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.
If words have power, as we explored in the first blog in this Appreciating Principles series, then the questions we shape and form require not just our attention, but our intention. Questions can be open-ended and invite collaborative and the collective discovery of meaning discovery. They can also reinforce stereotypes that silence and maim. One of the central questions – for the Christian community in its two-millennial long journey – has begun with “Who …”.
I have previously explored the Who question in a series asking variations of it. With respect to our current endeavour, it is important to remember that this question has never been settled for Christian expressions and traditions. Though there has and is certainly a desire to arrive upon a definitive answer – some call this orthodoxy or doctrine – the reality is that this quintessential question is asked by each generation that inherits the faith tradition. As sunflowers that follow the sun’s movement through the course of each day, “Who” has drawn our attention in new and different ways with each new season.
We began by talking about intention when we pay attention to the question. In my The United Church of Canada (UCC) context, the intention that often underlies the inquiry is informed by such ‘keys’ as justice, privilege, gender, the environment and ‘social location.’ Whether it is the church itself asking the question or our partners, how we begin to answer that will frame the relationships that arise and – ultimately – our shared meaning. Who we understand Jesus to be will lead us to further focus on situations and allies who reinforce that perspective/meaning. The challenge, therefore, is how do we remain open to different and emerging perspectives in the inevitability of seeing the answers we expect?
I believe that central to the Simultaneity Principle is both the challenge and potential that our questions are never neutral. Depending on the energy we commit to crafting them, worlds can be unlocked or we can end up locking ourselves out. So, if the moment we ask a question, change begins, what does that mean in the UCC context as it continues to undertake significant organisational change? Furthermore, what does it mean if the ‘keys’ already mentioned have theological (ways we understand God) implications that can seem disconnected from the process aimed at structural change? Where we focus our attention is what we will see more of. If our focus is deficits and deficiencies, eventually any system – family or business and organisation that are for-profit or not-for-profit – will sow a garden of that which our questions plant.
In this time of change for the UCC, I am aware it can be challenging to shape our mindset in a manner that entertains hope, as opposed to apathy or, even, resignation. Sometimes, if we have found the right question, the one that turns the tumblers towards worlds not yet imagined, we might begin by revisiting precious answers that both emboldened and inspired those from whom we have inherited the tradition. What was best, through the right question, can serve to fertilise soil that may seem sterile and even desolate.
I myself have always loved questions: you just know when you have the right one, because the energy in a room and in people palpably changes. The body language quickly leads to engagement: voices rise, laughter and dreaming begin. The answers that arise often emerge from the energy that propels. If our questions serve to remind us of what was best in the past, perhaps pausing our discussion by sharing the most recent answer to “Who …” that the UCC articulated in 2006 as the Song of Faith might be helpful. As the UCC seeks to embrace that poetic inspiration, perhaps collectively we might begin to imagine the future awash in sunflowers …