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Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Two

Some lack competence, some have an arrogant certainty about their own wisdom, some are fearful, and some are wired to resist the participation of true experts and to maneuver to avoid hearing the broader community. 

There are many reasons and causes for why rectors avoid listening to the congregation’s collective voice.

        If you haven’t read Part One -- Shaping an empowered parish community: Part One

Let’s focus on the ways that gets expressed. What do some rectors do instead of hearing the collective voice? Here are four. 

How to avoid hearing the collective voice of the congregation

1. Use group processes that avoid asking for the collective voice

Some rectors will simply avoid bringing together the congregation. The exception will be the required annual meeting with formal reports, a review of the budget, and some Q&A time. It’s usually all carefully managed to avoid respectful listening and hearing a collective voice.

Others will call for meetings from time to time around some particular concern. There will be a broader conversation but no clear collective voice.

There are several common methods used to avoid hearing the congregation’s collective voice during such meetings. Here are two of the most common.

No prioritization of the various ideas

It’s common practice to use a brainstorm process in gathering the thinking of a group. All ideas are welcome. Every idea is recorded on a newsprint pad.

Then things move in one of two directions. Either the facilitator thanks everyone for all the wonderful ideas and assures them that “the decision makers will make good use of your work today” or the facilitator gives every person in the room a number of votes. People come forward to indicate which ideas are most important to them. After a few minutes a pattern usually emerges. Of the 30 ideas on newsprint five have gathered many marks, another three have some marks, a few have one mark, and many have none. You have some indication of the collective voice of that group. If the ideas with the most marks haven’t gathered a critical mass the group could do a second round, now working with the top eight or ten ideas. You narrow down until it seems that the group’s voice is being expressed. You can see where the weight is and at the same time see all the other ideas. Some of the lower ranked ideas may end up incorporated into an action plan.

You have not heard the group’s collective voice if you haven’t prioritize the brainstorm list.    A PDF of Brainstorming & Prioritizing 


Summary by the rector at the end of the meeting or an e-newsletter during the following days.

Another common process is to structure the discussion so everyone in the room has an opportunity to offer their thinking. The most effective way to do this is “to go around the circle.”  One person at a time is invited to offer a brief comment.

Then one of three things usually happens. The rector thanks everyone for participating and promises to take the group’s thinking into account. Or, the rector summarizes what he heard the group say. Or, the rector offers a careful paraphrase of the group’s work (which means noting a range of thinking) and then an itemized response in which the rector is open about his response to the ideas – “In the ideas offered I appreciate/like/value/see how to make use of …….. I have concerns about ….”

After the initial paraphrase the rector invites the group to respond – “Did I capture what has been said by the group?”  And, after the itemized response the rector says, "Do you have any questions or comments on what I've said?"

In the first two ways of concluding the meeting we end with no clear collective voice. In the third, we usually have a clearer expression of the collective voice. That’s especially true when the rector invites responses to his paraphrase and itemized response. The third approach means allowing as much time for that as you have in the generating of ideas.


2. Have one-on-one meetings

Some rectors use one-on-one meetings as a way of avoiding a collective voice. For example, the rector has decided to reduce the number of services on Sunday morning from two to one or to introduce incense during Advent-Christmas-Epiphany and Lent–Easter. It’s worship so the rector can do that – right? He has that right – right? Well yes, but …

The “but” is about whether the rector is clueless regarding the real organic life of a parish church.  Most of us know that such decisions carry with them both practical and symbolic issues for members. So, most of us will “take counsel” with those affected, and if we’re really wise, we’ll “take counsel” with someone skilled in the sacramental and group dynamics of the parish church. 

What happens next is important. A rather large mistake can be made at this point. Some rectors will imagine bringing people together for a special meeting. They fear the possible (likely) resistance. They are uncertain about their ability to manage the group process. So, they decide to avoid that nightmare and announce that they will meet one-on-one with people – “if you’d like to talk about this exciting and innovative direction we’re considering, please let me know. We can get together for coffee some morning.” Or, the rector may organize one-on-one meetings with everyone and have a number of lay leaders take the meetings. The lay leaders report back to the rector and the rector declares that he has heard the collective voice of the congregation. Except, he hasn’t.

One-on-one meetings avoid having people hear and influence one another in a group conversation and thereby create an informed collective voice. They also head off a testing process that would provide a picture of where the congregation stood. For example, asking at a meeting (or even for 5 minutes at the coffee hour) -- 

In just a few minutes the rector would have a clearer impression of what next steps where needed – move ahead, drop the idea, more conversation. 

3. Have an open-door policy

Those who make use of the “open door” are generally the most disgruntled or the most emotionally needy parishioners. It’s rare for someone to show up to tell the rector what a great job she’s doing.  In any case, it may offer the impression of listening, but because so few make use of it, there is no collective voice.

4. Have a suggestion box or on-line equivalent

Once again. It isn’t a collective voice.


Why seek the collective voice of the congregation?

1. It builds real community versus façade community – community that actually has influence over its life.

2. You end up with more sustainable decisions – it’s not simply a matter of having people participate but participation in a process: 1) that is transparent about the valid and useful information related to the area of interest and 2) that provides for a significant degree of free choice.  See PDF on the Intervention Theory




Shaping an empowered parish community: Part One

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Three 

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Four

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Five