An interview with Tim Shapiro, president of the Center for Congregations and author of How Your Congregation Learns: The Learning Journey from Challenge to Achievement

The In Trust Center for Theological Schools, the parent organization of In Trust magazine, was established five years ago to broaden the organizational focus beyond governance through engaging in Resource Consulting. The methodology of Resource Consulting was adapted from the Center for Congregations, an organization that serves more than 4,000 Indiana religious congregations by connecting them with resources to support their mission.

In his new book, How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro, president of the Center for Congregations for the past 14 years, shares his insights on how organizations learn and change.                                                                                                          

Q: 

I’m going to begin by asking if you could share with our readers — what is the purpose of the Center for Congregations. Whom do you serve and why?


A: The purpose of the Center for Congregations is to strengthen congregations in the state of Indiana. We do that by helping them find and use resources that help them address the challenges and opportunities that they’re facing.

Underneath all of this is our hope to strengthen congregations, to make them more capable of addressing the issues they want to work on. They come to us with almost every imaginable congregational issue from facility issues to ones that are more at the heart of their reason for being — topics around spirituality, faith formation, prayer, worship, and so forth.

Q: What would you say might be the top two or three takeaways from your book, How Your Congregation Learns?

A: One takeaway is that congregations don’t just do new things; they learn to do new things. What I mean by that is that if a congregation is moving through, say, a desire to start a new prayer ministry and it’s something that they haven’t done before, they just don’t set out and do a new program, they learn to do that new program.

Also, central to congregations learning to do new things is connecting their current capacity with the kind of outside help that they seek. If congregations are able to find a well-matched outside resource, they’re going to be able to stretch themselves, however one measures that, one increment beyond where they currently are.

A third piece is that when congregations do something new there’s a discernible journey or pattern that most of them go on. If they become conscious of that journey, it reduces anxiety and increases their ability to take control over the learning process.

Q: You talk about the “learning journey” throughout the book. Can you say a little more about why you believe it’s important for an organization to think about learning as a journey?

A: The “learning” piece is important because I think organizations should go into new endeavors with the understanding that they don’t have all the information, training, or education that they need to accomplish what they set out to do. That acknowledgment normalizes the inevitable sense of being overwhelmed, or the disappointment that occurs along the way.

In terms of the “journey” aspect of it if people are aware that there are discernible patterns and moments that the congregation experiences — defining the challenge, the time of exploration, and so forth — the organization can then have more agency over the process. It’s happening whether they’re aware of it or not, but by becoming aware of it they have more agency to say “Oh, we really need to move to a time of exploration and learn from others out there before we rush too quickly to creating the plan for tactics and implementation.”

Q: Did you learn anything new about the work of the Center for Congregations while writing the book?

A:  One thing we learned is that regarding the learning journey that congregations take when they learn to do new things includes, in so many stories, congregations experience disappointment.

A congregation may set out to engage the community with a far richer piece of community ministry then previously experienced, and the result may be some wonderful partnership now having to do with homelessness, for instance. Somewhere along the line, in the midst of all the success, they still experienced disappointment. It was how they managed the disappointment that became important.

Q: You write in the book about the idea of “inversion of initiative.” Can you describe for In Trust readers what you mean by this?

A: The inversion or reversal of initiative is our way of saying that we want the topic that a congregation is working on to be something that they have identified, something they have chosen out of their context, their reality, their own hopes and dreams for their congregation — and not something that someone has been projected on to them.

We believe that the congregation knows itself best and can do its own best discernment, sometimes in conjunction with an outside resource, but even when they’re working with the outside resource we want them to make use of the resource and not have the resource use them.

Q: I would imagine in your work with congregations that you have those moments where you could identify from your perspective, perhaps, a larger issue at play.

A: It’s not uncommon for congregations to come to us with an issue and we might have a hunch that there might be something that needs to be addressed before they address their presenting issue. Or that the presenting issue may open a door to multiple future issues that they may not be aware of in the present.

We would not take a direct approach because our hunch could be wrong. We would ask lots of questions and let the congregation members hear themselves talk about how they’re defining the challenge and how they’re framing the presenting issue. Sometimes this will affirm that the congregation is going in exactly the right direction. And sometimes it will draw out new knowledge and wisdom from the clergy leader or congregational leader and they’ll begin to go in a different direction.

As a result of listening to a congregation, then we are better prepared to make a helpful resource recommendation. If we are able to recommend a resource that’s properly aligned with their capacity, there’s a really high chance that they will have their own moments of discovery about other issues.

Another thing that we’ve learned is that it’s not unusual that once they address the initial presenting issue, that often opens the door for them to be better prepared to address a deeper issue.

Q: This leads directly into my next question which is all about the art of conversation and asking the right questions. I would imagine to some readers this may seem like a commonsense thing to do — ask the right questions — but I wonder if you could share any pitfalls of not engaging in the art of conversation and asking the right questions.

A: One thing is that if we’re working with a congregation and we rush too quickly to either their answer or our answer, we’re stealing from the congregation their opportunity to discern the right path for them. That’s one pitfall of not lingering longer in open-ended questions with the congregation.

By lingering on open-ended questions with the congregation, the congregation gets to tell their story. They get to hear their own story coming from themselves. It goes from an internal understanding to a more objective understanding of who they are, and they come away with a sense that another person cared about their mission. That itself is a learning dynamic, the sense of being affirmed and validated.

If congregational leaders are trying to do something like engage a population that they haven’t engaged before around an issue about which they aren’t experts, then open-ended questions allow them to move to deeper education and ultimately the potential that this new endeavor might transform not just the particular issue, but the congregation itself. So, the art of conversation becomes really important.

Q: It struck me as important that it’s hard for organizations to let go of things. We tend to call this — when we’re describing working with theological schools — selectively abandoning the past. What have you learned about congregations that can’t let go?

A: One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes a congregation can’t let go of a difficult thing in their past. Or they can’t let go of a certain program to make space for a new program. Or they can’t let go of some sense of their identity that no longer fits their religious claims and commitments.

I would observe that when a congregation has effectively taken on two or three significant new endeavors, it can actually lead to a new form of being. The congregations that are most effectively able to do that are able to articulate how even though they may be letting go of something, they’re doing so in order to carry along into the future a value or a claim or a commitment that is of deep meaning and purpose to them.

Q: Could you say a few words about what you have learned about congregations that choose to engage outside resources?

A: Let’s give an example. Say a congregation has a new pastor who has been there for a year. The board is really excited. It’s a good fit. There are all kinds of opportunities in the community. Attendance is up. It’s not going to become the next megachurch, but things feel much more solid than three years ago when the transition was beginning. So the board and the pastor are seeking to undergo a strategic planning process.

What happens in the scenario that I’m describing, if they reach out to an outside resource, and perhaps interview three to four people who represent different approaches to strategic planning, they’re going to be able to discern a best fit for them. They’re going to learn a lot about the learning process itself. And they’re going to be prepared to take the gifts that this outside resource is offering and adapt them to their particular context.

This additional outside resource creates objectivity; it creates new ideas that maybe didn’t exist before. It allows someone who has more expertise, or at least experience, to help them minimize the number of mistakes that will inevitably be made.


This interview was edited by Matt Forster.