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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