Disappointed in Your Followers? Try Cultivating Awe!

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Every leader has experienced this frustration. You put your best leadership vision and energy foreword but you are met with an uninspired response. You hope for a reaction that is lively, expansive, generous and creative. Instead, your followers are unimaginative, scarcity-minded and inwardly-focused. What’s a leader to do?

Turning the tide might be easier than you think. Emerging research shows that simple experiences of awe unleash brain power, enhance generosity, and strengthen social connection.  Awe opens people up. Learn to cultivate awe as part of your leadership repertoire.

 What’s Awe Got to Do with It?

According to philosopher and psychologist William James, awe is the feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world.  The emotion that we call “awe” is our capacity for deep pleasure. When facing the incredible- we pause to take it all in.

Research is discovering important linkages between the experience of awe and our capacity for clearer thinking, kindness, generosity, creativity, ethical behavior and social connection. Research even suggests that awe combats narcissistic behavior in individuals and groups. When people have regular experiences of awe they are increasingly oriented to the world around them and less invested in individual goals and agendas.

How Awe Works

Awe is triggered by a variety of experiences that include prayer and worship, an exposure to natural wonders, great works of art, music, architecture, brilliant colors, remarkable human accomplishments, or mind-expanding theories.

Experiences of awe make us feel small. Our self-perception shrinks, but not in the negative sense of low self-esteem or lower social status. We simply get clear about our own relative insignificance in the grander scheme of the universe. Awe elicits the “small-self,” shifting attention away from our individual needs and goals and toward the larger experience of the collective group. We see the universe as expansive and ourselves as less important.

Michele Lani Shiota, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University,  explains that emotions have adaptive functions-they help us thrive in a changing, unstable environment. Fear, for instance, promotes avoidance and escape from danger. Love facilitates the intimate interdependent relationships on which humans thrive. Awe serves a distinct purpose.  It elicits our capacity for deep pleasure in the face of the incredible, and it calms us so that we can fully absorb our environment.

 

What Awe Produces

Most positive emotions elicit the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). They produce the energy and adrenaline needed for survival and needed for goal achievement.

Awe has the opposite effect. Awe engages the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (the rest-digest response) and invites us to be still.  It creates the perception that time is expanding. This calmer state of the nervous system impacts the brain. Awe creates a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve. It opens us to more careful, detail-oriented processing of information from the environment. In simpler terms, awe sharpens our thinking and helps us to notice, adapt and learn.

Awe also encourages altruistic behavior.  When we encounter a sense of something larger than ourselves, it expands our beliefs about the richness of human potential. Awe promotes social cohesion.

Research shows that people who regularly experience awe are kinder to others and more generous with their time. They behave in more ethical ways. They have a reduced sense of entitlement and deprioritize their own goals in service to a group goal.

 

Eliciting Awe

Fortunately, religious institutions excel at attuning people to awe. Our worship services, prayer disciplines, sacraments and healing rituals are meant to be awe-inspiring.

Unfortunately, many of use leave the experience of awe at the door when it comes to managing the business of the church. We ignore the potential benefits of awe in the board room, the staff meeting and in our committee work.

We can significantly enhance the qualities of leadership and followership in our congregations by inviting regular experiences of awe. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Invite people to remember a recent time when they experienced awe. Invite them to write or talk about that time. Research shows that the simple act of remembering an awe-filled experience elicits many of the positive effects of awe.
  • Show your people visual stimulation that is awe-inspiring, like this awe video . Let them sit in silence and gratitude for a few minutes after viewing the video before picking up business as usual.
  • Take your leaders on an “Awe Walk” before making a big decision. Move them into nature, if nature is available. Take them to explore a part of the city they’ve never experienced before. Otherwise, simply ask them to gaze on something familiar, from a unique angle and with fresh eyes.

While walking, shift awareness so that you all are open to what is around you, to things that are vast or unexpected. Things that delight and surprise.

As you walk, breathe deeply, counting to six as you inhale and six as you exhale.  When you return to your meeting venue, bring this state of awe and wonder with you.

We live in highly anxious times. It’s difficult for people to think and behave expansively when they are anxious. Inviting more frequent experiences of awe, and helping people attune to awe, can transform both you and your followers.

 

Photo Credit: “Morning Awe”, © 2009 Dru BloomfieldFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Don’t Just Talk About Mission-Act With Passion!

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Congregations waste precious time forming mission statements that fail to inspire action. Writing a mission statement produces clarity, but rarely generates energy. It’s time to move beyond mission and start focusing on the passion that compels us to make a specific difference.

We often think of an individual as having a vocation and an organization as having a mission. Religious organizations have both a mission and a vocational calling. They are related to one another but they are not the same thing. A mission explains, but a vocation inspires.

Mission vs. Vocation

The mission of an organization defines the work undertaken by the organization. It describes why we do what we do. Our mission is our reason for existence.

Most religious organizations derive their mission from Scripture. This may sound blunt, but the mission of any Christian congregation boils down to some version of “Bring them in, transform them through the Gospel, and send them out to change the world.” Does every congregation really need to craft their own clever spin on this?

Alternatively, an organization’s vocation is its path of authentic service to the world. A manifestation of the divine spark within. An awakening of the God-given gift of the institution. The fundamental yes from which everything else in the organization flows. Perhaps theologian, Frederick Buechner, said it best, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When you ask a struggling congregation about their vocational identity you are likely to get a response like this, “We are just one big family. We are a group of people that love being together. We are here to serve the world.” Struggling congregations are rarely able to describe their specific work. Sadly, the warm and loving feelings they ascribe to themselves rarely extend to anyone beyond a core group of insiders.

When you ask a thriving congregation about its vocation you are likely to hear something like this, “We have a heart for walking with people as they deal with their addictions. Our pastor has a professional background in addiction recovery and many in our congregations are themselves in recovery. We find ourselves particularly drawn to serving the homeless within our community, many of whom are struggling with issues related to substance abuse and addiction.”

Thriving congregations understand their broad part in spreading the Good News and in loving and serving others. At the same time, they are clear about the specific ways they are called to engage those broad mandates in their local context.

The Heart of Vocation

In Holy Conversations, consultants Alice Mann and Gil Rendle pose three questions that lie at the heart of identity. A congregation has vocational clarity when it answers these three questions: Who are we? Who do we serve? What are we called to do or become next?

Who are we (the identity question)?

Congregations, like people, bear unique fingerprints. Who we are is a function of our unique demographic; education level, affluence level, racial and ethnic profile, beliefs, core values, giftedness, limitations and passions.

Who we are is also formed by where we have been, by our history. Understanding the trajectory of our past clarifies our present. Our identity is shaped by our success, failings and shortcomings. Our limitations are as unique as our strengths and they help to clarify the work that may not be ours to do.

Who do we serve (the context question)?

We live in time and space. This season in ministry is unique. Clarifying vocation requires an understanding of how our context is changing.

There are many ways to think about the constituencies that we serve. Certainly, we serve the people who show up and include themselves in what we do. We can also include the neighbors in the places where our people live and work. And, we might include those we serve with our mission and outreach efforts. These geographies may overlap but they may also be quite distinct.

Of all the constituencies we serve, which constituency group(s) are we called to make a difference among in this season? Where is the greatest unmet need that we are uniquely situated to address?

What are we called to do or become next (the purpose question)?

The discernment of vocation requires an act of faith; a declaration of what God is doing in our midst here and now.

Our vocational calling emerges at the intersection of three circles represented by identity, context and purpose. Our identity has many components, but one piece of our identity has significance in this season because of our unique context. Similarly, we may serve diverse constituencies, but a subgroup is more relevant in this season because of who we are and how we feel called. When clarifying vocation, our task is to articulate what lies at the intersection of the three questions.

Three Oaks Community Church feels called to reach the unchurched thirty-five-year-old male who thinks that religion is irrelevant, and to transform that individual into a fully devoted follower of Christ.

First Church feels drawn to serve the families of children with special developmental needs. The congregation has embraced all abilities inclusion in worship and education. This is their gift to the community.

Cherry Hill Church is in a predominantly Muslim community. The congregation regularly hosts interfaith dialogue in the city, helping the community embrace its multi-cultural identity.

Vocation is a journey of discovery. We cannot manufacture it. It is a gift, given and discerned. When we gain clarity about our vocation we unleash energy and excitement in the life of the congregation.

Making Space for Middle Ground

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

We are a nation divided and those divisions are creeping into congregational life. It grows increasingly difficult to hold an ideological middle ground in politics, theology, or leadership. Pastors climb into pulpits fearful that a simple sermon topic will be interpreted as a political statement. Decision-making is heavy-laden with ideological spin, making it difficult to set a direction.

Polarization is the division that occurs when a complex community falsely divides itself into sharply contrasting groups. Opposing sets of opinions or beliefs are used to foster a we/they mentality that forces people to declare their “side.” We don’t have to accept polarity as the new status quo. There are specific things we can all do to encourage the re-emergence of a healthy middle ground.

Signs of Polarity

A healthy congregational hosts a broad spectrum of thought. Outliers with extreme viewpoints are regarded as quirky and perhaps even endearing. The presence of a strong middle ground means that no one is too far removed from another with a similar ideology. There is someone near me in perspective who connects me to others beyond my reach, thus bridging ideological gaps. The ideology of the next closest person is a comfort to me, and they stand between me and those I find too extreme.

When polarization happens, we lose the middle. Some of the people who represented a safe buffer between extremes move into the extremes. Others who stood at our ideological center grow alarmed by the polarization and step out or silence themselves. They become bystanders to the dialogue instead of participants in it and we lose our mediation zone. We/they thinking begins to emerge. We lose our ability to separate people and problems and “otherness” becomes the problem. We focus on personalities rather than issues. Reality gets distorted and exaggerated. We begin defending ideologies instead of seeing one another and working together to resolve our differences.

Ten Things You Can Do

Restoring an ideological middle ground is key to addressing polarization. Here are some simple (and not so simple) steps that leaders can take to foster the return of a healthy middle ground.

1. Stay spiritually grounded. It is critical to remain non-anxious and connected to your spiritual source. Fear, driven by the reactivity of the congregation, cannot be your guiding force. You must have a bedrock Source that guides your behavioral choices and your personal decision making.

2. Maintain a sense of humor.  Healthy leaders and organization can laugh at themselves. Humor disappears as an organization polarizes. Use humor appropriately and invite others not to take themselves too seriously.

3. Regulate your own responses. Be clear about your own feelings. Don’t let your personal emotions cloud your perceptions and opinions. Use “I” statements to clarify your feelings and to let others know how their behaviors impact you.

  “When you approach me at the end of the worship service with a critique of my sermon, I feel ambushed and disrespected. In that moment, I am trying to make connections with every member of the congregation. I can’t properly respond to your ideas in that setting, and your ideas aren’t yet fully formed. I would prefer to hear your ideas later in the week, after you have had a chance to think through your concerns and I have space to receive them.”

4. Focus your energy on health, not dysfunction. We are often tempted to focus our time and energy on people behaving badly, trying to cajole or force them into better behavior. People who are unwilling or unable to make good behavioral choices rarely respond well to pleas or coercive efforts.

Your time is better spent with the disengaged healthy bystanders, the people who say and do nothing because they don’t know what to do in the face of heated debate or bad behavior. Help the healthy people figure out an effective way to engage. Invite the healthy players to stay engaged with you on middle ground and ignore the dysfunction as much as possible.

5. Help people clarify needs, not positions. As polarization intensifies, people make statements that are positional and extreme. “If you preach one more sermon on that topic, I am out of here.”

When people take a positional stance, help deescalate their position by focusing on the underlying needs. “What is important to you in a sermon? What draws you to worship each week? What is important to you about your relationship with me as your pastor? How is the sermon topic that I choose related to those needs?”

6. Challenge behaviors and ideas, not motives or worth. It is easy to make assumptions about the motives behind positions, and to project clusters of other beliefs based on what we have heard. “If you believe this, then you must also stand for that.”  

In healthy organizations, people attribute good intent to one another. They don’t categorize and label one another. They ask for clarification of ideas and intent, and they give one another the benefit of the doubt until clarification is provided.

7. Paraphrase the idea of others before responding. When you hear an idea or accusation that alarms you, pause before responding. Commit to paraphrasing first what you heard from the other before weighing in with your own opinion or response. Ask the other if you have properly heard their idea before suggesting an alternative idea. Ask others to engage in this same practice.

8. Stay in your own skin. Do not speak on behalf of others. In a polarized community, people like to speak on behalf of the group they perceive as theirs.  “Others are saying…”  When people speak on behalf of another, simply remind them to speak their own truth.

9. Start with what is possible.  A return to healthy dialogue sometimes seems impossible. We can’t imagine a pathway forward that takes us from where we are to restored community. You don’t have to visualize the entire path towards restored health. Get people to commit to one small step together. Success with that one small step will begin to restore trust and will shine light on the next helpful step.

10. Pray for one another. It is impossible for a community that is praying for one another to stand in long term opposition to one another. A genuine stance of prayer invites empathy, compassion and reconciliation.

Our national discourse is not likely to calm down anytime soon. People will look to the church to provide respite from this turmoil.  People need the church to model a better way of living with diversity. Your leadership presence has never been more relevant. Ask others to commit to these ten behaviors with you so that church remains a haven, a place where differences are explored and celebrated.

 

Remaining Non-Anxious in Anxious Time

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

f296f98f-e13d-4304-b061-964fc6394179I’ve been watching and listening to pastors these past few weeks. They are bone weary. I can hear it in their voices and see it behind their eyes. It is challenging to marshal a calm and steady presence in the midst of our national political turmoil.

In the weeks ahead our leadership bodies will be making many of the hard decisions that come with wrapping up a calendar year. Many of you will be negotiating final decisions about the budget, staff raises, mission and program funding for a new year. These are difficult conversations to navigate in the best of times. These are not the best of times. How will you bring your best non-anxious self into these conversations and call that non-anxious presence forth in the groups that you lead?

A Steady Presence

We have long been taught that a non-anxious self is a critical leadership stance in the midst of anxiety.  Good organizational leadership requires someone who is non-reactive, thoughtful and steady-particularly when the things around them are spinning out of control.

Edwin Friedman, in Generation to Generation, calls this stance “leadership through self-differentiation”.  A differentiated leader takes non-reactive, clearly conceived, well- defined positions that seek to define the leader as the “head”, distinct from but committed to relationship with the body.

Peter Steinke in Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times calls it the non-anxious presence. Steinke describes this presence as a steady and calm way of being that acknowledges the anxiety, but does not let the anxiety drive behavioral choices.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in Leadership on the Line call it holding steady. Holding steady is about learning to take the heat rather than fleeing or retreating back to the status quo. It involves focusing attention on hard issues and letting those issues ripen.  It requires the ability to observe and learn from resistance and factions that emerge.

It is one thing to describe this kind of leadership presence. Embodying it is an entirely different matter. How do we offer a non-anxious leadership presence when we feel shaken to the core? How do we help an anxious leadership body engage in tough conversations when the environment feels so precarious?

Wonder: The Antidote to Anxiety

Wonder trumps anxiety. We cannot be filled with wonder and remain anxious at the same time. Wonder is the ability to feel amazement, admiration and curiosity about something. Wonder invites our best, most creative thinking. Wonder connects us with God. So how do we move from anxiety to wonder?

Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, speaks of three internal voices that stand in the way of wonder; the voice of judgement, the voice of fear, and the voice of cynicism. In anxious times these voices dominate our thinking and reasoning and they keep us from engaging our best, God-centered selves. In times of anxiety we must learn to release these voices.

The Voice of Judgment is intellectual.  This is the voice in your head that knows many things and has already reached conclusions about decisions at hand. It likes to label things “That approach is flawed and won’t work.” “He won’t support my idea because he is risk averse.” The voice of judgment tries to seal off the mind and protect the status quo. It shuts down creativity.

The Voice of Cynicism is born of mistrust. This is the voice in your head that is skeptical and certain that everyone is out to protect their own self-interest and violate yours. “He’s never supported any of my ideas and certainly won’t support this one.” “Just try to get the governing board to approve that idea!” The voice of cynicism tries to protect the heart from becoming too vulnerable. If I close myself off to the possibility of cooperation and success, I won’t be disappointed.

The Voice of Fear seeks to prevent us from losing what we already have. This is the whiny voice in your head that is certain you are in danger of losing ground. “Let’s just quit while we are ahead” “If we don’t raise this money, our very future is in jeopardy.” The voice of fear gravitates towards extremes. It shuts down the open will by keeping us in grasping mode, which works against the spiritual stance of surrender.  Grasping at what you are in danger of losing keeps you from experiencing God’s abundance.

The voices of judgment, cynicism and fear run amok in anxious times. They cultivate a closed mind, heart and spirit. They fight against wonder. If our desire is to adopt a non-anxious leadership stance then we need to release these voices.

Releasing the three voices begins with acknowledging their existence. At least initially, we have to create some space to attend to the voices as they express themselves.

Create a quiet space to reflect and attend to your inner thoughts. Sit with a blank sheet of paper. Think about a specific issue or decision that you are facing. Attend to each of the voices one at a time, with regard to that specific issue. What is the voice of judgment saying in your mind about the specific decision at hand? Write the musings of the voice down on the paper in front of you in stream of consciousness fashion. Don’t argue with it or filter it, just write it.  Then ask the voice of judgment to be silent for a while so that you can hear from the voice of cynicism on this matter. Again, give this voice free reign for two or three minutes recording everything it says to you. Finally, invite the voice of cynicism to remain silent while you listen for the voice of fear. Record any and all thoughts that fear expresses to you.

Once the journaling exercise is complete, read through the thoughts that have been expressed simply acknowledging their presence. And then, in whatever way works best for you, release the voices. You may want to symbolically fold and put the paper away or shred it and throw it away. You may want to pray to be released from the constraints that the voices represent. Or, you may want to simply sit in silence and listen to the voices retreat.

On the other side of judgment, cynicism and fear lives a state of wonder, mystery and possibility. “What wants to emerge here? What is likely to happen next? How can we bring the best of ourselves to the decision at hand?”

The anxiety in our culture is not likely to diminish anytime soon. Our leadership presence does not need to be captured by it. I pray that each of you, and the leaders that you lead, will find your way towards wonder in the weeks and months ahead. May God be with you in this.

Have We Failed?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

635944741686261514734284120_success_failure_directBarb shared her decision to end the day trip ministry. “I simply can’t organize these trips anymore. We began this ministry to address the loneliness and isolation of older adults. It’s been wildly successful in terms of participation. People love going on these day outings and enrollment fills up immediately. But our funding source is drying up. I can’t find anyone to succeed me in leadership, or even to help with the organization of the outings. I’m tired of carrying the load alone. I guess the ministry is going to end when I step down. If I had been a better leader, I would have found more money and a successor.”

Barb’s comments reflect an unstated assumption at work in many faith-based institutions. A successful ministry is a sustainable ministry, one that goes on indefinitely. To sustain something is to keep it in existence, to supply the necessities that ensure continuity, to uphold or defend an ongoing practice. There is inherent value and worth in sustainability. If we value something we must do everything within our power to see that it is sustained. When something is not sustainable, it has failed or is failing. Right?

Wrong. This assumption invites us to tell a troubled story about any ministry that ends. We talk about the parts of the ministry that don’t work in order to justify the ending. The ending is announced and the ministry slips quietly off into the sunset. The leader of the final chapter bears a silent shame. “I wasn’t good enough to keep it afloat.”

We are living in an era where many things we have done in the name of Church are no longer sustainable. Does this mean we have failed? In an era of institutional decline, linking sustainability with success and unsustainability with failure is problematic in three ways:

  • We avoid sunsetting programs. To pull the plug is to label the thing a failure—or even worthless—when it is still important to some. So, we don’t evaluate or ask hard questions of the ministries that we do sustain. Is this the best use of our resources right now? Does this ministry still align with our mission, core purpose, and values?
  • We don’t learn from our experience. Failure feels painful. In order to avoid the pain, we dismiss the experience as quickly as possible. We miss a tremendous opportunity when we don’t carefully consider why a program is ending, or what we have to learn about the changing conditions around the program.
  • We stop innovating. Innovation happens best in environments where experimentation and failure are normalized. It has to be okay to fail. When sustainability becomes a core criterion for success, we avoid starting new things.

What Makes a Ministry Sustainable?

On some level, every organization must be sustainable. If we cannot afford to cover our overhead expenses over time, we will cease to exist and won’t be able to support any ministry.

However, under the umbrella of a sustainable organization we should be free to experiment with programs that may or may not be individually sustainable. We need to be able to innovate, reflect, learn and adapt. We can’t do these things without some better language about sustainability. There are at least four types of sustainability that we ought to regularly consider:

  • Economic sustainability: This approach to sustainability seems to get the most attention, maybe the only attention, when we are talking about the viability of a program or ministry. Will the program eventually pay for itself? If not, will we have the funds to sustain it on an ongoing basis? These are important questions, but not the only questions related to sustainability.
  • Leadership sustainability: What kind of leadership presence will this program require? How many staff and volunteer hours will be devoted to its sustenance? What kind of leadership succession plan do we have for this program? Is more than one generation of leadership likely to support this ministry with time and talent?
  • Social sustainability: What difference will this ministry make in the world? What environmental condition does this ministry seek to resolve or improve? How will it improve lives and which lives will it improve?
  • Mission sustainability: How does this ministry promote the unique mission of our organization? Does it draw upon our unique strengths and passions? Does it meet the needs of a constituency that we are meant to serve? Is this what God is calling us to do or become in this season?

When a program satisfies all four types of sustainability we should certainly include it in our portfolio of ministries. When a program fails to satisfy any of the four types it should clearly be discontinued. The tricky landscape to negotiate is when a program satisfies several categories but fails to satisfy others. Then we need to have thoughtful conversations about whether the program should end.

Learning from our Endings

When the decision is made to end a program or project, we need to learn all we can from the ending. Rather than letting the program quietly disappear in the hope that no one will be upset, we need to stop, reflect, learn and adapt. This is how healthy organizations grow and thrive.

Ask yourself these questions: When the program was first begun, what condition in the world was it was meant to address? How has the original condition changed? What impact has the program had on this condition over time? How have resource requirements shifted over time? What outcomes did we experience then and now? Which forms of sustainability are no longer viable for this program? How can we celebrate the success we had? How can we honor the leaders who have served? How might we talk about the legacy created? How does the end of this program ensure other new beginnings for this organization?

It’s time to examine the assumptions that you and your organization carry about sustainability, success, and failure. A program is not a failure because it ends. It is only a failure when we ignore the powerful invitation to reflect, learn, adapt, and innovate.

The Truth About Consensus

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Hand-Stack“Let’s work by consensus!” is a familiar rallying cry. It feels egalitarian, generative and worthy. So we set aside Robert’s Rules of Order and begin a dialogue where all are encouraged to weigh in. We promise ourselves that we won’t move forward until we’ve reached an agreement that everyone likes. And then the problems begin, because we have confused consensus with unanimity.  

True consensus is achieved when every person involved in the decision can say: “I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.”

In contrast, unanimity is undivided opinion.  Everyone is in agreement on the best course of action to take. The difference is subtle but important. When we strive for unanimity, we end up taking an inordinate amount of time to make decisions. At best, innovation grinds to a halt. At worst, we create unhealthy patterns of interaction where people are pressured to acquiesce on important issues.

Case in Point:

They were known within the congregation as the dream team, nine respected leaders with rich life experience, assembled to identify and recruit the next pastoral leader of the congregation. The team members were individually accomplished, insightful and wise.  Their first motion was to work by consensus. They interpreted this to mean that they would not recommend any candidate to the congregation unless they were all in agreement about their first choice.

The dream team worked diligently at their task for eighteen long months.  Then they polarized around three potential candidates. Sub-groups began meeting informally between meetings to decide how they would posture themselves in the full team meeting.  Each group had become highly invested in promoting their candidate and “protecting the church” from the other candidates. They were locked in opposition and it did not appear that they were going to accomplish the basic task to which they had been appointed.

What caused nine healthy leaders to become so dysfunctional?  Their decision making rested on the assumption that when the right candidate came along, the team would unanimously recognize that person as their first choice. They confused consensus and unanimity.

What Consensus Is and Isn’t?

According to Dressler, “Consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. In consensus, the input of every member is carefully considered and there is a good faith effort to address all legitimate concerns.”

Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous decision, in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied.  Consensus is also not a majority vote, in which some larger segment of the group gets to make the decision. Consensus is not a coercive or manipulative tactic to get members to conform to some preordained decision.  

In testing for consensus you are not asking: Is this your first choice of options? Do you like this option?  Does this option satisfy your personal needs? In testing for consensus you are asking: Is this an option that I can live with and ultimately support? Does this option satisfy the criteria that we have claimed as a group? Will this option adequately serve the best interest of our congregation and its stakeholders?

Simply agreeing with a decision is not true consensus.  Consensus implies commitment to the decision, which means that you oblige yourself to do your part in putting the decision into action.

How Do We Work with Disagreement?

Each group member has the right and responsibility to express concerns.  Legitimate concerns will take the form of questions and statements about the option that might not serve the congregation’s best interests. As concerns are raised, the group seeks to understand and attempt to resolve them.

Expressing and resolving legitimate concerns looks like this. We listen fully to the reservation that has been raised.  We ask open-ended questions to better understand the reservation. We provide additional information to the person raising the concern. We pause regularly for silence and prayer, to discern the movement of Spirit.

When listening and clarification don’t resolve the expressed concern, we have several options available to us. We can offer to make the concern a point of record, so that the person with reservation can support the initiative of the whole without abandoning their personal integrity. The individual with reservations can also agree to “stand aside”, which is to say that their concern has been appropriately vetted, and the individual is willing to let the group move ahead in spite of the reservation. This also means that the concerned individual will support the decision outside of the decision making room.

Sometimes the reservations expressed in decision making are non-legitimate or obstructive.  A non-legitimate concern occurs when the person who disagrees is acting at odds with what is in the best interest of the congregation, often pursuing personal values, beliefs or needs.

When non-legitimate concerns are raised, the group needs to reassert its agreed upon decision criteria. The group encourages the objector to distinguish between their personal values and the values of the organization, to distinguish between the organizational “must haves” and their personal “wants”.

What Happens if We Can’t Reach Consensus?

There will be moments when consensus just doesn’t emerge.  The group has multiple options at that point. You can;

  • Defer the decision: Go back to the drawing board.  Consider a new pool of options.
  • Dissolve the group: Acknowledge that this group is probably not able to reach consensus and form a new group to take over.  
  • Give decision making authority to a sub-group: You may decide in advance that unresolved issues will be delegated to a smaller sub-set of decision makers.
  • Default to a majority vote: The group can decide, in advance, on a point in time where consensus seeking will end. If you have not reached consensus by that point in time, the group will vote and the decision will be determined by the majority.

Consensus isn’t mere acquiescence. It is a healthy and cooperative form of dialogue that invites truth-telling, authentic listening and accountability.  It invites group members to move into the future, passionately committed to the decisions they have made.

Taming the Bureaucracy Beast

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The church needs innovation, experimentation and risk taking.  The church has bureaucracy; inactivity in the name of good order and process. Senseless bureaucracy keeps us endlessly mired in reporting, approval seeking and communication. We end up with repetitive meetings, multiple levels of approval, over-reliance on procedure, and postponed decision making until everyone is informed and happy.  What would it take to free ourselves from all of this and just get things done?


Too Much of a Good Thing

In the late 1980’s Zebra Mussels found their way into the Great Lakes. A few Zebra Mussels are healthy for a fresh water ecosystem. They filter the water and reduce the overgrowth of algae. They produce clear water and facilitate healthier conditions for bottom dwellers.

image controlsUnfortunately, Zebra Mussels also feed voraciously and reproduce rapidly. Instead of gently cleaning up the Great Lakes waterways, the mussels over-proliferated and destroyed too much algae, threatening wild fish habitats.  They also clogged fresh water intake valves and filtration processes that human communities around the Great Lakes depend upon to thrive.

Congregational systems are like the Great Lakes ecosystem in this analogy. A few good procedures and carefully constructed decision making rules will produce transparency and generate healthy representation. Good policy keeps us from running off the deep end in pursuit of ideas that are not a good fit for us.  However, when process and procedure over-proliferate, we end up with clogged decision making. Innovation and risk taking take a back seat to sustaining good order.

The good news is that there are things we can do right now to tame the bureaucracy beast and restore a healthier balance between order and innovation.

Know what you seek to accomplish:

Bureaucracy thrives when process takes precedent over outcomes. When communication, shared decision making, and keeping people happy become the outcome, we end up with stagnation and clogged intake valves.

We begin unclogging by naming the specific changed conditions we are trying to produce in mission and ministry. This requires naming the new learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning that fulfilling your mission requires. These are your outcomes.

Outcomes are the not the same thing as outputs. Outputs are the direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs indicate if a service was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of constituents served, classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged.  

When we are unclear about outcomes, we often chase outputs. Chasing outputs without clarity about outcomes promotes unhelpful busyness and feeds the bureaucracy beast.

 

Eliminate Liaisons

Congregational governance systems ensure representation, and the primary way we have pursued representation is through liaison roles.  We select leaders on the basis of their ability to represent the voice of a specific constituency: the choir, the youth, the women, or the daycare. The liaison is expected to attend all board meetings, as well as any committee or team meetings that impact her constituency group. Her job, in addition to representing the best interest of her constituency group, is to ensure that important information from the board meeting is carried over to the committee meeting, and vice versa.

There are several things wrong with liaison roles. First, liaison roles elevate communication and decision making over action. A liaison may be expected to attend three to four meetings per month so that her constituency group is appropriately informed and represented everywhere that a decision might be made. Volunteers use up all of their available time attending meetings, without actually engaging in any hands on ministry. It’s exhausting for the volunteer and the governance system. In this age of digital communication there are far better ways of sharing important information than requiring a person to sit in endless meetings, in case their viewpoint is required.

The second problem with liaison roles is that they don’t promote strategic thinking on behalf of the whole. They certainly encourage debate: my group needs this, your group wants that. A room full of designated liaisons acting in the best interest of their constituent groups won’t necessarily reach a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. They are likely to make decisions that serve the needs of the constituency with the most outspoken liaison.

What if, instead of appointing liaisons, we assemble smaller bodies of decision makers who act on behalf of the whole? We expect them to make informed decisions and communicate as needed with the appropriate constituencies of the church. This requires more intentionality when forming agendas, to make certain that the right people (the staff member or committee chairperson) are in the room when a decision is being considered. This would free us up to make decisions more flexibly, without deferring decisions back to committees or task forces for further consideration before a decision is authorized.

 

Design an Experiment

Some bureaucracy stems from the fact that we don’t want anyone to be surprised or upset about a decision that is under consideration. We postpone decision making until every voice is heard and until everyone is happily on board. This squelches innovation. Nothing happens until we all agree.

Next time you find yourself in a meeting where the group wants to postpone a decision, why not encourage the birth of an experiment? If the group isn’t comfortable approving a new giant step, figure out how to make it a baby step that everyone can learn from.

Bureaucratic systems are built to support “Ready, Aim, Fire!” mentality. Bureaucracy seeks absolute clarity and consensus before allowing action, so that errors are not made.

In this era of continuous change, we don’t have the luxury of moving ponderously. We need to act more quickly, embracing more of a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach to decision making.  We ready ourselves to take a step that is reasonable. We pull the trigger and move ahead with an experiment that will allow us to learn something. The experiment has to be appropriate in scope so that failure won’t be devastating. We learn from the experiment and refine our next steps, postponing acts of authorization until we have learned what we need to know.

Bureaucracy in a congregation is not inevitable. We don’t have to succumb to overgrown systems of communication, decision making and approval. We don’t have to wait for a major overhaul of our governance system from the denomination. We can begin right here, right now to streamline our approach and allow more innovation.

Tending the Soul of the Institution

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The human brain favors binary thinking. We are naturally drawn to the two-sidedness of the world, the fact that everything has an opposite, a polar complement. Light vs. dark, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, yin-yang.

Leaders of faith based institutions often embrace binary thinking in organizational leadership. We tend the spiritual needs of our organization with the soft skills of care, prayer and discipleship. Then, we turn the soft skills off and guide the organizational side of the church with the hard skills of supervision, governance, facilities and financial management. Two fundamentally different kinds of work. Two very different skill sets. Right?

Wrong! This dualistic way of thinking about leadership is binding us and the institutions we serve. Holistic leadership recognizes that the institution is host to a soul, a direct agent of the divine spark within. The soul is the authentic and truest self of the institution; the source of its divine calling, and character; the protector of institutional integrity.
Tending institutional soul requires nurturing organizational effectiveness and spiritual wholeness as one.

Soul-Tending Illustrated

West Highland Church is facing life-changing decisions about the future of its building. Membership declined significantly in the last decade. Although the congregation is still vibrant and impactful, it is having difficulty supporting its sizable property and buildings. Several options for the future are on the table. The options range from supporting the operating budget with more funds from the endowment, taking on tenants, or selling the property outright and moving into a smaller space.

Leaders of the congregation began by deepening their knowledge and skill base. They sought out best practices, attended workshops and researched the ins and outs of real estate, finance and property management. Organizational capacity was enhanced by bringing in the wisdom of architects, property managers and investment managers. At the end of this process leaders had a good understanding of the issues and options, but they were stuck in finding a solution that would align the congregation with its history, its mission and the voice of membership.

Finally, leaders paused to consider institutional soul. Through a process of journaling and guided prayer, they emptied themselves of the biases and assumptions that had accumulated during their study. They hosted listening circles to discern the congregation’s orientation to its space. They paused and they prayed. They asked themselves questions about the sacredness of place. They pondered what it meant to befriend the soul of the community through each of the options before them. They reviewed the significance of place in the history of the congregation.

In the midst of this soul-tending work, a way forward began to coalesce. Leaders sold a small parcel of property at the edge of campus and used the proceeds to reduce their mortgage, so that debt became manageable for the present membership base. An exciting and vibrant chapter of church life followed.

This brief illustration highlights four important dimensions of organizational soul-tending work: cultivating collective wisdom, clarifying vocation, unbinding memory, and deepening discernment.

Cultivating Collective Wisdom: Organizations and their leaders know many things, but leading based on what we know does not invite transformation. Today, we face too many challenges whose solutions are beyond simple knowing. Wisdom is a form of knowing marked by our ability to discern the inner qualities and relationships of a situation and to distinguish truth from falsehood.

Nurturing collective wisdom requires shifting our orientation from knowing to unknowing, from advocating to attending, from speculating to presencing, from deciding to discerning. These are countercultural shifts in leadership orientation, rooted in ancient contemplative practice. These are orientations that must be cultivated within our leadership body if we want to do soul-tending work.

Clarifying Vocation: The integrity of vocation is protected by the soul. Who are we? Who do we serve? What is God calling us to do or become next? The soul of the institution knows the answers to these questions. Leaders who discern these questions authentically, on behalf of the soul, have located the charism of the organization. Honoring the charism insures institutional integrity.

Unbinding Memory: John O’Donohue, poet and theologian, wrote that “soul is the place where memory resides”. The soul of the institution is stable, but not static. It has been on a journey. That journey includes clarifying moments and wounding moments.

Wounding moments in a congregation’s past diminish its future capacity, if left unexplored. One congregation avoids talking about a troubled history, when three successive clergy leaders engaged in inappropriate sexual relationships with members of the congregation. Their failure to meaningfully frame their history contributes to a deep sense of shame about the congregation’s identity. Their shame binds them to past failures and blocks a hope-filled future.

Within the soul of the organization lies a capacity for the rediscovery, reframing and healing memory. There is generative capacity in the rediscovery of foundational memories that have long been forgotten. Through work with lost or damaged institutional memory an organization can rediscover its divine purpose.

Deepening Discernment: Yearning is the language of the soul. The soul of an organization often expresses itself through the collective yearning of its membership body. Soul tending work requires sharpening group discernment skills, it requires deeper listening as collective yearning finds expression.

Discerning on behalf of the whole and with the soul raises some challenging issues. Who is authorized to speak on behalf of the soul of the institution? How does daily decision making relate to discernment? Where do we locate discernment in the life of the institution? Leaders must respond to these questions as part of authentic soul-tending work.

Tending the soul of the institution is more than a simple call to prayer, and it requires more than slapping a scripture verse on top of good business practice. It is more than understanding the culture, strategy and spirituality of a congregation. It requires basic leadership orientations that may seem at odds with traditional practices of leadership. Nurturing the soul-tending capacity of our leaders takes intentionality, time and attention. The payoff is greater authenticity in decision making and the genuine transformation of our congregations.

If you would like to explore institutional soul-tending further, please consider joining Alice Mann and Susan Beaumont for Tending the Soul of the Institution, a three-day learning retreat on November 3-5, 2015.

The Problem With Meetings

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The problem with meetings in congregation is that they focus on building and sharing knowledge. What if we focused on cultivating collective wisdom instead?

Think about the agenda in your typical church meeting. Staff meetings, board meetings, and committee meetings all incorporate the same elements. I tell you what I know, you tell me what you know, we consult with outside sources that know, and then based on our shared knowledge we wrestle our way toward decision making. If we can’t all agree, then majority rules. And most of this happens in the form of sharing and receiving reports, making motions, and approving actions. Boring, not very creative, and certainly not soulful!

Knowledge is tactical and practical. It is acquired through processing information and it informs us.  Knowledge is something that we have. It empowers us to act when we work well with information. Our financial reports, budgets, and committee or department reports are filled with gathered knowledge that we create to keep ourselves informed.

Wisdom requires more than shared knowing. It includes our ability to discern the inner qualities and relationships of a situation, the capacity to distinguish between the rightness and wrongness of things, to distinguish between what fits here and what does not.

Collective wisdom is not just about assembling our smartest or most spiritual people in the room, and asking them to make a decision on our behalf. Collective wisdom is about the capacity of a group to make wise choices and to orient themselves around a living sense of their shared future, informed by collective values. Collective wisdom emerges when we balance the content of our knowledge, with personal contemplative awareness, right relationship with one another, the needs of our community, and openness to the divine.

When collective wisdom emerges, people describe a seamlessness, a slowing down of time and space, a unitive awareness of boundaries expanding, and permeable connections growing stronger.  The ability to communicate with others becomes sharper and broader.  Astonishing creativity springs forth, along with the sudden and surprising appearance of new capacity and intelligence.

What are the conditions and practices that cultivate collective wisdom, particularly in the meetings we lead?

Stand Humbly Before God: We cannot create wisdom. Wisdom is available to us. We may cultivate conditions that open us to the presence of wisdom, but wisdom itself is a gift from God. So, collective wisdom requires that we begin with humility, and that we ask for guidance.

In a group or meeting context, this requires an orientation of unknowing, of recognizing that we each have personal biases and assumptions that are not helpful to the decision at hand.  We are all naturally invested in clinging to what we know; we don’t naturally engage in unknowing behavior. Therefore, we need to offer opportunities and rituals in meetings for people to acknowledge and release their personal biases, for making group confession, for naming and surrendering preferences.

Gain Clarity and Commitment to Core Values: The values of the community are those core principles and beliefs we hold that describe who we are when we are living as our best selves.  For example, our values might include: Our commitment to excellence as an attribute of God that honors God, our strongly held belief that every person matters to God and therefore to us, our embrace of worship as a way of life, our strong commitment to engaging those who live on the margins of life, etc.

Every community has a unique set of values. We cultivate collective wisdom to the extent that we gain clarity about our core values and call upon them regularly, as criteria to satisfy, within our decision making processes.

Cultivate Group Silence and Solitude: Silence and solitude lie at the heart of wisdom awareness. They are the center from which we connect to the soul of the congregation.

When we work in knowledge mode, we produce a lot of conversation: the report, the debate, the presentation, the brainstorm, etc.  When we open ourselves to wisdom, we take time for silence.

For example, we may frame a topic for discussion, and then stop for quiet reflection and prayer.  We might review all of the knowledge content available to us on a subject being considered, then put the reports away and use silence to reorient ourselves around soulfulness.

It feels counterintuitive to speak about solitude as something that we invite into a group context. But wisdom work requires healthy intrapersonal awareness. Intrapersonal awareness requires solitude.

Team members should receive information in advance of the meeting, so that they have time to think and pray about issues on their own. Institute the practice of waiting and resting between the time when an issue is introduced and the time when a final decision is made.  Create an agreement among team members that they will not debate or decide an issue with sub-groups, outside of official meetings. Use the time between meetings to reflect and pray individually, in solitude.

Use Robert’s Rules of Order Sparingly:  Robert’s Rules are parliamentary procedure to determine who has speaking and deciding authority in deliberative settings. They are meant to contain conversations that are likely to become contentious. They move debate towards decision making, using the principles of majority rules.

However, Robert’s Rules are not effective at cultivating wisdom or honoring the soul of the congregation.  The Rules don’t solicit input from those hesitant to speak.  They don’t consciously address the needs of people not in the room.  They don’t promote, silence, solitude and waiting as needed. They don’t easily accommodate flexibility or changes in decision making direction. In short, Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful in meetings that require order and constraint. They are not helpful for promoting collective wisdom.

Work with Consensus Based Decision Making: In consensus based decision making, we stay in dialogue until every person involved in the decision can say: “I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.” Simply agreeing with a decision is not true consensus.  Consensus implies commitment to the decision, which means that all participants oblige themselves to do their part in putting the decision into action.

Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous decision (in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied).  Consensus is also not a majority vote (in which some larger segment of the group gets to make the decision). Consensus is not a coercive or manipulative tactic to get members to conform to some preordained decision.  The goal of consensus is not to appear participative, it is actually to be participative.

Congregations require meeting structures for getting things done.  Without structure and process, there is just chaos. We can create processes that invest in building and sharing knowledge, but then we will always be limited by our own best thinking.  Or we can create processes and structures that cultivate collective wisdom. Then the possibilities for transformation are truly limitless.

How to Develop Wise Leaders

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

Consider the last slate of candidates nominated for leadership in your congregation. What attributes were sought when recruiting this group? Perhaps you looked for potential leaders who were: invested, good decision-makers, strategic, prayerful, respected, effective communicators, with strong personal boundaries.

How did the actual list of nominees compare to your desired list of attributes? Did you find the attributes you were seeking, or did you default to: loyal, breathing, and willing?2 beautiful owls

Congregations struggle with a perpetual gap between the leaders they need and the pool of talent that they actually have. There are a host of circumstances to blame. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we haven’t developed our leadership base. We rely on other institutions to cultivate leadership talent in our members, which we try to harvest. And, we haven’t clearly identified or developed the most important attribute for congregational leadership: Wisdom.

Wisdom, in the biblical tradition, stands for many things ranging from the technical skill of artisans, to the art of governance. It incorporates simple cleverness, with the practical skill of coping with life, and the pursuit of ethical conduct. Wisdom is seen as derived from God, as belonging to God, as associated with creation, and as identified with the Torah or law.

Congregations are not meant to operate like other for-profit, or not-for –profit entities. We value the effectiveness and efficiency associated with institutional life, but we need to be led in ways that reflect our faith based origins and in ways that foster covenantal community. We seek leaders that can nurture institutional health, while tending to the soul of the institution and its constituents, and while listening for the guidance of Spirit. We seek wisdom.

Can wisdom be taught? Or, is wisdom something that certain people are born to, or gifted with, independent of learned skills and experience?

Two Schools of Thought

Let’s examine two viewpoints on the development of wisdom in leaders; one secular and one spiritual.

Yale psychology professor, Robert Sternberg, promotes the Balanced Theory of Wisdom to explain how wisdom can be intentionally developed.

Sternberg explains that wisdom seeks the common good. Wisdom realizes that the common good may be better for some than for others. A wise leader can negotiate the differences among individuals and groups, much like Solomon negotiated between two mothers who each claimed the same baby. Sternberg claims that we can nurture wisdom by developing the following capacities in our leaders.

• Basic intelligence (practical problem solving and verbal abilities)

• Factual & procedural knowledge

• Intrapersonal awareness (biases, skills, orientations, values)

• Extrapersonal awareness (goals, political agendas and interests of others)

• Balance and integration of competing interests

• Clarity about goals, along with the ability to recognize competing goals and to negotiate unifying goals

• Balancing short and long-term interests and needs

• Naming and clarifying core values, and using values to negotiate competing interests

• Shaping and adapting the congregation to changes in the environment

A more spiritual approach to developing wisdom is described by Cynthia Bourgeault, in “The Wisdom Way of Knowing”.

Bourgeault asserts that wisdom is a way of knowing that goes beyond one’s mind, one’s rational understanding and embraces the whole of a person: mind (intellectual center), heart (emotional center) and body (moving center).

This viewpoint sees wisdom as a gift of God, a gift that can be invited through prayerfulness. When a person is poised, balanced and alert in all three centers, a shift in consciousness happens. We become present, fully occupying the now in which we find ourselves. A state of presence is required to move into wisdom. The wisdom way of knowing stresses the fluidity of movement between God consciousness and present-centeredness. The Wisdom way of knowing requires:

• Surrender (which opens the heart directly to the more subtle realms of spiritual wisdom and energy)

• Seeing with the eye of the heart, and

• Connecting to the Divine Source

Tips for Cultivating Wisdom

We do not need to choose between secular and spiritual approaches to developing wisdom. We must nurture both. Our churches and synagogues need wise leaders with practical organizational wisdom and deep soulfulness.
Here are several practices to consider adding to your leadership development toolbox:

• Create the expectation that every member of your leadership team will have a personal prayer discipline. Create a culture in which leaders hold one another accountable for that discipline, by encouraging spiritual direction, check-ins and testimony.

• Introduce prayer practices into your meeting format, practices that extend beyond opening and closing prayers. Teach your leaders how to engage in guided meditation, lectio-divina, appreciative inquiry, theological biblical reflection, and consolation vs. desolation. Help your leaders become more comfortable spending time in silence.

• Instruct your leaders in the basics of governance and polity that will guide their work. But also ground them in the core values, strategic priorities and goals of the congregation.

• Help new leaders articulate their own personal core values and priorities and examine the overlap or conflict between their personal goals and the goals of the congregation.

• Define an intentional decision making/discernment process that includes these elements:

o Framing the issue,
o Naming guiding principles and core values that apply to the decision,
o Weighing the competing interests at work in the decision; clarifying who stands to gain or lose what,
o Distinguishing between the long and short term implications of a decision,
o Naming the adaptive work at the core of the issue, and
o Inviting silence and prayerful reflection in the midst of group decision making.

In this era of congregational life, where change is constant and adaptive leadership is needed, we must cultivate different leadership skills. We can’t simply assume that the leadership skills that our congregants have learned in other settings will translate well into the church. We need to be about the work of cultivating wisdom and developing more soulful leadership.