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September 2017
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Last night in my class at Fordham on “Pastoral Planning,” a class about planning and evaluation practices for religious communities, we read and discussed Mark Lau Branson’s book Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry and Congregational Change (Alban, 2004).

Branson, borrowing from business world planning theory called “appreciative inquiry,” argues that churches should not orient their planning around solving problems but around reaching for a new future emboldened by grateful remembering about what has given life in this community. The planning energy then gets centered around what people have received from the community, and how they might continue to do so in new ways, rather than what is going wrong. In part this is just a shift of emphasis from fixing the negative to deepening the positive, but in part this is a really different cast of mind about how to take the temperature of a religious community. Branson finds in the Psalms and in the Christian scriptural letters of Paul the warrants for the priority of gratitude and thanksgiving before lament and criticism.

(Branson does something interesting with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where early on a series of “if” questions is posed or implied: “If there is any encouragement… consolation… sharing…” etc. Branson suggests that with the “if” explicit or implied, Paul means to ask his readers to search their memories for whether and how these experience might be true for them. I appreciated the attention of the rhetorical character of Paul’s letter-writing and Branson’s creative relating of it to communal decision-making, allowing contemporary communities to ask: Have we been this way? Have we been that way? When? What was it like? Why?)

After class, I thought about the theological work I do with music. Much of it is “appreciative” in a sense somewhat like Branson’s. I tend to take off from what is (or could be) “working” or giving life for fans or musicians (me or others) in music, and then to associate that strength with material (ideas, concepts, practices, texts) we tend to think of as theological. Like all theology, it is a rhetorical exercise, of course. A rhetoric with an ethic, at least I hope so: orchestrating identities with respect to (a) claiming power(s).  Theology in the service of a yes to the most one and all can have from life. Theology beginning with a “thank you.”

As a further meditation on gratitude (for which I am also grateful), here is Alanis performing “Thank U”:

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Tommy Beaudoin, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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