Is it possible for an institutional leader to shepherd an institution to long-term change when that leader doesn’t have a crystal ball? What if “the changes we need to make” and “our founding vision and purpose” are at odds? How can you adjust to 21st-century realities while honoring the past?
These are the types of questions that are addressed in Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose, a new volume from the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), a Christian leadership incubator based in Atlanta.
“Too often we have made idols of our traditions,” says FTE president Stephen Lewis, one of the book’s authors. “We know that the business model for theological education is upside down, but we’re fearful of switching to something that is unknown. We’d rather ride this thing out until it can’t go any more than experiment with something different.”
Lewis and his fellow authors Matthew Wesley Williams and Dori Grinenko Baker offer guidance to people who are struggling with creating change in themselves so they can also affect change in their communities, in the organizations in which they work, and ultimately in the world.
They say that it is not easy to break free of a business-as-usual mindset and it may not happen unless “something drastic pushes us beyond our comfort zone to explore and discern” other options, as Lewis puts it.
The book describes the authors’ four-step process to help people provide effective leadership in times of profound change. Known by the acronym CARE, the process emerged from the authors’ experiences at FTE, where Lewis is president, Williams is former vice president of strategic initiatives, and Baker is senior fellow. (Earlier this year, Williams was named president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.)
CARE stands for:
- Create a hospitable space where people feel connected and affirmed.
- Ask self-awakening questions that nudge people to think about their higher purpose.
- Reflect theologically together.
- Enact the next most faithful step.
The authors say that the CARE practices help bring a critical lens to issues of justice, equity, and purpose — those issues that are central to institutional and individual lives in 2020 and beyond.
“This book emerged as we were grappling with the deaths of Michael Brown, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray, Eric Gardner, Sandra Bland, and so many other Black men and women at the hands of police,” they say, and that it is “a primer for leaders hoping to build a more hopeful future in the aftermath of a global
pandemic and amid an uprising for justice.”
Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose, by Stephen Lewis, Matthew Wesley Williams, and Dori Grinenkio Baker (Chalice Press, 2020, 208 pp., $20).
The book’s intended audience is diverse. “We wrote it for individuals who are discerning their own meaning and purpose in light of change,” says Baker. “It’s also for the leader — faculty member, mentor, or advisor — who is helping others discern their vocations, meaning, and purpose. And it’s for organizational leaders who are grappling with the question, ‘How do I lead this organization to long-term change, especially when I can’t see what the future looks like?’”
The dedication reads: “This book is dedicated to . . . a new generation of people — the dreamers, freedom fighters, artists, and warrior-healers — who refuse to accept things as they are as all that there is and pursue another way.”
The steps are adaptable and “give us a new default mechanism for leading in ways that we believe are more human, more humane, and more hopeful for human flourishing,” Baker adds.
Lewis put the CARE practices to the test several years ago when he led the effort to change both the name and the direction of the Fund for Theological Education, repurposing it into the Forum for Theological Exploration. Challenged by a budget crunch resulting from the 2008 recession, he began the change process by asking board members to answer this question: What aspects of our institutional life are we willing to lose so we may be responsive to what God is calling us to do now? “I don’t know if we have the ability or the courage to answer that question,” he told the board, “but I think it’s the question that is before us at this moment.”
Using the CARE practices, Lewis worked with the FTE board, and together they restructured the organization. He writes about the value of asking the kinds of questions that bring clarity to organizations that are willing to consider which programs or activities should be sustained and which should be retired. “Not everything needs to continue into perpetuity,” says Lewis. “Some things run their course.”
Baker stresses the importance of the decision-making process unfolding in an environment that encourages participants to share on a deep level. She and Lewis recall working with members of a South Carolina church and inviting them to form small groups so they could ask each other self-awakening questions. The goal was to help them envision a future for their church that didn’t simply mirror the past, with its familiar responses and predictable actions. “These questions took them beyond the hamster wheel and just doing the next thing,” explains Baker. “These are ‘why’ questions: Why are you here? For what purpose were you born? How can you use your gifts to create a more hopeful world?”
Next, Baker and Lewis asked the church members to revisit scriptures they already knew by heart, but this time, to reconsider those familiar scripture passages in ways that might provide insight to their current circumstances. Then, moving to the enactment step, the members began to plan their upcoming year as a church body.
In a campus setting, the enactment phase might involve the governing board making a motion, passing a resolution, or agreeing to a set of actions that address the school’s needs. “So it’s not simply asking questions, reading scripture, and praying,” says Lewis. “God calls us to do something.” The CARE practices lead to determining “what is the next most faithful step — not five things, not three things, but one or two things a board can act on when it comes together.”
Choosing these kinds of agenda items is generally the task of the board chair in consultation with the administration. “The question becomes: How are the leaders keeping their ears to the ground regarding what’s taking place in the school, what’s taking place in the larger landscape, and what’s taking place among the board that give rise to what they must wrestle with now?” says Lewis. All discussions take into account the school’s ecclesial and theological traditions and the impact that the current environment has on those traditions. “You’re trying to think about what the best kind of strategic positioning is for your organization, given where you are.”
The authors are quick to say they haven’t invented anything new. Instead, they’ve distilled well-tested lessons that they are passing on to Christian leaders in a time of great change. The goal, says Lewis, is to help a community, a board, a school, or an individual wrestle with their purpose.
From left, authors Stephen Lewis, Dori Grinenko Baker, and Matthew Wesley Williams