Mark Lau Branson's Class Blog

Student participation in Fuller Seminary classes

Memories, Hopes & Conversations

Posted by Mark Lau Branson on February 14, 2012

Leadership, according to Alan Roxburgh, is about creating spaces and environments in which the people of God can discern God’s presence and initiatives in their lives, among their neighbors, and in their contexts. This is not the work of experts but rather a way of life among the everyday people in our churches. Keys to this work include how we ask questions, receive and interpret the stories and perspectives we hear, and then shape experiments for next steps. Memories, Hopes & Conversations (Alban, 2004) explains the theory and practice of Appreciative Inquiry. “The theses of Appreciative Inquiry is that an organization, such as a church, can be recreated by its conversations. And if that new creation is to feature the most life-giving forces and forms possible, then the conversations must be shaped by appreciative questions.” (xiii) The book walks through one church’s “AI” process – explaining assumptions, modeling steps, and describing outcomes. (A followup book is currently being edited which will provide stories about how AI was used by several churches to change their relationships with their neighbors and contexts.) Student discussion here will focus on essential assumptions and attributes of Appreciative Inquiry, theological and biblical parallels, and why it might be generative in their churches.


15 Responses to “Memories, Hopes & Conversations”

  1. Mark Lau Branson said

    Here is a process with a large church – including a video:

    • Charles Liu said

      I find the case study at First Presbyterian Church, Altadena, is particularly helpful to understand the Appreciative Inquiry approach: the concept and assumptions, the process and practice, and the benefits of conversations and hope implementation. The method calls for an elaborate, collective discovery process. The application builds on congregation’s internal strengths, an all-out focus in enhancing human relations, and community development. When skillfully done with proper sponsorship (consultants and church leadership), and resources, the power of congregational change exists in the discovery of life-giving forces and the radical imagination and innovation. The practice of Appreciative Inquiry is to identify what gives life to an organization when it is at its best. In that sense this practice of Appreciative Inquiry is positive-oriented, to affirm strength rather than assess deficiency. But Appreciative Inquiry is not a search only for positive aspect of the organization. It is a search for what nourishes people for better core identity, meanings, relationships, and hope, what energizes and inspires the “interpretive community” of God.

      An important initial step in the AI process is to identify the high-interest focus of the inquiry. Without a clear and directional charge, it is hard for the church to adopt a different narrative. The effectiveness of AI is highly dependent upon the discovery of themes and radical imagination, the design and implementation of proposals. In the design phase, Branson identifies eight potential missteps to be avoided. I think the critical success factor is that it takes courage and commitment for the church to risk for its dream. In order to launch the AI approach, the church must have adequate understanding of the complex issues, the investment in time and resources, and challenges they face. For the church as both a social organization and a spiritual community, theological bases and biblical reflections are essential for the AI application to work since the framework is basically an organization-behavioral change model. Jesus’ redefining blessedness is the heart of Christianity but also the hardest to put in action. I am convinced that it is not the process but the true nature gives expression to the full character of what the church is to do in fulfilling its ministry.

      Although not much discussed in the book, church leadership role is a critical success factor in finding and strengthening those innovations they want to nurture and creating events and processes to energize and implement. Quite possibly, the leadership team needs to change first. Church size makes a difference for the AI process and ours is a large congregation. Lacking a sense of urgency also makes the adoption of the AI approach problematic for us at the present time.

      • Paul Ssembiro said

        Charles, the way I read this book, I seem to see the power of AI in recognizing that innovations come from the people. The kind of leadership which is needed, in my opinion, is the mentoring type of leadership. I fear that is the innovations of the people are controlled so much by positional leaders, the process might be suffocated before any meaningful results are manifested.

      • Eric Alvarez said

        Charles, I think the role of church leadership is implicit in the AI process as described in the book. I believe the church leadership has to be humble enough to allow a process like AI to work in them personally for them to help lead the church through it. I think what makes AI a very appealing process for me is that it places leadership and laity on level ground; leaders and laity learn together what the Spirit is doing in their midst and wants to do through them. I think your comment about urgency is valid but I don’t think AI works in urgent situations. It’s a process that needs the Spirit to “cook” it.

    • Sebastian said

      I´ve found very interesting the bases of assumptions that serve as framework of AI practice, specially the first one in the list referred to the believe that there is always something that the church is doing well. In my view this is a huge change of paradigm when most of the efforts of change are based in the things the church is doing wrong, therefore not being effective. Currently I see how pastors are working as “firefighters,” always running to fix things in the community, mostly related with church programs, and because of that entering in a dynamic of constant lamentation, which ends in stress or burnout. What a huge change is to start working and building from those things that the church enjoys to do and does well. This is also a straight resistance to the tendency of commodifying people when treating them not as bench fillers but as people of God with the Holy Spirit’s gifts, talents and creativity.

      Also the assumption number three is presenting something that is counter-cultural to the traditional way to understand the roll of a leader. In the preface we read “A church’s leader make decisions about what to talk about, what questions to ask, what metaphors to use,” which is an invitation to submit the need of controlling power and instead opening to the conversation. “Change is something that begins with the very first question,” and the generating practice that will lead to a local church to become in a community of interpreters. In other words this is kind of “giving up” the church to the people, trusting God, therefore not an easy task to our modern mentality.

      My question in chapter six is related to the outcome of AI implementation. It seems that the most powerful narratives from that community were related to events and in an implicit spirituality. I was trying to identify whether the church become more missional or more attractional after the whole process of change.

  2. Jerod Yates said

    I appreciate “Memories, Hopes & Conversations” laying out a long-term process for leadership and congregational formation that is built on the biblical principles of gratitude. By laying a positive foundation on those things we are grateful for, thankful, appreciative, we help to create spaces and environments that invite people to enter that positive realm. I believe this is vital to beginning to lead change. I’ve seen in other contexts when the process begins on focusing on what needs to be fixed, more of the negative, and it can build up walls of “us” and “them” in the church. Laying a positive foundation of gratitude invites everyone to join in the process of beginning to voice those things they are grateful and appreciative of in the church which in turns helps to build that unified positive beginning of creating that safe space where every individual and the congregation as a whole are being valued and encouraged to participate and discern with the Spirit an awareness of the good things God is doing and wanting to do in and among them as the people of God.

    This book is very practical in describing the basic processes and steps of the Appreciative Inquiry. The first part of the process begins with choosing the positive as the focus of inquiry. The second process inquires into stories of life-giving forces. In the third part of the process, the congregation begins to locate themes that appear in the stories and select topics for further inquiry. The fourth process involves the congregation creating shared images for a preferred future. Then the congregation moves to the fifth process in finding innovative ways to create that future. Seeing how First Presbyterian Church in Altadena, California, move through this Appreciative Inquiry approach was very helpful in understanding the concepts, processes and practices, of implementing a long-term process for congregational change.

    • Jed Linder said

      Hi Jerod, thanks for your thoughts on this. I think you do well to lay out the biblical foundation of “gratitude” as the underlying theological framework encompassing the entire AI experience and the lens though which we, as the church, should interpret where the Spirit is leadings us. Where I slightly disagree with you is where creating a safe space comes into play. I think that in AI, as well as all the other materials we’ve been studying, creating a safe space is first and foremost to fostering change. It is the nature of the questions that invites people to reflect in the positive qualities and experiences of their church, hence, the questions must be developed so that the interviewee is safe to answer. Further, the interviewers must be trained in a manner that constantly resists participants from falling back on the deficit approach of diagnosis, or else people may just return to the old routine of dealing only with the problems. Even with all this, I am not sure it is enough to get all people to feel safe about opening up. In the Altadena church, they are dealing largely with a Nisei generation who has been in the country for decades. In the past, I have volunteered with a Japanese senior organization and was close friends with a Japanese immigrant woman who has been here for about a decade. When I met her mother, who lives in Japan, I would often speak with positive emotion about any number of daily things. I learned later from my friend that her mother thought I was nice, but a little childish because I spoke so openly with emotion! Plus, speaking positively about things I was involved with could sometimes seem arrogant to her!! I was dealing with another culture and I actually had to read a book to better understand the miscommunications we were having. The point is, opening up and sharing is not first nature to some cultures, so a safe space must be established at the beginning.

  3. Paul Ssembiro said

    Out of the ten assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry offered by Mark Branson in Memories, Hopes and Conversations, the key ideas that stimulated my contemplation are: there is always something good about every organization; when people are enabled to appreciate or be grateful for what God has done among them in the past and present, hope for the future is possible; the good in the past can be used as a source of energy for the unknown future. I think that quite often in church we lose motivation because we often focus on the negative. This book gave me some encouragement as I thought about some churches and denominational structures back home in Uganda, which at the moment seem to offer not much hope. The genius of Appreciative Inquiry is that the lead researcher (who is Mark in this case) begins with a small group of already trusted leaders, brings them into conversation with each other, and the processes spreads to the whole congregations as good stories that are remembered from the conversations build the excitement level.

    As I reflect on this, I see a parallel in Numbers 13 and 14, where ten of the spies focused on the negative and perpetuated fear in the entire Israel desert community, while Joshua and Caleb focused on the positive—God’s faithfulness to Israel, and the two alone with the those who were younger than 20 years of age made it to the promised land. As was the case in the facts of their exploration, that is indeed there were giants in the land and the walls of the enemy cities towered high, so it is that often our realities are overwhelming. I see that by focusing on good memories, faith and hope necessary to surmount the barriers between a church and its desired future are maintained. Related to the previous point, I find the positive perspective that is maintained in the drafting of provocative proposals a good time for congregational planning.

    After reading the book, I would appreciate if these questions that I still have on the application of the process are answered: (1) is there a limit to how many years of shared history an organization should have in order to benefit from the strength of Appreciative inquiry? I wonder whether AI has the same impact on church plants that may be in the range of the first five years of existence or congregations like university chapels that have a high membership turnover; (2) how is a changed demographic context brought into this process, if the neighborhood composition is very different from the founding ethnic group. In the case of First Presbyterian Church, Altadena, there seems to have been a continuing Japanese presence in the neighborhood.
    Someday, I would like to read about what followed with this church after the New pastor was recruited.

    • Jerod Yates said

      Paul, you bring up a good question in asking, “How many years of shared history an organization should have in order to benefit from the strength of the Appreciative Inquiry?” I was thinking of some of our guest speakers who brought up how church plants are more complex because each person brings in a different church experience and what they think church should be. A church plant doesn’t have a shared history, so they each have different ideas of what church is. I was reflecting on how a church plant might incorporate the Appreciative Inquiry, and I felt that you could adjust the questions by asking each person what are those experiences in their past that they appreciated about church. Even though they don’t necessarily have the same shared history as an organization, they can each begin to ask one another as to those qualities they have appreciated about churches in their past. Through the sharing of their journeys and experiences with church, they can begin to discuss and dialogue on those things they appreciate about church and together begin that exploration of initiating and inquiring on each others understanding of “What is church?”As they understand where each person is coming from, then they begin to imagine and innovate together in forming their own new history together in being church.

    • Patrick Duff said

      As the book mentioned, our reality becomes whatever we focus on, so if we focus on the negative, our reality will become negative. This assumption echoes Pastor Josh’s insistence that his congregation not define themselves by what they are not.

      I think you also raise important questions. If a shared history exists, then I think AI can be a powerful tool for discovering and nourishing those common, existing life forces. However, if a shared history does not exist, perhaps AI can be helpful in recognizing and celebrating diversity?

  4. Jed Linder said

    Appreciative Inquiry (AI), within a church setting, is essentially the initiation of conversations guiding a community to reflect upon its most dynamic and positive features. AI then guides the community to form themselves around these positive features which has shaped the church in the past and must shape the church in its future. Thus, AI is a reframing discourse from the positive, while constantly “initiating and discerning narratives and practices that are generative” (19).

    One of AI’s most essential assumptions is that organizations have their own “life forces” available through stories and imagination, and by discovering the most generative of the elements of a life force, the organization can build the future upon important links to the past. This is more fully fleshed out in the book and contains numerous integral assumptions that frame AI around focusing on the positive, generative discourse, valuing the past, diversity and outcomes, and a collaborative effort.

    Theologically, AI finds itself rooted in gratitude, a core interpretive framework woven throughout the scriptures. Remembering what God has done for us, and responding appropriately with thanksgiving, i.e. grace and gratitude. Branson offers numerous examples from the OT, through the gospels and the Pauline corpus, to John’s apocalypse.

    If we accept Roxburgh’s contention that churches in North America are all too often operating out of deficient, “modern” maps, then AI provides a process of engagement for churches to reframe these maps to more fully align themselves with what the Spirit is doing in their midst. Branson likens the modern approach to western medicine, i.e. a deficit approach that focuses on the problem particular, and not the positive aspects that can build up the whole. Joel Green uses the same type of metaphor when he applies various medical anthropologies to the way we interpret scripture. Recognizing the community as intertwined, and bringing to voice all parts of this community improves not only a reading of scripture but a reading of the community! This is what AI can bring to the table for today’s churches, and by engaging and reengaging the process, the churches not only become better interpreters, but more missionally minded in their ecclesiastical formation.

    • Patrick Duff said

      I thought Branson’s example of western medicine was very helpful for me in understanding the deficit model of problem-solving so common in today’s churches. My wife is pregnant with our third child, and with each of her pregnancies, she has had extreme nausea throughout the entire pregnancy. Almost every doctor we talk to has treated my wife’s nausea, and even the pregnancy in general, as problems that need to be solved, as if the birth of a child was an “unnatural” process that needs to be cured. My wife has found acupuncture to be the most helpful in helping to curb her nausea. While I was skeptical of acupuncture at first, I realize now that the power and strength in eastern medicine is that it focuses on balance and nourishing the body’s natural ways of healing and maintaining health. Similarly, I like the process of AI because, rather than seeing church ministries as problems to be solved, AI seeks to discover and nourish the life forces of our churches.

  5. Patrick Duff said

    In Memories, Hopes, and Conversations, Branson puts forth a detailed thesis as to how appreciative inquiry (AI) can be formative and generative in the life and ministry of churches. As opposed to old, worn-out paradigms and strategies based in positivism that emphasize a deficit model of problem-solving, AI offers a generative process, rooted in new science (quantum theory), social constructionism and the power of images and finding deep affinities in the biblical narrative. Branson locates the five steps of AI within the four stages of initiating, inquiring, imagining and innovating (29). We see these theoretical aspects of AI lived in praxis through Branson’s experiences at First Presbyterian Church in Altadena.

    This book continues the narrative strand throughout our missional leadership class that many of the ways we do things in the church, what Roxburgh calls our “old maps” that are rooted in modernity, are no longer working in an age of rapid change and sustained liminality. I see these old maps continue to be implemented within my own ministry context. Much of my church’s leadership approach challenges technically when adaptive leadership is needed. In doing so, we apply the deficit model and view our church’s ministries more as problems that need to be solved, and we assume that we can control, manage and predict desired outcomes and/or the people involved in producing these outcomes. I believe that my church is heading toward a crisis point, in which our current ways of addressing challenges and managing ministries will no longer be effective. We can continue in our ways and perhaps delay the inevitable crisis point, or we can begin to shift our ways of thinking and begin to cultivate a new imagination and space for the Spirit to move. I think AI can be an important tool in this process.

    There are two specific ways I can see AI being implemented into my church context. First, I currently serve as an elder (we are a free church in which the elder board serves as the highest governing authority for the congregation). I believe our elder board needs to step up as a leadership body through several means: engaging our leaders relationally, cultivating a missional imagination, and modeling leadership rooted in the biblical narrative and generative practices. I think all three of these means can be achieved through AI. Elders can meet with our other leaders, engage in the AI process, and in doing so, model AI for these leaders to then implement in their own respective ministries. Second, my wife currently leads the youth ministry team at our church, and she is on a team to select new elders. I think AI can inform the elder selection process as well as the formation of our youth. In these two ways, I hope my church can begin to discern and nourish the life forces within our congregation and make AI part of the rhythms of our church’s life together.

    • Paul Ssembiro said

      The way I read your last paragraph, makes me think that what you refer to as your Elders Board is what we refer to as a Parish Council in the context of the Anglican Church of Uganda. As I think about how AI may be applied at this level of church leadership, I observe that the duration of term of service in this capacity is important. Do you have a limit as to how long any given member can serve on the Board? In our case, a term may last for a year, two years or four years. There is a push in the Provincial (National) church structures to make this term length uniform, and the suggestion is for 4 years. I think that since we know that AI is a process that requires time and patience, it works effectively when the leadership that initiates the process is going to serve in that capacity for a reasonable amount of time,

  6. Eric Alvarez said

    I was first exposed to the concept of Appreciative Inquiry (AI) in 2007 while participating in a leadership group aimed at improving the school communities of northwest Pasadena and Altadena. While working in the leadership, my mind kept diverting to the possibility of AI being used in the local church as initiative for revival and transformation. Little did I know that Dr. Mark Lau Branson was using AI only a few blocks away at First Presbyterian Church: Altadena. In “Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change,” Branson answers the questions I wrestled with during the leadership course and my group leader was unable to answer.

    In “Memories, Hopes, and Conversations,” Branson clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of the AI process. He provides a cogent background in “new” science for AI, differentiates it from problem-solving methods, and provides loose instructions for the reader in its application (context is key). The book’s greatest strength is its focused application to a church congregation when the process can be used in non-religious contexts. Branson was honest to depict the successes and challenges of the AI process at First Presbyterian, as well as changes he would now make in hindsight. For those concerned about the theology in applying AI to the local church, Branson provides a logical and convincing biblical commentary based on the attribute of gratitude for AI. Branson does not pick and choose passages to support his theology but follows a consistent and thorough hermeneutic to make his case.

    As I ponder my current congregation and the possibility of the AI process as a tool towards transformation, I find myself observing a possible weakness to the book. For a congregation where the median age is 65+, I’m not sure the members or leaders have the energy to engage with the multiple steps, time frames, and myriad of questions. The 4-I method that Branson espouses initially seems doable for a younger generation but for an aging generation the many subsets to each “I” becomes burdensome and tedious. I believe Branson faced some of this “lack of energy” at First Presbyterian in regards to themes and provocative proposals. It would be interesting to read how the AI process has evolved at First Presbyterian since the writing of this book.

    Lingering questions: What is the role of church leadership in the AI process, especially if they too are not versed in the theory? Are there examples of AI being used in churches outside of the United States? If so, what are their experiences? Would the AI process even work in churches where the primary language is not English?

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