Mining for Gold

(I delivered this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on June 30th 2013.)

A few years ago I was on the receiving end of a telephone interview when I was asked to name my leadership style.  It wasn’t a question I was expecting, nor was it one I’d ever been asked before, so I tried to come up with something based on my experience in Unitarian Universalism.  I talked — though perhaps “rambled” would be a more appropriate word — about cooperative and collaborative leadership, about the ideal of sharing power with rather than holding power over people, and about companioning others in their own work toward the achievement of common goals.  It evidently wasn’t the sort of answer my interviewers wanted, since they asked me the question again, though all I was able to offer was a more concise version of my earlier ramble.

The interview as a whole certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, but I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get the job.  Since then, though, I’ve continued to think about leadership, particularly in terms of what leadership means — both as a minister and for lay leaders — within Unitarian Universalist congregations.  And given some of the trainings and workshops I’ve attended in recent years, I’m apparently not the only one who’s been thinking about this.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising, given what some might identify as a common Unitarian Universalist temperament.  “We may be a relatively small denomination,” former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association John Buehrens once remarked, “but look at it this way: we’re the largest, longest lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen.”

Then there’s the not unrelated fact that we are a people who value discussions as much as we value decisions.  You may have seen the cartoon that shows a Unitarian Universalist who dies and is pleasantly surprised to find that there is a realm of life after death, where stands a crossroads with three signposts.  One reads, “This way to heaven.”  Another reads, “This way to hell.”  And the third reads, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.”  Without hesitation the UU goes to the discussion.

Now this isn’t necessarily a character flaw reflective of little more than procrastination: it’s part of our tradition, too, to emphasize good process as much as good product, to not only value but also to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.  Historical Unitarianism, after all, emphasized its own trinity of freedom, reason and tolerance, while today’s Unitarian Universalist values include “acceptance of one another”, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right of conscience”.  So it makes sense that the ideal Unitarian Universalist leadership style is cooperative and collaborative, that the ideal leader is, in the words of the UUA’s former Ministerial Transitions Director David Pohl, someone who “listens as well as speaks, learns as well as teaches, shares the challenges and burdens of leadership rather than monopolizing or relinquishing them.”

Well, okay, that sounds great.  And though Pohl wrote those words sometime in the 1980s, I’d be prepared to bet that if we were to jump into a time machine, go back to the 1930s and show Pohl’s words to what was then the American Unitarian Association, there’d be little disagreement.  On the other hand, some of what they said back then still holds true today.

For example, a 1936 report of the AUA’s Commission of Appraisal lamented the denomination’s condition as being “anarchy mitigated by occasional flashes of brilliant but erratic genius. Leadership,” the report noted, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle. It is the product of careful and patient and far-sighted planning.”

Leadership, in other words, doesn’t come naturally.  It takes intentional and deliberate training, what is often named “leadership development”, a process of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth that equips both new and experienced leaders with the technical and visionary skills they need.

The good news is that, as Unitarian Universalists, we believe that just about everybody has some capacity for leadership; the challenge is that any given person’s capacity for leadership needs to be intentionally cultivated if it is to flourish; the added challenge is that, as Eric Wikstrom notes in Serving with Grace, we’re talking about leadership in the context of a religious community, something that is clearly distinct from a small business, a country club, a political action committee or a social service agency.

Now one of the ways that Unitarian Universalists have been responding to these challenges is to think not just about leadership but about what’s called “adaptive leadership”, so let me explain what is meant by that.

Many of the problems facing us in everyday life might be considered “technical” problems, in that it’s simply a matter of applying the appropriate knowledge and skills to resolve each one.  Should one of the tires on my bicycle develop a puncture, for example, 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!

A lot of what happens in the day-to-day life of a church involves technical problems, too.  If a light bulb burns out, we get a new bulb and replace the old one.  If the kitchen sink gets clogged, we clean out the P bend.  If the weather changes from cold and dry to warm and humid, we get the piano tuned so we don’t feel like we’re trying to sing hymns in an old West saloon.

Now you might have noticed that all of the examples of technical problems that I’ve given you involve things, devices, mechanisms.  If they break, they can be fixed, and it’s just a matter of finding the right knowledge and applying the right skills to fix them.  Well, people can break, too, so to speak — and the relationships between people are particularly prone to breaking — but they can’t usually be fixed in that technical sense, in spite of the fact that we base an awful lot of how we do education and medicine and economics on the hugely false assumption that we can.  It’s false because people and groups of people are not mechanisms to be fixed; they’re organisms that need to be nurtured.

So, many of the problems faced by groups of people — from congregations to human societies — are not technical, and addressing them isn’t simply about having or acquiring knowledge and skills.  Rather, they’re described as adaptive, requiring, 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.”  Addressing adaptive challenges can be messy, as tends to be the case for organisms rather then mechanisms, but doing so is always transformative, for individuals as well as for their culture.

Let me give you an example of an adaptive challenge that just about every congregation — at least every Unitarian Universalist congregation — faces, and not just once but every year.  And that is completing a successful Canvass in order to fund the operating budget.

A Canvass is, in simple terms, the process by which we ask each member and friend of the congregation to figure out how much money they intend to give during the next church year — what is, in shorthand, referred to as their pledge — so that the Finance Committee can put together a balanced budget that supports the Fellowship’s mission in general and funds the specific goals determined by the Policy Board.

Now it might seem like ensuring that there’s a healthy budget is a technical problem: after all, isn’t it simply a matter of finding the right way to ask members and friends to submit generous pledges and that’s all there is to it?  Well, no.  It is far from being a technical problem, and there is no such thing as the perfectly written appeal letter or the perfectly designed Canvass brochure or the perfectly worded pulpit update, any of which would, thanks to their perfection, get everybody to pledge promptly, generously and with a minimum of fuss.  If such magic did exist, trust me, a whole lot of denominational staff and church consultants would be looking for other work.

Rather, each and every Canvass is an adaptive challenge.  Each and every year offers us, in Heifitz’ terms, a new opportunity to develop our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be the best congregation we can be.  Unlike a technical problem, where we come out of fixing it pretty much the same as we went in, responding to such an adaptive challenge requires us to examine our purpose for being, our attitudes towards risk and difficult decisions, our comfort (or lack thereof!) with disequilibrium and change.  That’s why this is not just about leadership but about adaptive leadership, requiring an organic rather than a mechanical approach to problems, and where a good process for problem-solving is, if anything, more important than a good product.

Let me give you an example of how we’re trying to do that in one particular case, something that really brought home to me one lesson from the program for leadership development called “Harvest the Power!” that I co-taught a couple of years ago.

At the start of this year, our chair of the Sunday Services Committee published an article in the Flame about the state of the pulpit, the physical object which usually stands on this platform and from which the lay leader speaks and I preach.  He wrote about how the pulpit was showing its age and had needed some repairs.  Now you’ll notice that I’m not using the pulpit this morning, and that’s because more repairs need to be made, and we don’t want to risk further damage by moving it again until it is repaired.

So, the article was the first step in a process of addressing the deteriorating condition of the physical pulpit.  Now it would be natural, given our cultural habits when it comes to problem-solving, to treat this as a technical problem.  Pulpit’s broken?  Fix it.  Can’t be fixed? Get a new one.  Find the money, repair it or buy a replacement.  Case closed.  End of story.

Well, not so fast.  We know the pulpit’s been here as long as this Sanctuary, about thirty years.  That’s a long time for people to develop not just opinions about it, but feelings, too, and different feelings depending on their personal histories and aesthetic senses.  And that’s just the people who look at it.  The people who use it, the people who use this space, even this platform, whether for worship or for other purposes, they have feelings about it as well.  And it’s not just a wooden box, like a maitre d’ might use to assign people to tables at a restaurant: it’s a pulpit, with the symbol of our faith on the front of it.  So it’s even more complicated than just listening to what people want and then taking a vote.

The deterioration of the pulpit then, is an adaptive challenge.  This was most obvious when we put the article on the Fellowship’s blog and linked to it on Facebook.  A conversation about the pulpit sprang up almost instantly, with some people sharing positive feelings about it and others sharing negative feelings.  The Sunday Services Committee already knew about some of that, which is why we had scheduled a town-hall meeting, to bring people together in person to share their feelings about the pulpit with one another.

Now that Facebook discussion turned out to be an excellent example of one of the lessons of the “Harvest the Power!” course, namely that getting people to talk with one another about their different perspectives on a particular issue is much more effective than having all those people provide their individual opinions to a single person or committee.  Here’s the simple explanation as to why: if you hold an opinion on something, it’s natural to think — in the absence of any evidence to the contrary — that most other people will hold that same opinion.  And if you feel very strongly about your opinion, then surely everybody else feels the same way, because no healthy psyche starts by assuming that it’s wrong to feel what it’s feeling.

So when people individually send in their individual opinions, they naturally assume that theirs is representative of the majority opinion — and they’ll keep assuming that unless and until they get some sort of feedback that indicates otherwise.  The problem is that the feedback usually comes only in the form of hearing about the final decision, in which case all the people who held minority opinions will be disappointed if not angry.  Whoever is responsible for making that final decision is, in fact, faced with the impossible task of satisfying many different people who all think that their own individual opinions are in the majority.

In a multi-directional conversation, by contrast, people can quickly recognize that other people have different ideas and they can start figuring out together how to meet on common ground.  The final decision emerges — or is, at least, indicated — naturally because that’s where everybody in the conversation ends up, given long enough.  The minority is usually okay not getting their way if they at least feel that they’ve been heard, while the majority has at least some understanding that not everyone agrees with them and owes the minority a measure of compassion.

And that, really, is the goal of having a good process to figure out what to do about the deterioration of the pulpit.  Adaptive leadership recognizes that it’s not just about finding a logical solution, something that is particularly true in this case.  Rather, it’s about developing our organizational, cultural and spiritual capacity to be in community with one another, such as by learning how to avoid the temptation to use a simple vote as a bludgeon to beat a minority into submission, by learning how to be in that minority without holding everybody else hostage as the only way to prove the worth of your opinion, and by learning how to really listen to the people with whom you disagree.

There will always be people with whom you disagree, and if the wider culture is doing a thoroughly awful job of teaching us how to be in community with different people holding different beliefs and different opinions, we should at least make sure that our congregations do better.

And that is one of the reasons why, this week — starting this afternoon, in fact — we’re hosting a Youth Leadership School here at the Fellowship.  It’s known as GoldMine and it’s designed to train Unitarian Universalist youth not only in leadership skills but also in worship arts and religious values and heritage, which are the same three areas of emphasis as at most of the leadership schools for adult UUs.  GoldMine isn’t an extended lock-in or even a youth camp, but is an intensive series of workshops for learning, reflection and sharing, though of course fun and friendship are still important parts of it.  The intention is to provide a whole experience that is as much about faith development, the deepening of religious identity and community building as it is about giving leadership tools.

Now if you haven’t guessed by now, yes, I came up with the name of this sermon based on the name of the youth leadership school, but nowhere in two-hundred page staff manual did I see anything explaining the origin of that name.  The manual does say that GoldMine was created by Unitarian Universalist minister Jaco ten Hove who had himself been a UU as a child and then a youth.  He wanted to adapt the Pacific Northwest District’s leadership school for adults, while also drawing upon the energy of the young adults in that district, to offer a leadership development experience for youth.  So I wrote to Jaco and asked him how he came up with the name.  I’m please to say that he wrote back, explaining that “The name arose, as you might guess, from my musings on the value of the participants — golden! — combined with the goal of the school to bring forth — or ‘mine’ — their emerging abilities as conscious, UU-strong leaders.”

Now Jaco concluded by noting that “Despite understandable misgivings about the extraction industry, one generally thinks of a gold mine as a positive resource.”  Of course, taking a literalistic approach to a metaphor is, to paraphrase writer E. B. White, “like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  So let’s try to stick with the metaphor for a little longer.

Unitarian Universalist leadership development is a process of mining the spiritual gold that is everybody’s capacity for leadership.  Sometimes it gives us hints of its presence, the glimmerings of a rich vein just beneath the surface.  Sometimes it may even be out in the open already, small nuggets collecting where the streams of experience have washed them.  But leadership, as our religious forebears noted over seventy-five years ago, “doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle.”  Rather, it is up to us to unearth that spiritual gold, working with one another through faith development, community building and the deepening of religious identity to lift up our best selves.

May it be so.

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3 Comments »

  1. […] June 30th: “Mining for Gold” […]

  2. […] leader, though.  Rather, every book can be holy, if holiness can be found amongst its words.  And every person can be someone who inspires, supports, guides, comforts and counsels others, given aptitude and/or training.  So, on the basis of how other religions do it, it’s not […]

  3. […] are, of course, guidelines, not rules.  Human relationships being what they are, there are no simple, technical solutions.  And whatever anybody says, it’s always easier said than done.  All of us — you; me; even, […]

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