The typical scenario is for several intelligent, well-meaning, and committed people to gather at a table. They identify a problem or opportunity and then address ways to resolve it. Proposed solutions tend to derive from their own experience: an idea that worked before, an idea that someone else voiced convincingly, an idea they read about, or an idea that they have always wanted to try. Planners “invest” in their proposed solutions and become advocates for them. Arguments aren’t uncommon.
This approach, while reasonably rewarding for participants, at least until the arguing commences, has some pitfalls:
• Planners’ preferences might not coincide with actual needs.
• Planners’ experiences might not reflect the dynamic nature of in-breaking reality.
• Planners might place too much reliance on what they remember when they were, say, young adults, or newcomers, or needing pastoral care, and not see that situations are changing.
• Planning for someone else tends to be less effective than planning with someone else.
• Planning-related arguments tend to follow dysfunctional patterns: how we make decisions, whose voice is loudest, what role money plays, how we preserve identity.
A better approach is to start by listening. Listen to the questions people are asking. Listen to their yearnings. Listen for needs. Listen in a way that embraces discovery and new information. Listen to people different from oneself. Listen with special openness to the last twenty people to join the church. Listen to those who don’t normally get heard.
As for method, I recommend doing what a good newspaper reporter would do: interview many people; ask a good leading question; listen at length to the answer; one-on-one, not group interviews; focused on the interviewee, with special attention to anecdotal, from-the-heart information.
A congregation that listens to its constituents will find itself awash in needs and opportunities — many of them sobering, even tragic, and probably more basic than you expect — and also awash in energy, zeal, and resources to deal with them.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.