Thursday, August 06, 2009

What was and what is...

One of the truly great challenges leaders face in any institution is how to manage change and support the people involved in the life of the institution as it changes. I have seen the reality of this hurdle work itself out in business, in non-profits, in educational bodies and in churches. Each system's constituencies carry their own foibles and attachments, but one thing rings true again and again: changing a body of people's perceptions and experience of change in a body is more like shifting the course of a large tanker ship on the open ocean. It takes a great deal of energy and skill just to make the slightest of turns, and the impact of those changes in course will continue to work out over more time than you think possible.

Like Newtonian motion, with objects at rest (inertia) or objects in motion (momentum), to change one object's state requires more energy than it takes to simply allow it to persist.

The temptation is to just let things lie as they are. When it comes to power relationships, let the ruling regime retain control. It's not worth the upset to shift them off the main watch. When it comes to routines and practices, let them be. They have "worked" so far.

Still, that is all well and good...until whatever practice, program or group begins to lose touch with what is happening around them. That dissonance only increases over time. What we want to be so, and what is actually so get so out of balance that there is an inevitable clash between our illusory, idealized state and the fact that the world has passed us by.

The obvious and oft-cited illustration of this experience in church life comes from viewing parishes that began life in one way of being (say, the church organized in the early days as a predominantly white, middle-class community in line with the demographics in its environs) and then over time, it loses touch with demographic shifts and atrophies (the neighborhood experiences a dramatic influx of people of color who might even speak a different language). That example is "obvious" in that we can clearly accuse the folks who reside behind the walls of the church of being out of touch or reluctant to engage those who now live right next door.

But what of generational or social demographic shifts? How do churches deal with those over time? I have seen parishes go through paroxysms of change due to the fact that what was once a quite rural, affluent community has now evolved into a trans-suburban nexus of high density housing and development. I have seen parishes that have had one particular and dominant generation hold responsibility for leadership over the years suddenly enter into crisis when they realize that what was once a round-robin of succession between them in their circle of leadership is now shattered due to retirement, attrition and/or death.

The diocese I now serve in had a bishop who is willing to hit these challenges to effective change-management head on. He offers up that if a parish can't speak to what is going on just outside its door...and engage the community it finds itself in NOW and HERE, then truly we are in the process of surrendering our charter to be the vibrant Body of Christ. This doesn't mean we have to suddenly surrender our historic identity as a parish to whatever the current hot fashion is in church life...but it does mean that we have to be willing to celebrate the closing of the chapters of our common story in one moment while at the same time showing an eager and willing desire to turn the page, take up our collective pen and continue to write a story that is never truly finished.

Right now, I have been working on the plans for the coming program year, thinking and praying about how best to help the people I am serving to do just that: celebrate their past, embrace their present and prepare for their future. Why is it that we leave that BIG task to interim periods? What might happen if we, priests, parish leadership bodies and the rank and file of the membership, actually embrace that posture of being reconciled to who we were while at the same time honoring the present challenges to BECOME and continue to GROW into the full stature of Christ?

That is a good question. Wish I had the answer, but that will come with time and prayer. Of that I am confident, in Christ.

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