Sunday, August 2, 2020

For a Truly Innovative Unitarian Universalism

To respond to our calling faithfully, Unitarian Universalists must be willing to take on greater risk and set aside our fear of failing.

Religious congregations are by nature conservative organizations. They exist to perpetuate rituals and teachings for a gathered community, and consistency in practice and terminology  are essential to making it meaningful. Even a hint of change seems dramatic to people accustomed to having things a certain way, whether it comes from church staff or the elected board. The resistance to change is compounded in a committee-centered approach to governance, in which various committees have their delegated areas and simply report to the board on their work.
"As a result of all this unofficial power brokering, triangulation, and tacit boundary drawing, the committee-centered model creates a powerful bias against change. Skilled leaders can make virtually any structure function flexibly and well, but the committee-centered structure does not make innovation easy. What it does best is what it was designed to do: prepare the congregation and its program for next year, provided that the next year is 1959." — Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss, p38
Safi Bahcall describes in his book on 'loonshots' how companies lose the ability to innovate and 'harden.' One of the key systemic problems comes with middle management. Suppose that an employee comes up with some big, risky, new idea that has the potential for opening a new market or even planting seeds for a major pivot. The person goes into a meeting with directors and managers with all the market analysis, research on the big idea, and other relevant data. She presents it well, fielding questions as she goes along. As she concludes, she opens the floor to feedback. People shift in their chairs. Someone coughs. The finally one of the managers speaks up. He thinks it's an amazing idea, but.... He identifies something he sees as a fault with the concept, which then opens the floodgates, with others piling on. The meeting ends with a decision to 'investigate further' or drop it entirely.

What happened should be obvious. What could be really great for the company would pose a significant risk to anyone from management connected to it if it should fail. Even if the proposal was simply to do preliminary R&D work, resources would be involved. Time, money, and people would be devoted to some degree to try it out, which exposes those who approved or otherwise participated in the event that it goes nowhere. With the safest path being by definition the less risky, the best bet for a middle manager's career is to put in his 8+ hours per day and not stick his neck out.

While no one's gainful employment is necessarily on the line with congregational committees, I hear at least an echo in their risk-avoidance to what Bahall describes about managers. Committees, like middle managers, have a duty to carry out their duties to preserve and maintain the work of the congregation. While a social justice committee is surely going to keep up with scheduled protests around immigration justice and legislative work to address the climate crisis, they might be less inclined to participate in denominational initiatives to address white supremacy culture within the faith tradition. It's too 'controversial' for many in the congregation, and they might argue that 'white supremacy' is such a harsh term. 

I don't mean to pick on social justice committees. There are certainly many out there pushing boundaries and driving money-changers out of the temple. I could as easily cite worship committees who resist anything but traditional hymns and choirs, though of course if it's a UU congregation they'll opening the door to folk music a couple of times a year. Never mind what the youth and young adults would like, or what music traditions people of color might want to see integrated. 

Speaking to Unitarian Universalism, which is my faith home, I can say that we believe in being innovative. We refer to having a 'Living Tradition' and even have a requirement in our bylaws to review and possible revise our core principles every certain number of years. At the same time, we are human beings. We've written liturgies incorporating the existing principles, and don't like the thought of setting that aside. We're all for the idea of a Living Tradition, but doing the work to become anti-racist seems to require so much change in our identity and perspectives that it scares some of us. It's understandable that people would feel reticent, and that committees, boards, and staff would rather avoid stirring trouble. 

The thing is...we're heretics. We're the trouble makers. Our Unitarian and Universalist heritages are filled with people and incidents that challenged the status quo. Our inspiration from the Radical Reformation in Europe doesn't encourage safety or going with what's least controversial. Quite the opposite. To rise to the call of this age we're going to have to face what's inside us and among us, recognize the environment we've built for ourselves, and start making dramatic, faithful changes to who we are and how we operate.