Not the Expert

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Part of New Leaders

By Ian Evison

Not the expert, and able to learn: Leaders understand that it’s not just about skills, but it’s about being able to learn (often together) what’s necessary in congregational life; they understand the difference between technical and adaptive challenges, and find themselves at ease in the discomfort of adaptive work, understanding that no one knows the answers, but that together a way can be found.

Over the years what works in assisting — and in leading — our congregations has shifted. Since the 1970s we have seen a marked decline in how well positional authority works in our congregations. Using positional authority, saying “I am the minister and…” or, even worse, “I am from the UUA and…” works less well to move our congregations, even if it might still do in other faith traditions. Indeed, one challenge for ministers from other faith traditions who wish to serve our congregations is this effect. It can be for them a puzzle of how to lead forcefully and effectively without resorting to positional authority, “I am the minister and…”

Now we are seeing a comparable shift concerning expertise as a source of authority for our leadership, especially credentialed and certified expertise. For a time, as positional power declined for our ministers and other leaders, our focus on expertise increased — shifting the weight of authority from what position our leaders hold to what expertise they have or what credentials they have — the degrees, the credentialing, the special training.

Culturally we UUs tend to be people who place a high stock in experts, and to have them involved in our lives — personal and organizational — in many ways. And, having turned away from focus on positional authority, turning instead to authority legitimized by expertise (“it is not who you are but what you can do that counts”) seemed like a move in the right direction. An entire profession of church consulting and an entire publishing industry of church how-to books emerged based in the idea that there was a highly generalizable set of answers to the question of what works and does not work in congregational life. And that congregations could save themselves a great deal of effort if they did not “reinvent the wheel” but rather found a relevant “best practice.”

Expert knowledge is great. It can be exceptionally powerful. There are some ways of chairing meetings, and raising money, and handling conflict that work better than others. If only more of our congregational leaders were more skilled in these, life in our congregations would go better. New areas are constantly opening up where more how-to-do-it help would benefit our congregations, especially concerning technology.

Yet, ironically, increasingly, our best practices are least helpful in precisely the places congregations most need help: in basically reinventing themselves and rethinking their fundamental purposes. For me, as someone often asked to assist, the situation feels a little like the challenge of helping my grown daughter. While it is immensely satisfying to be able to assist her with small how-to-do-it things like how to remove a screw with a stripped head, I am intensely aware of how little I can do to assist with the things that are most important, like issues about her developing her identity, shaping her vocation, or relationship issues. And, I have learned that — even if she asks — advice-giving is rarely what is most helpful.

What does work is being present to a process of learning and figuring out. Ronald Heifetz characterized the contrast between two types of challenges as technical and adaptive problems as the difference in response needed being between management and leadership. When there are answers to be given — as in how to remove a screw with a stripped head — leaders should by all means give it. But when such answers don’t, leaders need refrain from the false wisdom of answer-giving. Leaders must accept that they will disappoint by refraining to give answers and instead focus on helping the group see the big picture, focus on defining creatively the challenge, keep the attention on this challenge, keep the tension level high enough but not too high, give the work back to the group, and to help the group hear especially the voices of those at the margins.

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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