This ten-part A Deacon’s Musing series will explore the intersection between the change philosophy known as Appreciative Inquiry and a Christian theological orientation grounded in diversity. I am most grateful to be co-shaping this conversation with my mentor and friend Maureen McKenna. We sincerely hope that the definitions, metaphors, theological reflections, images and videos help impart the significant generative potential that is centred in appreciation, gratitude and abundance.
As this Appreciative Inquiry series of theological reflections unfold, you can find each blog on the Tabs above.
Working on this eighth addition to the Appreciative Principles series was filled with distractions. They arose because of my hope to find what I call a “third thing.” Usually that includes a video, whether musical or something akin to a TEDTalks, in order to invite another voice into the conversation. This feels important, in order to create opportunity to appeal to different learning styles and to offer complementary resources to the blog itself. So, and the irony is not lost, the distractions were because I could not choose!
This lack of choosing, let me offer, actually has nothing to do with the Free Choice Principle. But it kind of does. It does, in that, in some United Church of Canada contexts, the term “choice” (when connected with consumerism) carries a justice association. With this lens, choice refers to the sense of living in a consumer and individualised culture that is grounded in both isolation and privilege. This context, therefore, found me watching multiple YouTube videos and reading blogs that had nothing to do with this blog. So, dear Reader, if choice and justice are issues about which you are passionate, don’t be distracted like me as we move on …
If “choice” is not connected to the c-word “consumer,” let me make a connexion that the Free Choice Principle is about another c-word: community. Central to my understanding of this principle is the ability of leadership to unlock the agency within a community, whether that is a congregation, community ministry or the various other bodies throughout our denomination.
In other blogs in this series, I have made theological connexions with each principle. In this one, I am going to offer a more practical one, which arises from my experience “on the ground.” This connexion arises from a general experience I have when first being invited into a ministry that is beginning to dream. There are no cookie cutter models to help nurture innovation and change and Appreciative Inquiry is intentionally philosophically flexible to the reality of each context. That having been said, there are nonetheless generalities that arise. One of them is paralysis in change.
I have experienced this in specific ways. Once the dreams are named and excitement begins, it is not unusual to hear something like these, when moving from imagining to action:
- “Well, that’s Council’s role, we don’t know how to do that.”
- “Alex used to do that, and we don’t know how it was done.”
- “That’s not our role, that’s the Christian Education Committee’s responsibility.”
- “We would love to do that, but that the Minister’s responsibility.”
The first thing I have learned in this place of leadership is that these are not excuses or deflections from taking responsibility. In fact, when those in leadership can hear them as conversations that invite wonder and curiosity, the Free Choice Principle becomes abundantly embodied in that moment. This is because these observations and questions speak to a desire to embrace the power to choose, so as to bring about the change that arises from dreaming. The challenge, for both the community and leadership, is how to begin to nurture a culture that can embrace the Free Choice Principle. This insight leads to a second learning that helps introduce the Principle into ministries that are beginning to dream: institutional inheritance.
By inheritance, I mean the way we have been church in the past will no longer look the same in respect to an “expert model” of ministry. What it will look like will be largely dependent on the degree to which communities of faith are able to embrace choice as agency. Many ministries will likely continue to have paid accountable clergy, yet the role will likely adapt to changing needs. The traditional role, which is already beginning to adapt, will continue to shift from a professional/expert to one that helps facilitate the community. Such facilitation allows the community to embrace its agency. This choice allows the community to recognise its ministry in its particular context and implement appropriate ways to live it out. In organisational development this is sometimes called “capacity building.”
To nurture such capacity, here are a few final musings about the Free Choice Principle:
- It is consistent with a historical and metaphorical recognition of the church as a Body, which we discussed in the Wholeness Principle. For the community to be well and to thrive, all voices must be included. In turn, the Free Choice Principle offers a framework about how to understand the role of the collective wisdom each voice brings;
- In any organisation, and especially ones that operate from a place of belief and passion, inviting the Body to claim its agency is powerful. It is powerful because it takes seriously that the community is invested in the responsibility of bringing to life its dreams in an active and engaged manner.As such, the encouragement that the Free Choice Principle highlights is to make sure that those in leadership are aware that Appreciative Inquiry recognises that all are involved in decisions making and outcomes. To not take this seriously is important, because once a community claims its agency, tensions can arise if leadership is not seen as cooperative, but directive; and,
- Free Choice is intrinsically relational. It recognises that each individual brings gifts and that those gifts are what bind us collectively, because they are shared. In turn, Free Choice becomes a collective act that liberates a community’s power/agency.