One of the great challenges of the COVID-19 era is the hard work of making decisions with minimal information. Church councils and church committees have to form and adjust annual budgets, settle worship issues, organize staff, and plan fall programming when there are more questions and less information than they would prefer. It feels like nailing down jello.
Most congregations are allergic to such uncertainty and ambiguity. They want clarity about which programs are going to be staffed this summer, what Sunday School will look like this fall, and when plans for the new food pantry will be implemented. Council members feel all of that. So the urge to decide something deepens, but the urge to defer decisions deepens at the same time.
It’s a situation that asks us to get more comfortable with making decisions that are provisional. A leadership group that makes a decision today has to hold that decision loosely. If circumstances change then the decision may need to be revisited. It may need to be reversed! Like the decision you made last fall to hold a Vacation Bible School this summer. Like the decision you made last winter to increase the custodian’s hours. How well can your leadership group make decisions knowing that they are not necessarily final?
The ability to make decisions that are provisional and open-ended increases when there is a high level of trust within the group. Sometimes the challenge isn’t to hold our decisions loosely but to hold one another closely—to trust one another. In this environment, when solid information is hard to come by, are all proposals offered by members of the group treated with respect? Are failures and disappointments treated with grace? Do members hold one another more closely than the need to be right, to win, to succeed?
To build a group’s trust muscles, so to speak, members of the group need to take risks with one another and experience affirmation in the context of those risks. For example, members of a church council were gathered in a retreat setting some time ago. They were asked to share stories of ministry challenges and how they had felt about those challenges. Risky business!
The members of the group were also asked to affirm one another’s stories, to make sure that three or four people responded to each story with something encouraging, hopeful, and authentic. It took a couple of stories to get the hang of it but soon people were sharing their stories and experiencing meaningful affirmation from others. Do you think that the “trust quotient” in the group went up?
Any group can do this at any time. The prompt could be quite simple: “Tell the group a story from your childhood.” “Tell the group a time that you saw God at work recently.” “Tell the group about a disappointment from this past week.”
Note that the more risk your members take with their individual stories the better. If you ask people to share who their favorite sports team is then there is a small possibility that people will grow in their trust of one another. But if you ask people to share the name of a person who has inspired them and why then there is a greater possibility that people will grow in their trust of one another. Of course, it is important that each story be followed by affirmation. If I experience nothing but silence after I’ve shared my story then I learn not to take such a risk again.
In situations of minimal information it is challenging to make good decisions. Developing the skill of making provisional decisions is important. Just as important is the development of trust within the group of people making those provisional decisions. With high levels of trust in one another the work of nailing down jello isn’t quite so scary.