Archive for February, 2012

Adaptive Leadership, Pledge Drives and Resilience

There’s a lot of discussion amongst today’s Unitarian Universalists about “adaptive leadership”.  It’s been the subject of workshops at the UUA’s General Assembly and was one of the tracks at last year’s UU Ministers Association “Institute for Excellence in Ministry”.  It’s the focus of much of the First Year Ministers’ Seminar in Boston, and it was the main topic for a recent Southeast UU Ministers Association Retreat at the Mountain.  It’s also a significant part of the UUA’s “Harvest the Power!” program on lay leadership development for congregations.

Many of the problems facing us in everyday life might be considered technical challenges, in that it’s simply a matter of acquiring the knowledge or skills needed to resolve each problem.  Should one of the tires on my bicycle develop a puncture, for instance, it’s either a matter of taking it to a bike shop for the tire to be replaced or buying a new tire and then replacing it myself.  I come out of the process pretty much as I went in, at least once I’ve washed the dirt and grease off my hands!

An adaptive challenge, though, isn’t about acquiring knowledge or skills, at least at first.  Rather, it requires, in the words of Ron Heifitz of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “developing the organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to meet problems successfully according to our values and purposes.”  Many of the problems faced by groups of people — from a congregation to human society — are actually adaptive, not technical; addressing them can be messy but doing so is always transformative, for individuals as well as for their culture.

At this time of year, most UU congregations are doing their annual pledge drives, and the congregation I serve is amongst that number doing its canvass.  Now it might seem like ensuring there’s a healthy budget is a technical challenge: it’s simply a matter of finding the right way to ask members and friends to submit a generous pledge and that’s all there is to it.  Well, no.  For one thing, very few people get excited at the mere thought of a balanced budget!

In Heifitz’s terms, we’ve been developing our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity by embracing an understanding of stewardship that goes beyond the pledge drive.  A few times a year each of our members is invited by a “steward” to a friendly meeting — over breakfast or lunch or afternoon coffee — to simply talk about what it means to them to be a part of our Fellowship, reflecting on where their shared hopes for the congregation overlap the dreams of their hearts.  As part of the pledge drive, of course, the next round of such conversations will include a request to our members to complete their pledge cards.  Then, future stewardship meetings will return to more general discussions of connection and caring as we develop our stewardship ministry together.  UUA Consultant Frankie Price Stern says that we may well be the only UU congregation in the country taking this approach to stewardship, so the rest of the denomination is watching us closely!

Turning to another spiritual topic of interest these days, it’s perhaps not surprising that in developing our capacity to respond to adaptive challenges, we also deepen our resilience.  After all, it isn’t usually technical problems that call for resilience; a punctured bicycle tire shouldn’t affect my own sense of identity and who I am trying to be in the world!  Rather, it’s adaptive challenges that call into question our purpose, our attitudes towards risk and difficult decisions, our comfort (or lack thereof!) with disequilibrium, distress and change.  So, when it comes to the problems that we all inevitably face in our lives — whether as individuals or in families, as a congregation or in the wider society — may we support and encourage one another in our efforts to draw upon our cultural and spiritual resources for resilience, finding within ourselves and through each other a deepened capacity to respond to life’s challenges.

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Being and Doing

A few years ago I spent four months as a hospital chaplain, visiting patients and their families to offer spiritual support.  Some time in the middle of the chaplaincy I had a run of shallow visits, when it seemed that everyone I visited was fine, doing okay, looking forward to going home, all set and in no need of a chaplain.  They could have talked about whatever it was that had brought them to the hospital, but they had no particular desire to share those things with me.  After a while I started to wonder what I was doing wrong.

Reporting some of those visits to my supervisors, I realized something: I was repeatedly asking if there was anything I could do for the patients.  Perhaps that in itself wasn’t making much of a difference in how each visit went, but it said something about my attitude during those visits, and I really didn’t like what it said!

In my home church I led workshops on Voluntary Simplicity, a program of reducing clutter and distractions, resisting consumerism and cultural expectations, and rejoicing in community and the spirituality of everyday life.  We talked about saving our time and money for the things of real importance to us, considering such values as authenticity, mindfulness, gratitude and Sabbath.  In one workshop we asked ourselves: “Are we defined by what we do or by what we are?”  Making a point about the cultural emphasis on doing rather than being, someone in the group noted that we name ourselves human ‘beings’, not human ‘doings’!

In short, when it came to chaplaincy, I thought I had it mostly figured out.  I knew that there would be very little I could do for the patients and families I visited, and that the greatest gift I could offer was simply to be present, to be compassionate, to be myself.  I might listen to them or read to them or pray with them, but that would be secondary to the simple fact that I was there.  But then I realized that I didn’t have it all figured out, that I’d not fully embraced the concept of being and could slip back to an emphasis on doing at any time.

There’s a short movie that nicely demonstrates why we should struggle to be and not just to do.  It shows two groups of people passing basketballs amongst themselves and the instructions that come with it say to watch it twice.  The first time requires some concentration, counting how many times one group passes their ball, not counting passes by the other group.  The second time is just a matter of watching.  Most people are amazed to realize that, a little while into the movie, someone in a gorilla suit wanders in from one side, waves at the camera, and then ambles out the other side!

We can be so caught up in an ordinary task that we fail to notice the extraordinary that’s right in front of us.  And when stress, anxiety or looming dead-lines are involved, we’re even more distracted from being mindful, from being present, from simply being aware of being alive.  As a task-oriented person, I continue to be challenged to find a balance between doing and being, between ways of being in the world and ways of being with the world.  Supported through the spiritual practices of prayer and meditation, I recognize that sometimes my task is to simply be, reconnecting to myself, to others, to the world around me, and to see the spiritual in the everyday.

As we struggle with being and doing in our everyday lives, may we remain mindful that we are both embodied and spiritual, engaged in our tasks at hand even as we remain aware of ourselves as beings held in the web of life.  May we sense the sacred in the profane, finding that sacramental vision of being that centers us as both spiritual and embodied.  May we immerse ourselves in the spirituality of everyday life so that every breath is worship and every act is prayer.  So may it be.

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