More Churches Try Appreciative Inquiry

More Churches Try Appreciative Inquiry

Could the approach save them?

When he first began bringing Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to congregations across the U.S. and Canada, Rob Voyle says he felt like a “voice crying in the wilderness,” but more than 10 years later, he's much less alone.

An Episcopal priest, psychologist and executive coach in Portland, Oregon, Voyle founded the Clergy Leadership Institute to introduce what he calls the Appreciative Way – his synthesis of AI, the work of Milton Erickson and contemplative spirituality — to churches and church leaders.

Rob Voyle

He's seen a growing number of churches interested in the approach's application since he began offering it in 2000.

Cameron Eccleston is a graduate student just completing research on churches' use of AI.

His findings also show that in the last eight years the number of churches applying AI has steadily increased. In the churches he researched, many started using it around 2007 but he's met with others that have just introduced the approach. “Given that, it seems to be becoming increasingly popular in North America,” says Eccleston.

Strategic planning and church leadership searches are among common reasons churches are turning to AI. But the results they're seeing are far beyond “first-order change,” says Eccleston.

In most cases, a shift in culture and understanding takes place. Eccleston, who researched eight churches, saw what he calls “transformation” in how the church viewed itself in six of the eight cases. People talked about having a new purpose and direction, being more cohesive, and finding new meaning in their faith, as some examples.

In most cases the AI process also shifted the church’s focus from internal concerns to an external outreach perspective despite the fact that this was not the main aim of the process.

These kinds of outcomes are exactly what Voyle would like to see through churches' experiences with AI.

Churches in Survival Mode

Research in the last five years has shown main-line denominations are either in decline or not growing in a way that is sustainable, which is driving them into “survival mode.”

In that state, they're losing sight of the community they're called to transform.

But Voyle proposes their solution lies in the very act of looking outside of themselves, using AI as the paradigm.

Noticing and appreciating the assets both in the church and its community, and inviting people to be part of a co-creative process for a new future – all fundamental to the AI approach – could both transform the way the church works, and make it transformative in the community.

Voyle says he expects AI would help congregations clarify their mission and purpose in the community.

In his 25 years of consulting, he notes, it's been rare to see people know what their church's mission is. “They all know there is something written on the Sunday bulletin, but they can't remember what it is.”

The default to that lack of collective purpose is that churches become a social club doing some kind of religious rituals on Sunday and struggling to be economically sustainable.

Voyle would like to see congregations coming to a place where as a whole they're “radically committed to transforming our community.”

Bryn Athyn Cathedral  

Restoring and Energizing a Pennsylvania Congregation

Bryn Athyn Church is a Pennsylvania-based organization introducing AI for the first time this spring.

Rev. Jeremy Simons

The one and only congregation of the Montgomery County community by the same name, population about 3,500 people, the church is currently working to complete 1,000 AI conversations by the end of March, just before the first of three summits over the next several months. Three hundred people are expected to join the summits.

The congregation is looking to restore and energize itself after previous planning processes resulted in developments that were controversial and left some people feeling left out, says Rev. Jeremy Simons.

On the other hand, AI, with its principle of improbable pairs and whole-system approach is inclusive.

Simons says there have been questions about how AI aligns with the church's teachings that as individuals we need to be aware of and overcome our weaknesses, but he's proposing that while tackling weakness might make sense on an individual level, at an organizational level it's easily destructive.

“When you do that on an organizational level, you’re not really looking at your own weaknesses; you’re looking at other people’s weaknesses,” he notes, which fosters blaming and discouragement.

In addition to building community cohesion and a new, common vision, Simons says anticipation is high the AI process will generate new and workable plans that sustain and translate that new spirit into action on the ground.

He adds he sees AI possibly becoming part of the church culture if this summit process works out. The fact that a new staff member has just received her masters degree in the closely related field of positive psychology and is talking about other opportunities for AI's application also makes this likely.

The Dream: A Life-giving Way of Seeing in Today's Churches

That cultural shift is what Voyle would like to see more than anything in North America's churches.

It's the day to day thinking in churches as a whole that needs to change, he says, from what's wrong to what do we want to create, what's life-giving and how can we grow that?

“What I'm really interested in is how do we create the habit of seeing something is wrong, but rather than asking why and who's to blame, saying, what it is it we want in its place and let's go create that.”

– More to Come

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Michelle Strutzenberger

Michelle Strutzenberger has been a Generative Journalist and curator with Axiom News for more than 15 years.

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