on October 9, 2012
In this 2004 book published by the Alban Institute, Mark Lau Branson introduces the reader to the concept of appreciative inquiry in the context of its implementation in one particular congregation. Branson is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, and shortly after his family moved to Pasadena for him to teach there, they had begun attending First Presbyterian Church of Altadena. The majority of the congregation is Japanese, two or three generations removed from the original immigrants. They were in the transition between pastors, and their denomination requires that they answer certain stock survey questions about their church in order for the church to understand their direction and who could best serve them as their next pastor. Branson says that the congregation was starting to suffer from aging and apathy and was having trouble with the process. When the congregation learned that Branson taught at a seminary, they asked him to be a consultant to them in the process. Branson reluctantly said yes.
Branson decided to introduce the committee to appreciative inquiry, and this book combines the abstract concepts of appreciative inquiry with how it actually played itself out in this Japanese and Presbyterian congregation. Branson knew the committee needed a new way to approach this effort, because they had done it after the departure of every pastor, and people were starting to express apathy about the Presbyterian survey's usefulness: "We've done these mission studies before. They're in the church office, gathering dust," one man said (1). Branson introduces the committee to appreciative inquiry (or, AI) by letting them experience it themselves. In doing so, the committee is led to reflect on their strengths and their most cherished stories. Branson contrasts AI with problem solving. "When the problem solving approach dominates, most discussions are about problems and inadequacies...This is not dissimilar to Western medicine and its focus on illness, targetable causes, and invasive procedures" (21-22). Rather than treating a congregation system mechanically as problem solving does, "appreciative inquiry assumes that all organizations have significant life forces, and these forces are available in stories and imaginations" (23).
Branson includes a chapter reflecting on the role of this positive orientation in the Bible. Drawing largely from the Pauline epistles, pastoral letters, and the psalms, Branson points out the large role that gratitude plays in the scriptures. This relates to AI's focus on the good and life-giving aspects of any congregation. He notes how Paul started even his most scathing letters with gratitude for the receiving church and for how they had shown their faithfulness in the past. Also, the structure of the psalms and prophets "indicate that remembering and giving thanks are primary means of receptivity. And these memories are essential to their children" (49).
In the second half of the book, Branson details how this process worked and what the results were in First Presbyterian Church of Altadena. Although there is no need to summarize those details here, Branson does share several important insights from this one particular church's experience. For example, this church received very positive feedback about sharing interview questions beforehand so that respondents had time to think about them, finding this to be important to successful interviewing. Also, the church found important generational distinctions through the process and used positive descriptions of each group's contribution to create contextually relevant "provocative proposals." (Provocative proposals are statements that describe the church's vision for its ministry in the present tense as if it's already happening).
Branson's book has numerous strengths. First and foremost, it strikes a realistic chord about the nature of the church. The author contrasts appreciative inquiry with problem solving and demonstrates a keen awareness of how easily church's slip into a downward spiral of despair and demoralization, especially in today's culture where so many churches are declining. In First Presbyterian, he noted that even when positive stories of successful programs came up, they were often followed with comments like, "I don't know how long we old folks can keep doing this" (6). The book is also strengthened by its description of how appreciate inquiry worked itself out in a particular congregation, and the author was honest about what worked well, what didn't, and what he would have changed. Third, the book has a good basis in post-modern theory and science with conclusions that ring true in real life. For example, whereas modern Newtonian science assumed linear cause and effect relationships, new science has discovered much more complexity and unpredictability and that systems work as a whole. Family Systems Theory argues quite convincingly that the same is true with humans. Finally, Branson's biblical commentary was very well argued and presented. It is a thorough hermeneutic that does not proof-text and present isolated verses that only appear to support his case.
Branson's book has one main weakness: it seems that the process could be kept much more simple. Particularly in the second half of the book when the author shares the specifics of First Presbyterian's process, things start to get somewhat convoluted with numerous steps, prescribed time frames, and multiple subsets (see especially pp. 65-85). A process that could potentially be very fluid and adaptable becomes a bit burdensome as the book moves along. Another example of the lack of simplicity is found in the thematic descriptions and provocative proposals of First Presbyterian. Several of them seem far too long to be helpful or memorable. Nevertheless, this book represents a good primer on the concept of appreciative inquiry and builds a solid case for its potential effectiveness in many congregational settings. It holds many possibilities for current emphases on missional transformation and congregational change.
Branson demonstrates in this book the process and effectiveness of Appreciative Inquiry (AI). The case study focuses on Branson's work in a particular church; however, it is applicable to any organization. Branson provides clear instructions for leading AI. He provides the background of AI and how it differs from other leadership processes. He elaborates on his work with the church by giving the specific examples as he describes the process of AI and how it works. In this book, he also shows the Biblical basis for doing AI.
This book provides an excellent overall illustration of AI. I think that it offers all one needs in order to start and finish an AI process. I used it along with an AI textbook, but this book was all I really needed. It is well written and the examples and illustrations are clear and easy to follow.
on August 30, 2011
A beautiful book to help a church remember the things positive they have done that gave them joy, hope and the result is peace. Useful for a congregation with some troubles. By remembering people, places and things that moved us to know joy and find an appreciation for all the people who went before us and continue here and now. The 3 wishes of hope for the future are most revealing to knowing the secret heart's desires for your church that sits in the pews and is often not asked what is your dream for your church. I found it healing when I just did a few interviews with key people of our congregation who may be waiting for change but have not felt empowered to ask. In one word I found a peace just by reading and doing the work. The result in the people I interviewed was joy. Thankful for Appreciative inquiry story in the book. Very helpful.
on July 2, 2011
Sometimes because I know an author, I want to buy their book(s). Based on what I observe in the person I know whatever they write will be credible, substantive, and worthwhile. Once in a long while I buy a book and because of what I observe in the book, I want to meet the author. The latter was the case with "Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change" by Mark Lau Branson. As I read the book I wanted to meet the man.
Thankfully, many months after reading "Memories..." I had the privilege of meeting Mark. What I encountered was a confident, gracious person; an authentic academic who was remarkably practical. Without question Branson has complete command of applicable theories and yet demonstrates strong bias for practical applications; I heard this as he and I spoke - I had seen it previously in his book.
My field is `change', specifically improving change praxes in Christian contexts. I know change is a complex subject - for many reasons. Former U.S. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, `I wouldn't give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.' Holmes would have loved this book; he would also have loved how brilliantly Branson applied the very practices he proposed in the book's content to his writing of the book. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) - the methodology covered in this book - is a strength-based, narrative approach to organizational development and change methodology. Sounds a bit technical, doesn't it? Yet Branson distilled relevant theories to easy-to-follow tables and conveyed helpful examples through a story of how one church engaged needed changes in simple, steady ways. In classic AI fashion, this book prepares readers to apply AI while illustrating the subject matter through a splendid story.
I recommend "Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change" to any Christian leader or group who is even thinking about change. If you care about change, get this book.