What questions are your people asking?

Aligning your answers to the questions on people’s minds has a calming and focusing effect on a change process.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts about the keys to leading change.

What questions are top of the mind of the people you are charged to lead? How do changes that you are contemplating align with those questions?

I have observed several change processes fail because followers did not have the “ears to hear.” Leaders were providing answers to questions that followers did not have. Getting support for action was like pushing a rock uphill. As I indicated last week, when the key questions are widely shared, the strategy unfolds with the “rock” going downhill.

A saintly former missionary at my church taught me this lesson.

As Mary and I walked out of the sanctuary, she touched my arm and thanked me for a sermon that I had preached three years before. She quoted the title and text. She said it was so memorable to her because it addressed the question that was most on her mind, “How do we live when we don’t know what is going to happen next?” At the time, our pastor lay at home critically ill. Members took turns preaching, and all of us were waiting news.

My sermon was focused on life in the wilderness. I had preached the same sermon many times, but never before or since did it have the same power as that day. I learned the impact of giving voice to what was on the minds of 600 people. Mary was one of many church members who talked to me about the sermon over the next few years.

For those who have the opportunity to preach and lead, the sermon is a blessing and curse. Because the preacher prepares and delivers 20 minutes every Sunday, there is the opportunity to shape conversation in the congregation. However, it is far more difficult to keep asking the same question until the congregation is ready to wrestle with it than it is to deliver an answer. As the guest preacher, I could preach one sermon and listen for three years.

In order to understand the questions on the minds of a congregation, I have invited everyone who would come to a meeting. For 30 minutes or more, groups of eight would share their questions with each other -- no answers, just questions.

Leaders would gather and sort the questions into broad themes or categories and craft a basic question that summarized the concern. A moderator would bring the questions to a panel of church leaders who would address them.

I noticed that seldom does this process result in new information being shared. Yet the tone of the conversation is shifted when the information is presented in connection to a question that is on the minds of many people.

Frequently, there are no easy answers to the questions. Many Christian leaders face “wicked problems” -- which Jennifer Riel defines as a problem that changes as you try to solve it, and you’re not sure when the problem is solved. I have found that taking the time for a group to voice its questions and realize that there are no immediate answers has a calming and focusing effect.

When Greg Jones and I teach a Doctor of Ministry course on strategy, the final assignment is to frame the three most important strategic questions for the student’s ministry context.

The students write three to five pages on each question, explaining and analyzing the issues that need to be grappled with, the people/partners who need to be involved, and the ways in which those questions will be fruitfully addressed and progress made. Assessment is made both on the quality/acuity of the framing questions and the explanation/analysis of the issues.

I think I should complete the assignment for my ministry.