Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Leader Failure


One year to the day after I began a career as an ordained minister, my boss went on sabbatical. In the three months that followed, I learned a lot about how systems work. My boss had been ordained for twenty-four years. I had been ordained for exactly one. My boss had been the rector of that parish for twelve years. I had been the curate for twelve months. We worked together to set up clear procedures during his absence. I would run staff meeting and vestry meetings and other administrative pieces, and another employee would approve the financial expenditures. But no one decided ahead of time what to do when people started to revolt.

Looking back, it wasn't terrible. It just felt terrible. We had a relatively new children's director who had brought fresh, exciting ideas to the parish. Some of those changes were threatening to some of the parents and other stakeholders, and, about a week after my boss left, my phone started ringing. People wanted to tell me just how terrible things were, how our children's program was falling apart, and how people would start leaving the church if I didn't do something. "What do you think I can do about that?" I asked, unsuccessful in my attempts to quiet things down. Eventually, the rector had to come back from sabbatical and meet with concerned people, including me and the children's director. Perhaps if I had been there longer and had more authority in the system and had more experience in parish dynamics, I could have done a better job of diffusing that anxiety, but, as it was, there was only one person who could convince the parish that everything was going to be ok, and that was my boss.

When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law from the Lord in Exodus 32, he was gone for a long time. During his absence, Aaron learned a lot about the system he inhabited. "When the people saw that Moses delayed...the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." I don't know what's less surprising: that the people gave up on God and Moses so quickly or that Aaron agreed to their plan without hesitation. In the verses that follow, we read how Aaron told them to take off their gold rings so that he could melt and cast them into the image of a calf. "These are your gods, O Israel!" the people proclaimed in front of the idol, and Aaron built an altar and established a festival to worship it.

Systems need leaders. They always have them. Usually, they're clear--a rector, a boss, a parent--but sometimes they are chosen by the system in informal ways--a playground captain, a classroom example-setter, a star athlete. When the appointed leader of a system is unavailable, the system shifts until it finds someone else to take over. That change is an anxious, challenging time. Some systems are able to handle such change more easily than others. Some leaders have helped diffuse their authority throughout the system so that not everything falls apart when those leaders are absent for a while. Others, as we know too well, haven't figured out how to help people know that they will be ok even when the leader is absent.

Who is to blame in Exodus 32? As the story is told to us, the people almost immediately demand new leadership--a new Moses and new gods. They cannot handle the uncertainty of Moses' prolonged absence. They are anxious and unwilling to inhabit their anxiety. They're accustomed to complaining to Moses when they are unhappy and Moses fixing all of their problems. They don't know how to solve this problem on their own, so they choose another leader and other gods to take Moses and the Lord's place.

Aaron does no better. He agrees to the people's request immediately. He is fully invested in this new leadership role. Instead of being differentiated from the anxiety and demands of the system, he falls victim to them. As we see later in Exodus 32 when Moses returns, Aaron is quick to throw the blame on the people: "You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, 'Make us gods who shall go before us…' They gave [their gold] to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf." That's hardly what happened, but it shows us Aaron's flaw.

We could also blame Moses, who has been quick to accept the anxiety of the people onto himself. When they were hungry, he ran to God and got it fixed. When they were thirsty, he ran to God and got it fixed. The system had learned to expect that Moses and only Moses could solve their problems. No one knew how to take care of himself or herself anymore. That contributed to their impatience and anxiety in Moses' prolonged absence.

We can't blame the Lord, but his response to Moses is telling: "The Lord said to Moses, 'Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.'" Your people. Not my people. God isn't accepting responsibility for this problem. He's willing to call them "my people" when he hears their cry from Egypt, but, as soon as they start to worship the image of a golden calf, they belong to Moses. Again, I don't think we can blame God for this, but the way the story is told to us matters. We're left with a feeling that even God himself isn't functioning in the system as freely as God might.

What does this mean for us? Change is hard. Systems will work fiercely to maintain their equilibrium even if it's an unhealthy one. Parishes that have a long history of underfunctioning clergy will not easily accept a go-getter for a rector. Families that have accepted substance abuse for decades will struggle to accept sobriety. Communities that are comfortable with decision-making power being concentrated in the hands of a few will have a hard time learning how to share that authority throughout the community. A new rector, a new prayer book, a new marriage canon, a new altar guild chair, a new building, a new bishop, a new president--change is always difficult.

Our job as congregational leaders and family leaders and community leaders is to help other people in our system accept their own anxiety and deal directly with their own conflict. Change is difficult, but change is inevitable. How we prepare for that change makes a big difference. Are we constantly putting out fires, holding everyone together in a conflicted system by sheer determination? What happens when we cannot do that anymore? Are we so authoritarian that every decision needs to come through us? What happens when we move on? Not even Moses lasts forever. By the end of Deuteronomy, he's figured out how to transition away from leadership. What about us? Are we stuck in the wilderness, or are we headed for the Promised Land?

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