The benefits of appreciative inquiry

I still remember some of the early program evaluations I conducted with parents.

I went into these meetings excited, ready to reflect upon the program year and celebrate all that God did in and through our ministry. Inevitably, though, my excitement was short-lived. After asking a mere question or two, a parent would hijack the conversation, shifting it from my question to their agenda. This would lead to an airing of grievances. One complaint would lead to another, like a cancer metastasizing until finally, the entire room would be engulfed. At that point, it was impossible to salvage the meeting and so I'd leave, disappointed and defeated, convinced there had to be a better mechanism for evaluation but unsure as to what it was.

Years later, I discovered that mechanism – appreciative inquiry - during a graduate school class I took on Assessment Strategies in Youth Ministry with Dr. Kara Powell. Appreciative inquiry is a “collaborative and highly participative system-wide approach to seeking, identifying, and enhancing the life-giving forces that are present when a system is performing optimally” (Memories, Hopes, & Conversations). Rather than problem-solve, appreciative inquiry focuses on the positive, reminding people of that which is good, encouraging them to imagine “what might be”, and then helping them to innovate “what will be”. To do this, appreciative inquiry uses questions like:

What are the most valuable aspects of our ministry?
When our ministry's at it's best, how does it shape our youth?
What makes our ministry unique?
What value does our ministry bring to our larger church?
Make three wishes for the future of our ministry. Describe what our church would look like if these wishes were to come true.

Having used this technique for several years now, I can confidently say the benefits of appreciative inquiry are many.

1. Appreciative inquiry shifts the focus from the negative to the positive, from weaknesses to strengths. In doing so, it actually impacts how things are remembered. It prevents people from becoming bogged down in the frustrations of the year and instead helps them recall the many ways in which God moved. 

2. By identifying strengths, appreciative inquiry allows ministries to adapt, change, and grow into the future by building upon those things they already excel at.

3. By focusing on a ministry's uniqueness, appreciative inquiry reduces the need to compare. Appreciative inquiry teaches you to embrace what is uniquely yours and in the process, to stop wishing for and obsessing over the things you lack. It challenges you to stop trying to become more like the ministry down the street and instead to use the assets at your disposal to become the ministry God made you to be.

4. Appreciative inquiry embraces and encourages creativity. It generates ideas that more traditional forms of evaluation leave no room (let alone energy) for.

5. Appreciative inquiry provides momentum for the year ahead. It leaves people excited, eager to be part of your ministry's story.

I saw each of these five benefits of appreciative inquiry again last night when I used it to process the year with my adult leaders. At the end of the night, my mind was spinning from what I'd heard my leaders say. More importantly, though, by the end of the night, we'd identified and celebrated what God had done in our ministry throughout the previous year. In so doing, we not only looked backward, but forward. As we did, we caught a glimpse of not just our history, but of where God is leading us in the future.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

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