Possibility and Potentiality
June 26, 2017—I had an interesting conversation with a local church minister who expressed frustration about his congregation’s failure to live fully into its potential. That’s not an uncommon frustration for pastors and local church leaders. But I have found it helpful to make a distinction between possibility and potentiality, between what is theoretically possible and what is potentially viable.
In my thinking possibility refers to a future prospect. In a sense, to say “anything is possible” can be true, within reason. A congregation that is in its establishment phase (six to eighteen months) has open-ended possibilities. That translates into an almost palpable sense of hopefulness, lots of energy, and a sense of adventure which facilitate risk-taking. But it does not take long for a new church start to move into its next life stage of formation and formatting.
At that point potentiality overshadows possibility. Potentiality has to do with the inherent ability and capacity for growth, development, and agency. While all congregations may envision many possibilities at their inception, very quickly the reality of their potential becomes evident. Not all congregations have equal potential. The numbers of factors that influence potentiality are numerous: location, culture (values and practices), socio-economic and educational level of members, the capacities of its leaders, social and economic context, level of external financial support, etc. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Some factors related to potentiality are difficult to quantify (like values, attitudes, willingness)
- Some factors may be outside of the control of the congregation (context, location, economics)
- Potentiality may not be related to effectiveness. Some congregations don’t grow numerically or develop organizationally because they’ve reached the stage (or conditions) where they are effective enough for their needs and desires, and, the mission to which they are called.
- Potentiality requires capacity—in other words, “the talent must be in the room.”
Distinguishing between the ideals of possibilities and the realities of potentiality may at least get us unhooked from unrealistic expectations. It can allow us to lead the congregation in discernment with more integrity and hopefulness.
By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning. Adapted from Perspectives on Congregational Leadership. See Galindo, The Hidden Lives of Congregations for a fuller treatment on congregational lifespan stages. The Center for Lifelong Learning offers clergy opportunity for peer-coaching on issues related to congregational leadership in the Leadership in Ministry workshops. Four locations are available: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and West Virginia. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops click on the link.