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What Good is Expertise?

In one of my recent posts I talked about how offering expertise may not be the most helpful strategy of leadership.  So what use is expertise at all then, many of you asked me (with not a little frustration!)  It’s a good question, and I’ve been stewing on it for weeks.

The recent reflections about the life of Steve Jobs have given me some perspective. Jobs certainly never eschewed expertise.  He didn’t wait for people to tell him what they were looking for to make their lives easier.  As many have said, he decided what would be helpful and then marketed it to convince people how much they needed it.  But, and this is a big but, he used his expertise to create something new that people could then participate in co-creating.  The whole concept of open-sourcing apps has engaged people in a common enterprise that is not pre-determined.  Apple didn’t tell people the kinds of apps they could develop – they created a platform on which infinite ideas could be explored.

I think this gets at what I understand the role of expertise to be in congregations.  I still believe in self-differentiated leadership.  To me this means our role as leaders is not just to sit back and wait for people to tell us what to do; nor does it mean that it is our job as leaders to make all the people happy or to satisfy all their expectations.  Utilizing our individual and collective expertise to shine the light on a collective challenge is essential for leadership.

And, our leadership job does not end there.  If we believe that our expertise will “solve the problem” we are deluding ourselves. If our expertise provides an invitation in which people can step into collective visioning then it is well used.  If our expertise is used as an end-point that declares a definitive answer then its success will be short-lived, if not a complete back-fire.

I am speaking here of how we address challenges that are adaptive – those issues that we can’t even really define the question, let alone the answer.  And most of the big issues that plague our congregations are indeed adaptive – “how can we financially sustain our congregations in the midst of a recession?”, “how can we provide a meaningful worship experience that speaks to many different cultures and generations?”, and “how might we develop an understanding of our mission and purpose beyond ourselves?” are just a few of the big questions I hear floating around congregations.

When I was a District Executive I would often hear people ask me, “how can we be more welcoming to newcomers?” Now, I know a lot about developing programs and processes for hospitality.  But offering people a “toolkit” of step-by-step instructions based on that expertise would not have really helped anyone.  It became clear to me that I had to invite people into deeper conversations about culture and systems and identity and mission.  Out of those conversations people could then develop their own strategies that made sense for their systems.

Expertise is not bad.  Far from it.  It’s just not enough for leadership.

The Decline of American congregations or the Rebirth of American Religiosity?

Hartford Seminary recently released a report on the changing nature of congregational life in America.  The FACT (Faith Communities Today) report outlines the findings of a ten-year study (2000 – 2010) that includes data collected from over 11,000 congregations in 120 denominations (Christian, Jewish and Muslim).   See the full report here:

The tone of the report is decidedly gloomy: fewer people are attending congregations across denominations, despite efforts to revivify worship with contemporary music and social media connectivity.  With the exception of the tiny slice of mega-churches, congregations are becoming smaller and smaller, and more report that they seem outmoded and irrelevant to modern life.

That’s the bad story.  But there is a good story in here as well.  It turns out that smaller congregations can often be sources of spiritual vitality.  This is a completely different message than what we were taught ten years ago, when large congregations were said to have the greatest potential for growth.  Instead, we now learn, that small congregations have the potential to ignite interest in unexpected groups.  Some of the congregations that are reported to be most vital are those that appeal to young families and young adults.  Congregations that cater to a specific ethnic group are growing, as well as those that are multicultural.  Urban congregations are making a comeback.  Newer congregations in newer neighborhoods are most likely to attract people.

What much of this data tells me is that American spirituality is not dead – it is just changing form.  We’ve all seen the reports that show that the group of people who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” is the fastest group religious group today.  It’s easy to make a leap of judgment from that fact to assume that American congregations are becoming increasingly irrelevant  — quaint outposts of the hopelessly stodgy.  But surely it is also possible to see in this data how much people still crave religious community (even if they don’t want to call it ‘religious’!) People are looking for ways to meaningfully connect to others in ways that move us beyond the typical notion of a bricks and mortar long-time institution.  They are looking for religious community that matches the fluidity of their lives; that which gives them an opportunity to connect, both personally and virtually, in interactive, not passive, ways.   Church buildings can still be places that people will flock to at times, but most typically now people flow in and out of congregations, looking for and finding smaller groups that offer them support and reflection and spiritual depth that sometimes cannot be found (amazingly!) within the walls of a church.

American congregational life as we may have known it, at least in stereotype, dominated by rules written and unwritten, is obviously not appealing to many anymore.  And maybe this doesn’t deserve to survive.  Surely if we believe in a faith that speaks to the depth of our lives, we ought to expect our faithful institutions to change along with life into new forms and venues were vitality can be found.

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!

Services or Servant Leadership?

I am often asked, “What does it mean that you’re the ‘Director for Congregational Life’?

I do wonder from time to time!

Officially I am the director for the UUA staff group which oversees our field services, congregational stewardship programs, and growth strategies.  We call this staff group “Congregational Life” rather than the previous “Congregational Services” because we want to convey our conviction that the UUA does not “service” congregations in a mechanistic or consumeristic sense.  Rather we understand ourselves as being partners with UUs in fulfilling our mission.  Does changing the staff group name help us in communicating this?  Probably not.  But it does start an interesting conversation about our purpose at the UUA, which is not that different from conversations that are happening in many other walks of life.

Service organizations exist to make their members happy.  “Services” implies that there is someone who has something of value that they are willing to give (for a certain price of course!) to someone who needs that value.  This assumes that our interactions are transactional; that the “thing” of value can be passed back and forth.

Religious communities, however, should not be transactional.  Religious communities create covenantal relationships based upon fundamental but intangible values that are not “given” or “received” but that are inherent in each of us.  Our responsibilities as leaders of religious communities are to nurture that inherent capacity that lies within all to reach our truest (and, I would say, God’s truest) purpose.  This is the very opposite of a service transaction.  And it requires a very different mentality than “customer satisfaction.”

Thus the language of “servant leadership” feels more true to what we are called to do as leaders of a religious organization.  We exist to serve, resource, and encourage the full development of our members and our communities.  This means that our members have both the freedom and the responsibility for their own development, rather than being able to “purchase” it from us, or be impelled to it by coercion or dictate.

In public life we call it citizenship.  What does it mean to be citizens of a community rather than consumers?  It requires the citizens to be in active relationship with their leaders in mutually serving the common good.  It requires the leaders to understand that their job is not to dictate the common good, but to facilitate everyone’s participation in creating it.

I’m still learning what this requires from me as a leader in our denomination, from our staff trying to serve our movement.  Its astonishing to me how much the consumerist mentality is not just fed by people demanding our services, but also by our own needs to show ourselves to be experts of value.  We all have to learn new ways of thinking about this to move to the next stage.

In the meantime, if you have think of a better title for my staff group, I’m all ears!

Learning Communities

It seems appropriate to begin this blog as I participate in the second “Leap of Faith” conference, designed by the Unitarian Universalist Association to place vital congregations in learning relationships with one another.

The whole concept of “learning communities” is one that is not unfamiliar to Unitarian Universalists — we’ve always held the philosophy of believing that the capacity for growth and change is within us and among us.  What is different lately is that we are asking communities to “learn out loud” — to risk the prospect that they may not know the answer and may have to make mistakes along the way to living their call.

It is sometimes surprising to me to see how attached liberal folk can be to their own expertise.  After all we’re supposed to recognize that there is not a “T” truth.  But of course knowing and living a belief are two different things.  Especially for people who believe in their own capability to change the world.  Okay, okay, I will stop using the distancing language of “they” and admit it: I am attached to my own expertise! I’ve worked hard to learn what I have and to develop the skills I have nurtured and certainly want to put them to good use.

And yet when I look at the situations in which I’ve been able to participate in something of lasting impact, I have to admit that it didn’t come about because of my contribution alone.  Real transformation has to be a community effort if it is to benefit anyone but ourselves alone.  Does that mean our skills and expertise don’t matter?  I certainly hope not.  What it means to me is that I have to deliberately hold myself in a place of letting things unfold, emerge, develop naturally in way which invites all voices and questions to the common enterprise.  Its a lot harder than it sounds.

There is a great deal more to this concept than can be explored in this first brief post, but I start here because this is what I hope this blog space will be: a learning community in which big new ideas can be explored without trying to drive them to an early conclusion.  This space is not at all about my ideas alone, but a sharing of those things that spark me to explore, to learn more, to engage with new partners in conversation.

I invite your thoughts and ideas to create a vital conversation in which we can “learn out loud”.


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