There is a fine line between “strategic” and “controlling.”
Years ago, in my days of leading a church in the San Francisco Bay Area, we found ourselves in the process of strategic planning. We sensed that a new season was dawning for our faith community so we invited groups of community members to join our staff and elders in a series listening sessions. Rather than vision-casting nights with the goal of our leadership seeking the buy-in of the congregation, this series of twelve conversations was oriented around surfacing what the Spirit was saying to the community from within the community.
Full disclosure: I quietly entered the first listening session with some hunches about our future. These hunches leaned in the direction of convictions. While I loved the idea of multiple evenings of listening and shared discernment, I was prepared to cherry pick ideas in support of my hunches in order to validate and give shape to the strategy that would move us forward.
In the opening moments of the first session, everything changed for me.
As was always the case, we convened in a living room of our one of our community members. We began with a centering experience that was designed to bring each of us fully into the room. To do so, one of our pastors invited us to ask the Spirit to draw our attention to something in the room that caught our eye. Having located that object (a lamp, a piece of furniture, a toy, a painting, etc.) she invited us to wonder with the Spirit about what She may be saying to us through that artifact. After five minutes of quiet reflection, our pastor opened the space and invited the community to share what they observed, what they heard, and if there was a word for us and for our process that evening.
As was his custom, one of the artisans in the community waited until the end of the sharing session to offer his perspective. When acknowledged, he walked over to a painting that imaged a countryside landscape. What stood out to him was the decision of the artist to depict the river as channeled rather than flowing naturally.
“The decision by the artist to channel the river,” he observed, “seems to have made all of the other landscape decisions within the painting.” The channel, while well-intentioned and well executed, was a decision made in a moment in time that set the flow and the destination of the river and made it so that the rest of the landscape would remain static. He concluded with this: “What if we made the decision not to channel the flow of the Spirit, choosing instead to allow Her to roam untamed among us?”
His caution was that in our desire to be strategic, we would acknowledge the difference between strategy that must always be nimble and Spirit informed and control which often relies on what the Spirit “said” to us in one moment of our shared life together.
His word set the tone for our process then and the method by which the church continues to listen well and live what they hear. In hindsight, that was a DNA-planting moment for a community of people that set us on a long journey of “following the current” and “tapping in to the energy inherent” and available to us in the form of the Spirit’s whisper. (Renner & D’Souza, Not Doing, Kindle location 2129).