Archive for February, 2013


Adaptive Challenges

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Last month, I was invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the United Methodist Quadrennial Training in Nashville. The topic was adaptive leadership. It was invigorating to hear the dialogue among United Methodist leaders about the adaptive challenges they face, and the barriers that stand in their way of addressing those challenges.

Here is a link to an article about the event in the United Methodist Reporter:

Denomination urged to trust, share leadership

 

Spiritual Work in Pastoral Transition

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Frank Ostaseski speak about Being a Compassionate Companion while accompanying the dying. Frank is a leader/teacher in the Zen Hospice Project. As I listened to Frank speak, I was struck by how well his five precepts for walking with the dying apply to congregational life, when a congregation is in the midst of a significant ending.

labyrinth_4Pastoral transition is a death, of sorts, in the lifecycle of a congregation. It involves taking stock, defining the boundaries of our own existence, celebrating our success, grieving our losses, and reflecting on what it means to construct a well- lived life as a congregation. In this sense pastoral transition calls forth the same kind of spiritual work that is involved in a good death experience.

Let’s consider Ostaseski’s five precepts for companioning death, and apply them (with some liberties) to leadership in a season of pastoral transition.

1. Welcome Everything: Push Away Nothing: Over years of doing ministry under a singular head of staff, congregations get caught in habitual responses to ministry and the environment. In a season of pastoral transition it behooves leaders to adopt an attitude of “fearless receptivity”; openness to considering that “what comes to us is for us”, to embrace and to learn from everything. All things have the potential to teach us, especially conflict, failed experiences and risk taking.

Of course, this doesn’t suggest that leaders embrace every new request or new idea that presents itself during an interim time period. It does suggest that leaders maintain a spirit of wonderment about what emerges and a willingness to embrace the anxieties that arise in saying goodbye.

2. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience: I have noticed that congregations approaching a pastoral transition often hunker down and prepare themselves to power through the events of the transition period. They act as if hard work and singularity of focus will help minimize congregational anxieties and conflicts. Leaders put on their super-hero armor and their masks of competency in front of the congregation. They deny whatever level of grief, confusion or anxiety that they may be experiencing for fear of contagion.

If we want our congregations to practice adaptive leadership in a season of pastoral transition, then we need to cultivate openness, receptivity and wonder. We can’t cultivate those attributes in a congregation without revealing our own discomfort and sense of dis-orientation. This is not about revealing our ignorance. It is about demonstrating our authenticity.

3. Don’t Wait: So often, congregations in the midst of pastoral transition put any and all new initiatives on hold, for fear of binding the hands of the new leader. All planning and evaluation efforts are met with a resounding, “We had better not initiate that until after the new pastor arrives.” The congregation moves into maintenance mode and this is deadly, particularly for the large congregation. Once a congregation has programmed itself to function in maintenance mode it is extraordinarily difficult to re-ignite new energies.

Implementation of changes in the strategic direction of the congregation should be postponed until the arrival of new leadership. However, dreaming about those directions and making ongoing course changes in anticipation of those changes, these are necessary for vitality and growth.

4. Find a Place of Rest in the Midst of Things: Pastoral transitions can move at a snail’s pace. It can take months/years to articulate the needs of the congregation, prepare an attractive church profile, search for the ideal candidate and call that candidate. Leaders must take care not to burn out while ensconced in the difficult work of adaptive learning.

The basic human response is to try and find rest by managing the conditions that surround us. We tell ourselves that we will rest once the budget is balanced, the staff team is fully configured, the new board is up and functioning and a search committee is underway. In a season of pastoral transition, conditions will almost never be right for rest, if rest requires everything to be in order.

We need to allow ourselves to take a rest from the hard work of adaptive leadership by bringing our attention fully to the presence of the moment we are in; by resting in the sufficiency of God’s grace and abundance in the now.

5. Cultivate a Don’t Know Mindset: It is not ignorance to admit that you don’t know what to do next, you don’t know how a problem will resolve itself, or if a problem will resolve itself. When we don’t know what to do next, we have to rely on others to pick up their share of the adaptive challenge and to do their part in the hard work of transition. Giving the work back to the people is a hallmark of good adaptive leadership. When we admit that we don’t know, we open ourselves to new learning and create an atmosphere where others can do the same.

Spiritual Work in Pastoral Transition

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

 Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Frank Ostaseski speak about Being a Compassionate Companion while accompanying the dying. Frank is a leader/teacher in the Zen Hospice Project. As I listened to Frank speak, I was struck by how well his five precepts for walking with the dying apply to congregational life, when a congregation is in the midst of a significant ending.

labyrinth_4Pastoral transition is a death, of sorts, in the lifecycle of a congregation. It involves taking stock, defining the boundaries of our own existence, celebrating our success, grieving our losses, and reflecting on what it means to construct a well- lived life as a congregation. In this sense pastoral transition calls forth the same kind of spiritual work that is involved in a good death experience.

Let’s consider Ostaseski’s five precepts for companioning death, and apply them (with some liberties) to leadership in a season of pastoral transition.

1. Welcome Everything: Push Away Nothing: Over years of doing ministry under a singular head of staff, congregations get caught in habitual responses to ministry and the environment. In a season of pastoral transition it behooves leaders to adopt an attitude of “fearless receptivity”; openness to considering that “what comes to us is for us”, to embrace and to learn from everything. All things have the potential to teach us, especially conflict, failed experiences and risk taking.

Of course, this doesn’t suggest that leaders embrace every new request or new idea that presents itself during an interim time period. It does suggest that leaders maintain a spirit of wonderment about what emerges and a willingness to embrace the anxieties that arise in saying goodbye.

2. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience: I have noticed that congregations approaching a pastoral transition often hunker down and prepare themselves to power through the events of the transition period. They act as if hard work and singularity of focus will help minimize congregational anxieties and conflicts. Leaders put on their super-hero armor and their masks of competency in front of the congregation. They deny whatever level of grief, confusion or anxiety that they may be experiencing for fear of contagion.

If we want our congregations to practice adaptive leadership in a season of pastoral transition, then we need to cultivate openness, receptivity and wonder. We can’t cultivate those attributes in a congregation without revealing our own discomfort and sense of dis-orientation. This is not about revealing our ignorance. It is about demonstrating our authenticity.

3. Don’t Wait: So often, congregations in the midst of pastoral transition put any and all new initiatives on hold, for fear of binding the hands of the new leader. All planning and evaluation efforts are met with a resounding, “We had better not initiate that until after the new pastor arrives.” The congregation moves into maintenance mode and this is deadly, particularly for the large congregation. Once a congregation has programmed itself to function in maintenance mode it is extraordinarily difficult to re-ignite new energies.

Implementation of changes in the strategic direction of the congregation should be postponed until the arrival of new leadership. However, dreaming about those directions and making ongoing course changes in anticipation of those changes, these are necessary for vitality and growth.

4. Find a Place of Rest in the Midst of Things: Pastoral transitions can move at a snail’s pace. It can take months/years to articulate the needs of the congregation, prepare an attractive church profile, search for the ideal candidate and call that candidate. Leaders must take care not to burn out while ensconced in the difficult work of adaptive learning.

The basic human response is to try and find rest by managing the conditions that surround us. We tell ourselves that we will rest once the budget is balanced, the staff team is fully configured, the new board is up and functioning and a search committee is underway. In a season of pastoral transition, conditions will almost never be right for rest, if rest requires everything to be in order.

We need to allow ourselves to take a rest from the hard work of adaptive leadership by bringing our attention fully to the presence of the moment we are in; by resting in the sufficiency of God’s grace and abundance in the now.

5. Cultivate a Don’t Know Mindset: It is not ignorance to admit that you don’t know what to do next, you don’t know how a problem will resolve itself, or if a problem will resolve itself. When we don’t know what to do next, we have to rely on others to pick up their share of the adaptive challenge and to do their part in the hard work of transition. Giving the work back to the people is a hallmark of good adaptive leadership. When we admit that we don’t know, we open ourselves to new learning and create an atmosphere where others can do the same.

 

Bound by Shame

Monday, February 4th, 2013

Bound-with-Chains-of-the-Spirit-and-of-MenRecently, author Karen McClintock wrote The Challenge to Change  in which she made this claim, “I believe congregations are in decline because they have become shame-bound.”

I haven’t been able to get this provocative statement out of my mind.  It certainly proves true in my consulting practice, particularly in any situation that involves imaging a new future.  To imagine a new future we must always begin with understanding our past, so that the future is rooted in something real.  I often invite leaders to describe the glory days of the congregation, that period of time when the congregation was functioning as its best version of itself.  They  have no problem reaching consensus on what the glory era was, and they can quickly describe what made it a high point in the history of the congregation (usually, that attendance was at an all-time high). The shame enters in when they begin to describe the loss of those by-gone days, the descent into something other than their best selves.  They lower their eyes as they speak; they grow silent, they mumble their explanations, and often protest the invitation to dwell on the past.  It pains leaders to acknowledge that the decline has happened on their watch. Even though they can point to cultural shifts and the overall decline of the Church, they wonder what they might have done sooner or better to thwart the decline of their congregation.

I can feel the shame when I ask congregations to tell me about both their proudest and sorriest moments in ministry.  Leaders quickly chime in to tell me about their best ministry moments, but they fumble when describing that which they are sorriest about.  They want to gloss over those shame-filled memories and often haven’t developed a shared story-line to frame their understanding of those times.  It’s too hard to talk about the failed pastorate, the memory of a decision that in retrospect was steeped in racism, the sexual scandal that was covered up for fear of disgrace and inevitable membership loss.

The presence of shame is not alarming to me. What is alarming is the visible way in which I see shame binding the adaptive learning process that is needed to move into a new future.  A congregation needs to access its best adaptive capacities, whether the congregation is creating a new strategic plan, preparing for a new pastorate, or trying to introduce some overdue cultural change.

In my experience, shame thwarts the adaptive learning process in the following predictable ways:

  • Adaptive learning requires that we distinguish between our positive core, (that which represents our authentic, best selves and must be protected at all costs) and our institutionalized dry-rot, (that which needs to be scraped away and replaced with new and fresh practices).  When shame-bound we often cling to our false selves to keep the truth at bay. We blame the pastor that embarrassed us without accepting any shared responsibility; we explain away our racism as something that every other congregation fell into as well. Without authentic voice we can’t fully claim our positive core, or distinguish it from the dry rot.
  • Shame-bound congregations try to minimize their loss and failure by re-creating the glory days, rather than risking a move into an undefined future. If we can just get back to where we were before the loss set in, we can eradicate the shame. When asked to dream about the future, shame-bound leaders often focus on re-creating programs, structures and processes that are familiar.  Because they have not appropriately excavated their losses or created a shared leadership narrative about the loss, they seem unable to take the necessary risks involved in creating something truly adaptive.
  • Shame-bound leaders have difficulty distinguishing symptoms, causes and solutions. Shame thrives on secrecy and an unexplored truth.  When we haven’t fully explored the pain of our past we tend to blur the distinctions between that which caused our decline, the symptoms that indicated a problem existed, and the possible solutions.  Consider this example, a congregation that is ashamed of having very few active members between the ages of 20-35 will often claim a new strategic initiative aimed at attracting young adults. They almost always propose to launch a new young adult ministry program to address the identified problem, without stopping to consider that the loss of young adults is perhaps symptomatic of an underlying root cause, such as the absence of a vibrant discipleship process.  A shame-bound mind doesn’t think expansively and analytically about the source of its problems. It only seeks to eradicate the symptom that it finds most painful.

So, how do we begin to unbind ourselves from shame, for the sake of becoming unencumbered adaptive leaders?  Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, suggests that overcoming shame begins with vulnerability, and vulnerability is born of trust.  We need to create safe spaces in our congregation for shared story-telling about both our prouds and our sorries.  We need to create shared leadership narratives that make meaning out of our “not so stellar” moments so that we can learn from them and move forward, not backward.

Does your congregation suffer from an unexamined source of shame that prevents it from adaptive learning?