Who We Are vs. How We Do Things

I was reading the other day about the characteristics of companies that are long-lived (over at Elizabeth Drescher's blog, here), which Dr. Drescher suggests could be helpful to consider in the church and seminaries/future of theological education debate.  I began thinking about churches and change and also families and change.  This paragraph in particular stood out to me:

Tolerance and decentralization - Given a strong sense of shared identity, sustainable organizations have much greater tolerance for risk-taking, integrating the perspectives of those on the margins, of outliers, and experimenters without a great need for centralized control.  This characteristic allows them to adapt to change on an ongoing basis, constantly reshaping and expanding their boundaries and avoiding panicked responses to new events.

Change is scary and risk-taking is something we often think of negatively.  (What if it doesn't work out?  Then you, the person who wanted to take the risk, will have to go to the woodshed.)  And yet change is not only inevitable, it is life-giving.  Often, it is embracing change that (sometimes finally) allows us to flourish instead of being stuck and kicking against the goads.  

The key I think is the "strong sense of shared identity."  Who We Are is different from How We Do Things.  Sure, how we do things expresses who we are.  But our core selves, our core identity is not put in jeopardy when "how we do things" changes.  

In family therapy, one often looks at the history of how the family does things.  Sometimes children (at any stage in life) feel, as they begin to be conscious of how the family does things, that they are faced with a dilemma:  If they want to be different (say, not an alcoholic; or an artist instead going into the family business), they have to break connection with the family to do so.  Because the family will be threatened by a member who does not behave - do things - in the prescribed manner of the family and will pressure the person who wants to be different into the margins or out of the family altogether.  The different person will become the black sheep, an outlier, or a persona non grata - sometimes just because they have a different sense of how they want to live their lives.

This is true in churches as well.  The church can become rigid about how it does things and send out the message that anyone with a different idea really needs to go to another church where they already do things differently.  Because the fear is that the church's identity is being threatened by a suggestion of doing things differently.  "That's not how we do it here," along with "that's the way we've always done it," are sometimes called The Seven Last Words of the Church.

This is a delicate dance.  I love tradition and traditions and like many people find comfort and joy in knowing that I am participating something that generations of people have done before me.  And yet, if we can allow there to be different expressions of the core tradition, the church, the one family, we are all enriched.  We can do things differently but still be a family.  We can be children of God but enjoy different kinds of worship experiences, find different expressions of mission and ministry, dress differently, hold differing opinions about all sorts of things and stay connected and part of something bigger and deeper.  This makes the family, or church, or other organization stronger if it can find a way to accept and embrace change - to be able to adapt to change on an ongoing basis, as the article says - instead of spending all its energy defending perceived challenges to "how we do things" as if changing how we do things threatens its very existence.

So it seems to me that we first need to know that our core identity is not fundamentally expressed in "how we do things" - at least not all things - because in truth how we do things always changes, even if we won't admit it.  We have to find ways to make room for new ways of being, which often only comes after a disaster and we have to change or die.  

During Lent, I am aware that there are changes I personally need to make and embrace - changes in how I do things - and pray for the wisdom to see that those changes will make me more of who I am, not less.


Jim Liberatore said…
Thank you. I encourage you to look at Seth Godin's "Poke the Box." Creativity cannot exist without not only the possibility of failure but the embrace of failure. If Genesis is correct(and I believe it is,) the first thing we learn about God is that God is a creator. The second thing we learn is that that is our identity, too. The third thing we learn is that it did not work out as planned. God reworks his plan in response. We can rework ours. Parable of the Talents: Use it or Lose it. Failure trumps not trying.
Thanks for your comment, Jim - the relationship/continuum between and among possibility, creativity, risk taking, failure, and growth is always fascinating to me.
June Butler said…
Will someone send the words in italics to the Archbishop of Canterbury? Indeed, I'd like for all the bishops in the Anglican Communion to read the words.

Jim, I like what you say, too.
Perpetua said…
Amen to that, Penny. I so agree. Having worked with small rural churches in the UK struggling to hold on to the past and yet forced by circumstance to change or die, I know how hard it can be to get the balance right.
Mimi - yes, this is certainly applicable to the "unpleasantness" in the Communion. How we do things is, at least from some quarters, being confused with who we are. Followers of Christ is who we are. How we do that may look different in different times and places.

Perpetua, it is sad, too, to come to that "change or die" place. Would that we could be able to see risk-taking and change as part of who we are as creative beings/creative bodies instead of as the last resort forced upon us.