“Thinking One Can”: Believing Your Congregation Can Flourish

Do you remember the children’s book The Little Engine that Could? The story was first published over 100 years ago in a curriculum for Sunday school children. It was re-published in 1905 under the title Thinking One Can.

I think every flourishing congregation travels the flourishing path with the little tank engine’s attitude: “we think we can!” One cannot overstate the importance of capability beliefs when it comes to congregational motivation to pursue its vision for the future. Here’s what psychology knows about the sources of motivation for change:

  • 10% of motivation comes from recognizing that a gap exists between how things are now and how people want things to be

  • 20% of motivation comes from committing to an intention to deal with the gap

  • 70% of motivation comes from the belief that you are able to do what you intend to do

Many congregations get stuck at the discrepancy gap, overwhelmed by their sense of what needs to be done. Like the engines in the children’s story looking at the load that must be hauled up the hill they say “that’s too much pull for me.” In fact, a congregation may have come by this belief honestly from their experience. It may have tried—and failed—a few times to bring about desired change. This can lead to a condition psychologist Martin Seligman called “learned helplessness”: the belief that the congregation is unable to deal with the gap between how things are now and how people want things to be. Learned helplessness diminishes hope.

But learned helplessness is a belief. Conversely, thinking one can is a belief. So how do you help a congregation shift from one belief to the other and embark on the path to flourishing? Here are three proven strategies to strengthen a congregation’s capability beliefs.

Strategy #1: Persuasion

Learn to tell the stories of congregational life in a way that helps congregants come to appreciate that they are able. “Remember when we set our minds to do X (whatever it was)? That was a big goal but we did it! We’ve shown ourselves that we can rise to the challenge…” As faith communities we also affirm that God helps the people of God. Like Paul can we come to believe “I can do all things through God who strengthens me” and “If God is for us then who can stand against us?”

Strategy #2: Help Congregants to Prove Themselves Wrong

Help congregants adopt a series of achievable goals and to attain those goals. Choose challenges that will require the congregation to step up, but not have to step too far up. The leadership goal here is to help the congregation learn through its experience that it is not helpless. When the congregation reflects on its successful experiences of attaining its goals, overcoming obstacles, and persevering until the conclusion, the experience can strengthen congregants’ capability beliefs. It can help congregants to say, “so maybe we can tackle a bigger hill next!”

Strategy #3: Look for the Little Engines that Could (And Did!)

The traditional telling of The Little Engine that Could ends too soon with the little tank engine rolling down the far side of the hill puffing confidently “I thought I could! I thought I could!” The story should have one additional paragraph pointing back to the engines in the yard who thought “that’s too much pull for me.” What do you suppose these larger engines would think after seeing the little tank engine succeed? They probably thought, “well if that little engine could do it, then I can do it!” Help congregants observe, learn from and draw confidence from the experience of others who did what you want to do. Look for congregations who once looked like your congregation and made the change your congregation wants to make. Sure: learn how they did it—that helps. But more importantly help congregants believe that if that congregation (or better yet, those congregations) could do it, then our congregation can do it.

Every flourishing congregation started with the belief that it was able and their journey is sustained by the same belief. Believing we are able—through God’s strength and by the unique giftedness of the congregation—fosters hope…. and that hope can help the congregation climb its next hill.

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