Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rocking the Boat: How to Effect Change Without Making Trouble

As I plunge into the reading for my D. Min. program, the first of the books that I'm cranking through is by Debra E. Meyerson, an Associate Professor of Education and Business at Stanford.  This academic but basically readable book revolves around an exploration of what it means to be a change agent within an organization.  This, obviously, has some potential implications for leading a congregation, particularly a congregation that is stuck or needs to transform itself. 

The core concept that acts as the unifying principle of this book is the concept of the "tempered radical" as the primary instigator of change and transformation within an organization.   A "tempered radical" is an individual who, on the one hand, is a radical.  Something about them sets them apart from the core ethos of the group within which they find themselves.  Their thinking and their action stands in marked tension with the expectations around them.  They are a deviant, but not (hopefully) in the "I'm really really really into patent leather undergarments" sort of way.  They deviate from the norm, and from that deviation, they bring with them the potential to effectuate a shift in institutional direction.

This person isn't, however, a bomb-throwy blower-upper of things.  They are "tempered," meaning that inherent deviance from the norm is tempered by a deep commitment to the well-being of the institution in which they are active. That fusion of commitment and a willingness to transgress against organizational boundaries is a key feature of transformational leadership.

As I reflect on how Meyerson's insights manifest themselves within my own ministry, I had a couple of reactions:

1)  Organizational Culture, Difference, and the Tempered Radical.  As Meyerson describes it, the countercultural identity of the tempered radical frequently means they end up facing both explicit and implicit resistance within their organizations.  Because they don't fit within the broader culture of their community, they can often be afflicted with a sense of isolation.  (Meyerson, p. 5)

As a pastor serving a community where I am visibly different from the majority (in my case, second generation Asian-American), I've felt this difference consistently over the last seven years.  The theological and social expectations of my congregation vary in some significant ways from my own.  Theologically, I'm a progressive in a conservative/evangelical milieu.  Where my theological inclinations tend towards justice, service, and classical Christian mysticism, my congregation's expectations are more in line with Korean American evangelicalism.  That would include a "personal relationship" with God, an intense focus on emotional worship, a more literal approach to scripture, and an approach to evangelism that is very focused on converting unbelievers...at least in theory.

That theological difference has placed me on the periphery of the community.  That is intensified by cultural factors particular to 2.0 Asian Americans whose faith experience is formed in 1.0 Korean congregations.  Most of my congregation shares a long history of active participation in the same youth group, which defined not just their faith, but their social circle.  It's a tightly knit group of old friends, and the boundaries of social and church life are often difficult to discern.  The set of social expectations that arise out of that relationship radically define the character of the congregation, which resembles a family in large part because it has often served as a family surrogate.  This social intimacy stands in direct tension with the ethos of evangelical conversion, a tension with which my community still struggles.

While these points of difference are considerable, I've found that the core of connection to the community...meaning, our shared faith in Christ...has been a major "tempering" factor.  As often as I've felt out of step with the community, I've felt how the shared passion for the essential grace and goodness of the Gospel provides a bond which transcends that difference. 

2)  The Tempered Radical and Pastoral Leadership.  Here, I struggled with Meyerson's thesis, not because it is an invalid change model, but because it seems mismatched with the reality of pastoral leadership.  In each of the framing anecdotes presented by Meyerson, the essential story of the Tempered Radical is the same.  Within the framework of a large or midsized corporate entity, a tempered radical works in middle management, where they effectuate gradual change by acting upon values that differ from the norm.  That effort is consistently described as primarily sub rosa.  Their efforts are "..less visible, less coordinated, and less vested with formal authority."  (ibid, p.171) 

This works if you are a middle manager, but it does not apply to pastoral leadership.  Pastors are, within the congregations they serve, the most highly visible representatives of the community.  If they are to be successful, they need to articulate and personally embody the highest values and aspirations of their community.  They cannot be invisible or peripheral.  If they are, then they are not providing the leadership a community needs. 

Can they challenge community norms?  Absolutely.  They need to.  Can they be radical?  Yes.   But the organizational context of the tempered radical and the organizational context of the pastor are not the same.   From the organizational location of a pastor, characteristics like personal charisma, the capacity to produce visible success, and being visionary (ibid., p. 171) cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the health of a congregation. 

Pastors are not managers.