Archive: The power of questions for leaders and for life

by Dr. W. Craig Gilliam
September 2012

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This month's Circle Tale was written by Dr. W. Craig Gilliam, director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence for the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church. Craig is adjunct faculty at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and consults with churches and other organizations across the country. He has 24 years experience serving in the church. His areas of expertise include conflict transformation in congregations, leadership education, team building, and group process. To learn more, visit his website. Thank you, Craig, for sharing your insights.

Religion is at its best when it helps us to ask questions and holds us in a state of wonder—and arguably at its worst when it tries to answer them authoritatively and dogmatically.

Karen Armstrong

Asking good, high-level, open, honest questions is central to good leadership and the spiritual journey today. Whether pastor, staff, lay leader, or consultant, questions can open space, invite and evoke insight and wisdom from groups and individuals and change entire cultures. Asking good, open, honest, high-level questions is an art and a science. 

In my work, I find that these types of questions open space. When space opens, more questions can emerge. When questions are significant, they are not abstract or simply in the head, but are emotional experiences that invite people to the level of emotional process. People engage with their passion and their whole being. As a result, if I or a group of leaders think the question is_______, but the congregation has no emotional response to it, then, that is an indicator that I or we still have not named the real question.

In congregational life, significant questions can start groups on a quest from being a congregation to being a community. Some of these questions might be:

  • Who are you? Why are you here and why have you been placed in your current location?
  • What is the future that God is calling you as a community to create?
  • Who is the neighbor with whom you are being called to create your future?
  • What is the void in your neighborhood community and does your congregation have the gifts and graces to help address those needs or to be a catalyst to help address them?
  • Who are you as a community when you are at your best? What do you look like? How do you live from that place?
  • What are your passions, gifts and graces as a community? How do you tap into those and live out of your strengths, passions and celebrations?
  • Who are we in this particular place and what is the nature of this place where we are located?

I have observed congregations engage these questions in times of discernment, and through the struggle and conversation, deep change has happened in the community’s soul.  

Another role questions play is to help us reposition ourselves in a system and give the anxiety and responsibility back to the rightful owners. For example, I am pastor of a church or a consultant working with a congregation or community. The group says, “What do we do in this situation?” The anxiety is high. As the pastor or consultant, everyone looks at you for the answer. You can be the hero or savior and give them the answer or at least an answer. Then, for the next period of time, you might be seen as their hero or heroine. But in the long run, you have robbed them of the chance to find their own way through and take responsibility for their decision. And when things do not go well, you are the person they blame.

What if, instead of giving answers, we deflect their questions and say, “I have my opinion, but I don’t know. What do you think? How should we respond to this? I think there is wisdom in this group. I want to hear your thoughts and responses. You’ve been in the church or organization a long time. What do you think?” Silence reigns for a few minutes, then someone begins to offer her thoughts. Someone else engages her. Within a few minutes, the entire group is involved in the conversation. You have positioned yourself, not as the answer person, but as the one to help frame the question and engage the collective wisdom of the group. 

Also, we have empowered the group to have its insights. When they have the insights, they are more likely to own it, thus, take responsibility for outcomes.

I am leading a conference and someone asks me, “As an outsider coming in, what do you see going on in our conference?” I really do not want to answer such a loaded question. I change the conversation. The person who asks the question remarks, “You just changed the subject. That is slick, but I want to know what you think is going on in our conference.” He catches me. After a pause, I respond, “The more important question to me is not what do I think is happening, but what do you think is going on? It sounds to me like you have something you are trying to get at. Tell me what you are thinking and perceiving? After you answer what you are trying to get at, I will offer what insight I can. What do you think is going on?”

He begins to talk. Then someone else responds. These are conversations moving to a deep emotional and spiritual level quickly. I simply get out of the way and help hold the space. For the next four hours of the conference, this conversation happens and takes the group to a depth I had only imagined would happen. It becomes an open space.  For the participants, it is an experience. The questions are asked, the engagement happens, and the Spirit emerges. Wow!

How do we ask good, high-level, honest questions and listen for the emerging wisdom and Spirit? My experience is, power resides in good questions more than answers. Do you have any questions?  Listen, listen deeply to that inner voice as if your life depends on it, for it does. What question is it asking? What question wants to emerge? What question are you living? Well?