Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Growing pains

The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. ~ Alfred North Whitehead
Have you ever driven fast? Really fast? It's thrilling!  It's also terrifying. The steering that works so well and easily at lower speeds becomes dangerously inadequate. Road hazards and turns approach incredibly fast. A slight touch of the wheel causes sudden veering in either direction. Nothing works quite the way you anticipate.

My congregation has grown very quickly. It is a sports car among sedate sedans. It is arguably the fastest growing Unitarian congregation in Britain. It almost certainly has the youngest average membership. I should be very pleased, and I am. But I am also afraid - very afraid. The steering system that worked so well a few years ago will soon become dangerously inadequate. The challenge is how to continue zooming along under reasonable control at higher and higher speeds.

The growth over the past few years was associated with a very fluid organization. Individuals could get inspired and go off and doing something great. The excitement from some new initiative would interest a few more people who would then get inspired, feel empowered and do it again. Inspiration coupled with an environment that not only allowed but encouraged initiative and experimentation made for a place where anything could happen. In a small organization, where everyone knew what the others were up to, this was manageable. At low speed, the steering mechanism was quite adequate.

As I look around at other congregations, at our national leadership organization, and - in fact - at most organizations religious and otherwise that have grown beyond a certain size, there is a very different pattern. Fluidity is absent. Rigidity is the norm. Elaborate processes are applied to any and seemingly to every issue. From the outside, one is dumbfounded to observe the enormous amount of time and energy that goes into making even the simplest of decisions. This over-processing is often done in the name of 'building consensus' or  'getting people on board', but in reality, it fails either to build consensus or to allow progress.

And yet, the change from complete fluidity to something else is natural and necessary as organizations grow.  At higher speed, the leadership begins to get nervous. Where one could easily know what was going on at a smaller size, those systems are increasingly inadequate and leaders begin to worry about whether they might lose control and see the whole thing spin into a fiery crash.

With that worry in your gut, it is tempting to do just one thing: slam on the brakes! In the congregation, this is manifested by making sure that everything that happens has to go through the Committee (and often other processes) first, and furthermore, that the default answer to all questions is 'no' - if a proposal is not explicitly permitted and approved, it remains in the forbidden category.  After all, it is always 'safer' to say 'no.' No one can blame you for a crash if you never start rolling in the first place! The culture of 'no' will not not move you very fast - it may not move you at all - but it is indisputably safe.

Another reason this is attractive to many leaders is that it doesn't take too much time or expertise to say 'no.' Elected congregational leaders are usually chosen not on the basis of any particular expertise. They may (hopefully) have some general skills suitable for committee work, but they are leaders primarily because they are committed and willing to serve, so they rarely have significant expertise in the areas about which they are asked to make decisions. They also don't have time to gain the relevant expertise, devoting typically just a few hours a month to what is an increasingly complex undertaking. And so, the culture of safety and over-process and the culture of 'no' can readily take over.

Of course, safe is not at all the same as faithful, and the safe culture of 'no' is not the faithful culture. It is not the culture that makes for a dynamic community or a community that dares to reach out in bold ways to change the world for the better.

My deep fear is that the bold and faithful community that is the Newington Green and Islington Unitarians will become as hide-bound as most congregations are - moving along slowly and cautiously guided by an ethos that puts safety first and almost always finds a way to say 'no.'

Sadly, I see this culture dominating many of our Unitarian congregations and other Unitarian bodies. Often the fear is of alienating anyone, and so 'no' is a safe response that removes that risk. It also removes any chance of change. Dying congregations seem often to be the most conservative ones - keeping a firm hand on the wheel as they slowly, carefully, and deliberately drive straight toward the precipice.

To a great extent, we can be forgiven for taking the wrong approach.  Growing into a governance system that handles speed without hitting the brakes is not easy and good models for how to adapt are not prevalent.

Changes are most certainly needed with increased size. There is unquestionably an increasing need to systematize and routinize. Fortunate British Unitarian congregations have one staff member - the minister. Very often, that individual's efforts are divided among multiple congregations. With growth, it becomes impossible for staff to oversee everything that is going on.

The best solution I have heard to this problem is the 'permission giving church' model that has been promoted by Bill Easum, among others. As Easum describes:
Permission-giving churches have clear mission statements, vision statements, and value statements. They have a clear sense of purpose that allows people to perform ministry based on that purpose without having to ask.
Instead of adopting the top-down business model with its tight control and default of 'no', the permission giving model makes the assumption that we are a community of people each with our own ability to discern the direction in which we should move. [What could be more appropriate for Unitarians?] It makes decisions with a default of 'yes.' The critically important role for leaders is not to control, but to help the congregation to clarify its own core principles and dreams: its values, vision, and mission. With those well-defined and clearly (and frequently) communicated, the job of the leaders becomes to encourage and facilitate inspiration and initiative. A new idea develops and the leadership, seeing that it fits the core principles, asks 'how can we help?' The default of 'yes' becomes 'no' only when an initiative would violate the core values, mission, or vision.

The permission giving model clearly has its challenges. What if no one is inspired to work on the building? Do you just let it fall down? Clearly, the leadership needs to make sure that some essential functions are being covered. But when it comes to the ministry of the organization, it is the most trusting and faithful way I know of to help the congregation live out its calling.

We have seen the failure of the system of control and the system of safety as exercised in most of our organizations. As a faith committed to the the worth and dignity of every person - a faith that speaks of the power of human reason as the best way to discern the truth - wouldn't it make sense to allow for more inspiration to bubble up rather than to keep the cork on so very tightly? I know that it is frightening to move to a position where we are prepared to say 'yes' to most new ideas, but it should be even more frightening to observe the slow-motion shuffle toward extinction propelled by every enervating, vitality-destroying 'no'.


  1. I like the idea of a 'permission giving church' - it's good to say 'yes'! I think leaders sometimes worry if they don't know what's going on so transparency is key. I would liken it to a spider's web - a light touch but with strong links. If someone comes up with a great idea, empower them to do it, encourage them to recruit a small team if necessary (that know that their commitment is only for the duration of the project) and make sure the link back to the chapel's leadership team means that they are kept informed without feeling like they have to manage the project themselves. Ultimately, there will always need to be some kind of central management but many hands make light work and small project teams or working groups should be encouraged.

  2. nicely put, andy. 'yes' is scary, but the potential benefits/gains are far greater than if we slow down and try to control everything.

  3. I agree with your view that a changing size of church needs to change its leadership structure. You seem to have identified that methods to encourage growth will also need to change over time, and will particularly be the case in highly transient cities like London.

    I think Permission Giving Church is pretty much the UK Unitarians' only hope. Nearly all of the growth and innovation in our movement in the last few years has been down to the dedicated (mostly unremunerated) efforts of individuals who have worked outside the restrained "no" culture of our movement, even by-passing their friends on the many commissions, panels and positions of leadership.

    The leadership of the GA needs to truly empower its members in local congregations, particularly those local ministers and members crying out for growth and renewal. There is some great work going on, but all levels of UK Unitarian governance, from the top down, need to constantly evaluate and look to improve ways of engaging with the church members who sustain them. Some explanation of Permission Giving Church might be a good start. Before I give people an excuse for more navel gazing - we've got to ACT too!