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Leading What, Where and How?

One View from the Balcony

CUC Eastern Regional Gathering
Fredericton, New Brunswick, October 16, 2011
Rev. M. Raymond Drennan

There were people who
Broke the string for me...
Therefore, the place has become strange...
the place does not seem to be, on account of this. if ....empty before...
(Kenneth Patton: quoted in Exploring Unitarian Universalist Identity, Peter Richardson)

Have you ever felt this way? Maybe you are feeling it now? Do you sense a broken string -- a discordant note - among us today as Unitarians and Universalists in Canada? I must confess that I do.

The times are indeed great when the string is in tune and when we sense the exhilaration of playing and resonating together. Who doesn't love the times when we are fully into the transformative music that Unitarians and Universalists create together? It's energizing being a part of it all; in the groove as it were -- a synergism of sights and sounds; of ideas, connections, experiences and music that come our way in religious community. Surely these melodious moments of creating and crafting in worship, small groups, or on social justice issues; surely these moments of building strength, vitality and continuity in community, inspire each of us to put time and energy into the tasks of leadership. The possibility of making finer music together has, most probably, brought us here to Fredericton this week-end.

Obviously, no one takes on the many leadership roles in our communities because we love crankiness, contrariness, pettiness or the nasty personal attacks that far too often blight our congregations and our association of congregations. No, what has brought us into leadership and what sustains us in leadership is the dynamic exchange of the string ensemble; this syncopation of life together in community. It gives us strength and makes our communities thrive and grow. It is all good, that is, when it is good!

Then it happens. In the midst of the groove; in the middle of the song, a single string slips from its peg and goes out of tune. We awaken one day to the realization that the string has broken for us. The music has died. We have lost the rhythm. The place does not seem to be... the place feels strange. The place feels as if ... empty before.

Now, I am not talking about the broken string of a new member; the string which never took the time to get in tune in the first place. I am not talking about the new member who wakes, shocked to discover that their religious community is not paradise on earth; wakes to find that lay leaders and, heaven forbid, even the ministers have issues; wakes to the shocking realization that no one is about to meet their insatiable needs. The newcomer's string breaks easily, the door slams shut and they walk away disillusioned.

No, it is not that broken string of which I speak this morning. The broken string of a long-time member, of a congregational leader or of a minister; a broken string which makes the place feel strange is deeper and more integral to the whole. Annoyingly and unmistakably it cries out that something is terribly wrong among us. This broken string is an Emerson sort of moment, like the one he spoke of in his Divinity School Address.

We shrink as soon as the prayers begin, which do not uplift, but smite and offend us. We are fain to wrap our cloaks about us, and secure, as best we can, a solitude that hears not. I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more.

A broken string among us, I'll come back to this a little later.

Leader-full Congregations, that has been our theme this week-end. When I was first asked to speak this morning, I must confess that I didn't jump at the opportunity. I wondered if I had anything to say that could be heard. I once thought the two were synonymous. I hesitated because it seems to me that leading today feels too much like cheerleading and I wasn't in the mood, nor did I simply want to use the occasion to promote my reputation as a grumpy old cynic. A reading that I have carried around in my hip pocket for many years; a reading that often whispers in my ear goes like this, Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a saint -- some of them are so hard to live with- but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. (17th Century Nun's Prayer)

I hesitated also to speak to you, the leaders of this Eastern Region, because the longer I am in leadership, the less I feel that I know anything about it. You see, when I started this religious leadership thing I was only 18. I was the preacher's kid and it was expected that the preacher's son would - well -- know how to preach and know how to lead. I never quite got the rationale behind this. Would you trust your life to someone simply because his or her father or mother was an aeroplane pilot? I think not. Anyway, ready or not -- mostly not- for the past 42 years I have been doing this religious leadership thing, often paying too little attention to whether or not I was being followed. There was a time when I thought those two were also synonymous. I will come back to this a little later too.

As I begin these reflections I have to tell you that I am an intuitive, big-picture person. As a leader among you the big-picture direction of our movement matters to me. I would like to invite you up to the balcony, as it were and describe what I see. It will be one view, my view and I would love to talk together with you about what you see. I must also confess that my reflections this morning, like the readings, will most probably be all over the map, partially because I am not entirely sure that I know what it is I want to say about leadership. I do know that I want to stir the pot a little.

If my old Presbyterian professor of homiletics could hear what I am about to say he probably would have told me to do the people a favour. Sit down and shut up! He had a way with words. Charlie Hay believed that any leader worthy of the name should be visionary, eloquent and able to sum up the gist of the message in one sentence. Don't expect that this morning.

Actually there was a time when I too thought that vision, eloquence and clarity of thought were the essential ingredients of fine leadership. For too many years I aspired to be such a real leader; a sort of Frederick Buechner and Stephen Lewis all rolled up into one. Today, I find myself more and more suspicious of visionary and eloquent leaders, whether they be lay or ordained. Perhaps our movement of independent congregations finds itself in trouble today, a bit rudderless, not from a lack of, but from too much eloquence and vision, concentrated in the hands of so few. I will definitely get back to that a little later.

One last prolegomena before moving on to what I want to say. The title of my reflections this morning is filled with questions; questions which are definitely not rhetorical. The answers are not on the pages in front of me because I do not know them. You will not be able to carry the answers home with you in your minds or hearts or neatly folding into your back pockets. These questions, Leading What, leading Where and leading How? are real and large and will require reasoned reflection from all of us.


So, let me begin before I must end. Leading WHAT is my first question. You may think that the answer to this one is pretty obvious. Any leader, especially one who has been around for 42 years, who doesn't know whether he is leading a hockey team, a knitting circle or a religious community had better quit or go back to school or something.

As I look around today clarifying the WHAT we are leading; clarifying the centre of the WHAT we are leading seems to be in fashion; maybe a bit of an obsession among us. What drives this search for clarity? Often we hear that clarifying the centre of the WHAT we are leading is essential for outreach or essential to satisfy the needs and angst of new members or essential to fulfil our mission in the world. Clarity seems to be next to godliness, as it were. Recently a lot of ink has been spilled attempting, struggling, and sometimes in my view, forcing consensus among us. Sadly clarifying the centre of the WHAT we are leading seems to have become almost the defining task of leadership. I often wonder what is going on. Some days I wonder if this desperation to find clarity about the centre of the WHAT might have other less noble motives. Might this trend indicate a failure of nerve on the part of leadership, a wish to turn the clock backward away from the anxiety of complexity? Might it even be an attempt to put back into the box the radical spirit that has always defined the best of our movement? Seeking, forcing at times, a common centre among us seems to be pushed by the more conservative segments of our movement, seeking perhaps to turn us back into a real religion once again --- just like the others, with one family under one roof.

Might this trend, this obsession, towards clarifying the centre of the WHAT we are leading simply be another example of one particular theological flavour trying to grab and define the centre ground for itself and thereby marginalizing those who disagree? I wonder at times whether a similar agenda might have motivated our continental ministers' association (UUMA) to orchestrate the whose are we discussions.

Frederick May Eliot, former president of the AUA, during the Fritchman controversy, encouraged a different kind of leadership; one that we have mostly ignored over the years. He said,

..(I)t sometimes happens even in a free fellowship, that the adherents of one particular ideology or philosophy attempt to gain dominant or even exclusive power in the fellowship as a whole. So long as I am president of the Association, no such group will be permitted to have its way -- neither the communists, nor the humanists, nor the theists, nor the committee to which you belong. (Stephen Fritchman: The American Unitarians and Communism P. 55)

What a concept! Our history though seems to demonstrate the exact opposite tendency. Rather than keeping the centre open and spacious for all, the history of our movement might be read as one unfriendly corporate takeover of the centre after another, too often leaving a trail of broken strings, disenfranchisement, the grumpy and sometimes even blood on the floor.

Emerson and the Transcendentalists staged an unfriendly takeover of the once central position of Channing's Unitarian Christianity. Parker then moved us to the edge and maybe outside of Christianity when he finally won over the centre ground for his ideas. Later on the Humanists, under Angus Cameron here in Canada, grabbed the centre and God was kicked out of the centre. They in turn were pushed aside by another group which cared little for theology of any flavour. They filled the centre ground with the orthodoxy of the political left, being green and GLBTQ concerns. Sadly some communities filled their centre only with the woundedness of their least healthy members. Today we might say that we are in the midst of another unfriendly corporate takeover of the centre ground, of the WHAT we are leading, as younger adults, newly minted ministers who seem to be often more conservative and many out-of-the-closet theists, move in to claim the centre space for themselves. Le plus ça change, le plus ça reste le méme.

You may ask, What is wrong with such a process? Is this not simply a natural process of evolution, as visionary leaders respond to the spirit, or to the spirit of the times and move us in a direction that will eventually be good for all of us? Is this not good consensus building, avoiding the tyranny of the minority or maybe good adaptive leadership. The displaced persons, the nay-sayers, the grumpy will finally accept this new enlightened centre or leave. Good leadership, we are told, stays grounded in its vision and its truth and keeps a steady course.

As the song goes, It ain't necessarily so. There is a lot wrong with such a model for leadership. David Suzuki sums it up succinctly when he said, In nature, the difference between the diners and the dined upon may be just a matter of time. (D. Suzuki, The Sacred Balance, p. 92).

Paul Goodman reminded us that the leadership of each group that grabs the centre, Inevitably, (falls into) ....self-righteous inflexibility (that) is self-mesmerizing and self-proving,... other methods are not allowed to breathe and prove themselves... anything in a different or outmoded style has deviant or underprivileged written on it,.... (Ideas, Brilliant Speakers Speak Their Minds, ed. Bernie Lucht, The Empty Society, Paul Goodman, p.57)

Rather than underprivileged or deviant -- these words are not too politically correct in our circles - today the new centre ground speaks of the disenfranchised as those wounded by words. If they could only get healing for their woundedness they would embrace the new orthodoxy and all would be well. As each group in turn grabs the centre ground of the WHAT they also claim the right to interpret and to prefix everyone's experiences. This may be no more than the dictatorship of the assumed majority.

As an aside, this same dynamic has been operative in Canadian politics for some time. Whoever grabs the most seats rules the centre and the others be damned, or be marginalized. Harper is not the first Canadian politician who has done this. What makes today feel different is that now the left finds itself as marginalized, patronized, ignored and powerless as the conservatives have been for decades. We need to remember that not all Unitarians are displeased by this change, though few are out-of-the-closet, as it were.

Leading WHAT, therefore is not such a simple question to answer.


This leads me to the second question, namely leading WHERE. The WHERE of leadership depends of course a great deal on the answer to the WHAT we are leading. If we were to choose to struggle our way out of this hostile and hurtful unfriendly take-over pattern of leadership where might we go? Do we have any idea where we might go without a defined centre; free from the dictates of one particular theological, political or social justice interest group?

Looking back, where has leadership lead us so far? I would venture to say that we have moved from a single family dwelling -- one family, one culture, one religion - into a sort of religious hotel. It was Yann Martel who first called Canada The greatest hotel on earth. It is not simply because I am the owner of an auberge that I do not like the image. Hotels are not very healthy places. They house people for a night or two. They keep people separate from one another and deep conversations and dialogue seldom happen in a hotel. Hotels have policies which change frequently along with the management, dictated by those who own the place. A hotel can certainly house diversity and even tolerate diversity, within limits, yet the guests in a hotel are seldom consulted about the policies or even the colour of the wallpaper. The managers make the rules and dictate the policies. Sadly this may be a far too accurate description of where we are today and sadly, in the middle of such a system, ministry, both ordained and lay, has little alternative to becoming the managers of the religious hotel. I often wonder when along the way did so much of ministry turn into management.

Another reading that I have carried around, perhaps too often in my back pocket rather than in front of my face, calls for leadership in a different mode. Over the years it has often whispered in my ear. It was Henri Nouwen who said , It is a painful fact indeed to realize how poorly prepared most ...leaders prove to be when they are invited to be spiritual leaders in the true sense... They are good at large-scale organization, running the show as a circus director... (yet) They have become unfamiliar with, and even somewhat afraid of the deep and significant movement of the spirit. I am afraid in a few decades...(religious leaders) will be accused of having failed in ...(their) most basic task, to offer men and women creative ways to communicate with the source of human life. (Henri Nouwen, Wounded Healer, adapted)

Leading WHERE is a big question too. Where might we lead our communities if we had the courage to move beyond the role of circus director or manager of doctrinally based, religious-social-justice hotels? Where might we go if we as leaders cared less for keeping the ship on its course, the course that we confidently assume to be the correct one; what would happen if we spent less time at the helm and more time fraternizing with the mutineers that have been locked away in the hold of the ship? Together, if they had a voice with our voice, where might we go?

Of course taking the other seriously doesn't mean following every yahoo who happens to show up on a Sunday morning with an idea or a passion, yet seeing the other fully will bring chaos among us; a chaos which managers and circus directors hate with a passion. Frederick Nietzsche had it right. You must have chaos in your soul (I would add in your community) to give birth to a dancing star.

Leading HOW

This brings me quickly and finally to the third question, Leading HOW? Over the years I must confess that I have done my fair share of marginalizing others, speaking from the assumed centre -- my centre- and steering a course that I felt to be correct, come hell or high water.

In the end of the day, though, I believe that leadership has little to do with vision or clarity of beliefs, at least not as popularly defined. Leadership has little to do with being out in front of the crowd with your eyes on the prize, hands on the helm, articulating and bringing consensus around the centre ground. The HOW of leadership for me has little to do with thinking new concepts or frameworks and definitely nothing to do with developing new managerial styles.

In the end of the day leadership in our free religious community of congregations has very little to do with what you or I personally believe. Good leadership has much more to do with how each one of us holds onto our beliefs....lightly...The full potential of WHAT we are leading and WHERE we might lead will only be released if we shift the focus from our own importance as brilliant leaders and open our eyes to see the potential that can be released by calling others into speech. That is the HOW of leadership.

Leadership at its best is an invitation to bring chaos and diversity and complexity fully into the centre and not to shut down the conversation to satisfy our own fears or ego needs. The HOW of leadership is first and foremost a holy curiosity about the other.

Isaac Asimov said in his book Big Bang that The most exciting phrase to hear in science, (I would add in leadership) the one that heralds new discoveries, (and new possibilities) is not `Eureka!' (It is not I found it. I found it and I will lead you to the promised land!) No, he says, The most exciting phrase to hear in science, (in leadership) the one that heralds new discoveries, (and new possibilities) is not `Eureka!' but (rather now) `that's funny... that's interesting. I am curious about that ...)' (Isaac Asimov, Big Bang, pg.359).

Good leadership is less concerned with being grounded in one's own reality, vision or direction but rather having a holy curiosity about the other's reality. Harrison Owen said it well. Leadership Is never an answer but always a question that initiates a quest toward the fulfilment of the participants. (The Spirit of Leadership Liberating the Leader in Each of us, Harrison Owen, p.66)

Let me close these rambling thoughts with a quote from Tom Atlee, from his book, The Tao of Democracy. I am always thankful to Carol Martignacco for directing me to this resource many years ago.

Tom Atlee said it this way.

Democracy (we might add leadership in our Unitarian and Universal communities) is, in the end, about creating processes that allow people to empower themselves, not about Great Leaders saving the people ...

Communities are wise to the extent they use diversity well, in a cooperative, creative inter-play of viewpoints that allow the wisest, most comprehensive and powerful truths to emerge. The more we know how to nurture and use the rich diversity of individual views and capabilities within our society, the more wise and democratic (I would add wholesome) our society will be. We will resist small-minded leadership and even the dictatorship of the majority. We will cherish dissent as a wise individual cherishes doubt, as a door to deeper understanding. (viii, 109)

That is at least how I see it from the balcony. What about you?