shift.

Some, like Borthistle, bristle at the language of methodology, which suggests just another theory du jour. He prefers the phrase “Appreciative Way.” So does Voyle. For both, the paradigm is more important, and more interesting, than the methodology.

Voyle values AI for its capacity to speak to us on a deeper level about who we are and how we should live. “What most of us discover is that it is a way of being in the world,” he notes. “As such, it has something to say about all of life. It is about a fundamentally different approach to looking at everything.”

Voyle says that any attempt on the part of the United Church to arrest the decline in numbers will fail. AI is not about that, anyway. “In AI, we are not in the business of slowing down or preventing death,” he says. “Instead, we are interested in turning on the light.”

How do you turn on the light? By telling stories, he says. By asking people to share their best experiences of the United Church — the times when they felt fully in touch with self, neighbour and the transcendent.

“Surveys don’t work,” he says emphatically. “Christianity didn’t flourish because of surveys, but because people got together and shared stories of encountering the risen Lord.”

Stories are our portals to the future, our guide to the dream that animates what lies beyond. Like any visionary, Voyle knows the power of narrative to transport us to new places: “Standing on the steps of [the Lincoln Memorial in] Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t begin with . . . ‘I have a problem’ but with ‘I have a dream.’ He painted a picture of the future that was compelling. What is the dream of The United Church of Canada?”

At Birchcliff Bluffs United, the introduction of AI into every facet of church life, including workshops, preaching, prayers and pastoral care, has radically changed the culture of the congregation. “Behaviour on the board changed as we started to identify what was going right in the congregation,” recalls Smaller. “Meetings became more energized and hopeful as we learned to adopt a much more co-operative stance.” Smaller has stayed on as full-time minister at Birchcliff Bluffs, and her congregation has long outlived its terminal diagnosis.

Last year, the congregation opened the doors of Toby’s Place, an LGBTQ safe space for youth. According to Smaller, this initiative can be directly attributed to the AI process. “Because of a shift in culture, we had the courage and confidence to launch this,” she explains.

Smaller strongly disagrees with those who dismiss AI as rose-tinted optimism. “When used properly, AI produces realistic and concrete goals, as well as a shift in organizational culture that makes realizing those goals possible,” she insists.

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.




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