I’ve been thinking a lot about “engagement” these days. The first reason is personal. Two days before Christmas, my daughter and her boyfriend got engaged. As you might imagine, it created a lot of buzz in our house; there were calls to aunts and uncles, Facetiming cousins, and face-to-face visits with grandparents. Today, several weeks later, conversations around being engaged continue, as does their discovery of what it means for them.
The second reason is professional. Having just co-authored a book with Hayim Herring on leading in this digital age, we discovered that engagement is a very important issue for congregations. As the ways of thinking about congregational membership (giving money and regularly attending worship) become increasingly out of sync with societal values, leaders are wrestling with new ways of thinking about what it means to be connected to and associated with faith communities. Pastor Greg Meyer of Jacob’s Well, MN said it well. He said, “Of all the things we are stewards of with our community, their attention is one of the biggest, and it is almost the hardest. It is almost easier to get people to give than to get their attention.”
Leaders shared with us that the ways they had “always been doing things,” like committee work, passive communication, and assuming loyalty accompanies membership, didn’t have enough holding power to keep people connected to the congregation’s mission. However, when they shifted their focus from membership to engagement as an organizing principle it not only changed key practices, but it had a ripple effect throughout the organization and changed the culture as a whole. What would it mean to have an engaging culture?
Let’s step back and think about the word engage. One understanding of being engaged is a promise or pledge of one person to another. But there are other understandings according to Merriam-Webster – they include to take part in something, give attention to something or to come together. (Merriam-Webster definition – https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/engage) Shifting toward engagement as an organizing principle is to become a community where people come together or take part in something that is meaningful to them; it is a community where passion or purpose hold the community, not membership status. The shift may seem subtle, but this slight change in focus made a big difference in these organizations.
Engagement is multi-faceted and is not easily measured. Yet engagement in the congregations and nonprofits we studied had themes. One was about how they creatively connected with people within their organization; another was the unique ways they were in relationship with people and organizations outside their organization. Amongst these themes were three sets of practices: valuing process over procedure, integrating and relying on collective intelligence, and telling stories. In the end, congregations and nonprofits developed an ethos of openness – where the mission was clear, the work meaningful, and the boundaries messy.
There is no formula for establishing such a culture, but there are communities doing it. And we can learn from their experience. After fussing with this work for ten years, Jacob’s Well is clear about who they are – not fixated on creating members or model Christians, Jacob’s Well is a church focused on helping people create meaning in their lives. They believe a Christian understanding of God, a community willing to wrestle with this understanding, and awareness of contemporary culture is the way to approach this work. Everything they do is filtered through this mission and identity.
We share more about engagement in our book, Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose. For more information, go to Amazon or Rowman and Littlefield. You can also check out Hayim’s latest blog on Innovation.