The mission of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations is to strengthen congregations by helping them find and use the best resources for the challenges and opportunities they have identified.
There are no direct analogues to immediately orient an outsider to the work of the Center. Our overarching method is a developmental learning model. The Center’s model asserts that effective, sustained learning in congregations almost always involves a pivotal juxtaposition: blending an excellent outside resource with a congregation’s own ingenuity. A congregation’s ingenuity will include its theology, polity, context and the talents and assets of its leaders and constituents. Our work with congregations applies specific pedagogical claims, particularly about self-directed adult learning within a congregation. Other organizations strengthen congregations, but they do not make the same claim about learning that we do. For more information about our method please contact Tim Shapiro, our president, at firstname.lastname@example.org
The manner of the Center’s work is an educational model that undergirds “what” and “how” we do our work. Our overarching way of working with congregations is a developmental learning model. The Center’s work intersects with a congregation at its level of readiness. The Center seeks to avoid the common pitfalls of assisting another person or organization: providing what is not wanted, providing too much of what is needed, or prescribing solutions that do not fit the energy, capacity or commitment of the recipient. Such a learning model is most frequently applied to individuals, not to organizations. However, the Center’s way of working with a congregation involves individuals representing the congregation. Rather than a systems-driven organization approach, or a therapeutic model, we use a developmental approach with the individuals representing the congregation.
Clergy and lay leaders of any congregation construct their own understandings while interacting with resources. The Center refrains from prematurely teaching congregational leaders something they can discover for themselves. This is key to the developmental process. Congregational leaders who make such discoveries come to understand what they have learned and can replicate the learning process in the future.
We interact with Indiana congregations, developmentally, through three primary activities: resource conversations (called resource consulting in-house), education events, and grant making. All of these activities are supported by the following stances that provide structure, indeed a method, to our work with congregations:
Discovering and Using Resources
Congregations often have the best chance of flourishing when an outside resource is used in concert with the congregation’s own assets and creativity in order to address a challenge or opportunity. A resource is any outside helper: a book, a workshop, a website, another congregation, and so on. The resource may or may not be one identified generally as a best practice. The notion of best practices is a misnomer. Because of the particularities of any single congregation, transferring a program or activity or resource from one setting to another has only limited value. We help congregational leaders think more clearly about their own situations and the resource options available to them. We encourage the congregation to experience the juxtaposition between what can be learned from an outside resource and the exploration of the congregation’s own ingenuity.
Reversal of Initiative
The Center invites congregations to pursue the issues that they have identified, the challenges and opportunities that mean the most to them. Congregational leaders initiate the work they need to do and take responsibility for their own learning. We do not independently identify issues congregations should or must address. Instead, our staff is responsive to the inquiries from congregations. The Center respects a congregation’s ability to define its needs. The congregation’s agency, their commitment, is a primary maker of effectiveness. We want them to learn to use the resource well, not for the resource to use the congregation.
Asking Questions and Listening
As an alternative to functioning as an expert that makes pronouncements, Center staff listens to congregational leaders. We listen so as not to be compelled to “fix” the congregation. Often a precursor to listening is asking open-ended questions, not leading questions. By careful listening, we invite congregations to articulate more clearly what they are thinking, which often helps them imagine new possibilities.
Clergy and Laity Learning Together
Congregations develop increased capacity to deal with challenges and opportunity when clergy and laity learn together. This collaborative inquiry contributes to the learning having a longer life span within the congregation. Clergy have their own specialized knowledge invaluable to the congregation. Yet, clergy’s special knowledge is most valuable when combined with the knowledge of able members of the congregation.
Slowing Things Down
Many important congregational issues do not require a sense of urgency. Congregational leaders make their best decisions when they slow down. The very act of consulting and learning from an outside resource slows down decision-making processes and subsequently contributes to clear thinking among congregational leaders. What does slowing down look like? It is as much a way of thinking about strategy as it is a literal time line. The slowing down may take many forms. It might be as subtle as slowing the pace of a particular conversation so that questions can be asked and answers can be explored. Decelerating a congregation’s strategic thinking is a way to counter the inevitable rush to judgment that many groups experience while making decisions. Such haste is rarely due to the absolute necessity of a quick decision. The haste more likely reflects the leaders’ need for absolute closure in order to reduce anxiety.
Walking Alongside Congregations Over Time
Congregational development takes place over time, often over a long period of time. Having an interested but not overly invested helper increases the likelihood that learning from resources will have a comprehensive and cumulative effect. Rooted as much as possible in a local community, Center staff check in with congregational leaders to understand how the selected resources have worked out.
Saying No and Saying Yes
Congregations learning new capacities ask many questions. Sometimes they ask the Center for an answer that is not ours to offer. For example, we resist solving congregations’ problems. Congregational leaders learn more if they engage a resource and use their own creativity. By saying “no” to certain requests, we leave room for the “yes’s” that matter. “No’s” help us manage energy and resources. Artful “no’s” help our staff become better stewards of our goals and sustain a more focused culture. We say “no” because there are so many ways we can say “yes” to congregations; ways that will lead to deeper learning for congregations. The conversation, though, rarely stops with a “no.” The conversation almost always includes an alternative “yes,” a response more closely aligned with the Center’s mission and more supportive of congregations’ imaginative exploration of the issues.
The Center honors the multiplicity of faith traditions that it encounters. The Center seeks to be non-judgmental throughout the resource consulting process in order that outside influences do not hinder the learning dynamics of the congregation. The Center is not impartial (we want congregations to thrive), yet we have no organizational need to control their outcomes. It is important to the Center that congregations draw upon the best of the living traditions they represent.
© ICC 2012