In my previous post, I wrote about the possibility of adaptive change when our sense of normal has been disrupted, as has happened due to the pandemic. Paying attention to our circumstances in the right kinds of ways might very well lead to discerning God’s calling on our lives in our new circumstance.
Still, even if we’re alert and asking the right kinds of questions, new possibilities can be difficult to see because we carry so many assumptions related to how we’ve done things in the past. Heifetz and Linski remind us that the ways we do things come from somewhere, and to move away from those practices seems disloyal. So, even if we’re willing to take risks, there are other emotional forces that make this kind of work difficult.
It helps when we’re in situations like this to learn with others, other leaders, other congregations, other organizations. It’s not so much that the “other” is going to have the solution to our problems, though we may learn valuable things to imitate from time to time. It’s more that learning with others gives us more perspective, more distance on ourselves. When I consult with groups of congregations, its often the case that they learn more about themselves from observing others than they do through self-reflection alone.
This is especially true of volunteers in congregations. They often learn more from volunteers in other congregations than they do from the professionals on staff in their own congregation. There are a lot of dynamics in play here, but I believe one is that members rightly resist feeling like they are the project of the pastoral staff. The presence of others who have responsibilities closer to their own often creates fruitful learning space.
Church Innovations, the group I consult with, is firmly committed to the notion that the real transformation within a congregation will happen by increasing the capacity of volunteers. While helping staff and other formal leadership learn to take on different kinds of leading is very important to innovation, the real work is among the rank and file membership. And they learn best from others who are doing similar tasks in other congregational contexts.
Learning from others seems impossible when we’re sheltering in place. It seems like all of our energies are required just to survive. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that our best future requires energy learning from others rather than minding our own store. Learning with others, however, creates both a vital sense of companionship in a time of isolation, and the perspectival distance necessary for us to interpret our own experience better.