I have become fascinated recently with trying to understand why some people, communities, and organizations are able to bounce back from the unpredictable difficulties, even tragedies, of life while others can’t ever seem to recover. Having gone through a lot of very difficult life changes in the last couple of years including job loss and divorce, I have put a lot of work into my ability to bounce back, to rebound, to regain footing, and keep going. My interest in church life and in mission has led me to think about how the ability or inability of a congregation to bounce back from difficulty is intimately tied to its sense of mission – or its lack of mission. I have come to believe that congregations able to adopt change as a spiritual practice and develop resiliency are more likely to find and carry out a congregational mission than those that fear change and lack the ability to bounce back from difficulties.
I have been reading through the latest work of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Appraisal (thank you, again, Tandi). The report is about ministry and authority, but it is filled with stories of how some event or conflict or controversy years ago or decades ago in a congregation continue to hamper the congregation’s ability to relate to ministers or function in a healthy manner.
It is almost a joke, certainly a cliché, that people and congregations don’t like change. Leaders of faith communities spend a lot of time and money, and put a lot of effort into dealing with change, managing change, and pro-actively planning for change. “People are afraid of change” has become a standard idea we teach to seminarians and lay leaders. I do not think people or congregations are afraid of change. I believe people and congregations are afraid of loss. When things change, things will be gained, but things will also be lost. The things we lose make us anxious and take away our sense of safety and security. This is especially terrifying because we have made safety and security into idols in our culture and our churches, by and large, are just like any other institution of the status quo in our culture – we worship safety and security. Maintaining safety and security has become the unspoken mission of all too many congregations.
A defining characteristic of a church with a mission is that it adopts change as a spiritual practice. Congregations on a mission, that develop the communitas I discussed in my last post, understand themselves to be on a journey of faith together that by its nature implies risk and uncertainty. Instead of fearing this risk and uncertainty, missional congregations see it as the natural terrain for serving the needs of the world. Because missional communities adopt change as a spiritual practice, another benefit of the missional shift is the creation of a community with give, flexibility, and the ability to bounce back. Communitas is resilient. A spiritual practice is something done with depth, regularity and intentionality. When we understand that constant change, at least gradual constant change, is the spiritual playing field, we approach the challenges of change – such as dealing with loss and the sense of insecurity as well as new opportunities for growth and learning – as a deep, intentional, regular practice of what life in a faith community is all about. Developing change as a spiritual practice helps us bounce back when conflict or difficulties arise. Change as spiritual practice makes us resilient.
Resiliency thinking is a new approach to ecological and social systems that sees the ability to change and bounce back as the key characteristic to success and the ability of the system to thrive.
“Resilience is the capacity of a system to undergo change and still retain its basic function and structure. In other words, it’s the capacity to undergo some change without crossing a threshold into a different system regime.” – Brian Walker
How often have we heard stories of one issue or one conflict, as noted above in the Commission on Appraisal’s recent report, derailing a congregation’s growth for years or decades? We hear this story so often it has become the common ground for our churches. It is not a special story; it is the norm. How sad.
Unitarian Univeralists have no trouble with the concept of evolution. Frequently we are defenders of science in a community when something such as creationism rears its unreasonable head. And yet our own communities fear change and resist evolution. We operate out of an assumption that there is one best way or best practice to do just about anything and once we figure it out we can use it and conquer a specific program or issue. This is not the reality of the post-modern world. There is no onward and upward forever or any privileged vantage point. Not only can we not always find the solution to everything, there may be things that have no solution.
A telling example of how inflexible and resistant to evolution our congregations are comes from the Minns Lectures this past winter. Relatively early in the second lecture Peter Bowden gave a time-line run down of the technological revolution of the last two generations. He outlined the development of video games, personal computers, laptops, the birth of the World Wide Web, the rise of social media, and the explosion of smart phone technology. He ended with a statement that felt like a prison door closing. “Most of our congregations act as if none of this has happened.” Our structures, our polity, our best practices, and our religious culture itself are based on the norms, communication technology, and social organization of a world that no longer exists. The people who worship the idea of evolution have not been able to adapt and evolve. As a result, as the science teaches us, we are going extinct.
There is a remedy. The first part of it is a turn to communitas rather than community as the prevailing social organization of our faith. The second is resiliency. We don’t need to teach our congregations how to use social media as much as we need to teach them the skills needed to adopt adaptation and change as their primary mode of engaging the world. Using social media and other things will be part of this, as will things yet unforeseen. Unless we become more flexible and more able to bounce back, we will not thrive.
There is much about resiliency that relates to congregational life. A resilient system sees failure as part of learning. All too often congregations are risk averse and do not try new things because they fear failing.
“Failure is intrinsic, healthy, normal, and necessary to most complex systems. We need systems that are better at sensing emerging pathways; that encourage cooperation rather than division. We need systems where a failure in one component of the system doesn’t bring down every other component of the system. Those are really sort of a design brief for the 21st century.” – Mr. Andrew Zolli, On Being with Krista Tippett May 15, 2013
All too often conflict, disruption, or controversy, from what color to paint a room, to a change in the worship service, can send a congregation into an anxious spin from which the congregation either never fully recovers or from which the congregation takes so long to recover that it finds itself stagnant and on life support. There has been a move recently toward teaching congregational leaders systems theory and the importance of having good governance structures and a discernible mission. This is a fantastic development, yet I wonder about the picture this paints of our congregational life. Church leaders certainly need to be able to address dysfunction and conflict. It almost seems, however, that our current focus in leadership training assumes sickness is the normative state of our congregational systems. Perhaps resiliency thinking can shift the focus on this just a bit. Perhaps the emphasis can now be about teaching change, failure, risk, and adventure as an intrinsic part of the journey. Thus the systems management and conflict resolution become a way to navigate the ups and downs of church life, not only a way to fix what is broken. Perhaps we can shift towards teaching these things as a way to enable congregations to adapt and bounce back from conflicts, disruptions and controversy.
Spiritual writer Mark Nepo tells a story about a glass blower that emphasizes the importance of resiliency. “The glassblower knows,” he says, “that while in the heat of beginning, any shape is possible. Once hardened, the only way to change is to break.”
So it is with individuals and with congregations. While we stay malleable and shapeable, we can adapt and maneuver the ups and downs of life, but once we get set in our ways, the only way to move forward is to break, to shatter what is already in existence. The hardened glass may be beautiful or functional or both, but it’s not resilient. Once it cools and hardens, smashing it is the only way to change its shape. Resilience allows for change without breaking the glass. Resilience keeps the glass in a hot malleable state. This is the attitude and the approach congregations need in order to stay on mission and let communitas develop. The more communitas develops, the more flexible and resilient the group becomes.
A resilient congregation learns that becoming too set in its ways is the way to decline and stagnation. Remaining flexible and continuing to evolve bring life and growth.