July 2014
Leading Change

No Saints, No Heros, No Martyrs

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aquí.

It was Lent 2013; Robert’s Rules of Order had worked its penitential magic. A three-hour meeting had been reduced to three arguing voices (mine included). The quiet ones stared at the floor wishing they were home doing their taxes or cleaning their gutters. At the end of the meeting I feared that I was seeing some of their faces for the last time. The quiet were ready to quit the parish council (“vestry” in the States), leave the church, retreat in anger. I ran to the parking lot to intercept the exodus. I promised, in my most authoritative clerical voice, “It is not going to happen again!” They could read my begging subtext: “Don’t leave!” I am sure that they also knew that I was not fully confident that I could fulfill my promise. They had seen many meetings like this one. They had seen five incumbents (rectors) in five years; change was elusive.

But change can happen: At our last council meeting, in Easter 2014, we met for six hours and left feeling energized. The council (we want the council - not the clergy – to speak for the congregation) had crafted a letter to the bishop that read in part: “You will have picked up our enthusiasm. We have experienced a sense of the Holy Spirit working through us and with us, and the experience has left us personally exhilarated.” Ours is a congregation that is more Canadian than charismatic in temperament; in what ways has the Holy Spirit worked through us?

In 2010 the Parish of the Penders and Saturna Islands had three congregations on three small islands. The largest island, North Pender, has a year-round population of about 2,500; the smallest, Saturna about 350. Our parish, now about 45 families, has been in obvious decline for over ten years. Decline created anxieties that played out, mostly in the North Pender congregation, in conflicts over liturgy, financial control, and clergy. At one point the wardens and council asked the bishop to remove the incumbent. Her successor was let go after six months because of budgetary problems. Four years ago I was asked to serve as supply for the summer. By then the parish leaders, many of who were in their late 70s and 80s, were tired. The congregation on South Pender, exhausted, volunteered to attend the services on North Pender and close their beloved chapel. Reluctantly our parish leadership agreed if the parish was to survive there had to be change. Acceptance of the need to change did not make the older leaders any less anxious.

For three years we had been feeling our way through a transition. We had held retreats and cottage meetings. We had already read about affirmative inquiry, communities of practice and parish renewal. The catastrophic meeting of Lent 2013 became a catalyst for the change. We needed to put into play the things that we had already discovered:

  1. Collective Leadership can work well: We seek to fashion every area of activity, including the parish council, as teams that are loosely modeled as “Communities of Practice.” (Well summarized in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge Archive, “Cultivating Communities of Practice.”). We use teams, not wardens or executive style clergy. We have adopted a few phrases that capture our approach to parish management: a) No heroes, no saints, no martyrs; b) If it is not fun, quit; and c) If you can’t find someone to work with you, quit. We call our teams “tag teams” because leadership can jump in / jump out depending on the situation or personal schedules.
  2. Appreciative Inquiry / with organizational journaling: We have not focused on parish history or tried to fix the many shortcomings of the parish. Rather, we have tried to identify those things that are working well. We keep a running internal commentary. First it was through e-mail, now we have a blog. We write commentary on our services, and on our events. We have found at council that we need two types of minutes: one, the typical minutes necessary to record official actions; the second, a narrative of the essence of the generative aspects of our conversation. Journaling allows us to identify what is working and is a mechanism for incorporating insight into our practices.
  3. Governance as Leadership Model - Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards: Using materials from Centre Point in Calgary, an organization that advances nonprofit board management, we have paid attention to our need for “generative conversation” or what they call “board thinking leading to organizational robustness – sense making.” Before any parish council meeting several council members get together to ask, “What is the question here?” or “What is truly important?” and design an agenda that makes sure that there is quality time to address the generative issues. We have yet to have a name for what could be called a steering committee or generative team, in the course of council deliberations the identification of the team membership emerges naturally.
  4. Talking Stick: We had used the talking stick in retreats as a tool to listen to each other’s stories now the talking stick replaced Robert’s Rules whenever the conversation gets hot or we need to dig deeper.
    If I were washed up on a desert island and could pick only one of the four factors listed above I would pick the talking stick. I was skeptical about the stick - I just went along with the practice at first; now I am a believer - I am ready to proclaim the talking stick process a holy sacrament. A talking stick circle turns debate into dialogue and dialogue into discernment. The talking stick engages wisdom, knowledge, and experience already resident in our congregation. First there is the quiet as everyone sits, then, as necessary the process is described and a question asked. If you hold the stick you are licensed to speak without interruption. When you are finished you either pass the stick to the person next to you or put the stick on a center table so another can use it when moved by the Spirit. The following speakers speak to the question rather than argue with the previous speakers. The quieter folk will find their voice. In general participants are attentive and calm. If one person excitedly interrupts, another will emerge as a keeper of the circle to encourage us to have patience with the process.
    The talking stick process is egalitarian, safe, and fair. As Judy, a council member says, “the talking stick not only enables each to speak their ideas but, with the silence of everyone else, it adds the feeling of worthiness and respect to the speaker, in that each of the others are listening constructively.” As we are a small congregation we have even begun to use the talking stick liturgically combining the talking stick with Lectio Divina.

Traditionally Anglican/Episcopal churches have relied on heroic leadership. Heroic priests, heroic wardens, heroic volunteers. We have tried to manage by exhortation and moral suasion. As parishes get smaller the heroes, lay and ordained, become exhausted and defensive. Our congregations become discouraged; our communities sour. Parishes with part-time or no clerical leadership create frightful burdens on wardens.

A collective leadership model discourages heroism. A community, by using the talking stick and by focusing on generative issues, becomes engaged in discernment. Such engagement is energizing and spirit filled.

Try This: Are their voices in your congregation that may be silenced because they never get the opportunity to speak? If you find that certain voices dominate every discussion, adopting the practice of using the talking stick (or rock or other object easily seen and held) will make space for others to add their voices to the conversation or discussion. About the authors: This article, although written in the first person is a collaborative effort. The document has been vetted by the parish council, listed here are members of what we call the Generative Team: Chas Belknap is a priest from Los Angeles, retired to Salt Spring Island in British Columbia and serves part time at the Parish of Pender and Saturna Islands. He fancies himself a community organizer. Jane Morley is a lawyer/mediator with a background with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada. Judith Rees Thomas has an MDiv, a background with the United Church, and is a spiritual director. Michael Butler, a member of both our Anglican church and a United Church parish in Vancouver, is a lawyer and was involved at many levels with the Canadian Federal Government. You can find more information about The Parish of Pender and Saturna Islands by checking out PenderandSaturna.org. We are drafting a Parish Operation Manual and invite the reader to make suggestions and contributions.


This article is part of the July 2014 Vestry Papers issue on Leading Change