Questions for Reflection
- How has your organization shown resiliance this year? How have you learned from your successes and failures?
- In what ways has your organization built collective hope and trust throughout the past year?
by David P. King, Ph.D., Karen Lake Buttrey Director
Current online learning in the King household has us building a Rube Goldberg machine in our basement. Turns out you can do a lot of STEM education through the simple machines (pulleys, levers, and wheels) around your house. The idea dates back to the 1920s, popularized by American cartoonist Rube Goldberg, but these complicated machines performing simple tasks may be even more popular today. Admit it, you too have found yourself absorbed on YouTube watching as dominoes start a chain reaction that end up turning on a light switch fifty steps and five minutes later. Building these Rube Goldberg machines has become even more popular during quarantine as we have more time in our homes. Sometimes, it can be fun to make simple things complicated.
Yet, in a year when nothing has been simple, complicated may be just one of many troublesome words to describe our 2020 experiences. Fun isn’t likely to be at the top of the list either. It has been a hard year, and not least of all because everything has been so different. When we are so used to our regular rhythms that can no longer happen in the ways we are accustomed (e.g. weekly in-person religious services, annual public events, or fundraising campaigns), we are often hesitant to know how to respond. As we enter the last few weeks of 2020 with more pandemic and isolated months ahead, it may be worth reflecting on how we have met the task of rebuilding our organizations and their work while finding ongoing meaning in our mission this year.
Just like stages of grief, I am certain that over this year we have moved through a variety of responses. For many of us, a first natural response was paralysis. With so much change happening so fast and no clear answers, it was easy to do nothing. However, as the months continue on, doing nothing is no longer possible. For a few of us, another response may have been admitting defeat. Perhaps this particular challenge was just too much. Sometimes through no fault of our own, the lifecycle of an institution may reach its end even if the pandemic may have accelerated that timeline. At other times, leaders are simply unable or unwilling to respond to changing contexts.
As another response, sometimes in contrast to doing nothing, we attempt to do everything. Such frenetic activity may have kept us busy, but undoubtedly that has left many of us overwhelmed and burnt out after almost a full year in pandemic mode. Others opted to stay calm and stay the course. Claiming that nothing is really that different, those embodying this response have focused on tweaks (e.g. online giving over in-person offerings or online fundraisers versus in-person galas). They would challenge us not to overthink the amount of change that we are currently experiencing.
All of the above responses are reasonable considering the circumstances, but they may fall short of where we need to focus right now. In building our own Rube Goldberg machine at home, I have realized that I am learning as much from our failures as our successes. Trial and error, experimentation, and learning to see beyond what is directly in front of us has led to whatever small breakthroughs we have experienced. And through the process of tinkering, reimagining, and rebuilding, we have learned just a bit about how our world works. The same may be true as we lead our organizations this next year as well.
Turning to our collective work, what have we learned this year? First, it’s important to name that the organizations with which we work are obviously not Rube Goldberg machines. Congregations, faith-based non-profits, and educational institutions are much more complex than complicated. Our institutions cannot simply respond to this crisis by building a better mousetrap. As we teach in our Lake courses, these are questions of adaptive vs. technical leadership challenges. Yes, tweaks are important but insufficient for the larger challenges that we are now experiencing. Stepping back to consider how the multiple pandemics we are experiencing are affecting the constituencies with which we work is vital. Second, these questions cannot be addressed independent of the communities of which we are a part. Our faith-based institutions are embedded in local, national, and international contexts. We are also addressing not only economic and scientific challenges but also demographic, political, cultural, and theological issues. With all these questions intertwined, how can faith-based organizations provide what’s needed to support and oftentimes rebuild our communities during these days?
Finally, beyond attending to complexity and context, it’s clear that faith-based organizations are exceptionally resilient in the midst of current challenges. That does not mean that they have all the answers, but they are at their core learning organizations. They are willing and able to meet what we are all facing with honesty and adaptability as they seek to make sense of what we are all collectively experiencing.
So, despite my own household’s online learning journey through designing our Rube Goldberg machine this year, perhaps the lesson of 2020 is not relishing how to make simple things complicated. At the end of the day, 2020 is teaching us how to learn from our failures while experimenting with new ideas in the midst of our current challenges. We are learning how the specific questions we face are integrated into the larger questions of our local communities and beyond. And perhaps, we are realizing that we will make it through these current challenges even as we decide we can begin to address the pressing questions that emerge in the regular rhythms of our work. Take heart, my friends, while we face many trials and tribulations at present, our collective hope stands ready to animate our efforts to press on, overcoming present challenges and igniting future forms of community ready to transform the world.
Anne Brock, Program Manager
I traveled with the word trust in 2020. Back in 2017, I started this practice of picking a word for the year. It helps me find some focus throughout the year and gives some framework to the way I notice patterns in my life. However, trust can easily become a platitude – “just trust more,” “trust that it will all work out,” “don’t you trust God?” Used in the wrong way, leaning too hard on trust can be harmful.
I find the same could be said for the ways hope is used, but that’s not the kind of collective hope David referred to. And that’s not the kind of trust I lived out day-to-day this year.
When I originally chose trust I had specific outcomes in mind – I wanted to trust my writing process as I worked on a book proposal. I wanted to trust the unfolding of my life as I ease into the decade of my 40s. I wanted to trust my worth without the need for outside achievements. Those all seemed like good intentions for 2020… until, well, you know.
Here’s the deal: I’m tired. My brain is on overload and I’m worn out. (I was grateful that Brené Brown named what I’d been feeling in her most recent podcast episode.) My high hopes for trust narrowed down quickly, just like my day-to-day routines did starting in March. I set down my book proposal and trusted that occasional blog posts would be sufficient. I let go of forcing new pathways for my life and trusted that this day, this moment is enough. I grieved the cancellation of my 20th half marathon and trusted that running for the sake of it is an achievement in itself.
Just as David encourages us to turn to our collective hope – the hope that acknowledges our desire for change, alongside our weariness – I turned to trust this year. Trust boiled down to its essentials just looked different than I thought it would: trust in my next breath, trust in family support, trust in my ability to adapt.
As 2020 comes to a close, may we all find ways to hope and trust in the midst of the bone-tired weariness, and most importantly, know that we are not alone. That hope and trust truly is collective – we’re all holding it together, which makes it lighter for all of us.
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