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The Pendulum is Swinging

I have recently become aware of a cultural pendulum swinging in Unitarian Universalist culture.

Ministers like me who have been around at least twenty years were strongly schooled in the notion that we needed to bring order out of chaos.  Our highly egalitarian and inclusive cultures growing out of the “anything goes” culture of the 60’s and 70’s had created a situation in which it often felt like we were just chasing our tails and not able to make progress (or even decisions!)  Remember all the jokes about herding cats?  What was needed, we believed, was an ability to structure our work with appropriate authority and definitiveness.

I still believe we need this in certain circumstances.  Our anti-authoritarian nature has undermined our abilities to have impact in myriad ways.  And yet in our ardor for order we may be missing important ways in which our culture may now demand a different kind of response.

The challenge now is that our culture changes too rapidly to allow for a stream-lined, technical response.  Sometimes we need experts in the form of professionals who may (surprise, surprise) know the answer to our problem.  But rarely does that happen with the most profound challenges that are before us.

The skills that are required now are more about asking the right questions, rather than delivering the right answers.  Those who know me know how much I’m an avid devotee of Adaptive Leadership (ala Ron Heifetz) which teaches us that leadership is a verb, not a noun.  In other words that leadership is an act of exercising power, not a gift that is implanted only in special people.  And in order to make progress on our biggest challenges we have to mobilize leadership in a completely different way than the highly decisive, expertise oriented model than what I describe above.

I find myself in a kind of cognitive dissonance about this realization. And I think it is a healthy dissonance that could lead us in some exciting directions.  Like any pendulum swing the worst thing we could do is feel that we must immediately leap to the farthest edge of either direction of the polarity.  But it is helpful to me to realize that these cycles are natural and necessary.  I for one am enjoying the swingtime!

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. I think that there is a generational aspect to this, as well. People in their later 40’s through their 60’s are in a perfecting mode. We have led institutions long enough to want to finally make them work efficiently and smoothly. “Instead of dashing about frantically all year, let’s plan our church calendar for the entire year in August.” “Instead of re-inventing the wheel, let’s build a library of notebooks that have everything a person needs to know to run the auction, do the pledge campaign, or host a youth-con at the church.” We’ve learned our lesson.
    But people at younger stages of life have a different energy: moving from advanced planning to creative improvisation as a work style.

    September 8, 2011
  2. Deborah Holder #

    Thank you, Terasa. I needed to hear that and…Yes! Let’s go together into that dissonance; it’s where hope and courage live.

    September 9, 2011
  3. Julia Hamilton #

    Teresa, I’m looking forward to this blog!

    When you speak of a generational shift in the culture of leadership, it makes me wonder what the differences might be between the culture of leadership within professional ministry and the culture of leadership within our membership. Are different generations working from different models of leadership? I think there are certainly differences between how a 20-30something might approach a leadership challenge and how a 60something might. How do we navigate this?

    When presented with the “highly decisive, expertise oriented” model you mention, it can seem as if the only option is to either accept or reject the person in question. Input and modifications are off the table. I think this has contributed to the “question authority” (with the purpose of destabilizing it) reaction that we struggled with for the past few generations. The newer style is less about that accept/reject proposition and more about finding the questions that make authority work better. It recognizes that even those who do not have expertise may still have a piece of the puzzle, but at the same time it allows, and even wants, someone who will respond to the questions and run with them. It is not the same thing as “we are all leaders” or “there is no authority”. It is not a rejection of power so much as an understanding that a powerful leader works best when supported by thoughtful engagement.

    This has been a productive train of thought this morning!

    September 9, 2011
    • Really thoughtful, Julia. Yes, it seems our congregational leadership styles are always one generation behind. Good to think about how we might deliberately shift that.

      September 10, 2011
  4. Ian Evison #

    I look forward to this blog. Idea of expertise and with it associated ideas like “best practices” are having a hard life these days.

    Ironically our tradition, which should be better at this is having a harder time with the shift. Emegent church folks–who we think of as more conservative–often are ahead of this. Brian McLaren framed it nicely in terms of post modern leadership:

    Much of leadership education even in the military has headed this way (small, agile, mobile beats big, brawny with centralized command).

    I agree that the rigid ideas lof leadership comes from current leaders reacting against the sixties. But our thing here with cut and dried, right and wrong technical expertise go way back into the 19th century. If you doubt this try reading “The Celestial Highway” by Hawthorne–we are who is being lampooned here as the engineers who would build the railway over the slough of eternal despair and thus solve the problem of existential angst.

    December 8, 2011
  5. Utterly indited written content, Really enjoyed reading through.

    December 17, 2011
  6. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. My denomination is perhaps the last weigh station before the desert in terms of being able to sustain the communitarian component of free religious life, so the “agent of order” phase was barely that for many clergy, and the “agents of change” phase, while being exciting in terms of participatory opportunities, has posed dilemmas regarding providing a consistent, vetted wisdom voice as counterpoint to the wave of happenings.

    Cultivating a professional cadre to “be there”, whatever form community takes, requires commitments of time, energy and capital wall which are more difficult to come by. This leads to more part-time positions for clergy, more rentals than ownership of property for groups, and smaller, more family-style infrastructure for those who congregate.

    Authoritarianism suffers from suffocating hierarchy, but anarchy is prey to confusion, disruption and the emergence of self-designated power brokers lacking both skills and understanding to build authentic, lasting spiritual community.

    Ongoing, deep conversations are the only antidote to such extremes. I’m glad to see this happening here.

    Lois Kellerman, Ethical Culture Leader

    May 2, 2012

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