Appreciative leadership

DPC LogoSmallBuilding on the Council’s Spirit

By Mark F. Fischer

Published as “Breathe Fresh Spirit Into Your Parish Pastoral Council,” Today’s Parish (January 1997): 29-31.

Some of the most satisfying moments I ever spent with Oakland’s Diocesan Pastoral Council were in prayer, precisely because they were so unlike what we typically call prayer. Prayer in councils and committees is usually brief and conventional. Someone–frequently not the pastor, who ought to know most about presiding–reads pious words, while everyone else duly bows their heads. If the leader is somewhat imaginative, the words of the prayer may be self-composed or even spontaneously uttered. A still more imaginative leader may prepare a handout with a scripture passage and an antiphonal dialogue. But all too often the words are merely read, and have nothing directly to do with the matters facing the council.

How different prayer in council can be! I remember one meeting when the work of the Oakland council was nothing more exciting than to review a draft report on youth ministry. Bishop John Cummins had asked the DPC to study the ministry and recommend ways to strengthen it. The subcommittee had done its work, the report had been mailed out, and the DPC’s ask was to assess it.

Instead of rushing into a point-by-point critique, the council spent more than an hour in a prayer which began with Joel’s prophecy of the time of the spirit: “The old shall dream dreams, and the young shall see visions.” Then Bishop Cummins invited the twenty council members to recall their own memories of the Church when they were young, and to express how they felt that God’s Spirit was “speaking” through the youth ministry report.

What followed was an extraordinary outpouring of memory, self-revelation, anecdote, appreciation of the sub-committee, critique, and discernment. By the end of the prayer we had not only “prayed,” but also accomplished the most important part of our “work” regarding the report. We had discovered, in our prayer, what the report meant to us and connected it with our own experience. The sub-committee members who sat on the council were gratified to see the report’s effect, and having also heard the few criticisms which had been expressed, were ready to start work on a second draft. And Bishop Cummins had begun to reflect on what the report’s recommendations could mean for the diocese. He had led us in a prayer which was much more than prayer–or better said, was truly prayer.

“Appreciative” is the word which best describes his leadership. With his prayer, the bishop showed his appreciation for the sub-committee, whose report got the attention it deserved. Further, he showed appreciation for the DPC as a whole, whose members would eventually put the report’s recommendations forward as their own. Above all, the bishop showed appreciation for the council as an assembly of Christians by encouraging the members to recall their experiences of faith and so to connect it with the fabric of their lives. Appreciative leadership can help your council, too. But to put it to work, you have to understand what it means.

Communion Before Mission

The concept of appreciative leadership has a venerable ancestry. It is connected to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. When leaders show their appreciation for a Church council or committee, they acknowledge the faith which is the group’s reason for being. Before any Church group reflects on a problem, evaluates a ministry, or discusses a policy, it is, at the most fundamental level, an assembly of faithful people. The appreciative leader begins with that acknowledgment. No matter what task has brought the group together, it is first a communion in the Body of Christ. That communion is more important than (and is the basis for) any mission the group undertakes.

There are many ways for a pastor to appreciate the communion of his parishioners. One of my colleagues, Paul F. Ford, urges seminarians–when they become priests–to habitually begin Sunday Mass by recognizing the effort parishioners have made to be there. It is not always easy for parents to get their children up, fed, bathed, dressed, and in their pew on time for Mass. As the father of teenaged sons, I can personally attest that the challenge does not diminish, even after childhood is past. By recognizing people’s effort to participate, the appreciative leader shows reverence for the faith which has brought them together. The leader’s appreciation for the assembly testifies to the reality of the communion which the assembly actually is.

Whenever I argue for the precedence of communion over mission, someone always objects that the two cannot really be separated. Jesus did not call the disciples together merely to form a communion of the Twelve, the objection goes, but to send them forth on a mission. By analogy, one cannot imagine a Christian communion without a mission in the Lord’s name. Indeed, it could be alleged that the urgency of the Christian mission, the self-evident importance of feeding the hungry and caring for the sick, itself attracts people and so forms a communion. Mission, one could argue, builds communion.

To this I reply in theological terms. Just as St. Paul said that we are justified by faith, apart from works of law, so our communion in faith comes first, apart from the mission that stems from it. Faith unites us in a communion, and on account of that we undertake Christ’s mission–not vice versa. A worthwhile mission, whatever it might be, is subordinate (in theological terms) to faith. That is why the good pastoral leader is an appreciative leader. Whenever a pastor gathers his council, he ought to begin with appreciation and thanksgiving: appreciation for those who gather, thanksgiving for the Lord in whose name they gather.

Appreciation as a Concept

Too often, however, our American councils merely pay lip service to the doctrine of justification by faith. In our heart of hearts, we believe in justification by works–and the way we get down to business proves it. Consider our agendas. Even when we adhere to the outdated but apparently simple formula of “opening prayer – roll call – approval of minutes,” etc., we compress so many items under the heading of “new business” that one would think our very salvation depends on it. Works, not faith, become the meeting’s focus.

Appreciative leadership takes another tack. It measures success not by the number of problems one can name and attempt to solve, but with a question: what gives life to those who are gathered. In this sense it is applicable to any organization, and not just Church councils. The initial premise of appreciative leadership is that the members already share a commitment to the group, and in reawakening that commitment, the leader releases its energy and problem-solving capacities.

Releasing the energy of commitment: that is the way Case Western Reserve University Professor David L. Cooperrider explains appreciative leadership. He is the co-author, with Suresh Srivastva and others, of Appreciative Management and Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 1990). Cooperrider connects appreciation with he mythological story of Pygmalion. The King of ancient Cyprus so loved the ivory image of a maiden he had carved that his very love brought her to life. The Pygmalion effect is well known in education: if a teacher believes in students, even those who are previous failures, the students will do well.

The application to Church councils is obvious. If a pastor believes in his council, its meetings will cease to be a depressing litany of problems to be solved. Instead the meetings will become moments of encounter with the mystery which formed the group in the first place. Reconnect council members with the roots of their Christian faith, and they will blossom in imagination about the parish’s future.

In the terms of appreciative leadership, every council meeting is potentially a rekindling of faith, a recollection of what engaged us, gave us life, and committed us to the Christian vocation. Appreciation ought to be the heart of council prayer. Appreciative leaders give councilors an opportunity to name the God who gathers them, to discern God’s will for the group, and to thank each other for the charisms they manifest. Appreciated members in turn anticipate a productive meeting, for the meeting is an encounter with the God acting through them.

Obstacles to Appreciation

Sometimes our very dedication to the parish council’s mission hinders our appreciation of the members. Because we have a mission to accomplish, we may distrust appreciative leadership as a mere exercise in the power of positive thinking, as if feeling good about one another will overcome cynicism and solve our problems. Appreciative leaders can indeed seem to offer nothing but placebos. They make us feel good but cannot heal. No sugar-coated pill of imagining a parish vision, even if it does reawaken our enthusiasm, will replace the strong medicine of hard-headed planning.

This is the criticism of Robert G. Howes in his book, Creating an Effective Parish Pastoral Council (Liturgical Press, 1991). Howes decries the exercise of parish planning “in which everything is process and there are no outcomes and, indeed, little apparent concern that something happens afterward” (p. 25). He expresses the frustration of those drawn to the council ministry only to find that a pastor neither wants counsel nor will act on the good advice he receives. A pastor, Howes seems to say, may “appreciate” his council members until the Parousia; but unless he asks them to do something meaningful, he will end up by alienating them.

Is Father Howes attacking appreciative leadership? I think not. Rather, he points to a dysfunction in the council ministry: the dysfunction of using the council as a public relations tool. Occasionally pastors will convene councils not for the intended purpose of getting good advice. Their aim instead is to appear consultative and so to win council approval for the pastors’ own initiatives. Such pastors go through the motions of consultation, but do not act in good faith. They, and not appreciative leadership, are the targets of the critique by Howes.

The critique, however, reminds us of the limits of appreciative leadership. It is no cure for council dysfunction. No amount of appreciation from a pastor can obliterate the bad taste in the mouths of council members who realize that he has convened them for mere public relations purposes. Pastors who only want to create the appearance that they seek advice, without ever having to take it, show contempt, not appreciation.

Appreciative leadership is for working councils. It is a way of moving the council to a more profound level, the better to enhance its activity. Appreciative pastors give thanks for their members, not to distract them from the business of the parish, but to acknowledge the faith that has gathered them. Appreciative leadership is no extraneous additive to the council ministry, but a deliberate effort to make its innermost foundations visible. By manifesting the communion of the councilors, the pastor is playing an eminently pastoral role. He is helping the councilors see, celebrate, and tap the well-springs of faith, so that efforts to achieve the parish mission may flow deeper, fuller, livelier, and more joyfully.