ian-ghostranch08.jpgIn congregational life as Fall shifts to Winter, the aspiration of a new church year shifts to realism. So, a congregational leader might say: this was going to be the year when we really got our worship committee going but it is not happening so what do we do?  Another form of this same query might be:  this was to be the year when we got our membership up to speed and be all ready for the Fall crop of church shoppers but somehow that did not happen, so what do we do now?

There are good answers to these questions—really, I promise. Yet matters get worse before they get better. The unfortunate fact is that most how-to-do-it materials for congregations are written on the basis of those rather rare instances when for a short time some congregation found the time and resources on some subject to actually accomplish some reasonable approximation of an idea they dreamed. Sad fact is that any job in a congregation could be made practically impossible by giving a sufficiently creative and dedicated group the job of brainstorming what you would need to do to do it right.

As congregational leaders, a number of important consequences follow.  One is that in any particular year a board needs to be very careful where to focus the congregation’s energy for reinvention. On August 15th it generally feels to congregational leaders that there is a very long list of things the congregation needs to get right this year—or much more nearly so. By December 15th this same list which felt somewhat motivating and even inspiring four months earlier can now feel depressing or even panic inducing. When we ask outgoing congregational presidents for their advice to someone coming in to their role, one thing we often hear is that they would advise making earlier decisions about what needs primary attention in a year and giving more and better support to those things.

A second word of advice in the face of these observations about the power of entropy regards the need to be graceful in how we do the dance of moving from our idealism to realism in what we hope to achieve in any given year. The most important abilities of a congregational leader may be recruiting others and delegating projects to them. Almost as important is the ability to know how—and when—to help others focus, letting people off the hook for not achieving the ideal and turning to the possible and strategic. The transition between “this year we must do this” and “this year we did not get around to it” can be swift and catching matters before the shift has occurred is where much of the real accomplishment occurs in congregational life.

If the plan in August had been to recruit a committee and there is only a sputtering one by mid-December, it is time to reconceive the task and how it is to be done. A committee with only a chair and two reluctant members is a recipe for disenchantment. It may be that this year at least the worship committee meeting needs to be reconceived as a worship coordinator who meets quarterly with an ad hoc group who gives input and suggests volunteers for specific tasks. It may be that the personnel committee needs to be a board subcommittee that works with someone who agrees to help with whatever specific task is most crucial this year (e.g., coordinating the hiring of the new administrator, including revising the job description and so forth).

Taking the long view, I believe that most important innovation in congregations does not come by finally finding time to do the ideal.  Most innovation comes under the relentless pressure of the realities of congregational life.  Most important innovation comes, that is, not at the brainstorming session in August but at that moment in December when it is clear that to achieve some portion of the ideal it is going to be necessary to make some choices and try some things that felt unthinkable four months earlier.