It’s Crazy Out There: Practices for Religious Leaders

We live in a “VUCA” world—a world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. A recent Harvard Business Review article called VUCA “a catchall for ‘Hey, it’s crazy out there!’” We might as well get used to VUCA, as futurists predict our climate of change will not soon disappear. It certainly transcends whatever political and cultural moment we currently are in.

Nevertheless, religious leaders can engage these “crazy” times intentionally by cultivating practices that I’ll describe here. Though there can be no guarantees of success when dealing with volatile change and uncertainty, I offer these practices as a starter list—you’ll add your own.

1. Resist Escaping to the Familiar

In her recent book, The Wisdom of Not Knowing, rabbi and spiritual guide Estelle Frankel reminds us:

If we already know the answer, then our question is not really a question. And when we think we already know something, our curiosity inevitably diminishes. What we know can also limit our imagination if it is not countered with an equally powerful don’t know.

It may be human nature to escape toward the familiar rather than to embrace the unknown. There are numerous reminders in our scriptures about our religious ancestors doubling down and retreating to the familiar rather than embracing the unknown. In their impatience and anxiety during their wilderness journey, the Israelites “melted down” emotionally. They also melted down their gold to create a golden calf to worship and give them some semblance of security with what they already knew. Jesus’ disciples reacted to the fearful, unknown circumstances following his crucifixion by fleeing—or even by denying that they knew their scorned and newly-executed teacher.

Such stories are reminders of our tendency in uncertain times to try to resolve our discomfort quickly—or retreat from it—rather than take time to befriend it.

2. Linger a Little Longer in Not Knowing

Recently, I was facilitating a retreat for the staff of a religious organization. Near the end of our time together, we were summarizing “bold next steps.” One person began to articulate a next step tentatively. Looking around to others, she explained, “I just don’t know how we will do it.”

I probably stayed with her longer than she would have preferred. Yet it is in moments like this that, as a facilitator, I do intentionally linger just a little longer. Sometimes, before we can move beyond familiar thoughts and do something different, we need to simmer in complexity and doubt.

Facing the enormous impact of current cultural and religious change, we sometimes shrink our leadership capacity just when we need to stretch it. One way of shrinking is to imagine we already know what to do. If we can become more comfortable with the discomfort of “not knowing,” we can draw on imagination and creativity greater than we knew we had.

3. Move from Explanation to Exploration

I first learned about the power of being on the “edge of the unknown” from Yvonne Agazarian, the developer of Systems Centered Therapy®. She advocates moving from explanations that merely say what we’ve already thought before, to exploration. In her winsome way, in trainings Agazarian says something like, “Can you sit with me at the edge of the unknown and see what we discover? Can you stay with me, and if it gets scary we’ll do it together?” A delightful short documentary of her work, “The Edge of the Unknown,” is available on YouTube.

Agazarian’s approach offers good practical advice for congregations, especially in conflict situations. Obviously, conflict can be trying for a leader. Most leaders I know desperately wish there were some easy solution and some ready remedy.

Exploring rather than explaining means being able explore differences in a spirit of curiosity—rather than ignoring, avoiding, or wishing them away.

Through skillful, patient exploration—which Agazarian calls “functional subgrouping”—even groups that believe that they have similar points of view can discover their differences from one another. Conversely, groups with different points of view can explore their similarities. Over time, this disciplined exploration allows for greater integration of differences rather than a hardening of positions—it allows for more creative responses.

4. Ask the Right Questions Before Acting

When congregational leaders experience the anxiety of not knowing what to do next, they often seek “expert advice.” Although it can be tempting to rush in as an expert, I tremble at the troubling dynamic of dependency that this can set up. Of course, when I have expertise to offer I am happy to do so—but not prematurely.

Early on in my consulting work, I learned from Peter Block that The Answer To How Is Yes. In his book of this title, he makes the distinction between the question “what works” and the more basic, essential preliminary question “what matters.” We tend to ask “how” questions prematurely and forestall the deeper, necessary conversations about what we are committed to and why. Block sees some of our how questions as defenses against taking responsibility for our own commitment. If we are open to exploring, the question “How much does it cost?” can become “What is the price I am willing to pay to make something happen?” “How long will it take?” can become “What commitment am I willing to make?”

We are often tempted to act before we are clear about our own deeper commitment. Then we wonder why our actions are not sustainable.

5. Recognize Reactive Tendencies

Just like the wilderness Israelites, we too sometimes respond out of our own reactiveness, and enshrine what is—and undermine our own resiliency in facing a “VUCA world.” In the face of challenges that require creative responses, we find ourselves complying, belonging, pleasing, protecting ourselves by distancing or criticizing others, or controlling through autocratic or perfectionist tendencies.

But if we can tolerate the immediate discomfort of “not-knowing,” the anxiety of being at the edge of the unknown, moments of uncertainty can become instead the threshold of something new.

6. Distinguish Creative Competencies from Reactive Tendencies

Recognizing that we cannot simply lead as we have done before—now or in the foreseeable future—we must cultivate and practice ways of being and communicating with one another that bring forth more creative responses and resiliency than we have ever known.

In my work with the Leadership Circle, a leadership development and assessment tool, I have come to understand that leadership work is always developmental work. We can’t lead without also becoming more self-aware and more engaged in our own ongoing development. This is personal, interpersonal and spiritual work that is helped by feedback from others, willingness to learn, and deep self-honesty.

When, as leaders, we want to retreat from, rush through, or get rid of the discomfort we feel when we don’t know, we miss an opportunity for creativity and growth.

Leading Consciously

Quakers have the practice of offering “queries” to deepen conscious reflection on current practice and to pave the way for new practices. Here are some queries to consider (inspired by an article by Naomi Raab, “Becoming an Expert in Not Knowing.”

  • Am I making space for others to explore their similarities and differences?
  • Am I allocating enough time so that exploration rather than mere explanation can occur?
  • Am I filling up the space with my own ideas, reassurances, and brilliant suggestions?
  • Do I have ways of covering up anxious feelings in myself or others? What are they?
  • Am I willing to let myself and others go to edge of our own knowing? Am I willing to allow space for the Spirit to reveal something new and to change us?

As we become more painfully aware of the complicity of religions with some of the cultural, environmental and social challenges we face, we need to heighten our consciousness of what it means to be a religious leader. When we change our leadership practice, we change our capacity to lead. Roma Gaster, director of curriculum and community for the Leadership Circle, puts it well: “Conscious leadership doesn’t happen by accident. It takes conscious practice.”

Lawrence Peers partners with religious organizations and leaders across many faith traditions to help them lead from a sense of purpose and innovate by aligning strategy and spirit. He draws from a rich array of methodologies as he facilitates whole systems, participatory strategic planning, staff team coaching, clergy coaching, and retreats. Larry joins the Congregational Consulting Group and some of his former consultant colleagues from the Alban Institute after four years of being a director of the Pastoral Excellence Network.

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