Left to Their Own Devices, People Will Not Get Along

Somehow I got elected to Church Council. After agreeing to serve on the Nominating Committee, I was told people thought I’d be perfect for Council. Damn, upsold by my own church. There should be a law.

“Okay,” I said in a weak moment, “As long as everyone knows going in that I’m skeptical of a lot that people accept as the status quo.” “That’s great, that’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Add that to the Good Shepherd Lutheran things of which I’m skeptical. In large part because at the first (monthly) meeting in early June there was no opportunity to pose questions let alone offer alternative viewpoints about anything of substance. It was, in essence, a long business meeting.

Even more concerning than that though was how the meeting began—with quick approval of the previous minutes and summary reports from some subcommittees. I only knew half the people, and even the less introverted* didn’t know everyone, still there were no introductions, not even names. In 36 meetings over the next three years** we’re going to have to work together to make some difficult decisions on behalf of the larger community. Like a farmer mindlessly heaving seeds on the ground, the working assumption seems to be that everything will be okay because everyone will get along fine. Like that’s the natural order of things.

I know the opposite to be true because I’ve worked in an intensely interpersonal field for three decades and The Good Wife served on Council during a particularly tumultuous time in the church’s recent past. When two people or organizations with two hundred plus people do not build in mechanisms for preventive problem solving and the cultivating of mutual respect, dissension will be the default. Family members won’t speak, married couples will divorce, work teams will fragment, and antipathy will rule the day.

So I wrote the Council President and tactfully suggested that if we don’t have time for any team building, we at least introduce ourselves at the start of tomorrow night’s meeting. He said it was a good idea and then asked if I’d lead a 15-20 minute team building activity, which translates into 1m per person after this planned intro:

One thing I’ve learned as an educator who emphasizes small group cooperating learning is that when it comes to effectively teaming with others in families, in schools, in the workforce, or in other contexts like church councils, many adults have more negative than positive frames of reference. Put differently, when they think about all the teams they’ve been a part of, it’s easier for them to identify what went wrong with them than it is to explain what went right. That’s because we’re not nearly intentional enough about the ultimate litmus test of a team’s effectiveness, which is whether the sum is greater than the individual parts. Meaning, at the end of the team’s time together, do the individual members have a sense that by themselves they never could’ve accomplished anything close to what the team did.

Then I’m going to ask them to think for a minute about a positive team experience, where the team they were a part of clearly accomplished more than they would have left to their own devices. And then to briefly summarize one thing that contributed to the team’s success.

How would you answer that? How easy or difficult was it to come up with a list of positive team experiences? And the single most positive team experience? And the key take-away that partially explains the team’s success?

In thinking about what I’m going to contribute I thought of a five faculty Guilford College team I worked on in the mid 1990s to help the college redesign it’s general education program. I was the junior faculty representative and was blown away by my older colleagues smarts and interpersonal savvy. I had fun riding their coattails as we lead the 100 person faculty through the difficult process of updating the college’s course requirements***.

Then I thought of the cycling team I am a part of most Tuesday and Thursday nights. Or take Saturday’s 94-miler around Capitol Forest. Left to my own devices I would’ve averaged 18mph not the 20mph that five of us managed. But aerodynamics are more physical than interpersonal, so I kept exploring the hidden recesses of my pea brain.

Eventually, my positive team experience that most clearly embodies the “sum being greater than the individual parts” bubbled up. “Team Lynn and Ron Byrnes” whose primary project the last 25 years has been to raise two children, now young adults. In all honesty, a quarter of the time I wish The Gal Pal was more like me, meaning a quarter of the time her differences drive me cray cray. Three-fourths of the time though I know for a fact that we parented much better together than I ever could’ve myself. Her different ways of thinking and being made us way more thoughtful as we did our best to find our way absent any Parenting Manual.

Sometimes we’ve been more intentional about teaming effectively than others. When we don’t schedule time to talk and purposely work through simmering resentments, both of us end up racing to have OUR feelings understood, which is another way of saying we argue. When we’re intentional, meaning we take turns listening to, and empathizing with one another, we’re a pretty darn good team as I hope our daughters would attest.

Tuesday is the second Council meeting, but also Lynn’s and my thirtieth anniversary. I’m not just a better parent, but a way better person because of her. I look forward to teaming with her for as long as possible.

* Since I’ve kept a really low profile at church, I agreed to serve in large part to get to know a few people better. The thinking being that I’ll like it more if I have more friends.

** After five of us were elected together, we learned that to create a proper balance of term lengths, only four of us would be able to serve the whole three years. In my first act of amazing selflessness, I kinda quickly volunteered to serve only two years.

*** The one exception to the fun being when one of my noon basketball acquaintances, a Religion professor in desperate need of mindfulness training, lit into me for something our group had proposed. If memory serves me correctly, I felt better after dunking over him during that day’s pickup game.

Addendum: Turns out some regular readers of the humble blog are questioning my dunking ability. Calling it fake news.

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Keeping Score—What Matters Most?

Last week, a friend, via Facebook, asked me how I was doing. “Excellent,” I wrote. “My family is healthy and happy.” At this stage in my life, everything beyond my family’s health and happiness is like desert, nice, but unnecessary.

Like individuals, organizations can’t evaluate how they’re doing without first clarifying what’s most important. That’s why so many teachers are frustrated today, schools obsess about students’ test scores instead of whether students are curious, kind, and able to accomplish meaningful things in small groups.

On Sundays, I often wonder how do religious leaders keep score? What’s most important in evaluating how a church, synagogue, or mosque is doing? That the budget is balanced, that attendance is increasing, that a lot of mission work is being done?

Our church is in transition. Sometime in the next four or five months, a new pastor will replace our two departing ones. The reduction is partly due to a 20% decrease in membership and a 13% decrease in giving.

Here’s my imperfect understanding of what’s happened. Four or five years ago we hired two progressive pastors who were left-of-center politically; some key church council leaders were lefties; our synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America decided to ordain gay clergymen and women; our state voted in favor of marriage equality; and we rewrote our “Welcoming Statement” to explicitly reach out to GLBT members of our community.

That pace of change overwhelmed some people. Also, as it turns out, people inside religious organizations have dispiriting personality conflicts just like people on the outside. One of our church members told me the members who won the political debates about gay clergy, marriage equality, and the wording of our Welcoming Statement were not gracious winners.

How do religious bodies negotiate political differences and does that factor into how they are doing? Conventional wisdom is that religious leaders and their congregants should leave politics aside. I disagree. Churches, synagogues, and mosques would be much more vital places if they modeled mutual respect for contrasting political viewpoints. Public dialogue about controversial issues is so anemic right now, lots of people on the outside would take notice.

Granted, that’s easy to assert in the abstract, but when talking about abortion, the death penalty, or even marriage equality, it’s much, much harder to implement. In fact, I wonder, are there examples of political diverse religious communities thoughtfully engaged with contemporary issues? Birds of a political feather prefer to flock together, but is that inevitably true inside churches, synagogues, and mosques as well?

I hope not. And I hope our next pastor considers that challenge among the things that matter most.