How Appreciative Inquiry Brings “Vision” into Focus

From Congregational Consulting Group
By Lawrence Peers

Many congregations have an intermittent fascination with “vision.” Particularly around stewardship time, congregations try to leverage vision to inspire better giving. Often, congregations look to their new clergy leaders to “cast vision.” In times of desperation or authentic longing for something more, they hope vision will help mobilize or stretch them beyond customariness and complacency.

Jewish and Christian traditions remind us that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” We revere leaders who, in scripture or more recent history, have prophetic vision that brings change and transformation. Congregations try to tap into that same vision-power to mobilize their scattered efforts into a more focused and inspired future.

That’s the hope. In fact, most visions go nowhere.

Sure—we love the drama of arriving at a vision. We appreciate the conversations and insights that emerge when we ask: Where is God calling us? What future does our faith compel us toward? Given the world’s challenges and our aspirations, what wants to emerge in our congregation?

On the other hand, some congregational visioning processes are so drawn out, require so much wordsmithing and least-common-denominator compromise, that in the end, members feel exhausted rather than exhilarated, and may collapse like the chorus in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, singing, “Any dream will do.”

One way to avoid these pitfalls is to use the disciplines of Appreciative Inquiry. From experience consulting with congregations, I share these guidelines:

Vision is Only a Beginning

Sometimes the inebriation some congregations feel when visioning is finally over causes them to say “it is enough.” But what seems like an endpoint is only the beginning. When people roll up the sacred newsprint scrolls and feel the satisfaction of their completed work, the real work is only beginning.

When congregations ask me to assist them with a “visioning process,” I sometimes surprise leaders by asking questions that seem skeptical at first: Why now? What for? and What would be next?

I am not trying to talk the congregation out of having vision. I do want to suspend the romance of “having a vision” long enough to make sure that leaders know what they are getting themselves into. Before, proceeding I wonder with them whether they are willing to start something that they might not want to follow through on.

Vision is Not Just “Blue Sky”

A realizable vision is constructed from what is, as well as from what can be. Alfred North Whitehead said it this way: “The present contains all there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past and it is the future.”

The Appreciative Inquiry process for visioning is based on “grounded vision.” It builds on the capacities the congregation has already proven. After many interviews—sometimes dozens and dozens—we affirm a “positive core” that captures what the congregation is when it is at its best. This present positive core becomes one avenue for determining a future vision. It is discerned in part through inquiry into what the congregation would become if it did more of what it does when it is at its best.

This approach is different from a “blue sky” type of vision process which, though it may seem to liberate imagination and allow people to think beyond constraints, is less grounded in the congregation’s lived experience.

Moreover, visions are always immersed in a critical appraisal of the present—recognizing what we are doing or not doing to respond to the real challenges or opportunities facing us and those we aim to serve. Realizable visions are never about some disconnected, timeless, “blue sky” view of the future.

Vision Is Not Always “Feel-Good”

Vision doesn’t always make us feel good. Sometimes our discernment of an overarching vision for our congregation (or our own life) can terrify and convict us. When a vision makes us aware of the gaps between where we are and where we feel called to be, it causes us to see what we would rather not see. Sometimes the “gap” feels scary and daunting.

When Rev. Cecil Williams came to San Francisco as senior pastor of the Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the 1960s, it was a dying congregation. He was convinced to bring life back to this congregation. One Sunday, he looked at the cross at the front of the sanctuary, “backlit by dramatic spotlights” and preached to his congregation from the back of the sanctuary near the doors to the world outside of the congregation. He said that the cross needed to come down, because:

“You are the cross. You bear responsibility for the suffering and the hope of new life, and you are the ones seeking transformation. The cross is all these things because Jesus brought unconditional love to the cross, and the cross is you. When you walk among the people, your unconditional love renews us. It frees us. It resurrects us.” (from Beyond the Possible by Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.)

This was a turning-point vision for Glide, which from that day forth started moving toward a vision, even though at the same time, it provided much discomfort and destabilization. Over time this vision of “You are the cross” mobilized the congregation to be the church “among the people” of their diverse and challenging neighborhoods.

Vision Calls Us to Design

In addition to a “grounded vision,” what I like about the rigor of Appreciative Inquiry is its emphasis on the necessary step, following the visioning (or the “Dream Phase”): The Design phase. Once commitment to the vision occurs, everything the congregation does—particularly those actions that are critical to the vision’s implementation–can be looked at through new eyes.

When Rev. Cecil Williams said to his congregation, “The cross is you” he demonstrated what in Appreciative Inquiry is called a “Provocative Proposal” or a “Possibility Proposal.” These proposals guide the designing of “what is” toward “what might be.” They signal that living the vision means continuous innovating, risk-taking and letting go to become the vision, rather than to merely “have” a vision.

Consequently, a vision should provide discomfort as well as inspiration. If it doesn’t, it could mean your vision shellacs “what is,” rather than designs toward “what might be.”

Vision Requires Continual Tending

It is in the implementing of a vision, not the composing of it, that a vision is realized. Implementation is where prior commitments and new possibilities come into a creative, dynamic and sometimes antagonistic tension and the turbulence of change is most acute. In Appreciative Inquiry, we call this ongoing, intentional process of learning from experiments and innovation the “Destiny Phase.” This is where the congregation’s attention often wanes. It is too easy to snap back as quick as an elastic band to what is comfortable, known or safe—rather engaging in continual learning and innovation based on experience.

Many people have the misconception that Appreciative Inquiry merely affirms what is positive about an organization. In my work with congregations and faith-based organizations, I have come to understand that the disciplines of Appreciative Inquiry aim to bring about a grounded vision rather than a blue-sky vision—to redesign “what is” even when this causes necessary discomfort, and to continually and faithfully tend this vision moving forward.

These lessons, I believe, can inform any visioning and leading process.

Lawrence Peers is part of the Congregational Consulting Group.