Don’t Worry. Be Happy.


“People are not going to be happy about this,” is the most frequent utterance I hear from congregational leaders preparing to introduce change. What I detect beneath their expressed concern is a deeper worry that people won’t “like me”, if I’m seen as the one imposing this change.

dont worry be happyOur worries about being “liked” point to an unstated assumption we hold about leadership. We believe that a fundamental responsibility of an authority figure is to keep congregants “happy”. Ronald Heifetz, Kennedy School of Government, teaches that organizations select people for leadership roles on the basis of their demonstrated ability to define and solve problems, protect the membership from external threats, restore order and maintain organizational norms. All of this is code language for keeping people safe and happy. We reward our leaders when they do these happy-producing tasks on our behalf.

Unfortunately, these are not behaviors that facilitate adaptation. Adaptive work requires authority figures that are willing to expose the membership body to external threats, so that the organization learns from its environment. Adaptive leaders surface and engage conflict, challenge norms and disorient the membership body, so that people adapt their behavior. Truly adaptive leaders will, at some point, fail to keep their congregants happy. They will fail to meet the expectations of safe leadership that got them appointed in the first place. This is dangerous work, the kind of work that sometimes gets people thrown out of churches.

Effective leaders move their congregations into what Heifetz calls, the productive zone of disequilibrium. This is a zone where people feel uncomfortable enough to examine assumptions, learn from their environment and make needed changes. The disequilibrium is carefully tended so that it does not overwhelm. The losses associated with change come at a pace that people can accommodate. The zone is a meaningful place for the congregation to be, but it is not necessarily a happy place. People are uncomfortable in the zone of disequilibrium.

It is becoming increasingly evident to me that keeping people happy and content has become the default mission of our congregations, contributing to our adaptive inability. Why do authority figures value being liked, over and above being effective? Well, being liked is easier.

Why aren’t we more concerned with whether or not our congregations are presenting people with the opportunity to meaningfully engage the Gospel, over and above being happy? A meaningful life that embraces and spreads the Gospel is different from a happy one.

A study in the Journal of Positive Psychology sought to differentiate the concepts of “meaning” and “happiness” by surveying roughly 400 Americans. It found considerable overlap between the two—but also some key distinctions.

• Feeling good, and having one’s needs met, is integral to happiness but unrelated to meaning.
• Happy people dwell in the present moment, not the past or future. Meaningfulness involves linking past, present, and future.
• People derive meaning, but not necessarily happiness, from helping others. People derive happiness, but not necessarily meaning, from being served.
• Social connections are important to both meaning and happiness, but the type of connection matters. Spending time with friends is important to happiness but not meaning. Spending time with loved ones is more important to meaningfulness.

But we already know these things, or we should. The elements of meaningfulness are core principles reinforced in the Gospel message that we proclaim and hold so dear. Ah, if only we led our congregations, as if we actually believed our own message.

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