Wednesday, October 1, 2014

No Cannibalism!

by Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Staff for the Southern Region of the UUA

Many, many moons ago, in my first year as a Professional Religious Educator, I found myself in the Youth Room for the first time, complete with hand-me-down couches from the 70's, writing on the walls, a set of homemade, eclectic chalices, and the smell of incense hanging thick in the air. I introduced myself and asked to be invited into their covenant since I was going to be joining their community for the day. In response, one of the Youth dutifully read their covenant out loud, after which a large blue marker was lobbed in my general direction, and I was invited to sign. But something gave me pause. The third line of the covenant, right after “Respect” and “One person speaks at a time,” was printed in large block letters: No Cannibalism.


In my inexperience, I chalked it up to the randomness and delightful silliness of Youth. I figured it was just something someone said during the creation of their covenant to break the tension in the room or provide a light moment in the heaviness of what I hoped was a very spiritual ritual for them. So I didn't think much more about it, signed my name, promised to deeply abide by the principle of “no cannibalism,” and moved on.

The next year, I wanted to be present for the Youth's covenant creation so I could be of service if they needed any help. We went through an opening ritual of telling one another what parts of the church and our Faith are most important to us, and then we began to make promises to one another. It began, as usual, with “Respect one another,” then it once again moved on to, “One person speaks at a time.” And then, like clock work, someone said, “No cannibalism.” I expected laughter. I expected eye-rolling. Instead, everyone nodded, it was dutifully written on the covenant, and the process continued.

Again, Huh?

After the covenant was finished for the day, I raised my hand. I just had to ask. “What does 'no cannibalism' mean?” I said.

“It means we don't eat each other.” said one of the teens. Now there was laughter. I felt a little bit like the butt of the joke.

“Well, yeah, it means that.” said one of the other Youth. “But it also means that we don't tear each other apart, we don't take each other down from the inside, and we support each other in our different positions within the group. It means we don't take each other out. We build each other up. Even when the situation gets really, really hard.”

Oh. Well, I learned a couple of really good lessons about leadership that day, lessons that have only deepened and made more sense as the years have gone on.

First, obviously, I have learned that Youth can be, and often are, very wise. Many of them, especially those who were raised in our Faith, are already Elders, and have so much knowledge to give each of us. Our Youth already are leaders; we should encourage them to blossom as leaders in our congregations and beyond.

Second, I have learned that there might be people who want you to fail as a leader, or there might be a system that is distrustful and suspicious of leadership. But you can fight back. You can follow your passion and be a great leader anyway. You can be vulnerable. You can be authentic. You can practice self-differentiated leadership. You can risk getting eaten. In the end, it is this brave and genuine leadership that will move the Faith forward.

Third, I have learned that increasing your leadership starts by increasing your "followship." Even if a leader is willing to be vulnerable and put their great ideas out there to be devoured, nothing will happen without the first follower. We are much stronger as leaders when we are able to recognize great leadership in others and support those ideas and endeavors. It is much harder to be eaten when there is a herd protecting you! And when it is your turn to be the one with the big idea that makes it possible for others to take a big bite right out of you, those whom you have followed will become your first followers, too.

Fourth and finally, I have learned that the Southern Region is made of people! PEOPLE!!! Hardworking, honest, loving, soulful, brave, brilliant, flawed, amazing, colorful, broken PEOPLE. And when each of us takes a risk to be a true leader, it is an act of extreme generosity and good-will. I think the most important part of the No Cannibalism rule is that we always assume the best intentions of one another, and we live into the reality that we really are all in this together.

So I make this solemn and faithful promise to you: No Cannibalism!