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"What in God's Name is Going on Here?"
Using Appreciative Inquiry to Create a Vision at Unity Church of Melbourne

"I like the part about the Dalai Lama and Dr. Wayne Dyer coming to our campus to speak; that is a vision I can really get into!" said one participant in the three-day Appreciative Inquiry Summit. For Unity Church of Melbourne, Florida, creating the vision had been F.U.N. That was the acronym for the Future of Unity Now, the visioning process that Kathleen Rich-New and Bob New designed for them. Now, the walls of the little sanctuary were covered with flip chart pages describing the action steps that would be necessary to bring the nine 'directional buckets' into actuality. Going from a small church in a residential area to an award-winning, campus facility, able to attract major speakers will be a giant leap, but every successful organization begins with a vision.

It had all started on a Saturday last September…

"What can we do to be sure that we are carrying out the wishes of the congregation, to be sure we are serving their needs now and into the future?" Reverend Beth Head was thinking out loud as she shared lunch and her concerns with Bob and Kathleen, members of her congregation. "I'm doing what I think needs to be done, but most of the feedback I get is from people who don't want things to change. I know I'm a new minister and I don't do things exactly as they were done in the past. So how do we make progress? How do we get over the resistance to change that I'm hearing? I have so many dreams for this church, but I can't seem to get them moving."

Bob and Kathleen are partners in Clarity Works! an organizational development consulting firm, located in Merritt Island, Florida. They have been members of Unity Church of Melbourne for three years. Before starting Clarity Works! they both had successful careers in corporate human resources and organizational development where they became acquainted with the Appreciative Inquiry (Ai) theory and process.

At GTE (now Verizon), Bob was a member of the core team created to work with Dr. David Cooperrider to introduce Ai to the organization. Dr. Cooperrider is the originator of Ai and had convinced the leadership of GTE that Ai would be the perfect vehicle to transform the corporate culture from a regulated utility company to a competitive, major player in the telecommunications industry. Bob and Organizational Development team trained 67,000 employees in the Ai process, resulting in a 'Positive Change Revolution.' The president of Telephone Operations, Tom White, attributed over 10,000 innovations to the Ai process. In 1997, just two years after the process began; GTE received a national award from the American Society for Training and Development for the Best Culture Change Initiative in the county.

"We know it works in the business world, so why not in a church?" asked Kathleen. "It's an organization too; made up of people working together for a common purpose." It had even worked at "Listening to the City" where Kathleen had been one of the facilitators using Ai with 5,000 Manhattan residents trying to reach a consensus on rebuilding at Ground Zero. "It is a powerful process," she added.

Beth wasn't so sure, "Sometimes getting church people moving is like trying to herd kittens, but let's try it. I'll need a proposal for the Board of Trustees to consider." That was the beginning and the rest, as they say, is history.

Appreciative Inquiry is unique in that it focuses on what is working in an organization, rather than on what is wrong. It involves the systematic discovery of what gives life to a living system when it is most alive, most effective. The discovery phase consists of reflective conversations with people about their peak experiences in the organization and their wishes for the future. Ai allows people to connect the insights of the past and present to their dreams and designs for the future. Ai encourages people to think and act as if their future were a reality. These concepts give rise to the four phases of the 4-D process. Discover, Dream, Design, and Deliver.

The process began at Unity Church of Melbourne in January with Bob and Kathleen as the guest speakers, delivering the lesson on Sunday morning. Their talk was called "What in God's Name is Going on Here?" It explained each of the four phases of the Appreciative Inquiry process: Discover by asking what is going on? Dream by asking what could be going on? Design by asking what will be going on? And Deliver, how, in God's name, will we make it happen? The lesson ended with a call for volunteers to be trained as interviewers. F.U.N. was officially underway.

The forms began to pour in, as people signed up to interview and to be interviewed. Bob and Kathleen worked closely with Reverend Beth to identify strategically key members, long-term and new members, youth and the elderly; to be sure they heard every possible voice and viewpoint. Beth also shared the project plan with her associates in the Southeast Region of the Association of Unity Churches. Reverend Margee Grounds and two members of her board at Unity Church of Savannah were so interested that they made the five hour drive to Melbourne on three different occasions to see what all the F.U.N. was about.

Twenty four volunteer interviewers, plus the visitors from Savannah and Reverend Beth gathered on a Saturday for training with Kathleen and Bob. They were trained in effective interviewing techniques and learned the basics of the Ai process. They collaborated with Beth, Bob and Kathleen on the final design of the Interview Protocol. They learned to explain that interviews would be anonymous but not confidential. That is, the stories would be told, but names were not attached to them. They were briefed on how to handle the most frequently asked questions. They were coached in keeping the conversation positive by asking, "What do you wish had happened instead?"

Each interviewer had 6 or 7 people to interview as well as several people to invite to be interviewed. These were members that Beth wanted to be sure were heard, but for some reason they had not signed up. The interviewers had one month to complete their assignments. Many interviews were accomplished face to face, before and after services on Sundays. Many more were conducted by telephone. In the final tally, close to 160 of the 250 regularly attending congregants told their stories of the times when they felt most connected, most alive and most involved in Unity of Melbourne.

Meanwhile, Reverend Beth continued to teach the concepts of Appreciative Inquiry in her lessons each Sunday and made announcements to promote the upcoming grand finale, the three-day Ai Summit. The announcements were accompanied by rollicking renditions of You've Got to Accentuate the Positive, the theme song for F.U.N. "It wasn't hard to include Ai in my lessons," Beth explained, "because Ai is very much in line with Unity teachings. Ai says 'what you focus on is what you get' and we say that 'thoughts held in mind reproduce after their own kind'. Ai says that 'the words we use create our reality.' Unity says that 'thought is creative.' Ai is all about the power of the positive image of the future. It was the perfect process for our church."

When the interviews were completed, the interviewing team, plus Beth and the Savannah contingent reconvened to share the stories they had heard. They broke into four small groups to share the stories in round robin sessions. They documented the main points on flip charts and went through their stories looking for the common themes. "That Saturday was one of the highlights for me," said Reverend Beth. "Listening to the stories of what attracted people to Unity and what got them excited about their involvement was inspiring and uplifting, but for me personally, it was the validating feedback I had been missing. I was only hearing what a few people thought I was doing wrong, but now I was hearing the approval of the majority. They loved our involvement in Habitat for Humanity and our Chaplain Program. It really helped me to hear that I was on the right track. That day alone was worth every penny of our contract with Clarity Works!"

Future of Unity Now. Join the F.U.N.

The common themes from the interviews produced the more focused Discovery questions that kicked off the three-day Summit. "We really wanted to get the widest possible involvement, but we knew it would be tough to get people to give up a whole weekend to participate," said Bob. "So we urged them with messages from the pulpit, personalized F.U.N. postcards and even bribed them with free pizza on Friday night of the Summit." Eighty members, plus Beth and the trio from Savannah, turned out to complete the visioning process with more Discovery, followed by Dream, Design and Delivery.

The paired interviews using the focused Discovery questions on Friday evening led to several very clear common themes. "We used the themes to create the positive core or a description of the life giving forces at Unity of Melbourne. The positive core consisted primarily of the atmosphere of caring and intimacy that everyone wanted to maintain, even as we grow and change," Kathleen explained. "And we are all more comfortable going into the future if we can take the best of the past with us." Kathleen blended the positive core into a guided meditation to lead off the Dream phase on Saturday morning. Participants were asked to 'Imagine a Church…' where all of the attributes they had listed were included. They were given time after the meditation to document the elements they had visualized and then they met in small groups to share their visions.

group skit

Each group was tasked with developing a creative enactment of a scenario that would be as if their dream had come true. Props and costumes were available to inspire their creativity, and though no one chose to wear the bunny ears, the sombrero and dark glasses were very popular. The skits were funny and fantastic as they portrayed bus loads of visitors touring the award-winning Unity of Melbourne campus and flocking to hear the Dalai Lama who was scheduled to speak. News broadcast touted the classes and outreach programs while Reverend Beth delegated to her large staff from her rocking chair on the wrap-around veranda of the new administration building. The joy of imagination combined with the synergy of the group was contagious. Bob explained, "The acting out is a key element in the process. It is not only great fun, but as the players say the words and act as if it were real, it becomes real for them. At an emotional level, they are involved in the future they want for their church."

After the skits, the large group convened to document the implications of their journey into the imagination. They documented the staffing, facility and financial requirements to meet their dream scenarios. With these requirements in mind, the participants broke into small groups again, this time to write Provocative Propositions, or possibility statements. The propositions were to be:

  • Stated in the present tense. "Unity of Melbourne is…" They express a specific aspect of the future ideals as if they already exist.
  • Grounded in what works. They are based on the stories of the peak experiences of the past that surfaced during Discovery.
  • Provocative. They stretch the church beyond its familiar boundaries.
  • Desirable. They take the church where people want to go.

By the end of the day on Saturday, the various groups had created 19 provocative propositions. These bold statements each captured a key aspect of their collective Dream. Reverend Beth commented, "Each statement is almost like an affirmation. It is so clear to me why this process works." Each proposition was written on a flipchart page and posted around the room to await the Sunday afternoon conclusion of the Ai Summit.

An Ai Summit is designed to get the entire system, or at least representatives of each stakeholder group, in the same room for a 'sleep twice' meeting. "The time frame is important," explained Kathleen. "The process gives participants ample time to mull over ideas. The subconscious mind continues to nurture and incubate ideas, even while you sleep." By Sunday afternoon, there were two more propositions posted for consideration.

When the group gathered for the final session, there were some new faces and some who had been in previous sessions were missing, but one of the axioms of the process is 'whoever shows up are the right ones.' The newcomers quickly caught on to the spirit of the process as each proposition was read aloud, again looking for common themes and opportunities to consolidate and combine the statements.

In the end, the twenty one propositions were distilled down to nine "directional buckets." The buckets included finances, facilities, adult education, youth education, outreach to the community, inreach to the congregation, a theater group, and a team to keep the vision alive. Each of these nine topics became the focus of an open discussion group, tasked to devise an action plan to move in the desired direction. Actions plans were documented and interested persons signed up and agreed to continue meeting to create the Future of Unity Now. It was F.U.N. and it proved once again:

  • What we ask determines what we find.
  • What we find determines how we talk.
  • How we talk determines how we imagine together.
  • How we imagine together determines what we will achieve
Kathleen Rich-New and Robert F. New are principles in Clarity Works! an organizational development consulting firm specializing in the application of Appreciative Inquiry. For additional information, visit their website, or e-mail or phone (321)452-7308.








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This page updated: February 3, 2004

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