Archive for March, 2007

When Life Gives us Bad News

March 26, 2007

Over the weekend, I attended a conference on Alzheimer’s Disease, sponsored by the Mayo Clinic and the Alzheimer’s Association of North Dakota and Minnesota. I decided to attend because I have close family members who have/have had this life-robbing disease, and I wanted to learn more about various aspects of the illness.

One of the sessions was a panel with four people — two who have early onset Alzheimer’s and their life partners. A woman who has the disease was diagnosed at age 50 and the other in his early 40’s. All four spoke of their anger at getting the diagnosis, their fears about the future and about personal finances, their ways of coping with the various kinds of loss they’ve been experiencing.

 When asked about what sustains them, both couples mentioned their religious communities as a great source of support. Speaking of her life partner, one woman said, “The Sunday after Sue received her diagnosis, she stood up in church to tell the congregation. It took so much courage for her to do that, and we’ve received so much support.” The wife of the fellow who’d been diagnosed in his early 40’s spoke gratefully of their Catholic parish and the care they’ve experienced, as well as the spiritual growth they’ve experienced while struggling with the illness.

It made me wonder what kinds of support our congegations offer to our own members who have this or other life-changing diagnoses — encouragement, empathy, love, as well as actual time spent in assisting the family with respite care, parish nursing care, difficult decisions that need to be made?

If you think your congregation has an excellent pastoral care or support system in place to aid your members during times of great difficulty, please let me know. I’d be happy to find ways for you to share what you do and what you’ve learned, to help other congregations be able to do more. Having heard what a difference it has made in the lives of the panelists, I would like to think that our members would say the same for what they’ve received in their own congregations. If not, can we make it happen?

Leadership Without Easy Answers

March 22, 2007

One of my favorite books about leadership is Leadership Without Easy Answers, by Ronald A. Heifetz [1994, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press]. Congregational life is complex and the leadership issues can be complex, too.

Heifetz first makes the distinction between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges are problems that are pretty easy to solve. The canvass comes in short, and the Board has to decide what to do – cut programs or figure out ways to bring in more money. The situation is familiar; the solutions are pretty obvious.

Adaptive challenges are more complex. These problems can be identified because they have to do with values. “We say that we value accessibility; yet our building is not accessible to people who use wheelchairs.” There’s a gap between the value we hold and the reality we’re living in.

Heifetz says that when adaptive challenges are present, leaders need to do four things: “identify the adaptive challenge, regulate the level of distress, direct disciplined attention to the issues, and give the work back to the people.”

Part of the responsibility of being a leader in our congregations is taking the larger view, doing the deeper assessment, looking for the gaps between what we say we value and where we are now. Identifying an adaptive challenge is an example of that work. It’s part of the leader’s role to notice and to point out those areas where our stated values don’t match with our actions.

Second, the leader needs to regulate the level of distress. Simply pointing out the gap will cause some distress, in and of itself. It’s not enough to keep crying ‘wolf!’, however. People have the capacity to understand new information and adapt, but effective leaders will manage the pace at which people are confronted, so problem solving becomes possible. If there’s no distress, it’s the leader’s role to produce some. If there’s too much distress, the leader can calm the system to allow for productive work to be done.

Next, the leader must direct disciplined attention to the issues. It’s easy for congregations to be distracted by lesser matters. Effective leaders frame critical issues in ways that invite congregation members to give attention to them. Heifetz writes, “Urgency, well framed, promotes adaptive work.” [p. 116]

Last, the leader works to create a strategy that shifts the responsibility for the problem to the primary stakeholders. By giving the work back to the people, the leader ensures that those who have the ownership of the problem also take ownership for the solutions. The leader’s role here is to create and monitor the process to allow it to happen.

What are the adaptive challenges for your congregation? What are you, as a leader, doing to raise the issues? To influence the level of distress about them? To keep the attention focused on the issues? To manage the process for working on them? I’d love to hear from you about it. If you click on the Comments section at the bottom of this paragraph, you’ll be invited to leave a comment. If you don’t want it to appear on the blog for others to read, please indicate that in your comments.

Why They Come to Church

March 19, 2007

I attended the Sunday service at one of our churches yesterday. I was in Sioux Falls, visiting family members. All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church has recently moved to a new location — Dow Rummel Village, a complex for retired people. The church is renting the chapel for their service and a couple of the meeting rooms for the church school classes. The service was led by their Consulting Minister, Rev. Dillman Baker Sorrells, who complimented them on the wonderful new facility. The space is lovely – a large room, brick walls, a vaulted ceiling with wood beams, comfortable chairs, and  high stained glass windows on the east which refracted their colorful images onto the brick as the sun moved in and out of the clouds.

Dillman asked congregants to write answers to this question: why do you come to church? There were many thoughtful replies — to be with like-minded people; to have companionship as I go on my spiritual journey; for intellectual stimulation and interesting conversation; so my children can have religious education; to have help as I try to live out my values; to gain strength for the other six days of the week; to see the people I’ve come to care for.

As Dillman reminded us, we’re not a church that has all the answers. We are people who are content to live with ambiguity.

 We know our way in religion is not right for everyone. I know that there are more people, though, who would be interested in what we have to offer, ambiguity and all. With this move to Dow Rummel, All Souls has made a commitment to an accessible, large space. It has room enough to welcome many more who might be seeking what their members have already found — for all the reasons they come to church.

Jeopardy and your typical District Executive

March 13, 2007

The category is “Occupations” for $400.

The answer is “This person figures out ways to assist Unitarian Universalist congregations as they live out their mission and vision in the world. She (or he) works with other paid staff and lots of committed volunteers to provide workshops, leadership training, and conflict management. She consults with ministers and lay leaders, offering resources and guidance. She tries to figure out what questions to ask [and what resources to suggest], to help congregations move forward toward their visions. She is co-employed by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the District and is accountable to both. She can’t imagine any work that could be more challenging or fulfilling, and she’s very grateful for the opportunity to serve.

 The question is “What is a District Executive?”

Laughter is the Best Medicine

March 8, 2007

There it was, in the newsletter from one of our UU congregations. A short notice, that left lots of things unsaid.

“There will be no Laughter Therapy classes in March. I must take a few classes to keep my teacher’s license updated. Judy”

I was left wondering. Laughter Therapy classes — those sound fun. Are they like those videos I’ve seen, where one person starts laughing and others join in and soon everyone is rolling on the floor? Do they start with giggles and proceed to guffaws? How many people participate, and how often?

 And then — “I must take a few classes to keep my teacher’s license updated.” Is the license for the Laughter Therapy classes, or for some other kind of teaching? If “Judy” is a classroom teacher in the public schools, does she include laughter as part of the daily class schedule? What do the kids think?

 Is this the only congregation in our District that offers Laughter Therapy classes? Or is this a trend that I’m really behind on? Should we recommend them to other congregations? Perhaps every committee and Board meeting could start with a five-minute laughing session. Would that get things off to a good start?

I think I need to meet this “Judy” and learn more. We could all use more levity, especially in these March days before Spring really arrives in the North.