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Core Competencies for Being Your Congregation's Chief: Asking Powerful Questions.

Posted: May 30, 2013 by Rob Voyle

A secondary competency is:
Making it Safe to Answer Powerful Questions

This is the third in a series of newsletters focused on the core competencies of leaders. Previously I looked at Communicating a Shared Vision and Empowering Others. In this edition I will look at Asking Great Questions.

David Cooperrider, the founder of Appreciative Inquiry, has said that organizations grow in the direction of the questions they continually ask.

If you keep asking: "what is wrong?" you will grow in the direction of what is wrong. If you ask: "what is working well?" you will grow in the direction of what is working well. This is not to ignore what is not working well or to ignore problems in general, but the way we ask questions of the situation will determine our outcome. In my experience problems exist and are maintained because we are asking the wrong questions.

For example, in conflicted situations questions are typically framed around "why is the conflict occurring?" But the problem is never conflict, the problem is the lack of collaboration. In conflicted situations we need to be looking for seeds of collaboration, the solution, rather than origins of the conflict. Frame problems from the perspective of what you want more of, rather than what you want less of. Conflict management is nonsensical. What we need are reconcilers and collaboration builders. We have not been entrusted with a ministry of conflict management but a ministry of reconciliation.

The really important leadership question:
Why are we doing this?
This is an important question on both the macro level of the entire organization and on the micro level of a specific activity such as a committee meeting.

The "natural leader" in many situations is not the person who knows "how" to do a task but the person who knows "why" the task is being done.

Why does your church exist?
Is your answer the same as your parishioners?

Knowing and communicating the shared "why" of your church is the first task of leadership that I covered in the a previous newsletter: previous newsletter.

Competent leaders also ask the question: "Why are we doing this?" of every activity within the organization. Sometimes we need to ask the follow-up question: "And why would that outcome be valuable?" These questions may need to be asked iteratively to discover the deeper motivation behind an activity. Motivations that conflict with the core values of the organization will rarely inspire effective and sustainable outcomes.

For example, churches that create activities to help them grow because they need the money to survive will rarely be successful, because I do not know anyone who would gladly join your group so they could have a share in your debt. We need to create activities that enable us to manifest the core purpose of our organization in the world.

Form follows function is an old design rule. If we want to create or re-create or develop the form of a ministry we need to know the purpose of the ministry.

One of the most powerful questions to discover the core purpose of an activity is to ask: "Tell me the story of your best experience of this activity?" When getting the answer, seek the story of the experience and not simply the data. This is the classic appreciative inquiry question and the story will contain the life-giving quality and consequently the true purpose of the activity.

Last week I looked at the leadership task of empowering others. How we frame and ask questions can either empower of disempower people. For example, imagine you have given a person a task and a deadline and the task is not done on time. What question would you ask?
Most people will ask: "why haven't you done it?" This is a fundamentally useless question, as it will foster and create a culture of blame and excuse making which will disempower the person and the organization. At best the question and answer will make you feel a little better about why it wasn't done, but the critical issue of the task's incompletion remains.

The more important questions are: "what is the new deadline?" and "what do you need between now and the new deadline to get the task done?" Once a purpose has been established the questions need to focus on the resources required to manifest the purpose. Failure is simply an indication that there were insufficient resources to achieve success.

To creatively explore failure to discover the additional resources requires that we need to make it safe both to fail and safe to answer the questions. The underlying culture will determine whether asking the question will result in success or further exacerbate the failure. I have seen the same question work brilliantly in one organization and disastrously in another. In the first the answer led to additional resources, in the second the answer was used as an additional weapon to belittle and demean. Virtually no question, even the really appreciative inquiry based questions, are safe in an adversarial, punitive culture?

The "elephant in the room" phenomena simply means it is not safe to talk about something. Asking questions of the "elephant" will make the problem worse. The more important question is: "what do you and we need to make it safe to talk about the things that are currently not safe to talk about?"

Asking why we are doing this, and why would that be valuable, can often be done in a lighthearted teasing way, just as Jesus teased Nicodemus about being born again. This light hearted approach, based in an attitude of delight and acceptance will challenge the status quo and make it safe to explore the difficult issues of whether to create, change, or discontinue a particular ministry

One of the big challenges many churches face today is that they are engaged in ministries that are no longer life-giving, or that the life-giving outcome is costing too much in terms of time or energy or money to achieve. These are ministries that no longer have a sustainable life-giving outcome and need to be stopped, or at least pruned to use gardening metaphor.

In next week's newsletter I will explore "How to Prune a Ministry" something many in the church avoid or are not very good at but is an essential leadership competency if we are to have vibrant congregations.

If you want to learn more about leadership and grow your core leadership competencies consider participating in one of our Appreciative Inquiry based leadership training programs

For more information and registration please see:

In the Leadership Training you will learn how you personally can manifest the core competencies of a leader as an agent of transformation in your community.

The leadership training is also a required course in the:

* Certificate of Appreciative Transitional Ministry
* Certificate in Appreciative Coaching

In the meantime I wish you lots of love to lead the people entrusted to your care and encourage you to keep asking:


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