How the idea of ‘Triple Constraints’ Might Work in the Church’

I came across an article in the weekend magazine of ‘The Guardian’ that piqued my interest. The author is sharing with us the idea of ‘triple constraints’, something that has been a maxim in the computer industry for a long time, he says.

Triple constraints go like this. About a software programme, the designers say that you can have it fast, good, or cheap: pick two! The implications are interesting. Do I want a programme that is fast and cheap but not good?  Do I want a programme that is slow and good, so cheap, or a programme thatis fast, good, and not cheap? What two would I choose?

So about the life of the Church, are there similar constraints in operation? Part of the difficulty lies in what constraints one chooses. It would be possible to say, for example ‘You can have a congregation that is either servant of the people whom we want to join it, servant of  the people who are already there, or servant of God: pick two!!!

This means that if we try to be a missionary congregation, and serve God, then the focus on meeting our own needs will go down.  

It means that if we focus on our own neds for connecting to God, we will miss out on serving others, except for those who happen to share our tastes.

If we think about what we need, and what they need, then what God wants does not figure in the equation at all.

Ringing these changes is interesting to me because it takes me out of the framework of ‘What do I like’ and into the framework of ‘What is my picture of God? How do I see God operating in my life? How do I see the relationship between God, the Church and the World?’ All these questions lie behind our choices, but rarely are we able to articulate them, or uncover what is implicit in our preferences, even when we think we are doing what God wants.

So the idea of being constrained is an interesting one because it brings home to us that we cannot ‘have it all’. To make a choice is to gain something and to lose something.We are forced to choose a direction, to do something. Even doing ‘nothing’ is really a way of ‘doing something’ which is ‘more of the same’.

This applies to the direction we have chosen to go as a congregation.  We have not chosen to be a place of worship for those who have rejected some of the liturgical reforms that began in the 1930s and continued with the Second Vatican Council.(Servant of some of us and God)  But we have also not chosen to become ‘happy clappy’, as this style is sometimes called, in the hope of winning some more people. (Servant of others and God.) We have chosen to keep our commitment to Eucharistic worship. We have chosen to locate ourselves within that commitment, but at the same time we have tried to be more open and welcoming at the fringes of our worship. This has had some consequences. We have lost some people. But we have gained some people who are younger. As our emphasis on serving others and God has gone up, so the satisfaction of some of those we already have has gone down.  

Part of the difficulty in working with these ‘constraints’ lies in the fact that they look like ‘snapshots’ of a place at any given time, but do not describe the processes that we are trying to follow.

For example in trying to be a missionary congregation we have a process in mind. We have to first of all discover ways of engaging with a new constituency. This is sometimes via our worship which needs then to change to engage with a new group of people, or sometimes through our outreach to people whom we know. They will be coming as customers. In the first instance it is our task to discover what kinds of things that they are on about within the sphere of religion. But sooner or later the person or group with whom we are talking needs to make a choice. They need to switch from calling the shots to being open to new experiences. Different stances are proper at different times along the process.

This is what happens in the rearing of Children or the leadership of a congregation. There are times in a Childs life when strong guidance is necessary, and times when a parent needs to let go, and times when the decision about this is contested between the two! One thing is sure, being only ‘permissive’ or only ”guiding’ is going to get one into trouble at some stage of a child’s parenting.   

So the question in this process is not one of ‘What are we doing?’ as if this applies to all time, but ‘What are we doing when?” The ‘what’ can change as different phases of the process roll through. The question then becomes ‘What is the name of the process that we are in?’

Take for example the Sunday morning Eucharist and the Evensong. We are engaging with different constituencies and we hope that we are in the process of inviting more people to come, but we can’t do the same kind of thing both at the same time. We have to be flexible enough to say ‘At this time we put the focus on the kind of worship represented by Evensong, and at other times, we put the focus on the kind of worship that is represented by our Sunday morning Eucharist.’

So when it comes to being Church the question we have to agree on is ‘What kind of a process are we in?’ The one that captured my attention was the question asked at my ‘formal visit’ ‘How can we become a Missionary Congregation?’ This puts us on the process of stopping being a group who serves God by pleasing the people whom we already have, and beginning to be a congregation that seeks to know what it has of the life of Christ that is valuable, and seeks to engage others with that treasure, inviting them to participate and to become pilgrims, like us.

The becoming a ‘missionary congregation’ is then becoming not only a congregation that reaches out to others, and invites them to change, but a congregation that is itself continually being changed from  glory into glory be living the baptismal life of dying, entombment and rising, which is the life we are asking others to participate in.

This is why a ‘snapshot’ is not such a helpful image, because it says ‘This is what we are’, but it does not convey ‘This is the process that we are engaged in’ unless we demonstrate  from moment to moment that we are a congregation the move. We can do this by showing the values of experimentation, moderate risk taking, and a sense of fun. 


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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