A conversation last week with a group of pastors sounded a familiar theme. Although these pastors belong to different denominations, their refrain was the same when it comes to annual reports. “Why aren’t we ever asked to report on something that actually matters to a community of faith?” said one. “Attendance and budget are all we’re ever expected to provide,” echoed another.
How can church boards change this narrative? How can we begin asking – and reporting – things that reflect the spiritual and missional capacity of congregations?
About 70 years ago, African American theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman (1899-1981) wrote “The Threads in My Hand,” which became one of his best-known poems. It may offer your board a place to begin.
The Threads in My Hand – by Howard Thurman
Only one end of the threads, I hold in my hand.
The threads go many ways, linking my life with other lives.
One thread comes from a life that is sick; it is taut with anguish
and always there is the lurking fear that the life will snap.
I hold it tenderly. I must not let it go…
One thread comes from a high-flying kite;
it quivers with the mighty current of fierce and holy dreaming
invading the common day with far-off places and visions bright…
One thread comes from the failing hands of an old, old friend.
Hardly aware am I of the moment when the tight line slackened
and there was nothing at all — nothing…
One thread is but a tangled mass that won’t come right;
Mistakes, false starts; lost battles, angry words – a tangled mass;
I have tried so hard, but it won’t come right…
One thread is a strange thread – it is my steadying thread;
When I am lost, I pull it hard and find my way.
When I am saddened, I tighten my grip and gladness glides along its quivering path;
When the waste places of my spirit appear in arid confusion,
the thread becomes a channel of newness of life.
One thread is a strange thread – it is my steadying thread.
God’s hand holds the other end…
Can you imagine what it would be like for your church board to map the threads of your ministry as a starting point for your annual report? Everything from settings that are “taut with anguish” to places of vision, to moments of frailty or even failure?
And, most crucially, how about discussing – and reporting – “the steadying thread?”
Every congregation contains miles and miles of threads. Threads into the community, threads among those who worship together, threads within the small groups and sub-groups of the congregation, threads between participants and pastors. Threads of relationship, plans, dreams, convictions, values, and the inevitable “tangles.”
Visualizing where folks are connected (and where they are not), by mapping the threads of your ministry, will also serve to suggest where resources should be deployed.
One exercise that may get you started on this mapping:
Ask board members to write down the names of other groups and boards they are connected to and drop it off at the church office, unsigned. Make a list of these names (in no particular order, or alphabetically, or mixed up and melodic, or however the threads strike you) and read it aloud as a prose poem at the start of your next meeting.
Can you think of other ways to map the threads linking the life of your congregation with other lives … to trace the steadying thread that God is holding … and to make that mapping a part of your board conversation and your annual report?
Why, in Thurman’s poem, is one thread at once ‘strange’ and ‘steadying’ (and visa versa)?
What are some threads you are holding in your hand right now? Can you describe them to one another, as you begin your board meeting?
What are some threads your congregation is holding onto right now?
Are those threads visible in your budget? Where and how?