Thursday, September 29, 2016

Thinking in Threes

by Rev. Kenneth Gordon Hurto, Lead Executive, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

“Until you can think in threes, you do not understand (leadership) systems.” 
                                               ---Dr. Murray Bowen

One of the major shifts in human understanding has been a move away from seeing ourselves as solitary, independent agents in charge of our destiny toward a more complex awareness that who we are is a direct function of who we are with. We are relational creatures. Everything about us is shaped by our connections (or disconnections) with those around us.

This begins, of course, when we are born. Indeed, it is the first question of faith: Will the world accept, honor, and care for me? Over time, depending on how others treat us, we learn whether we are OK or not-OK, whether we fit in, or can count on others. Every time we meet someone new or enter a new situation, we replay this big question: Is it ok for me to be, to stay here?

Our long childhood means we are especially affected by parents. Indeed whole generations of family “stuff,” for good or ill fills our emotional backpack. It is perhaps better to think of ourselves as “embedduals” rather than “individuals.” That the world may reject us, or leave us, or hurt us, or even love us is as much a source of anxiety as knowing we live but someday to die.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the worth of every person. We talk about accepting one another in our totality (warts and halos). But two people encountering each other soon will find there is tension between them. It is hard to keep a balance between being a Self and being Together. After all, each brings varying needs for closeness or independence. Each values things differently. Each has unique ideas and aspirations. This distinctiveness is often inviting and at times frightening: 
  • Can I be me if I am not wholly like you? What if I want something you don’t?
  • I want to be close, but I fear losing me in our “us.” 
  • Or, I fear losing our “us” if you get too independent. 

As a two-legged stool is easily tipped, tensions arise in any one to one relationship. Then, our first (and, Murray Bowen would argue, inevitable) step is to pull in a third party to stabilize things. It might be quite transparent: “Michelle and I disagree about (something), don’t you agree with me that it would be better (to do what I want)?” Or it might be a subtle attempt to shape your perceptions, as in “Hey, Nikkos, did you know that the Minister has a gambling problem?” Even groups get out of balance. Think of all the Hatfields & McCoys stories where one group feels deeply threatened by another, ends up in a fight of some sort, and pulls civil authorities into the middle.

Our Leadership Experience or Presidents Convocation leaders will recognize this as triangulation: An attempt to ease tension between persons and B, by getting another, C, to take sides. Triangles ease tension; hence, their ubiquity. For instance, I complain about my wife at work; I get irritations off my chest, and go home not even remembering last night’s tiff. Gossip is often like that, a kind of social grooming where we play out relationship games of “Ain’t It Awful.” The next time you read an Ann Landers-type advice column, you have a lab for watching triangles at work — think of all those letters complaining about siblings or parents or ex-spouses! All too often triangles become a way of avoiding one another or even for ganging up on those we dislike.

Leaders need to think systemically, relationally all the time. When a parishioner comes to a Board member with a complaint, the Board member will absorb some anxiety and begin to fret. Sometimes the member feels a need to “fix” things, particularly as it relates to church staff (even more so as it relates to the Minister). When you start carrying someone else’s emotional water, when you feel caught in the middle, you’ve been triangled. Now, no need to feel bad about that; as noted, it’s inevitable for leaders. 

The question is: How to manage and step out of the triangle? Managing triangles typically has some identifiable steps. 
  1. Let’s take a typical member complaint brought to you about another member or staff person. The first thing to notice is you are being triangled — that is, the anxious member wants you to alleviate some of that anxiety by siding with them or taking their problem as yours. Just noticing helps you manage.
  2. The second thing to ask is “Whose problem is this really? Is it mine?” Often Board leaders are sought out simply because the member does not know where else to go. Sending a member to someone who can actually address their concern is one kind of de-triangulation.
  3. A powerful way to step out of the triangle is to listen slowly, carefully, ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand what the issue is, and then to say, “What would you like me to do with this matter?” Quite often, the anxiety is relieved if the person just feels heard. “Oh, nothing, I just needed to blow off some steam about this. Thanks for caring.” We all do that sort of thing about our parents, children, spouses, co-workers, and so on.
  4. However, sometimes, the person needs direct help. That’s when to employ our usual litany:
    1. Have you spoken directly to A about your concern?
    2. If they say “no"t or don’t know how, you say, “Well, would you like me to come with you to talk with A. I’m confident we can work this out.”
  1. However, as triangles often overlap, a single issue can be part of several. Before you know it, a whole bunch of folk are worrying. As anxiety increases, we seek out ever more people to be on our “side.” This is the stuff of conflict in any relationship system. A good sign that you’re caught in messy triangles is that you are just plain baffled and feel unexpectedly anxious about what to do. Murray Bowen said, when that happens, don’t just do something, stand there. Here’s the truth: sometimes things work themselves out if a leader does not add to the confusion with her/his own anxiety — usually expressed as needing to referee, taking ownership of the problem, or offering lots of help.

I need to stop here; this really is the material for a whole day’s workshop. However, I want to lift up a good kind of triangle: It’s called consulting. When a neutral party is invited into a tense relationship and temporarily holds the tension until it is bearable, people can begin to think through their differences more effectively. The consultant does not absorb the anxiety, but holds ontology enough for people to take their problem back and begin working on a resolution.

Your UUA staff do this kind of intervention in matters small (how to effectively do a program budget) and great (major conflict). Our Southern team is comprised of individuals with considerable skill in many areas of congregational life. If you are feeling tension and are becoming triangulated, that’s a good time to pull us in. We’ll be your coach and help you find the way to an easier, more loving encounter in congregational life.

As always, breathe, deep and slow!

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Emotion Field

by Connie Goodbread, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

The emotional field is a medical term pertaining to the physical space around each of us that informs us about the world around us and how we should react to it.

The emotional field for organizations is the reality that each of us brings our personal emotional field into every relationship and every community we join.  The combination of all those individual emotion fields make up the larger emotional field of community. The individuals in every community are interlocked in a system of emotional processes.   

The same is true for nations and continents and a planet---at least this planet populated by human beings.  As the Earth gets smaller and we come to know a lot about each other, we find ourselves connected in ways that were impossible in the past.  

News, both true and false, screams at us all the time---look at me, look at me, look at me---and is maniacally focused on hatred, racism, and misogyny.  These ugly sides of humanity are pretty rampant and leave us all sad, exhausted, and wanting to run for cover.  Don’t think for a moment that the current emotional field isn’t having an effect on each of us and our congregations.  

There is an Elie Wiesel story about a wiseman in Sodom.  This is my version so I paraphrase.  He preaches love and justice from a corner at the same time every day.  In the beginning the people stop and listen.  Then they begin to jeer and laugh at him.  Then they begin to throw things.  Then they ignore him all together, walking by as if he does not exist.  All of this time there is a child who watches.  

The child says, “Do you know that no one is listening to you?”  

The man says, “Yes.”  

The child asks, “Why do you keep preaching?”

He answers, “I used to preach to change them.  Now I preach so they won’t change me.”

I share this story because if we are to stand, roll, sit, and fight on the side of love, then nothing can force us from that path. Therefore, even though the current emotional field is charged with ugly rhetoric and behavior, we stand on the side of love and we will not be moved.  

Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith.  Covenant is the binding of one to another in love.  Therefore, how we do what we do makes all the difference.

The writing of a Covenant is only the beginning and, quite frankly, the easiest part.  We are accountable to the deep abiding promises of love that we make to each other in Covenant.  The Covenant is tested in practice.  The test comes when the Covenant is broken.  In order for us to come back into Covenant we must lean into one another, stay at the table, and work it out.  If that cannot happen, someone is leaving.  

Ugliness and hatred is all around us.  Within our congregations, we should practice building the community that we would like to see exist in the rest of the world.  Within our congregations, we need to learn how to lean in, and to practice deep listening and understanding.  We should approach our differences (as the St Petersburg, Florida congregation says) with humility, curiosity, and humor.  We need to learn to set healthy boundaries and expectations.  We should not tolerate bullying, coercion, or manipulation---this is not the way of love.

We can make a great difference in the world, but don’t think that the work of making that difference won’t leave scars and test our courage each and every day.  Thankfully we have one another and this fabulous faithful path of just loving and loving justice.  I am grateful to have your hands to hold.  I am grateful for this faith and discipline.  

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Time to Make a Change?

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

When we talk about change issues in congregational systems, we often mention two distinct types. First, we have technical change. Technical Change Issues are those challenges that have a clear solution which can be implemented rather quickly and directly. Technical Change issues can often be addressed with few decision makers who have appropriate authority, such as the board of trustees or the program managers. Technical Change issues also have clear boundaries within the congregation and require change in just one or two areas. Technical change issues might include revising the time of the Sunday worship service, installing a sprinkler system to comply with insurance requirements, and adding an elevator to a multi-level building. 

Adaptive Change Issues, in contrast, are usually more difficult to identify. They are often so difficult to identify that they become very easy to deny, ignore, or mistake for a set of technical issues. Adaptive change issues often require changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships, pedagogy, working styles, or underlying philosophy of organization. They require change in numerous areas of the congregation which crosses internal program and departmental boundaries (involve ministry, religious education, pastoral care, justice making, etc). Adaptive change issues require visioning, experimentation, and discovery to work through. There may not even be any clear solutions, and change takes a very long time to both implement and measure. In essence, when we talk about Adaptive Change issues, we are talking about issues of meaning, purpose, and culture. 

Some change issues in your congregation may have both adaptive and technical aspects. They can be intertwined, making the adaptive issues even more difficult to identify. For example, your congregation may have a meeting space that is only accessible via stairs. The adaptive issue is the congregation’s commitment to being welcoming and the technical issue is installing a ramp or lift.

Not surprisingly, most individuals and congregations as a whole are generally receptive to and on board with technical change. Technical solutions are usually concrete, measurable, and relatively simple. Technical change requires some sacrifice, possibly financially or of convenience, but will not require any individual to adjust to long-term change or discomfort. Adaptive work, on the other hand, can be frustrating and slow. It may require the congregation to be uncomfortable for long periods of time, which is something that we usually don’t tolerate well in congregational life. These uncomfortable feelings are why visioning and defining a congregation’s core values are so important to the process of adaptive change. If a congregation can keep its values and vision in mind, then it can weather the storms that come with adaptive changes.

You may have heard your Congregational Life Field Staff encouraging the leaders of congregations to lean in to adaptive changes, even though they may be difficult, murky, or uncomfortable. Adaptive change is the real work of transformation, and we recognize that the feelings it causes may make some people want to move away from those issues. In situations where the adaptive issues have risen to the surface, focusing on technical change can make a congregation feel good and productive, but it can also be a distraction from the real issues at hand. It can be the band aid over a much larger chasm of issues. 

In all of this work, though, technical change issues tend to get a bad reputation. In our efforts to focus on the difficult adaptive change issues, we tend to think, “Oh, that is just a technical solution! That’s not the adaptive issue!” It’s very wise and healthy to be able to identify the difference between technical and adaptive change issues, and even wiser to see which solution you are looking for at any given time. It is wonderful when a group of leaders can see that they are focusing on technical change issues to avoid the adaptive ones. 

Some issues, though, do require technical solutions. Making a huge adaptive issue out of the fact that the dishwasher is broken is really just another form of work-avoidance. Avoiding the real issues at hand can go both ways, because, after all, there are just so many reasons not to do anything new ever. 

Technical change issues can also be steps toward adaptive change. For example, if you’d like to practice whole church community and your shared core values are leading you toward multigenerational worship, fellowship, service, and learning, it would probably be disastrous to declare that all worships are now multigenerational starting with the new church year. Surprise! It might be easier to chart a course of smaller technical changes that give congregants an opportunity to experiment and explore a multigenerational community in digestible doses. You may start with a multigenerational justice project once a year, an all-church dance or pot-luck a few times per year, an eight-week multigenerational religious education offering, an all-ages camp, or a weeknight offering where people of all ages get to form meaningful relationships. By gradually increasing these offerings and building on your successes, you can, in a matter of years, achieve the whole family church that you are yearning for! The technical change issues help to build you toward the adaptive issues that you long to see. 

In conclusion, as always, I invite you to contact your Primary Contact Field Staff member if you would like a partner in discerning the technical and adaptive change issues in your congregation, or if you would like help in determining what your next steps as a community of faith could be. There is literally nothing we can’t begin together! Finishing it, well, that depends on the adaptive issue!