What Target can Teach Religious Leaders

Like many Minnesotans, I am a regular Target customer. There are several that I visit on a regular basis – one near my house, another near work, and another “on my way home.” It use to be that I could visit a Target store in Apple Valley, MN or Fargo, ND or Anaheim, CA and easily find my way around because the layout of the store was basically the same. Sure they had different items (especially seasonal ones), but overall there was, what seemed to me, a universal pattern.

Recently that pattern has changed. For example, the Target by my work in St. Paul added a liquor store at one of the entrances. And the one “on my way home” had the home decorating items laid out in a display similar to someone’s living room. While I can still find the groceries and cosmetics, sporting goods and books, over the past several years I have begun to seen changes…most of them subtle, but some a bit more dramatic.

Last night I had to get groceries (and a few other things), so I went to my local Target and noticed more changes. In addition to the redesigned self-serve check-out lines there were several displays “between departments” that integrated various items from across the story and created “real life” scenarios. One scenario was all things “heading to the beach” and another was “what you need for your office.” It was interesting because they took things from different sections of the store and they put it together in a way that made sense to me. It was how I use their products at home. (A chair from the furniture section, with a pillow and rug from home decorating and a book from the book section with a Mother’s Day card sitting right next to it.) Not only that, but they put them at intersections or places that I would pass for various reasons. It was like they had mapped people’s travel patterns and were creating hubs throughout the store. While I noticed this new feature, I didn’t think much of it the rest of the night, as I had groceries to put away (along with the other items – planned and not planned – that I had purchased).

Having also been to worship this weekend, another place I visit regularly, I paused today to reflect more on my visit to Target. Maybe there are lessons religious leaders can learn from Target? And in fact, I think Target is embodying several of the principles Hayim Herring and I discovered in our research. Let me offer two thoughts:

  1. From departments toward “real life scenarios” – The universal pattern that I have come to appreciate at Target had all of the products separated into departments. If you want to be efficient, that’s a great plan, right? Well maybe. It is what I grew-up with and what I was use to, but sometimes the separation isn’t the most helpful. Take this example – Let’s say it’s summer and I’m having people over for a backyard BBQ and I forgot the marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers for S’Mores. That’s a lot of running round to get three items. And some time, like before the 4th of July, I’ll find S’More stuff in a display together, but mostly these three items live aisles apart. You see departments cluster things with the idea that like will be with like. But often times, things don’t fall neatly in those categories and/or items that are often used together are separated. But Target is taking the “S’Mores display” a step further. What if items where both/and? What if putting things together, rather than separating them, was most useful? And what if, like the S’Mores display, these “integrated” displays changed on a regular basis? Like Target, congregations have believed departmentalizing was the best way to help people navigate ministry opportunities. But maybe those days are changing? Maybe what is most helpful for people wanting to engaging in ministry is “putting the pieces together” in a way that reflects their everyday life? Target didn’t throw out all their departments as they began this new approach, and congregations don’t have to either. What I learned from Target is that a shift is taking place, from segregation and efficiency toward integrated and “real life.” And for now, we live in a hybrid.
  2. Tending to flow and intersections – I personally don’t mind numbered aisles and orderly traffic patterns. In fact, I love being efficient. But what I noticed when Target created these new “real life display areas” is that they caught my attention. I slowed down, stopped and looked at several items. And not only did my pace change, my mood did as well – I didn’t feel like I was in a warehouse, but rather in a more “intimate setting.” Sure, this might seem like an exaggeration, but think about the difference between going to a large chain store and a small boutique. What if you could create a bit of both in one? Tending to traffic patterns, or the people’s patterns, congregations create create smaller meeting points that brought people together from various “departments.” If you could create such an intersection, what would you do in that space? What might invite people to slow down their pace and have conversation? What Hayim and I did discover is that intersections, hubs, help not only information flow, but also are meaningful in cultivating relationships.

I’m not ready to say congregations should become Target. What I am suggesting is that there are lessons to be learned from a variety of places on how people can gather in meaningful ways. We as congregational leaders need to pay attention. It is time to rethink our patterns, because people’s patterns are being reshaped in all areas of their lives. And changing patterns is not about being novel, it is about realizing that the way congregations remain faithful is by engaging people in ministry. Therefore, stepping back and reflecting on what we are doing and while is so important.

Who knew. Paving a path.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

So this happened today, an article I co-authored appeared in an online Jewish publication.

Seriously. If you would have told my younger self that such a thing would happen, I would have thought you were crazy. Me? Cradle-Lutheran and seminary professor of leadership. What conditions would ever be right for such a thing to happen?

Well it did. Today. And the path from my childhood to this moment was not linear, and frankly the article was more about an opportune moment than a strategic plan, but today Rabbi Hayim Herring and I have an article published in the The New York Jewish Week. “Toward Paving A Path Between Religious And Cultural Wars” is a response to Peter Beinart’s “Breaking Faith” (an article that appeared in the April edition of The Atlantic) but it is also a testimony to the partnership we develop in writing Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World (our new book).

SUCH A TIME AS THIS

As our country seems to be separating into enclaves and seeing difference as division, Hayim and I were quietly talking with leaders of Jewish and Christian congregations and nonprofits who were discovering innovative and creative ways of cultivating communities of meaning and purpose. These communities operated with a posture open to difference and used practices that created dialogue and nurtured relationships. As we learned from each of them, we (as researchers, authors, and religious leaders) were doing the same ourselves – opening ourselves up to a particular other and discovering practices that created rich dialogue and nurtured a deep friendship. All while the national commentary, in the shadow of the presidential election, was highlighting divisions and trying to instill fear. There was a disconnect from our lived experience and the national rhetoric. There have been more times then I can count this past year when I have said, “There has to be another way.”

And then two weeks ago, as Hayim and I are both entering each other religious spheres and co-leading learning events, this article starts circulating around social media, and we decide to offer our voice.

PAVING A PATH 

Today I taught seminary students, current and future leaders of Christian communities, about how God calls us to open ourself to others – both known and unknown. This call from God is counter to what I have learned and been taught as a person who grew up in Western culture; a culture where individualism reigns and personal happiness has replaced visions of shalom and working for the common good. I believe these words, but I must admit, I am a novice in living them out.

Today I share with you, others known and unknown, my commitment to be part of the movement of paving a path to a new future. I will, in my spheres of influence, be a curious neighbor, open to hearing the stories of people I encounter, and working for justice and peace. And I am grateful for a conversation partner outside my usual circles who is also on such a path. And I invite you to consider ways you too can be part of this movement – a movement where difference does not have to lead to division and otherness does not have to be feared.

Engagement

picture-engagement

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.

Disruption

disrupt-definition

Snow days are disruptive. You can’t write them into your planner, and you can only get so far being prepared. Yesterday we had our first snowfall and life was disrupted. Several inches blanketed my driveway (meaning someone had to shovel) and the roads weren’t plowed (making me late for church). To say my day didn’t go as planned was an understatement. Being the first means there is more to come, and since I am a Minnesotan it will be fine, but yesterday I had to readjust. Hurrying, or working harder, doesn’t change anything on snow days, you simply have to adapt, reframe your expectations, and live in the moment. For those of us from places where snow and winter go together, we accept this reality and learn to lean into the season (maybe even finding ways to enjoy it).

Households can be disrupted. This week last year our household was. We were finally empty-nesters (and even the dog was living in DC with our daughter). We were happily figuring out a new pattern of living together and were just beginning to remodel the house when we received two phone calls (one from each daughter). Before we knew it our young adult children were moving home, with all of their possessions. With no kitchen or living room, dust all over, and a basement full of “extra stuff” four adults (and one dog) were faced with figuring out how to live into “a new normal.” As parents of young adults know these opportunities happen, and such disruptions are both challenging and gifts. Today I will say this disruption falls more on the side of gift, but it did take all of us being open to change and learning to live with new patterns.

Our world is being disrupted. In many ways, and on multiple fronts, society is experiencing disruption. We can no longer rely on our once predictable patterns. Frustrations, and even hurt, comes when situations play out differently than we thought. Spending habits, leadership decisions, healthcare, the way people learn, and even how we “rent movies” are all areas experiencing disruption. Living into these disruptions takes energy, often energy I don’t have, and challenges me to open myself to new ways of understanding. Navigating disruption is hard, because like snow days, it is hard to predict and the magnitude of the disruption matters. (One inch of snow is very different than 12 inches!) Unlike the disruptions in my household, I don’t always have the patience to endure the transition of the disruptions in society or have the will to do the hard work necessary to find a way forward.

For Christians, Christmas is disruptive. Jesus’ birth disrupted people 2,000 years ago and the message of God’s radical love for the world has been doing so every since. We as people of faith are invited into a new way of being in the world, one which frames our lives and our communities in ways differently.

As leaders of congregations and nonprofits, many of us see and have experienced the disruption in our time, yet knowing about disruption doesn’t always help us understand what it means for us. And with so many things on our to-do-list, it is easy to simply work harder. But such an appropriate does not getting us to where we, and our organizations, need to go. For the sake of the missions we are called to, it is time we slow down and open ourselves to adjusting our expectations.

In Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose, my co-author (Hayim Herring) and I name this disruptive moment organizations are experiencing as a paradigm shift. Paradigm shifts require, among other things, rethinking leadership and examining our frameworks for seeing the world. Like other disruption, we believe there is life on the other side, and it can be rich and abundant, but getting there means reflecting, reframing, and creating new patterns.

So today, and in the days ahead, I hope you will join us in learning about this disruptive paradigm shift and wondering about what it means for you and the organization you are called to lead.

Taking a Leap of Faith

My colleague, Rabbi Hayim Herring, and I, are thrilled to announce that Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platform, People and Purpose, is now available.

Order in time for Hanukkah and Christmas and receive a 40% Discount  (Save 40% on all purchases for a limited time by using the code RL40LC16 when you order!)

Two years ago, we didn’t know one another. But we took a leap of faith (one Protestant, one Jewish) to collaborate on a significant project. The value of learning from a member of the same human family, but a different spiritual tribe, has been immeasurable.

Are you curious about:

  • How congregations and nonprofits are seeking to maintain community when relationships seem so fragile today?
  • How spiritual and nonprofit communities can make decisions rapidly, thoughtfully and inclusively in these changing times?
  • How professional and volunteer leaders are navigating the tensions of being faithful stewards of their organizations’ traditions, and responsive leaders to the disruptive pace of innovation?

We were, too, so we took another leap of faith and invited fifteen Jewish and Lutheran congregations and nonprofit organizations throughout the United States to be part of a research project. Some were established congregations and nonprofits that were becoming less hierarchical and more innovative. Others were start-ups that emerged at the dawn of social networks, are now adding more structure as they have grown, but don’t want to lose their entrepreneurial D.N.A. Whether old or new, they are navigating a paradigm shift in minimizing more cumbersome, hierarchical ways of working and fostering more fluid and creative networks to advance their missions.

Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose provides practical guidance to professional and volunteer leaders who view their organizations as platforms where people can find greater personal meaning by engaging with others who care about the same mission. We believe the book is unique as it:

  • Bridges faith communities.
  • Blends theory with tools, texts and hands-on resources.
  • Combines research with lived stories of congregations and organizations.
  • Addresses the desire of both established and newer organizations to deepen engagement with individuals, and transform their communities by redesigning how they are organized.

Several of our colleagues graciously shared their reactions to our book:

Allison Fine, co-author of, The Networked Nonprofit, and renowned expert on social networks and organizations noted, “One of the most pressing issues facing our society is the disruption of traditional organizations dedicated to our communal well-being; congregations and nonprofits. Herring and Elton have written a very important and practical book on a critical topic; how to restructure our most important institutions to match the urgency of working in a networked world.”

Peggy Hahn, Executive Director of LEAD, a national organization dedicated to growing Christian leaders, said that, “This book dares to link congregations and non-profit organizations in strategic conversations essential for thriving in a fast-changing world. This is a way forward.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder, executive director of Mechon Hadar, and author of Empowered Judaism added that, “This book artfully breaks down the barriers that often exist between new and old non-profits. By taking a critical eye to both, the authors present findings untold in other books on congregational change, facilitating a powerful experience for the reader looking to reflect on organizational success.” (You can click here for additional reviews.)

We hope you’ll take a leap of faith, too, and not only purchase Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose, but enter into discussion and innovation with leaders in your community, and maybe even someone from a different faith background! The dynamics of disruption and leadership responses are similar in Jewish and Protestant communities, so stay tuned for more news about how you can participate in a network of leaders interested in these issues. You can do so by connecting with Hayim (options for social media of your choice, top right) or connecting with Terri (telton@luthersem.edu, www.facebook.com/terri.elton, @TerriElton).

Thank you,

Terri Martinson Elton and Hayim Herring

 

 

Platforms, People, and Purpose

screen-shot-2016-10-12-at-10-29-58-pm

It’s arrived! After months of conversations, planning, research, writing, editing, and waiting, I received my first copy from the hands of a FedEx delivery person. Nervous and excited, I opened the package and held the book in my hands for the first time. Our baby has arrived and is ready to meet the public.

In the weeks and months ahead, my co-author, Hayim Herring, and I will be introducing you to our findings and to the congregations and nonprofits we studied. Until then, I simply wanted to share the good news with you, and invite to you take a peek (click here for more information).