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Rendle Challenges Congregational Leaders to Think in New Ways

UU University 2007 Keynote Event
Speaker: Gil Rendle

At the second annual Unitarian Universalist (UU) University continuing education symposium gathered in Portland Oregon prior to the start of the 46th Annual General Assembly (GA), keynote speaker Rev. Gil Rendle challenged the more than 150 congregational leaders present to begin thinking about leadership in new ways. Rendle said we have been trained to find solutions to problems—we define the problem, look at the options, make a decision, take action—but looking at everything as a problem is part of the old leadership style. Many situations we are working with do not have solutions, because they are not problems, Rendle said. They are the conditions of a changed world.

Rendle said that a generation or two ago, we had a "convergent environment," in which the questions and the answers were the same for everyone. Everyone agreed about what church was supposed to be and organized around that understanding. Now we live in a "divergent environment" in which we still have many of the same questions, but have widely varying answers.

One example relates to attitudes around money. Many church members believe strongly that one should save it for a rainy day, and some of them feel that there will never be a rainy enough day to spend it. Others have the attitude that it should be spent now, because it will not be worth as much in the future. Both attitudes are brought to the congregational conversation. If we treat this as a problem to be solved, we will not be able to make much headway.

Rendle explained that there is a significant difference between management, which asks the question, "Are we doing things right?" and leadership, which asks, "Are we doing the right things?". We think our job is to make our congregants satisfied, he said, but a satisfied congregation doesn't want to change because it is happy with things the way they are. He pointed out that not everyone will agree in our congregations, although we think agreement is necessary for harmony. Rendle reminded the audience that "singing with a single voice is not harmony, it is monotony." He also explained that often we are in a "reactive space," where we are dealing with what is coming at us, when we need to be in the "balcony space," where we can see the big picture and learn something new.

Leaders need to learn to shift from good answers to worthy questions, from action to learning, from control to agility, and from neatness to experimentation and messiness. They need to change from providing answers to posing worthy, significant questions the congregation needs to face. Rendle suggested that three basic questions need to be posed to our congregations:

  1. Who are we?—a question of identity
  2. What are we called to do—a question of purpose
  3. Who are our neighbors?—a question of context, which acknowledges that the world around us is changing as much as we are.

Rendle got a wry chuckle out of the audience when he posed the question "Why is it that we are asked to go find the solution, and when we return, we are told "Thank you, but no thank you?" Our congregations ask for leadership, he said, but reward management. He emphasized that, once again, this is not a problem to be solved. It is a normal reaction, because people are averse to loss, and change brings loss. There are three stages to any transition:

  1. letting go
  2. the confusion of in between times
  3. beginning the new.

Rendle also observed that "everyone wants to start with step three, because the first two steps are painful."

There is a roller coaster path of the energy during this process, Rendle said. Leadership announces the change, and the excitement and energy rise. As people confront the loss of change, the energy drops. Then the congregation decides if they are going to stay with the change, and if they do, the energy starts to rise again. The leadership is ahead of the congregation on this roller coaster, and "often the people who asked you to come up with a plan are the ones who resist it at first." To overcome this resistance, we need to concentrate on the leadership of listening, Rendle said. "We don't need to listen until everyone is happy, but we must listen until people have had a chance to express what they need to in order to move through the stages of change."

Rendle asked the participants to imagine the difference in behavior if people changed from operating with the idea that "leadership means challenging the community to follow the leader's vision," and instead operated with the idea that "leadership means influencing the community to face into its questions." In order to move into leadership rather than management takes courage, because it leads people into not knowing what the answer will be.

During the second half of his keynote address, Rendle told the participants that the secret to success in change is to give the congregation a new story to tell about themselves. They will quibble over details, he said, especially if the details include numbers, but "when you tell them a story that helps the people see the possibilities, they will understand." He observed, congregations tend to describe themselves down the safe middle. Finding a bolder story changes a church. "Bold stories create strong congregations, even when not everyone agrees with the story," he said.

Rendle also noted that leaders help shape the hopes and fears of the people. To give a congregation a new story, a leader needs to challenge the existing story. This process tends to follow the "forming, storming, norming, performing" path. The forming time is a time to learn the present story—a time of polite interaction and of discovering our similarities. The storming begins when the leadership challenges the story, an uncomfortable time, a time of discovering differences, and a time when far too many congregations balk and turn away from the path. Norming begins when the congregation creates a better, more powerful story, setting the new norms, and the performing comes about as the congregation begins to live the new story.

Rendle encouraged the leaders at UU University to help their congregations create bolder stories, and not to be surprised or try to "solve the problem" when there is resistance. He acknowledged that most leaders in congregations, if they were given any training at all, were trained in the old, problem solving kind of leadership style, but he encouraged all leaders to nonetheless have the courage to help their congregations face their important questions and create a powerful story that opens up possibilities for the future. The leaders at UU University gave Rendle an enthusiastic round of applause for his challenging presentation.

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, October 2, 2014.

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