The American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., are currently involved in a project called, “Seek It–Finding God’s Way for a New Day” for the purpose of developing an over-arching vision for the denomination. The tool being used to accomplish this task is known as “Appreciative Inquiry.”

Appreciative Inquiry is a process that seeks to uncover the best practices of an organization through engaging as many people from the organization as possible in reflective dialogue.

Rather than highlighting the problems of an organization, the place where many data-gathering techniques begin, Appreciative Inquiry begins by encouraging people to reflect upon moments in the history of the organization when its members were at its best. The process is “inquiry” because it is a form of qualitative research, and it is “appreciative” because it surfaces what people value in the organization.

There is power and potential in focusing upon strengths rather than weaknesses. One of the myths of individuals is that their greatest capacity for growth lies in the weakest areas of their performance. Research, however, reveals just the opposite. Marcus Buckingham in his book, Now, Discover Your Strengths shows how 2 million interviews induce the truth that, “Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength.”

Recently, the American Psychological Association conducted a meta-analysis of their studies on mental illness and mental health. They discovered that during the last 30 years, 45,000 studies had been conducted on mental illness compared to only 300 studies on mental health. Their president, Martin Seligman, has decided to refocus the field of psychology toward studies on human joy and well-being. There is power in identifying the positive aspects of who we are.

Comparatively, research on Appreciative Inquiry is beginning to reveal the power of helping an organization focus upon its best practices rather than its cultural flaws. Appreciative Inquiry seeks to identify the “positive core” of an organization rather than its glaring defects.

Encouraging such a focus has helped groups such as ProCare, McDonalds, John Deere and British Airways transform. Denominations and congregations are even more suited for the values and practices associated with Appreciative Inquiry.

Following a brief introduction, Appreciative Inquiry sessions typically begin by asking the gathered participants to interview one another in pairs using a pre-determined interview guide. Responses about best practices are shared both in small groups and reported out to the larger setting. The positive atmosphere grows as the meeting progresses. While negative comments are welcomed, the positive value being threatened by the concern is also surfaced, eventually leading to further ideas for positive change within the organization.

Once the positive focus begins, so does transformational change. Reading from Romans 12:1-2 tells us that the moment that the first interview is conducted, change is launched. Ultimate transformational change is about “the renewing of our minds.” Helping people focus upon previous moments of inspiration and renewal opens the door toward transformation.

Data gathering represents the first stage of “Discovery” in a four-step process of Appreciative Inquiry. The subsequent stages of Dream, Design and Destiny continue to build upon the information received by expanding the best practices revealed into more and more areas throughout the organization.

At its best, Appreciative Inquiry is a grass roots, bottom-up, common-purpose, cross-country effort. That kind of effort is a very good fit for Baptists, a historically autonomous yet interdependent organization gathered around a common purpose. By engaging in Appreciative Inquiry, American Baptists hope to add a level of clarity to their overall purpose as well as begin a process of transformation in the minds and hearts of those that call themselves “American Baptist.”

For more information about Appreciative Inquiry, I recommend The Power of Appreciative Inquiry by Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom or The Appreciative Inquiry Summit by James D. Ludema, et al.

Jeff Woods is associate general secretary for regional ministries with the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

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