In 2007 David Fitch offered an overview of the work that Mark Lau Branson is doing around appreciative enquiry. Alan Roxburgh likewise applauded the benefits of using”appreciative enquiry” in local congregations as part a transformation process. Alan suggested AI as a tool which enabled people to be “listened into speech.”

Last week Mark’s book – Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change, arrived on my desk. The timing of some books is interesting: after an afternoon reflecting on the potential of narrative therapy as a healing process, and making the further connection to memory, and hope, and salutogenesis – I was ready for some further reflection on processes of communal healing and growth.

Here’s what David wrote:

“Mark Lau Branson presented a workshop where he talked about the work of leading transformation in congregations. It described the contrast between typical church “problem solving”, (i.e. go into a church, study the problems, talk solutions and then propose a plan to implement solutions) – and Appreciative Inquiry — asking questions about where God has been at work and then stoking the imagination as to how to further participate in these ways as a body. He called the latter interpretive leadership. He said the deadest churches he had been had still been places where God had been wonderfully at work, but there were no witnesses.

“He said every epistle of Paul (except Galations) begins with a thanksgiving prayer. Branson asked, “when you begin like that, how does that shape your imagination?” He said starting out with appreciative questions about where God is working shapes the imagination totally differently than starting out by asking what’s wrong with this church, where have we failed? What are the problems in this church?” He described powerfully a community getting engaged missionally in their neighborhood. I came away stoked! I recommend his Memories, Hopes and Conversations.

Appreciative Inquiry is a systematic discovery of what gives life to a living system (ie. in our case an organization) when it is most alive, effective and constructively capable. AI is the art and practice of asking questions, of asking the “unconditional positive question.”

The more positive the question, the longer lasting, more powerful and energized the change process.

The underlying principle of AI is that organizations grow in the direction in which they inquire. The is that “inquiry is intervention.” Enquire into the negative, into the gap .. and that is what you will achieve. In AI, the premise is that every living system has a positive change core, so that if we can find it, understand it and grow it, we will be supporting growth and change in a positive, humanistic way. We grow what we notice and attend to. (In biblical terms “we become what we worship”).

You can hear echoes of other streams of thought here, even some of the streams coming from the recent campaign around “The Secret.” But it is true that healing is very difficult for people who are consistently negative, and it is equally striking that the focus of our medical system on disease rather than health has produced more therapies rather than more healing. We need alternative imaginations in order to make the shift to communal engagement, and these have to be both storied and hopeful.

A search for “appreciative” on GOOGLE brings up a lot of articles in the business and leadership sector and images like the one at left. More reflections to come; I see AI as a powerful framework and a hopeful too.

9 comments on “AI

  1. As a Christian futurist, part of my calling is to help individuals and congregations consider their spiritual DNA and how God has been at work in them as a one-of-a-kind “package deal” of strengths, giftings, and history in their specific cultural context. That gives them a chance to look at PLAUSIBLE futures, given their current state of being, and encourages them to move toward a PREFERABLE future. This fits well with concepts like “redemptive purpose,” and learning processes like those in appreciative inquiry and the *Experiencing God* book.

    I wonder, though, if we need to hold appreciative inquiry techniques in a both/and dynamic tension with problem-solving approaches when there are forces at work in a congregation that would otherwise prevent transformation. Don’t want to be a naysayer, but it’s just that I’ve become acutely aware of how often self-willed leaders or small groups in a church block transition. Since January, I’ve been immersed in processing my own experiences of surviving toxic churches, and over the past two months, have been helping half a dozen people in four different situations sort through issues, consider biblical principles and options, and decide what they want to do that’s hopefully constructive. Many of these leaders sometimes even used language or processes that appeared to move in the direction of a positive core, or preferable future, or redemptive purpose – but ultimate just confirmed what they already wanted to do. Their personal purposes quenched the spirit of the corporate possibilities …

    Anyway, I’ll look forward to reading this book in due time to see how appreciative inquiry can potentially be meshed with confronting toxic leaders/systems. Cultivating hope is a critical part of recovery from spiritual decline and/or abuse, and it seems appreciative inquiry is one way to revive or sustain hope – and that’s certainly something we all need!

  2. brad.. interesting.. yes, it would difficult to use a process like AI if key leaders were not really on board.

  3. Hi Len. Yeah, would be difficult … and yet, there is so much need for the very positive/constructive AI approach! I just had NO IDEA that spiritual abuse/toxic leadership was so endemic in the American church until I started blogging what I’d been processing. Then I began seeing it was incredibly widespread. Which is all to say that even if appreciative inquiry cannot be used in a congregational setting due to leader-blockage, at least individuals, families, and clusters of people from churches-they-left-behind may find a similar process hope-sparking for them. God’s working and redemptive purpose remain intact, despite our status of being survivors of spiritual abuse. Or, could it be that new horizons of meaning and purpose open specifically because of surviving affliction? I know we don’t necessarily want to think about it that way, but I’d suggest it can lead to constructive perceptions if we do …

  4. brad
    Working four years as a family therapist I have a sensitivity to issues of healing and growth. Have you read “How People Grow” by Cloud and Townsend. Probably the best integrative work out there. Chapter 11 describes “good pain” and “bad pain.” Suffering can be constructive given certain conditions, and destructive given others. Jesus on the Cross suffered “good pain” that led to the redemption of the world and there is only one aspect of spiritual growth that is described in scripture as armor against sin: in 1 Peter 4:1-2.

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