Wikimedia Commons Photo Courtesy of National Gallery of Scotland
Martha and Mary
Johannes Vermeer's painting "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" illustrates the tension between good management and good leadership
A UM Insight Editorial Analysis
The New Testament story of Martha and Mary has plagued us churchwomen from the first. After all, if it weren't for the Marthas of the Church, a whole lot of things would never get done, from washing dirty dishes after potluck suppers to bringing snacks for youth groups and Vacation Bible School to marching for social justice.
As with so much of the Bible, Martha's and Mary's story (Luke 10:38-42) has been used historically to denigrate "women's work." Not only does Martha get a bum rap for being "worried about many things;" Mary also gets pigeonholed as a dreamer content to sit at Jesus' feet and absorb his wisdom, rather than taking that wisdom out into the world in ministry. Both stereotypes prove false and unfair when given a deeper reading.
By imprisoning Martha and Mary behind these old paradigms, the Church – especially The United Methodist Church at the crucial 2012 General Conference – misses two of our best models for adapting to a changing world.
I am by nature a Martha, someone who's really good at Getting Things Done. That's my comfort zone, because it gives me a sense of control over life's chaos. I've gone so far as to hang on my wall an icon of Martha, decked out in Middle Eastern dress complete with headscarf and hands firmly on hips. She looks as if she's about to scold me for failing to finish my "to-do" list.
However, as I've matured chronologically and spiritually, I've come to understand more about what Jesus meant when he chided Martha about Mary having chosen "the better part." In her expert household management, Martha was overlooking something that Mary grasped instinctively: Jesus called them to a cataclysmic spiritual and cultural shift that transformed the hospitality Martha was so good at giving. Mary realized that she needed to learn more about this "adaptive challenge" before she set the table.
The Work of Leadership
I saw Martha and Mary immediately when I read "The Work of Leadership" by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie (Harvard Business Review, January-February 1997). The Rev. Jay Voorhees, pastor of Old Hickory UMC in Tennessee Conference, recommended the article during a Facebook discussion on the UMC. After reading the article in light of my experience as a United Methodist lay leader and senior executive in religious publishing, I concluded that all General Conference delegates should consult Heifetz's work before they converse in legislative committees about proposed changes – any changes.
Professor Heifetz is Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He's known for groundbreaking work on leadership, especially on how to create corporate cultures with adaptive abilities. His book Leadership Without Easy Answers (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1994) is currently in its 13th printing in many languages.
Reading Heifetz's and Laurie's article can point out to General Conference delegates that we're going about change in The United Methodist Church the wrong way, from the Call to Action restructure and Vital Congregations metrics to taking away the guaranteed appointment of United Methodist pastors. That's not to say that change isn't needed in the UMC; the critique here is that what we need at this time is the kind of leadership the Heifetz teaches, not the kind of technical management represented by most of the proposed changes coming before the General Conference.
Six Principles for Leading Change
In their article, the co-authors outline six principles for leading change effectively:
- "Getting on the balcony,"
- Identifying the adaptive challenge,
- Regulating distress,
- Maintaining disciplined attention,
- Giving the work back to people, and
- Protecting voices of leadership from below.
Here's why the current proposals for change in The United Methodist Church don't meet these criteria:
"Getting on the balcony" means to get a "big picture" view of what's going on. Bishops and Connectional Table leaders think they have this view because they had a couple of statistical studies done. What they don't have, as evidenced by the business strategies being presented, is a genuine sense of the spirit and culture of the denomination – all of the denomination, not just its American branch. Heifetz and Laurie point out how crucial it is to understand clearly one's corporate environment before making any attempts at change. Such understanding doesn't come from a single statistical survey (as with the Towers Watson consultation, for instance), but from face-to-face engagement with constituents over a long period.
"Identifying the adaptive challenge" means to discern the real issues confronting the organization. This has been a primary criticism of the change proposals from their first appearance, namely that the management techniques being recommended (and those already implemented) don't address the real problem in the UMC: the loss of spiritual sustenance and enthusiasm, that is, those methods that create and nurture authentic disciples of Jesus Christ (hello, John Wesley!). This criticism has come from all corners of the denomination around the world, but seems to have been little heeded based on legislation coming to General Conference. Call to Action proponents may use the phrase "adaptive challenge" ad nauseam, but what they mean by it isn't what Heifetz says it is.
"Regulating distress" means to acknowledge that change is painful, and to allow ways for the organization to blow off steam without losing the necessary energy to effect change. Here, sad to say, is where bishops and Connectional Table leaders have been most deficient. Reports at the Pre-General Conference Briefing made clear that rather than allowing people to blow off steam over perceived threats, great effort has been expended to squelch criticism and force people – especially clergy who are vulnerable to episcopal appointment – to "get on board" despite misgivings. You're reading a case in point: United Methodist Insight resulted from the distress of clergy and laity at having few ways to express their anxieties about the UMC's change proposals, as well as having few if any channels to offer alternatives.
"Maintaining disciplined attention" ought to be something that resonates with United Methodists who trace their spiritual heritage to John Wesley's methods for fostering Christian discipleship. The best way to explain this that I've found is to ask this question: If the mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, why do the proposed changes focus on management schemes rather than on spiritual disciplines? In other words, why do leaders think that focusing on institutional numbers will lead to spiritual rebirth? Many critics of the change proposals have yet to find satisfactory answers to these and similar questions.
"Giving the work back to people" probably forms the hardest leadership task for United Methodism's top-down authoritative ecclesiastical structure, and yet this may well be the most critical task if change is to succeed. We now live in a world where social media predominate, where shared experience creates ultimate authority. For good or ill, theology and ecclesiology in the age of Google and Facebook demand grassroots engagement as a continuing process, not as a one-off survey or site visit. Just as good liturgy is the ongoing work of the people, so will effective change be for The United Methodist Church. To date, change legislation has not given any such bottom-up mechanisms, only top-down edicts. Protestations of willingness to perfect the proposals at General Conference and "live into" the changes ring hollow without clearly identified grassroots participation.
"Protecting voices of leadership from below" means creating an atmosphere of trust, something that simply does not exist today in The United Methodist Church at any level. I will never forget the report given some 20 years ago by one of my clergy friends on his psychological evaluation prior to ordination as an elder. When he questioned one mountainously skewed line on his chart, the counselor replied, "Oh, that's the paranoia line. It just means you're United Methodist – you have no support from either above or below." Yet now we propose to do away with guaranteed appointment as a means of removing (read: punishing) ineffective clergy? Surely there must be a less brutal way to evaluate clergy performance.
Wisdom Born of Experience
Martha and Mary didn't have the benefit of social scientists like Ronald Heifetz in their day, but they had something else: wisdom born of life experience and daily spiritual practice. They came to understand that Jesus was teaching how to change hearts and minds to love God and their neighbors completely, which in turn could transform lives. In fact, Jesus' revelations to them of God's love so upended their world that Martha, even in her grief over her brother Lazarus' death, could testify, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world" (John 11:27, NRSV*).
Our best prayers for the 2012 General Conference may well be focused on delegates using the legislative proposals as springboards for discerning the kind of change that's really needed to energize The United Methodist Church as a Christian movement, not how to preserve it as a religious institution. Once our senior managers figure out how to lead us properly through adaptation, the actual changes we adopt may prove more effective at accomplishing our stated mission: inviting and nurturing people everywhere to live out the love of God as shown through Jesus Christ, so that the world will be transformed into God's realm of love and justice.
* New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible, copyright 1989 by the Commission on Christian Education of the National Council of Churches USA. Used by permission.