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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Purpose and Problem-Solving

All the churches I know have to wrestle with practical problems, like: How can we balance the budget? How can we maintain our aging building? How can we reach out to new people, especially younger people? What programs and services should we offer?

“How can we keep going?” would be a good summary of these questions.

But churches are also recognizing the need to talk about their identity and mission. “Who are we? Why are we here? What is God calling us to do and to be?”

We might call these “What is our purpose?” conversations.

Both conversations – “What is our purpose?” and “How can we keep going?” -- are important. And many congregations are talking about them. The problem is that these two conversations are taking place in isolation from one another. “How do we keep going?” and “What is our mission and purpose?” are often parallel, non-intersecting topics. They are discussed at different times, in different settings, and often by different people.

Mission and purpose do not drive practical decision-making -- buildings, budgets and staff. And practical decision-making is not always an expression of mission and purpose.
The result is that we go around in circles, and nothing changes.

I am starting to believe that integrating these two conversations is essential if we are to move forward.

In another part of my life, I am the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity Niagara. Habitat is an organization that is crystal clear about its purpose, and that purpose drives its day-to-day decisions.

Contrary to popular belief, Habitat does not exist to build houses. Houses are just a means to an end. The purpose of Habitat is to transform families. Home ownership is the tool we use to effect that transformation.

The motto of Habitat for Humanity Canada is “Always thinking families first.” The affiliate I am involved with takes that motto very seriously. Every decision is subjected to the same test: Will it help us to serve more families?

“Should we increase our debt to buy that piece of land?” Will it help us serve more families?
Should we hire new staff?” Will it help us serve more families?

“Should we open another ReStore?” Will it help us serve more families?

If the answer is “Yes,” we do it. If the answer is “No,” we don’t do it.  

At the same time, every great idea is subjected to the same test: “Do we have the resources to do this? And if not, how can we get them?”

Mission and day-to-day decision-making aren’t separate conversations. They’re the same conversation.

I covet this clarity for the church. I wish our churches could be as focused on their purpose and mission as Habitat. Maybe that’s not possible because churches don’t have a single focus. But if our congregations could be clearer about why they exist, they would be more effective.

But, in order to achieve that clarity, mission and action need to be brought together. We can’t have the “hard,” practical problem-solving conversation about resources taking place in one room, and the “soft” conversation about mission and purpose taking place in another room. They have to be brought together.

Every time you meet to solve a practical problem – how to increase givings, how to increase attendance, whether to change the worship service, whether to renovate the church hall, or to amalgamate with a neighboring church – every time you meet to discuss these matters, you should also spend at least 15 or 20 minutes talking about who you are and why you’re here.

It’s not sufficient to confine the mission and purpose conversation to an annual retreat – or to hand it off to the minister or a separate committee. That is a good way to ensure that mission and purpose will only be the concern of a few people, rather than the whole congregation.

At the same time, it’s not sufficient to talk about mission and purpose as if practical issues don’t matter. That’s a good way to ensure that mission and purpose will seem like wishful thinking.

Conversation about mission needs to happen regularly, frequently, consistently enough to have an impact. It’s important that the mission conversation occur alongside your conversations about money and buildings, that it be a component of all your gatherings and deliberations.

How do you do that?

You do it by creating a safe space in which everyone is able to participate without fear of being judged, ridiculed or dismissed.

You do it by formulating simple questions, using easily-understood, non-specialist language, that invite people to share what’s on their hearts.

You do it by giving people clear instructions.

You do it by keeping notes of your conversations, so you can check back, follow up and, 
over time, deepen your level of understanding.

Safe space. Simple questions. Clear instructions. Keep notes.

In my next post, I will expand on each of these points and offer practical steps you can take to incorporate them into your gatherings and discussions.

For now, though, you can start making “How do we keep going?” and “What is God’s purpose for us?” one conversation, not two. 

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