Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How a congregation learns part 3

This is the third in the series of how congregations learn best.  Each of these posts are inspired by an article written by Tim Shapiro for Congregations published by The Alban Institute.  The third element for a learning church is Congregations that learn well ask open-ended questions and practice active listening.

Many of us have heard the story of the little boy, when asked a question in Sunday school class, responded, "I'm not sure what the answer is, but it's probably Jesus."  Very often in the church people assume that there is always a pre-determined answer to difficult questions, so they give those responses without spending time to dig deeply into the question.  Each of us, including congregations, learn best by asking questions for which there are no pre-determined answers or, at least, not being satisfied with such answers, spend time examining the issues surrounding the question more thoroughly.

An example...A church notices that its giving level has been declining for the past several months.  In recent years church leaders have told me that it's probably due to the economy, and when it improves their giving will climb back up.  Maybe, but I know a number of churches that have not seen a decline despite the economy.  Others contact me asking if the denomination has a new stewardship program they can use.  They assume people need training, and they may be right.  Many of the churches I serve have neglected stewardship training in their churches for years because "people don't like it when I talk about money."  I sometimes tell church leaders who attend my workshops that another reason for poor giving is a lack of vision.  People are reluctant to give money if it's only going to be used for maintenance.  If their money is only going to be used to pay utilities and a small salary to the pastor many people will hardly be inspired to give much more than what's needed for such purposes.  They may well give to another ministry that is doing some things they support, so a church that has no real vision for ministry will likely see a low level of financial support from its members.  Any of these could be the cause for the poor giving level in the church, but what if it isn't one of the obvious issues.  Just assuming it is could lead the church to miss the real reason for the poor giving costing them an opportunity to learn some new things about themselves.

Perhaps it's a problem with how the church is structured.  For instance, I have seen people who disagreed with the direction the church was going withhold their money.  In some cases it's to punish the church, and that is sin.  But, in other situations, they felt their view was being ignored, that no one was listening to them, and they withheld their money in an effort to get people's attention.  They weren't necessarily mad, and they didn't want to punish the church, they just wanted someone to hear them.  Once they felt they were being heard they returned to their previous level of giving whether their view was adopted or not.

No one wants to be ignored, but sometimes a church's systems set people aside and make them feel their opinions are not valued.  A new stewardship program will not fix that, and neither will an improved economy.  By immediately assuming that one of these is always the cause of poor giving a church can miss a learning opportunity that it needs to include everyone in its discussions and needs to honestly hear those who may have a different perspective than the majority of the membership.  That does not mean that we give that minority veto power over the decision, but it does require that we hear them out and that they believe they have been heard.

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