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Part of New Leaders

By Ian Evison

Mission driven Leaders know why they are active, and how they are seeking to make a difference in the world; they understand that congregational life is not about making people “happy,” but by knowing how the congregation is called to serve their community, and are then faithful to that calling

The leadership of the future needs to be focused on mission and vision. Of course. The simple, obvious argument for this is that, to the extent that churches will need to be going basically new places, then the ability of leadership to deal with the large questions of “where are we going and why are we doing this?” become more crucial. And a huge chasm opens between the question of how to do better what we have done (often encompassed in wisdom about “best practices”) and where and how to go somewhere new.

And, there is something so obvious about this, so motherhood and apple pie, that it becomes a challenge to think clearly about it. Who, I ask you, even as a devil’s advocate, would argue that we do not need visionary leadership? And, we need to be much clearer in our thinking about the ambiguities of wanting visionary leadership before we can get to a solid understanding of why we do need it.

In the preparation for the vote for merger of our three districts into the MidAmerica Region, our board members spent a lot of time visiting our congregations. One board member observed something very interesting. All our congregations seemed to be highly aware of the fundamental challenges that they faced, and the likelihood that congregations will look very different in ten or twenty years. They did not need to be convinced of the urgency regarding thinking about the future and the disastrous implications of planning out their future as minor variations on their present (e.g., how we are now plus space for fifty members). Yet, this board member observed that in different congregations, getting serious about the future can mean two very different things.

In some congregations, getting serious about a very challenging future tended to imply the need to take more risks, try more ideas where the outcome of the experiment is unknown or doubtful, be more liberal with use of that endowment. Try some things!

There also exists in our congregations another version of what it means to get serious about breaking with current patterns. Maybe the pattern that we need to break is that we are only too willing to put resources at risk without tough thinking about what experiments will work. Maybe the pattern we need to break is one of a certain dreamy-eyed love of trying this and that, and hoping that if we build it, they will come.

Is our problem more like that of the teenager who is afraid to try new things? Or is our problem more like that of the teenager who is only too willing to experiment and needs to learn to get serious and get real about life? Do we really need more dreamers or more realists? Dan Hotchkiss, Congregational consultant and Unitarian Universalist minister, once wrote an excellent short piece about the tension between these idealists and realists in our congregations and setting forward our need for both. If you want to start a most interesting debate in one of our congregations, here is a question to put on the table. What, really, would be the radical departure for us: (A) to be willing to try some things without asking so much for assurance of success or (B) being willing to get real about the basics, to be more willing to trim more of the dreamy-eyed non-essentials, to have a little more obsessive follow-through on details and to ask more quickly and more pointedly about what is working.

Denominationally a debate across this divide has emerged over the “Congregations and Beyond” vision put forward by Peter Morales. Do we need more risky experiments in basically new ways of doing church? Of course we do. But maybe we need more hard-nosed focused on what is sustainable, what works, and on the best ways of doing the basics, or of supporting and nurturing what is paying the bills. I have been at meetings of ministers where angry arguments have erupted across this divide.

I would be foolhardy to claim to adjudicate between these points of view. What I can observe is that what leads to thriving congregations is a healthy and mutually appreciative relationship between the realists and the visionaries. And, in general, if you find yourself more drawn to the arguments in favor of realism you are likely to need to listen more closely to the visionaries in your congregation, and equally the reverse.

And I will say that the leadership I most admire — that I think is truly visionary — is that which can hold these two together. What we most need is not more visionaries or more realists but structures that hold them together in service of a larger vision, our larger vision for what our UU faith can be and become.

We need approaches more like the innovation incubators so popular in the high tech world, that bring realism to the bright ideas so that the best of these get the best savvy about how to get things done, and support those that are not ready for prime time to find that out quickly. My dream is for the realists in our congregations to put their capacities to work in service of radical ground-breaking ideas and for our dreamers to listen to this and let their precious brainstorms be shaped by the practical thinking of the realists.

And, I observe, that focus on mission should be what unites the vision (the ideal state to which we are headed) with the practical, by answering the question of “for what purpose” and also the questions of for whom and by what means. Those questions and answers, held together, do not resolve the tension between our visionaries and our realists but perhaps they give a frame in which the dynamic between them can be creative and future-oriented.

At a human level, the forces driving the realist side of the conversation are the continuing economic strains and the increasing economic inequality, and are the same forces driving the idealist, social visionary side of the conversation, like Black Lives Matter. The great challenge is to think both together.

And, even to begin to understand the reality of this read The Future of Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector

Be a Forward-Looking Leader

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About the Author

Ian Evison

Ian is a UU minister who has served in a variety of ministries, including parish ministry, theological education, a research project at the University of Chicago in Family and Religion, and service at the Alban Institute as Director of Research. Current passions include future trends in American...

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