Slightly-Less-Than Ten for Tuesday

Still catching up a bit from being gone last week for the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s General Assembly... but here are a few juicy links from the past few weeks!


Was super inspired by the group of Presbyterians who walked the 200+ miles from Louisville (our denomination's HQ) to St. Louis (where the Assembly met), in advocacy for Fossil-Free PCUSA and climate sustainability. Read a personal reflection on that journey here. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the assembly opted not to divest from fossil fuel companies, but the work continues, and this group inspired countless people.



Got to talking to a seminary student last week who shared this great TED talk from Eduardo Briceño about how we learn, and how we get stuck:

The learning zone is when our goal is to improve. Then we do activities designed for improvement, concentrating on what we haven't mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them. That is very different from what we do when we're in our performance zone, which is when our goal is to do something as best as we can, to execute. Then we concentrate on what we have already mastered and we try to minimize mistakes.

This made a lot of sense to me, and is part of what makes improv such a powerful tool for transformation--you're in the learning zone a lot. Too many of us get trapped in performance zone all the time.



Speaking of improv... agile is a pet interest of mine, and here's an interview with agile coach Leila Rao exploring how these two modalities intersect, and how businesses can incorporate improv games to reinforce agile thinking:

The power of using "yes, and" is multi-faceted. At its core, in order to agree and build upon what someone else said, you first have to listen! So it is one thing to say in a sprint planning session, please listen to each other; it is considerably more powerful to say, please apply the principle of "yes, and". The shift from reminding people about childhood basics versus reminding people that they are engaged in complex work that requires active listening and collaboration. When applied regularly, the "yes, and" principle reinforces a sense of "team", i.e. a chorus of creative voices can create more complex music than any of them can do individually.



"In the preface to her 1968 collection of essays, “Men in Dark Times,” Hannah Arendt wrote: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” Today, in our own dark time, Arendt’s work is being read with a new urgency, precisely because it provides such illumination."

"In the preface to her 1968 collection of essays, “Men in Dark Times,” Hannah Arendt wrote: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination.” Today, in our own dark time, Arendt’s work is being read with a new urgency, precisely because it provides such illumination."

A piece in the NYT about what she might have to teach us right now:

Many liberals are perplexed that when their fact-checking clearly and definitively shows that a lie is a lie, people seem unconcerned and indifferent. But Arendt understood how propaganda really works. “What convinces masses are not facts, not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part.”

FTR, there are conservatives who care about facts--and liberals can get suckered into tribal thinking too. But there's good stuff here. 



The first one has made the rounds, but if you missed it, here's a high school baseball player comforting his good friend after striking him out. Parenting goals: to be the mother of a #7 kid.

Second: I just started getting the New York Times's weekly "good news" email, and this story made me smile: They Started School Afraid of the Water. Now They Are Saving Lives

The lifeguard trainees at Grover Cleveland are predominantly students of color, about half of them male and half of them female, and most are immigrants or children of immigrants. Most enter high school as non-swimmers, fearful of the water. But within two years, most are swimming at competitive speeds and can qualify for, and pass, the rigorous training course offered by New York City to become a lifeguard at a city pool or beach.

Jimmy Barrera, 17, from Maspeth, Queens, a junior, said, “When I first came here, I was scared of the water — that’s the truth.”

Now he can swim the 50-yard sprint in under 26 seconds, nearly 10 seconds faster than the 35 seconds the city requires for a certified lifeguard.

The racial politics of swimming are fascinating and tough. Robert recently visited a museum when he was in Florida that addressed the topic. Apparently enslaved people were amazing swimmers at first, but slave owners deliberately prohibited successive generations from learning, since it was a means of escape. That shameful history echoes even to this day, with communities of color having less access to public pools, and thus learning to swim at lower rates.



I love this podcast from the On Being folks, in which interesting people talk about life-changing movies. This episode addresses Toy Story, with a Catholic priest talking about his own "dark night of the soul"... and how he was inspired by none other than Buzz Lightyear.


And that's all for this time!

Agile Church: Slides and Case Studies

Folks who attended my workshop last week at NEXT: things have been pretty crazy around here since then, so I haven't had a chance to play around with uploading my Keynote slides to the Blue Room. But if you'd like me to send them to you, e-mail me at maryannmcdana at gmail and I'll pass them along.

However, I can post the case studies easily and have done so below.

During the workshop, after I'd done a short overview of agile as I understand it, we looked at these case studies and answered these questions in small groups:

Where do you see intersections between this church’s processes and agile process? Where do you see places that agile methodology might help them? What impediments do you see standing in the way of this church becoming more agile? What next step would you suggest?

Here are the case studies. These are adapted from actual churches I queried. Hope they prove helpful.


Agile Church: Case Studies

Case A. Edgy Urban Church with a Smooth Traditional Center: Medium-Sized Pastoral/Program Oriented Church


  • elders chaired committees
  • session meetings were run as committee of the whole
  • meetings were “terrible”
  • elders were burning out


  • elders do not run committees; in fact they do not even serve on committees
  • new system of volunteer staff coordinators who oversee the ministries of the church
  • volunteer staff are empowered to get the work done any way they want (individually, through teams, regular meetings, online), but they have written job descriptions that describe their work
  • volunteer staff are also empowered to spend within their budget without session approval
  • the week before session, volunteer and staff meet for dinner—each coordinator prepares a one-page report for session containing basic information, actions taken, any major items requiring session approval, and examples of transformation/new growth that have occurred
  • these reports are compiled and given to elders several days before session meeting—elders are expected to get any questions answered prior to meeting
  • session meetings involve 30 minutes of business; the rest of the time is spent on prayer, equipping/study, and visioning “big picture” tasks for the congregation


Case B. Church of the Leafy Suburb: Large Program-Sized Church

  • Session consists of fifteen elders that are divided into pairs or triads for partnership, support and accountability—for example, children, youth and adult education elders form a triad; small group elder and fellowship elder form a pair; facilities and office operations elders form a pair.
  • Elders chair the committees and ensure that the ministry gets done, using whatever means they wish (regular meetings, retreats, “divide and conquer,” etc.)
  • Elders are expected to report back to session whenever there are items requiring session input or approval
  • In addition, each month a different ministry is highlighted as an order of the day: the elders prepare a more in-depth report, seek feedback, basically delve deeper into their ministry so elders are well versed in it
  • Session meetings consist mainly of business, but with 30 minutes of study/discipleship each month.


Case C.

Same as Case B but with the elders serving as a liaison to the team rather than the chair. As liaison, they have no power on the committee other than a vote when one is required.


Case D. Our Ecumenical Neighbor: Governance Model from Another Reformed Denomination

  • Ministers, elders and deacons
  • Elders=church council. Deacons=board of deacons. Combined elders and deacons=consistory
  • Elders are understood to be responsible for the spiritual life of the church, including pastoral care.
  • Deacons are responsible for the physical life of the church, mostly the finances and the charitable and social justice life of the church.
  • Major financial decisions are made by the consistory
  • “Elder districts”: each elder is assigned a certain group of people in congregation, often alphabetical or geographical. Every person in the congregation has an elder. If a person lands in the hospital, they would expect to see their elder and their pastor. These districts are sometimes small groups.
  • Not every elder is assigned to a committee. Committees report to council, but sometimes they don't have a member seated on council. Councils will often have someone assigned or asked to be on a committee, but not to run it necessarily.
  • Council meetings were usually focused on worship; education; and even a review of what was going on with people in your elder district. And, of course, anything else that needed to be dealt with. Often, Council and Deacons met concurrently so that they could check in with each other if needed.
  • Elders team together (three panels of three elders) to coordinate ministry areas
  • Ideas for new ministries (from congregation members) would be referred to the Elder relationship area panel (and the full Session if necessary) for review as to whether they fit into CPC’s current mission/vision

Case E. Church on the Highway: Medium-Sized Program Oriented Church

  • If approved, the Elder panel will identify a task leader to create a taskforce for implementing the program
  • If no leader or volunteers can be found for an approved taskforce, the program is not implemented
  • Ministry Initiation Form is completed by congregation member or group desiring to implement a new ministry, event or “task”
  • Ministry Status Reports include:
    • Submitted by Task Leader to Elder Relationship Area Panel
    • Monthly Status Reports when there is an activity or issue to be resolved
    • Ministry Completion/Annual Report at the completion of a short-term ministry task, or annually for long-term and on-going ministries



Agile Church: Beyond the Committee Structure

It's been a long fabulous day at Preacher Camp.

This evening at dinner I was sitting with a friend who is helping coordinate the NEXT Church conference in Dallas in just a few weeks. (Not too late to register! 400+ and counting.) He was fiddling with his phone as we all ate and talked, and I found out he was receiving updates as people have begun registering for workshops. "14 people are registered for your workshop, MaryAnn." A few minutes later: "Now it's up to 20."

The workshop is called "Agile Church" and will be partly about our experience at Tiny Church. When I got there, we had nine elders and eleven committees, many of which were committees of one---or zero. We have moved to something that is messier and still nascent but hopefully more agile. And no committees. We will be reading and working with the agile manifesto, mining this business/software development resource for wisdom in how we do our work as a church community. It's not all directly translatable, but I contend that much of it is.

But I need your help. I also want to talk about other churches that have moved beyond outdated bureaucratic structures into other models that are more effective and life giving.

Do you have ideas to share?

Do you know someone I should be talking to?

Failures and challenges are important to hear about as well. I especially need to hear from folks in larger churches. Are committees the worst structure except for all the others? Or can large churches also move beyond the committee?

Comment here or e-mail me at maryannmcdana at gmail dot com. I'd be grateful, and I know those 20 people (and counting?) will be thankful too.

Update on the Gossamer Condor

Read here for some background about what I'm talking about. Upshot is that our church organizational structure was cumbersome and ineffective, and ill-fitting for a church of 80 people, so our session blew it up last meeting in favor of something more agile... and messy... but hopefully more effective. In effect the session's job is to take a balcony view of what's going on, look at the next few months of ministry, and figure out how each activity can best be implemented: team? task group? elder working with a new person, mentoring him and her to be able to do it next time?

We met again last night and I recapped what we agreed on last month. I even talked about the Gossamer Condor as a metaphor for our approach. A computer programmer said, "You know what this reminds me of?" And we both called out at the same time, "Agile!" Yes.

In preparation for the meeting, I put together a calendar of everything we do during the year, and last night we added a variety of things to it. One of our challenges (present in many churches) is waiting until the last minute on stuff, and then you end up relying on the same old people because "well, they know how to do this and can get it done." A master calendar helps us be organized. We spent a bit of time on this calendar, fleshing it out. But it, too, will be a work in progress.

We've got two particular events coming up in which we will try out this "dispatcher" idea. The first is our spring rummage sale, the second is an end-of-year picnic/potluck. For the latter, there was a suggestion that we make some announcements in worship asking "are there volunteers to help plan this?" but I encouraged the session to do some discernment work and think about who they think would be good people to step up, and ask them directly. Blanket announcements are good for getting worker bees, but we as the session are the spiritual leaders of the church, looking to call other leaders to ministry.

This is a huge cultural shift, not just for our congregation, but for many congregations. And it's something we're going to grow into, certainly, and I'm thinking about how I can mentor the session to have these conversations more effectively. We had a discussion about delegation and how to do that effectively but didn't get very far.

Two other specific things we did yesterday:

  • We gave each staff person a liaison to session. This approach takes the place of having A Personnel Elder who oversaw everything for everyone (as best she could, but that's a huge job for one person). This person is tasked with checking in with the staff person regularly (but at least quarterly) to say thanks, and is there anything you need. The elder will also implement the annual feedback/performance review. There was some confusion about this, specifically where my purview (as head of staff) ends and where the elder's begins. But this is something we will figure out.
  • Without elders with specific areas of responsibility, it's unclear whom church members should ask for authorization to spend money. Used to be, when the Sunday School teacher needed supplies, she got approval from the Christian Ed elder. Now there is no CE elder. So last night we agreed that anyone on session can approve expenditures up to $100. Anything more than that needs to come to session. This is also something we will tweak as we go.

There is still some uncertainty. Plenty of it. But that's OK. I was reminded recently by one of the consultants for the presbytery's transforming congregations project that when you're leading people through change, nailing down the structure stuff comes last. (See John Kotter's work on this)

Overall I am very pleased with the willingness of the session to dwell in some ambiguity. What probably helps is that a half-broken, top heavy committee structure wasn't working all that effectively, and that brings its own anxiety and ambiguity... and at least now we're being up front about the ambiguity! But it also speaks to a level of trust in the congregation that is very healthy right now.

I'll report more as we go along.

The Problem is the Problem

I was charmed and captivated by this post, called "You Are Solving the Wrong Problem." In the late 1950s, a British industrialist proposed a contest, inviting folks to build an airplane powered entirely by human effort. Many groups vied for the prize, spending months on complicated designs, only to have them fail spectacularly during actual testing.

Finally, after almost 20 years of failed solutions, a man named Paul MacCready pulled it off, building what would come to be known as the Gossamer Condor and the Gossamer Albatross. How did he do it? He realized that the problem was the problem:

Paul realized that what needed to be solved was not, in fact, human powered flight. That was a red herring. The problem was the process itself, and along with it the blind pursuit of a goal without a deeper understanding how to tackle deeply difficult challenges. He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months. And he did. He built a plane with Mylar, aluminum tubing, and wire.

The first airplane didn’t work. It was too flimsy. But, because the problem he set out to solve was creating a plane he could fix in hours, he was able to quickly iterate. Sometimes he would fly three or four different planes in a single day. The rebuild, retest, relearn cycle went from months and years to hours and days.

Robert and I were talking about this last night, and he was telling me about agile software development. Read the link for more, but here's a pertinent bit:

Agile methods break tasks into small increments with minimal planning, and do not directly involve long-term planning. Iterations are short time frames that typically last from one to four weeks. Each iteration involves a team working through a full software development cycle... This minimizes overall risk and allows the project to adapt to changes quickly.

(I've noticed this with software programs such as Things and Evernote. These programs update constantly... and are constantly getting better.)

What's striking is that this story of Paul MacCready and the Gossamer aircraft came to me after a session meeting in which our elders figured this out intuitively: the problem was the problem as we'd (or I'd) defined it.

I inherited a committee structure at Tiny Church that is organized into 11 committees, headed by elders. As you can imagine, some of these function well as committees, some are committees of one person, and some are basically dormant. Some of these areas have huge, constant responsibilities; others are seasonal or sporadic. Add to that the complication of only 6 elders and 11 committees---that's a lot of different hats. Not to mention the fact that people want opportunities to do ministry, but they don't join a church to serve on a committee. (Especially when there's a perception that once you're on it, you're on it forever.)

So I've felt for some time that a reorganization was necessary, but I was stumped how to slice and dice it. I polled friends, posted queries on Facebook, you name it. Do we organize by elements of our mission statement? Form sub-groups on session? Consolidate several committees?

I brought all of this to session last night and expected we'd do some general discussion and, at least, get the different roles and options on the table, but that it would take several months to come up with a new structure. But we ended up with a specific way forward. We've got our structure, and it's an agile one. We began our Gossamer Condor.

In essence, the session will no longer staff committees. (Yippee!) In fact, at this point at least, we do not even have specific elder areas of responsibility. Instead, each month we will look at the calendar of upcoming ministry events at the church, as well as emerging opportunities that come up, and determine how those items can be best implemented: invite a specific person to make it happen? Oversee the formation of a short-term task group, with the elder serving as liaison?

Thus, in addition to being the visionary/spiritual leadership of the congregation, the session will be "dispatchers" of a sort---matching ministry opportunities with particular people with the gifts and availability to implement them at a particular moment in time.

We solved the right problem. Our problem isn't finding the most appropriate structure for our session. Our problem is how to get the church's ministry done.

What excited me is how can-do the session seemed to be at this approach. And this excitement was present in spite of the fact that we know problems will arise. If we'd spent months developing The Perfect Structure, those problems could be seen as a threat to all our hard work and easily ignored. But with an agile process, problems are essential information---necessary parts of making our processes better. With an agile process, we will be constantly evaluating and tweaking.

I'll be sure to let you know how she flies.