Although we know well about this need to change, we also know how often institutions and individuals fail to make change a reality.One of my favourite examples was the New England ice harvesting and storage industry. For many years, the ice they harvested in winter and sold in the warmer months was the only way to keep fresh food from spoiling quickly. They were successful. This industry created numerous jobs and generated wealth for the owners. And then some darned fool had to ruin it all by inventing mechanical refrigeration!
The way the ice-making industry responded to the threat of innovation is instructive. They worked harder and harder at harvesting ice and keeping it from melting. They even made real technological advances in their harvesting and storage processes.
Although they got more creative about harvesting and storing ice, these companies seemed completely unable to look objectively at the challenging technology of refrigeration. If they had, they might have seen the nature of the threat. Instead, they disparaged the new invention as it slowly improved to challenge them more and more - and eventually destroyed them entirely. They never adopted refrigeration. They disappeared.
Our congregations, in particular, often fail to change to meet the ways of the changing world. Why?
One important part of the answer is that the change comes upon us gradually. There is very rarely a sudden shift that causes us to notice. When the weather gradually gets warmer, we might not take our coats off until we're already wet with perspiration. Slow change is hard to recognise.
A second point is that it is especially hard to change when you have been successful in the past. The ice industry would not have been so hesitant to give up ice harvesting if they had not profited from it handsomely in the past. But wishing will not make the clocks turn back.
A third point is that we develop an overly narrow sense of purpose. The ice companies thought that their purpose was harvesting, storing, and selling ice. What if they had, instead, thought of their purpose as keeping food fresh? Might they now be the leaders in refrigeration, food packaging, and more?
The most important reason for lack of change, however, is that we know change will hurt. We cannot deny that change is accompanied by pain and we run from that pain.
The ice industry executives knew ice-harvesting and ice-storage. That's all they had done their whole careers. They knew nothing about mechanical refrigeration.
Their employees had all the right skills for what they were already doing and none for the new technology. A shift for these companies would have meant many people - including bosses - out of a job. A shift would have meant pain.
Ice customers were of little help in helping the ice companies see the need for change. On the contrary, their customers were probably telling them about how much they preferred natural ice and how reluctant they would be to get mechanical refrigeration. Of course, the companies were only hearing from the dwindling number of customers that remained loyal to naturally harvest ice and thus remained customers. The majority were soon happy with their cold, humming, full refrigerators and the ice companies never heard from them.
All of this is relevant to our congregations.
Change has come upon us slowly. There was a time when freedom, reason, and tolerance for radical concepts. It was hard to find a good, inspiring talk. Slowly, change came and what made us different was now part of the basic assumptions of our society. Gradually, taste in music changed. Gradually, attention spans shortened and great talks could increasingly be found for free at home via the Internet. None of it happened suddenly, but it has happened.
Like the ice-harvesting industry, we have also been successful in the past. The grand Unitarian chapels distributed around this land bear testament to the great success of the mid 19th century. The great names we reverently utter remind us too of a glorious heritage. It is hard to change when the past looks so bright and the dream of the return of those times remains so enticing.
Like the ice industry, we can have a narrow view of our purpose. Is it to put on a service on Sundays with some hymns, readings, and a sermon? Is it to keep a building in good shape? What if we understood our purpose more broadly as, for example, "transforming lives for the better in community" or "teaching peace, justice, and love"? How differently might we begin to act?
But, again, the most important impediment to change is that change hurts.
Our congregations are well-adapted for the old ways. Our ministers are trained for a particular way of doing church. (I can assure you that we ministers do not relish any change that requires leaders with skills we lack and might threaten to replace us.) The leaders of our congregations and our other institutions, like our ministers, are comfortable with leading as they always have. They don't welcome seeing much of what they've learned through the years become irrelevant. Their influence and ability to help would be undermined.
And the members of our congregations are members because they are among the ones who like the old ways. If they didn't, they - like the customers who abandoned buying ice - would not be present there to remind us of the need to change.
Change is hard.
And change sometimes does happen. When it does, it is because of leaders who are able to tolerate pain - their own and that of others close to them - in order to follow a greater vision. Think of Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They moved mountains, but not because they were superb tacticians or knew how best to advertise their movements in social media. They were great because they were able to project a non-anxious, visionary presence that overcame the enormous anxiety that would otherwise have held their people back.
In our congregations, such leaders may be clergy or not. Sometimes, they may not even have formal power in their congregations. They may not be able to preach or sing or build a website or keep a ledger of accounts, but it is not such skills that make them successful. These leaders are secure in themselves and able to exist in the midst of anxiety without succumbing to it.
The late rabbi, therapist, and leadership advisor Edwin Friedman’s revolutionary thinking about leadership is elucidated in his two books “Generation to Generation” and “A Failure of Nerve” Friedman introduces such leaders and calls them “self-differentiated.” They are great leaders not because of special skills, but because of their ability to be the non-anxious, firm, resolute, presence in an anxious community system.
And strong they must be! As Friedman explains, any self-differentiated leader successfully taking a community forward will be subject to sabotage and great resistance. As clergy in congregational contexts, doing the right thing for the institution they love rather than keeping people happy in the moment may well cost them their jobs.
Making change happen. The answer is leadership - not specific skills, but specific ways of being that are borne of an inner strength, confidence, and adherence to a vision that is more compelling than our very natural desire to avoid discomfort.
We don’t need tactics. The tactics are out there written in detail in countless books and available in hundreds of videos. We need to recruit and train and develop leaders who can bear the discomfort in themselves and others as the pain of change emerges and we need congregations willing to allow a leader to emerge and to lead.
Rev. Andy Pakula