An Appreciative Approach

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Photo by Alessandro Erbetta on Unsplash

Two weeks ago, Dreams Come True: Discovering God’s Vision for Your Life was introduced to the world. The three goals of the book are to help the audience reconnect with God (higher power), to rediscover their true self, and to recommit to service.

These goals are brought to life in four steps. These steps are inspired by Appreciative Inquiry.

As expected, since the book was launched, and in reaction to some related video content, there are two common questions that are surfacing:

  1. How did this book come to fruition?
  2. What exactly is Appreciative Inquiry (and Appreciative Advising)?

The purpose of this reflection is to reveal the story behind Dreams Come True and to offer more insight into Appreciative Inquiry and Advising and its’ strength-based, positive approach.

 

The Class I Almost Missed

In graduate school, I would take one class off per semester as a gift to yours truly. Working full-time, this was a welcomed break that I strategically planned to catch my breath.

I was taking this great course that focused on recruitment, advising, and retention in higher education facilitated by a colleague, Dr. Chris Cuccia. The topic of the class I planned to miss focused on a specific advising model known as Appreciative Advising.

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Appreciative Advising model with six steps. The first step (Disarm) and last step (Don’t Settle) were added to the Appreciative Inquiry model to best serve students in educational institutions.

Even though I was going to miss the class, I read the readings and  I was prepared for the in-class discussion. I can still see myself sitting at my office desk at 4:45pm, committed to not going to the 5pm class and then feeling what I can only describe as a “deeper knowing”- to get up and go to that class. My gut was telling me this was a class that I could not miss.

And so I went to class that evening- and simply put- it changed my life.

Dr. Jenny Bloom, the co-founder of Appreciative Advising and Appreciative Education, virtually presented and answered our questions. By the time that class concluded, I was hooked.

During that same semester, I was being asked to co-create the Catholic Scholars program, a faith-based leadership scholarship that is currently in its 8th year. It has received national recognition and it has welcomed some incredible students to our St. John’s campuses.The Appreciative Advising model presented a strategy and structure to build the Catholic Scholars.

Dr. Bloom adapted Appreciative Advising as an educational tool based on the Appreciative Inquiry organizational model.

Appreciative Inquiry, developed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivasta, is a successful tool for over three decades in corporations and organizations.

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These are the four steps of AI- beginning with Discover. Some researchers and practitioners replace Delivery with the word “Destiny.”

At the heart of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Advising (and Appreciative Education which provides a broader approach for grades K-16), is a focus on the best in a situation.

Instead of looking at what is not working, or the current gaps, this “Appreciative movement” focuses on what are the present strengths of the people and structure.

In an academic setting, it helps students focus on what classes they are successful and where they find joy. This helps them in their consideration of major and careers. It also teaches them how to build support networks and to develop their gifts and talents.

 

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The Appreciative Advising model with main goal for each step.

As I was starting to co-create this Catholic Scholars program, I knew that I needed to learn more and to receive greater training and guidance so I can bring Appreciative Advising back to St. John’s.

Appreciative Advising Institute

After this life-changing course ended, I was blessed to go to Dr. Bloom’s Appreciative Advising Institute at the University of South Carolina (she is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Research Methodology at Florida Atlantic University). I was moved by the generosity of the presenters, the positive energy of all in attendance, and the research that demonstrated that this model was effective.

At the conclusion of my three-day training, I went to a restaurant, ordered a beer and a burger, and started to write. A few hours later, I drafted the first template of the Catholic Scholars program. Since it was a faith-based program, I turned to the Empowered by the Spirit document, a guiding tool for Catholic Campus Ministry departments.

As I reviewed the six tenets of the document, I saw similar language with Appreciative Advising.

For example, here is an except from Empowered by the Spirit under the tenet of “Developing Leaders for the Future:”

“Thus, from the perspective of faith, it is clear that effective leadership in the contemporary world is connected both with a sense of loving service and with a more mature development in self-knowledge.(F.1.97)

A key aspect of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Advisement/Education is developing that self-knowledge- and to use those better appreciated strengths to a greater capacity, including in service to others.

Eight years ago, there was minimal research and no application connecting the Appreciative Advising principles and spirituality, especially connecting the tenets of Empowered by the Spirit.

Not only did I leave that restaurant with a rough sketch of the Catholic Scholars program, much of which remains 8 years later, most evident in the first-year experience, I also generated a first draft of what would become my dissertation.

Back on Campus

When I returned to St. John’s, we “got to work.” We started to create this unique faith-based experience for the first cohort of the Catholic Scholars. Over the next few years, we crafted a co-curricular program that was rooted in Appreciative education.

As I started my research, I found that all that Dr. Bloom and her team spoke was true. This model allowed us to learn from our students, but what was most important was that the students discovered their gifts, talents, and dreams. This connected perfectly to our goal of helping our students discover their true selves, to use their gifts in service, and to come to know God through it all.

I was fortunate to bring this model to my colleagues in  Campus Ministry as well, inviting discovery and dreaming. It has been an effective tool in helping our team “play to our strengths,” to meet the needs of our community, and to allow, through discernment and reflection, the space for that “deeper knowing” to surface.

Appreciative Discipleship

As mentioned earlier, while this “Appreciative movement” was fruitful in organizations, corporations, and institutions of education, its application with spirituality was limited.

I discovered two Catholic connections that proved to be inspirational as I started my research.

The first is a wonderful book, Appreciative Inquiry in the Catholic Church, that reveals how a variety of global Catholic communities were using the Appreciative Inquiry model.

The second was the Sisters of Mercy in the United States who were using Appreciative Inquiry as they combined provinces and to vision together their next steps as a community.

These were formational resources that helped me in the development of Appreciative Discipleship,  a leadership and faith development model that I created for youth and faith-based education.

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Learn more about Appreciative Discipleship here

 

Over the years, I have presented across the country and facilitated workshops for elementary school superintendents and teachers, youth ministers, campus ministers, student affairs professionals, high school teachers, and leaders in faith formation.

The Appreciative Discipleship model incorporates the steps from Appreciative Advising with spirituality principles and ideas, including the practice of prayer and discernment.

A Book to Write

I mentioned the term “deeper knowing” on a couple of occasions in this reflection. I should explain this further.

I believe that we all have a true self, and this true self  reveals our the purpose- our unique way to love. If we pay attention, we can gain clarity  into who we really are and how we can respond to the needs of others. This is what the Discover step of Appreciative Education/Inquiry/Discipleship attempts to achieve.

In key moments of my life, I discover this deeper knowing. I felt it with that class I almost missed, I feel it when I am walking with a student in need, I  felt it when I started dating my wife and on many occasions over the past 13 years, and I feel it often with my daughter- all confirming my key life vocations as writer, minister, husband, and father.

Among my gifts, writing (and creating in general) was always one of them. As a young person, writing came a little easier than math and science. In high school, due to my love of sports, I started to write for a local community newspaper’s sports section. I didn’t realize it at the time, but  as I spent those four years writing thousands of words each week, I was harnessing my skills as an author.

When I received a significant award for an article in my high school paper (an interview with World Champion manager Joe Torre), I started to realize that writing was a talent and a potential career. I can recall two specific conversations with an English faculty member and the advisor for the newspaper at my high school, St. Francis Prep, that helped me dream of a future as a writer.

In college as an undergraduate at St. John’s, I majored in journalism and I was very much on my way (whatever that means). Then September 11, 2001 changed my path. I felt the need to write less and to listen more. While my writing initially transitioned to human spirit stories, I was being called to something different.

My journey moved into psychology, then advanced degrees in counseling and theology. I learned and I sharpened new pastoral counseling skills.  I also discovered that my daily need to create was as important as drinking eight glasses of water.

Over time, and with the support of my family, friends, and colleagues,  I continued to write and to learn. After my dissertation, I felt the confidence to continue to write about the human and divine spirit. I incorporated aspects of Appreciative Advising in the undergraduate and graduate courses that I facilitated, realizing even more that there was something special to this approach. In time, I knew what I was teaching, researching  and modeling was meant for a larger audience. Dreams Come True was born.

As any aspiring author knows, the publishing process is brutal. The odds are as tough as Vegas, and most responses are either rejections or radio silence. My initial approach was a guide book for youth ministers, then I played with a template just for college students based on the first-year seminar that I instruct.

There was some positive feedback along the way, affirming the style of writing and focus, but questions remained regarding the size of the audience and how well it would sell. I considered self-publishing, and I committed resources and time to my website and social media as alternative ways to create (In spring 2019, I started a Lenten Thought of the Day on Facebook that was the first time I truly shared my spiritual insights- the feedback was overwhelmingly positive – reminding me to stay focused on my dream).

I looked inside and out. Internally, I knew that I had a book in me. It was not to build my ego or to make a fortune (very few do), it was a labor of love that I felt called to write. As I looked out, I received reminders. There was the random t-shirt at a Brooklyn brewery that read, “Write like you are running out of time,” and the email from a successful author that said, “Write the book that only YOU can write.”

I spent the summer of 2018 writing the first version of Dreams Come True.  Over the next few months, I re-visited the manuscript and polished it as time allowed. It was the story that I could only write, the story I had to tell.

Dreams Come True

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Last July, while I was on a staff retreat and deeply pondering my vocation as writer and author, an email came from New City Press.

I was interested in this publisher as they focused on unity and faith. New City Press’ goals were consistent with my own personal and professional goals (for those looking to publish-this is an important reminder).

I  believe all of the rejections were answered prayers (not that I realized it then), leading me to this wonderful publisher-made up of an inspiring community who made the final product the special resource that it is.

A few days after receiving the email with interest from New City Press, I submitted a copy of the full manuscript and a proposal. Over the next month, we exchanged calls and ideas, but the decision to publish was still uncertain.

On Thursday, August 8th, I received the email every author prays for- New City Press was going to publish Dreams Come True.

 

The feeling was (and still is) incredible. I felt many things, but grateful is on top of this list. I am grateful to be able to share this message of love, with a model based on the Appreciative movement that helps others grow into their true self and in service to others.

As I “discovered” my true self and God’s plans for me, I “dreamed” of sharing this book with the world. I had to “design” a plan (and re-design often), until I “delivered” a manuscript that reflected the message of love that I pray is fruitful for others.

Appreciate You

If you would like to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry, please visit here. They have valuable resources and trainings that can help you grow in this Appreciative mindset.

If you would like to learn more about Appreciative Education,  please visit here. I strongly recommend their courses, and  virtual experiences.

Over the next few weeks, I will be providing short videos to reflect further on the four key steps of this Appreciative movement so it can help you in your journey to discover your true self and in recommitting to serving others. These four steps guide the reader in Dreams Come True to reconnect with God, to rediscover their true self, and to recommit to service.

I could never have imagined that the book would launch during a pandemic. In the midst of such suffering and hurt, I first resisted the timing of the book launch. However, I started to realize that if there was ever a time for this message to be shared, it is now.

I pray that Dreams Come True provides the inspiration for you to re-imagine your life and to help shape a world that is more just and kind.

I pray you come to appreciate your unique gifts and talents, your ability to change the world. We live in challenging times, but it is here where we find opportunity. The world is waiting for you to own who you really are, and to bring your dreams to life.

 

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