Six ways to grow ownership and accountability toward shared purpose

How do you grow ownership and accountability amongst the people who share the journey within the faith community you lead? Being involved in a number of visioning days for different parishes and groups within ACSQ recently has got me reflecting on what it takes for people to be released to take meaningful collective action on what they feel passionate about. In the picture above are a group who assembled at St Francis College on 16 November in response to the question, “What are our hopes for Anglican Youth, Children’s and Family’s ministry (AYCF) over the next two years?” From left to right are The Rev’d Richard Browning, Vanessa Gamack, Stacey McCowan, The Rev’d Michael Stalley, Eve James, The Rev’d Dr Ruth Mathieson, Kym Reid, Jordan Cuskelly, Jack Horton and Ad Reid, who contributed to the Open Space and Talking Circle conversations to nominate some priorities for AYCF to take action on.

At the heart of people taking shared action on what is important to them is providing a space where they feel free to have conversations with others sharing a common passion. Without this energy, buy-in and shared commitment, leaders can propose the most relevant projects and ideas in the world but may generate only limited momentum towards them, or find people dropping away without following through. What leaders can do is create a space where their people direct the topics of conversation and are empowered to instigate responses and sustainable solutions to what is raised. One of the gifts of working predominately with volunteers is the pool of motivation that they bring with them in choosing to participate within a faith community. How to effectively tap into this intrinsic motivation becomes vitally important, especially when available resources – people and otherwise – may be limited for us. What is not limited is our access to God’s Spirit, the great animator of our individual and collective lives.

Here are six ideas for growing buy-in and accountability amongst those in your faith community.

1.     Set the space

Setting up your meeting space for curious and compassionate conversations helps orient people for exploration and commitment to the outcomes that emerge. Nothing says “same old boring meeting where I passively follow the predictable agenda” then large office tables, PowerPoint slides and unimaginatively familiar surroundings! Why not ditch the office desks for coffee tables, PowerPoint slides for fragrant coloured pens and butcher paper, notebooks for colourful sticky notes of differing shapes, and A4 meeting agendas for vases of flowers?

2.     Empty the agenda

Too often I’ve attended meetings where the agenda is pre-filled, while the gathering’s purpose itself may not be crystal clear. Once we have set the physical surroundings for a different sort of interaction, we are freed to create space for meaningful and productive discussion by abandoning a pre-set agenda. This isn’t just about removing dot points from a written agenda, but about coming into a conversation with an open mind emptied of pre-envisaged solutions or outcomes. This will include surfacing our assumptions for scrutiny by ourselves and others and being honest about expectations that may not be avoidable. For example, at the AYCF visioning day the scope of conversations on youth, children’s and families ministries was spelt out at the start of the day. It was decided that these ministries included both what was organised at a diocesan level for these demographics, but also at a parish level, and that young adults in their twenties were included in the age range.

3.     Co-design a compelling question

Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes to formulate the right question, because as soon as I have identified the right question, I can solve the problem in less than five minutes.” Asking the right question is the key to opening up a conversation and maintaining engagement. A high-quality question homes in on what is meaningful for the participants, sparks our curiosity and invites us to investigate further. While answers tend to bring closure, questions open us up to exploration. Jesus was a master at avoiding shutting down conversations by rushing to quick answers. Instead, he responded to people seeking insight with questions that prompted them to think about and explore the implications of God’s presence in their lives.

Some guidelines for choosing questions:

  • Ask open-ended questions, instead of ones with a simple yes/no answer.
  • Good questions promote curiosity and inquiry, without the need to jump to immediate action or problem solving.
  • Quality questions continue to surface constructive ideas and possibilities.
  • As a check, pose possible questions before hand to key people who’ll participate in the conversations to see if it holds their energy and attention.

So-called ‘powerful questions’:

  • Are clear and simple
  • Generate energy
  • Are thought provoking
  • Focus inquiry
  • Challenge assumptions
  • Open fresh possibilities
  • Evoke further questions
  • Focus attention, intention and passion.

For example, a struggling parish looking for a new priest might be tempted to ask, “Who is the person who will save us from further decline?” Alternatively, the question could be reframed as, “Who’s the right person to join us in where God is calling us to be?”

4.     Have a clear process

Once we have a welcoming space and clear purpose for getting together, some clarity on the process we’ll collectively follow gives us a safe ‘container’ from which to creatively explore a well-designed question. In the past few decades simple, yet powerful, methodologies have been honed to focus people’s energy and commitment towards purposeful outcomes. Such methodologies as Talking Circles, Appreciative Inquiry, World Café, Collective Story Harvesting and Open Space Technology have been carefully road tested and documented by communities of practice, such as the international Art Of Hosting Community (see

5.     Ask participants to fill the agenda

One approach to assist participants to set up their own agenda for meeting conversations is through a ‘Marketplace’. This is simply a section of a wall or large whiteboard that is set aside for participants to place their conversation topics – each written down on a separate sheet of paper. Participants can then nominate which of the assembled topics are of most interest to them. Note that this is a key element of Open Space Technology, where several conversations are conducted on topics of interest at the same time, but the approach can also be used as a stand-alone technique for setting a meeting agenda that all will participate in together at once.

The Marketplace was a concept very familiar to the Apostle Paul. It was a place, in his case in trading cities around the Mediterranean Sea, where people met together to exchange goods, services, and – just as importantly – new ideas and information.

6.     Offer genuine choice in prioritising topics, issues or solutions

Sometimes a leader can hand over decision making about what course of action to take on a particular issue to a group, like parish council. At other times the leader may need to make the final decision, but will want clear feedback on parishioner preferences as part of the basis for decision making. One simple technique for prioritising topics, issues or solutions raised in a group discussion is ‘Dotopoly’.

Dotopoly uses coloured dot stickers that are allocated to each participant, who then votes on their preferences by attaching their dots to their preferred item on the Marketplace wall. For example, at the AYCF visioning day, participants were given 3 dots each. They were told they could distribute dots as they wished: three to one item that was their overwhelming preference; or two to a preferred choice and one to their next preferred option; or where three options were of roughly equal preference, one dot could be allocated to each.

Trying a few simple practices will allow us to create space for curious exploration of the topics that are meaningful for our people – thereby growing buy-in and accountability. We’ve all attended unimaginatively run meetings with laborious pre-set agendas that block us expressing our passion and responsibility for our Christ-inspired life together.  Setting our communal spaces, emptying the literal and metaphorical agenda, setting a compelling question, clarifying our group process with simple methodologies and offering practices for prioritising group responses, will open up space for us to access God’s Spirit of limitless animation, creativity and power.

Want to read more on growing buy-in and accountability within your faith community membership? Try ‘Vital Christian Community: 12 Characteristics of Healthy Congregations’ by Alissa Newton and Phil Brochard, US Episcopalian priests with congregational development roles in their respective diocese.

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