In the animal kingdom, what makes the human unique is our brains. There are many species that use collaborative behavior. But the human has developed the capacity to collaborate through shared attention. It is the ability of two or more people to not only pay attention to the same object but also be aware that they are paying attention to the same object. For this blog I'll be referring to shared attention as focus.
In general, there are two processes that direct our collective focus. The first, an anxious focus, is an automatic reaction to a perceived threat or worry. For example, we might become concerned about the health of another person and focus more of our attention on them. On the other end of the spectrum, we might draw the attention of others to our self and be concerned about our own well-being. Murray Bowen’s concept of the triangle is relevant here. As anxiety increases in a relationship system, person A becomes concerned about person C. Person A draws in person B to focus on person C. In this way person A and B have a shared attention on person C who has been identified as a problem. It turns out that this type of focus (on a third person as a problem to be solved) has a way of calming down the relationship system. Especially when everyone can agree on the problem, including the person being identified.
A second, more productive focus is curiosity. When a person can be curious about their situation, without judging or blaming others, there is a genuine effort to discover new possibilities. The result is a more thoughtful process of observing what is true instead of what one wishes to be true. While this type of focus does not immediately address the anxious worry of a congregation, over time, as solutions emerge, anxiety will decrease overall. It is the sacrifice of short term gain for long term stability. This is true of any effort to learn, problem-solve, or vision.
When it comes to creating a vision for the congregation, it’s important to know the difference between these two ways of focusing. If the effort to discern the future of the congregation is like the first type of shared attention (anxious and worried), then the vision process will be a disaster. If, however, the process is consistent with the second type of focus (curiosity and discovery) then the chances are good that the vision process will bear fruit.
When a congregation participates in a vision process, it should include opportunities to learn and think. When done well, a large circle of participant are engaged in a process of thinking about the current reality of the congregation, where the congregation needs to go, and the best way to get there. In this way, multiple brains are receiving new information to determine the best course of action. Each person may see things differently but collectively, congregations (when given a chance) are usually able to determine how to move forward.
Shared attention and the vision process
A good leader is one who pays attention to how the congregation is focused and navigates the process to provide opportunities for thoughtful, shared attention. Here are some ways of thinking about a thoughtful process:
INFORMATION - A good leader encourages the congregation to discover facts about the congregation and the community. This can include historical information, current information about the community, an assessment of strengths of the congregation, and other facts that become available.
TIMELINE – A good leader develops a process that allows for a sequence of opportunities for 1) learning, 2) integrating, 3) articulating, and 4) communicating. This process is repeated several times. It is essential that that congregation be given opportunities to give feedback to the visioning team which becomes part of the learning process (see step 1).
DISRUPT– Worry, fear, stress, and anxiety are detrimental to the visioning process if left unchecked. While anxiety can be a useful motivator for change, if a congregation’s attention is focused on worry, individuals will have limited capacity to think. If worry becomes the central focus of the process, it will be impossible to develop a vision for the future.
THINKING – A good process includes opportunities for good thinking. Sharing feelings, emotions, heartfelt views of the congregation may make for a good newsletter article but they are not helpful in developing a vision. We, humans, know God because of our prefrontal cortex, the heavenly lobes that make us unique in the animal kingdom. This section of the brain that allows us to relate to God is also what gives us the capacity for shared attention and other executive functions. Why would we turn it off and operate out of a feeling state when it comes to leading God’s church?
Bringing together a congregation to participated in an activity of shared attention to develop a robust vision is hard work. It's vital work, but it is challenging. If you want to create a vision for the future of the congregation, always error on the side of thinking. One way to engage thinking is to ask good questions, be curious about the process, observe patterns of behavior, look at historical frameworks, and draw a wide circle of participation to make the most out of the resources that are available. We can learn a lot when we take advantage of a process like this. Discerning a congregation's direction is possible when leaders engage their own thinking and the thinking of others.