An Appreciative Inquiry Parable

BY KARIN WALKER

Ninth UMC in Goodtimes, Md., was hosting their annual planning retreat.

The church is located just a mile from the Top Shelf Retirement Community, where most of its members live, and as a result it sees lots of activity.

New roads to accommodate Top Shelf now place Ninth Church on a busy thoroughfare.

This morning, the church council gathered, along with a few other interested members. There were 30 in attendance.

Everyone was excited to see that Phil and June, new residents of Top Shelf and soon to be members of Ninth Church, were among those gathered.

The sea of gray that stretched out over the pews as worship began was a clear indicator of the average age of the congregation.

The Bible study focused on Philippians 4:8. Jerry, the church council chairperson, began the planning by a review of last year’s goals.

“Well, we didn’t make progress on two of our four goals, as usual. We still do not have anyone under the age of 40 and certainly no children to speak of, except when Ella’s great grandkids are in town. And we did not have a Vacation Bible School again this year,” he lamented.

“That’s such a shame,” Joe said. “Fifty years ago, this place would have 150 kids.”

“I just don’t see why we can’t attract young people. We have the money. I think we should hire a full-time youth minister. Why, the church down the street built a skateboard park for their youth. We have all these handicapped ramps — maybe they could use those to start,” commented Louise.

“We’re going to die if we don’t get young people. Maybe we need a younger pastor,” offered Murray.

Not wanting to get off on a totally negative note, Jerry reviewed the other goals. The church paid 100 percent of their apportionments and funded, along with three other community churches, a house for Habitat.

Phil, the newcomer, who had been taking all of this in, chimed in: “You know why June and I are here? Because you have a wonderful outreach to seniors. The Bible Study over at Top Shelf was what hooked us. And our first Sunday here, we felt right at home with the coffee and donuts and June got invited to the quilters group.”

Ninth UMC is like lots of congregations in that they ask themselves the wrong questions. Rather than, “What don’t we have or what are we not doing well?” a more productive question would be: “What do we do well and how can we do more of it?”

This is the basic premise of Appreciative Inquiry.

Most organizational change begins with problem-solving, assessing the deficits and inadequacies, and creating strategies to fix them. This deficit model will often miss opportunities for growth and health.

The Appreciative Inquiry model reviews the organizational history and its best stories and practices, celebrating and appreciating ministries in response to God’s call.
It then uses creative and careful discerning to focus on possibilities for a future based on strengths and current realities.

Ninth UMC began to appreciate their unique strengths. They used their new sign, now on the busy thoroughfare, as an opportunity to be noticed.

They moved their quilting group to the retirement community. They arranged a van pick-up for worship every Sunday. They hosted a health and wellness fair for seniors, and knitted blankets for the homeless. They even started a Bible study at the McDonald’s down the road at 7 a.m., where the retired men met for breakfast.

Appreciative Inquiry offers new hope and new possibilities for congregations in the midst of change. Church leaders can invigorate their congregations by focusing on strengths and re-imagining the future. When done in the context of discerning God’s call, we celebrate what God has done and what God can do through the people of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Karin Walker is superintendent of the Baltimore North District.

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