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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

If I Knew Then What I Know Now, I'd've Developed imagine/Northampton Differently.

Hindsight: n.

The ability to understand, after something has happened, what should have been done or what caused the event. 

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

By 1841, "backsight of a firearm," from hind (adj.) + sight. Meaning "seeing what has happened" is attested by 1862, American English, (in proverbial "If our foresight was as good as our hindsight, it would be an easy matter to get rich"), probably a formation on the model of foresight.
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
In the last 7 years I've many times related the story of reading Frost and Hirsch's The Shaping of Things to Come, while recuperating from my first and only bout with shingles, then inviting a group of friends from CT and MA for seven discussions around the book's intriguing main ideas. At the last discussion, a young couple came up to me and said: "If you ever do anything like what's in the book, we're in." Soon after' I realized from a conversation at one of our Worship Design Team weekly meetings at the Barn that we might actually be able to plant a church. We didn't know where, but we felt the conviction it was possible, and it went forward from there until moving to Northampton a year later.
What motivated my writing about this is the question of whether I'd've gone ahead and headed north if I knew then what I'd experience in the effort. At the very least, I may have been more prudent about the substantial challenges we'd continually be grappling with, and what it would take to succeed through them. 
From hindsight, I've picked a few of the most significant factors influencing where we are today. 
1. The need to have been better funded from the git. 
Clearly, we began the journey very underfunded. In reality, we needed 4 times as much as we raised. One of the members of the Leadership Team at the time (who subsequently chose to remain in CT) warned us repeatedly we'd run out of funds quickly if we could not grow the church soon after moving to Northampton,. He was adamant about it and he was right. Our costs were too high and we had a too small pool of donors to sustain us for very long. I was optimistic, but it was more like whistling in the dark than being prudent - the bane of rookies.
If I could roll back time and start from scratch, I'd have a much larger pool of donors and a bi-vocational job to support Tricia and I apart from the church. As soon as we moved to Noho, we were working to build a client base for counseling, inner healing and spiritual direction, but that takes time and our office space was expensive. It took months to build any sort of sustaining client base. While the church began to grow it was, and still is not anywhere big enough for full salaries, renting a space, and paying other bills. Sadly, before we left last September, we'd fallen into debt for the office. We told our landlord we would and with God's help have been able to pay him back in full. Tricia and I have a way to go with our apartment back rent, but are chipping away at it.
Money does not make ministry, but it does provide a secure base from which to operate with consistency. When it becomes a stubborn issue, the stress and anxiety which follows can deplete one's energy and divert one's focus on ministry. It was painful.

In hindsight, I would have been much more patient building the funds for what was actually needed.
2. The challenge of introversion.
Six of the eight original members of the imagine planting team from Simsbury, are introverts of varying intensity. While the lion share of introverts are not recluses or hopelessly awkward and "shy", they tend constitutionally not to voluntarily engage loads of strangers, or freely initiate and build relationships with new folks as a matter of course. They can do it, but then need plenty of down time and individual space to re-center or even recover for some.

Most church planting organizations don't pick introversion as a key ingredient for being a church planter, and for good reason. One of the challenges we encountered immediately in Northampton was having to engage as soon as we walked out our front door on Main Street. We'd often leave our comfort zones and talk to folks quite different from us. Tricia was quite bold with that. As we got to know them it became easier, but because disparate life experiences, there weren't many natural affinity connections. I found living where we lived  began to feel like a fishbowl of sorts. Remember, we lived at a Retreat Center at the back of the 40-acre church property in Simsbury. I needed a fair amount of down time to recharge to say the least.

Looking back on it now, I think we should have beat the bushes to recruit more extroverts into the leadership and the initial church planting team, especially folks with church planting experience. We had a number of gifts which suited the role, but not the outgoing/initiating connection gifts. That way we could've taken different avenues of engaging folks in a manner which fit our introverted temperaments. For me, doing so would have been less exhausting over the long haul. At the same time, I have discovered much about who I am with other people because of planting imagine. I've met people I'd never would've. I still needed to recharge after being with them, but they added value to how I see humanity; not all of them, but some. The imagineART Gallery was an exhilarating zenith for hosting strangers and connecting with interesting people of all sorts. Truth be told, I miss that.
3. Trained and equipped; the need for coaching. 

In today's church planting world there are many church planting resources including some sophisticated training and equipping models and programs. One component of the best of them is the availability of coaching. We really needed to be coached, especially through the increasingly challenging, bewildering, and painful  relationships we had with a few people.

None of us were trained as church planters, and while we were equipped to teach and counsel people in our church, we lacked the ability to identify clear, realistic goals, and then strategically press ahead with clear vision to reach them. We were visionaries, but sustained execution and follow-up was not our greatest strength and we didn't have the gifts in the church to augment ours, especially turning strategic vision into Kingdom reality. We tried, but couldn't consistently sustain iterative momentum toward what we defined as vision.

Now I recognize having a wise, knowledgeable, and deeply experienced church planting coach would have ameliorated some, perhaps most of our weaknesses, blind spots and errors. Being able to receive regular guidance from someone well-versed in the struggles inherent in planting a church in New England could've saved us some pain and re-focused our energies. A great coach calls for and builds on strengths in a disciplined manner while constantly bringing to light unnoticed weaknesses or glaring blind spots.

We poured ourselves into imagine, but a great coach would've channeled our energies and gifts toward what would offer the greatest possibility of reaching our goals in light of a crystal-clear Kingdom vision which fit us.

4. Missionaries rather than church planters?

Recently, Jim LaMontagne (he and his wife, Karin, also moved from Simsbury), one of the founders and the Teaching Catalyst at imagine had occasion to talk with someone who we knew at the Barn. This gentleman mentioned he felt we really functioned in Northampton more as missionaries than church planters. My take on it was that we spent much time serving the community at large and building relationships with folks who'd call themselves "non-believers" than focusing on growing imagine/Northampton as a church.

While, I know we saw most all we did as missional service, we also wanted to grow imagine in Northampton as a body of believers: "helping people discover and follow the God who is more than they imagine." Whether it was all the hours spent counseling, or teaching or joining the Chamber of Commerce, or opening our space to families for Halloween, or serving at the Interfaith Shelter, we desired for people to see and know Christ in us and perhaps open to Him.

So I think we were both missionaries and church planters. In hindsight, I think we need to be more deliberate about growing imagine as a church community with a clear vision and an ambitious, clear-sighted strategy to bring the Kingdom into the lives of folks desperately in need of what they don't realize. At the same time, meeting the needs of the poor, weak, sick, heavy-burdened and forgotten should always be a key facet of our mission while we exist.

5. Connecting with the musical community sooner.

While we were sitting in Simsbury dreaming of the future, I know we talked of connecting with the arts community in Northampton because so many of us were artists in one way or the other. Within the last year and a half, I've made a concerted effort to connect with the jazz community in Noho. I wish I'd done it sooner.

A few years ago, Jim, Eslie and I formed a band called One Flight Up with a guitarist in our church. We played a few gigs. Sadly, we struggled to keep it together after the guitarist left - mostly because we'd not connected with the larger musical community in the area. In 2014, I got wind of a jazz jam session every other Friday at the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Northampton so I decided give it a shot and have been playing there for months. It's a gathering of people who love to play jazz. They have varying degrees of skill, but a passion for learning and playing the music they love.

From playing there, I've been able to play a couple of paying jazz gigs in the area with some good musicians. In the last two weeks, I have joined another jam session with a couple of good players.

The point is we should have connected with the musical community earlier to build relationships and get them used to being around Christ-following musicians who are real people and love the music as they do. There are opportunities to open others to our faith by simply sharing life with them and breaking down their fears and prejudices against believers (some of them deserved). Establishing credibility in areas of competence opens doors to conversation around spiritual matters because you win people's trust. Jesus changes a heart, but we soften the resistance by offering genuine friendship and care.

6. Creating and maintaining a discipling culture.

Let me begin with the reality we spent much time building relationships and helping people grow in their walk with Christ: some of that came through counseling and spiritual direction; some of it came through leadership development; some of it came through cohorts I led; some of it came through Jim's teaching, much of it came through hours of relaxed conversation over food and drink. But I have to say we didn't have a systematic discipling paradigm through which to guide them. We also didn't have analytics to measure our effectiveness. I know that seems highfalutin for such a small work as ours, but over time I've become aware of the usefulness of such tools to identify if we're actually discipling people so they are equipped to do the same with others. I regret that now.

So if I have the chance to do it over again in the days ahead I will identify and make use of the most fruitful models and tools available for helping people become disciples who are well- equipped to help others become disciples. If imagine doesn't figure out how to do this through its people who have learned how to disciple, we will carry on as we have in the past in my opinion. I think we should do it and I think with some training and retooling we can.

7. Leadership taking more individual responsibility for ministry initiatives and on-going functions in the work.

While imagine is tiny right now, we need to create a leadership environment where every leader on the team has functional, clearly-marked responsibilities for which they are consistently accountable. We have some of that: Jim handles the bulk of the teaching on Sunday morning, for instance. In our LT meetings, we all weigh in on what's happening in people's lives, including ours, problems needing to be addressed, new ministry ideas, program and event possibilities, rebuilding the ministry, future direction, real-life dilemmas, etc. But, much of that is group think and management by committee where we all address issues and talk about projects or parts of projects. It is not common for us to delegate ownership over something.

The problem is things slip through the cracks; there is not enough careful follow-through to concrete and measurable results, and we don't hold each other respectfully accountable very much. Granted, we're not running a mega-church, but sound management principles (aka stewardship) facilitate a health organization in my opinion. We often don't check in with each other to inquire about project so and so is going, or asking the "whatever happened to what we were going to do about...?" questions with regularity.

A simple re-tooling would be to examine best practices with how we operate as a church, divide responsibilities, and then measure effectiveness from a leadership vantage point. That's not to say we never do any of that sort of thing, but it's pretty organic and informal with not a lot of deliberate follow-through, quantifiable results, or healthy scrutinizing.

Also, our LT meetings often function like a fellowship group where we check in with each other, tell stories about the craziness of our journey over the week, the last 7 years, etc. We are close friends, brothers and sisters...all good stuff, and needful. But, we can get off on tangents quite regularly and lose productive focus. Dare I say this, but I think our meetings should be more "business-like" so we fulfill our responsibilities with skill and determination.

I must add that my life-long attention deficit disorder doesn't help one bit.

8. We don't pray enough.

From hindsight I see I've neglected to systematically inculcate the rich spiritual discipline of prayer in all its many facets.. Many Christians I've known over the years said with regret that they don't pray enough. Some would say they have a quiet time in the morning where they pray. A few I've known pray as a matter of course throughout the day as they work, some even stop the work to pray.

The manner of prayer I'm talking about is persisting and prevailing in a direction until God answers or says to stop. In the retreat ministry at the CFR we learned, practiced and taught soaking in prayer meaning taking extended periods of time to talk to God and listen for Holy Spirit's whispers, to keep a prayer journal, and regularly go alone to a quiet place so as to sojourn with and seek after Him. It was our experience that many if not most Christians talked more about prayer than prayed. I certainly was guilty of that at times.

At imagine, we've had small number of mini-retreats for prayer, both as a church and as a Leadership Team. Currently, once a month we've begun a Sunday half-day retreat as our worship service. In Noho, we tried to launch a Wednesday night prayer time, but hardly anyone came. Prayer is hard work and most people do not know how to prevail for any length of time: petitioning, interceding, praying the Scriptures, listening, being silent before God (that can be an offering prayer of humility and adoration), spontaneous singing to him, praying or singing in tongues, praising and exalting him,  and lifting up His Name in prayerful worship, doing prayer walks, writing out your prayers then meditating on them, praying the Psalter, praying the ancient prayers of the Church such as the Phos Hilaron, etc...

A do over here for me would be to inculcate into the life of our church prevailing prayer with regular times of soaking in prayer together. In my opinion, being a praying church is a humble and servant-hearted church gradually growing rich in spiritual wisdom and close to God as a family who desires that His ways prevail in the world: serving God through spending time with Him alone and together, and serving the world through being prayer warriors, and disciples who go in His Name every day to bring his Kingdom.

I hope to learn from what I've just written and change my ways as the Holy Spirit leads me.