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Leading Change – Envisioning the Future as a Destination

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)

In the ninth century a group of ascetics began to inhabit an area in Greece that was later to be called the meteora meaning “middle of the sky” or “suspended in the air”. Eventually, 20 monasteries were built on limestone pillars on the northwestern edge of the Plains of Thessaly. Someone at some point in time envisioned a monastery or monasteries on the top of these pillars. A dream became a plan. A plan became a reality.

It is a priest’s duty to dream – to envision a future for his parish. If blessed with a theological education, the recipient of seminary training and gifted with the sacrament of ordination he does not see where, how, when and what the parish is to become, who will envision this? Yet for many, this essential skill does not come naturally. For others, overwhelmed by the day to day demands of the priestly task, there seems to be no time. Still others, in severely understaffed parishes, find much of their time is spent in office and administration managerial duties. Who has time to dream?

There are other obstacles to envisioning. Entire Orthodox national populations assume that the primary and only duty of present day Orthodoxy is to preserve the faith through eucharistic or liturgical piety, conveniently forgetting that baptismal piety or preaching the gospel to unbelievers was equally important for centuries.

Still others believe that just as Anglicanism is the faith of the English and Lutheranism is the faith of most Germans and Catholicism is the faith of the Italians, then Orthodoxy was given, not to the world in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, but to particular nations. These assumption and values are carried right into Orthodox parishes in the west.

Envisioning also likely includes innovation – not an Orthodox-friendly word. Combine this with the natural resistance of most people to truly meaningful change and we find ample reasons why it’s safer to just maintain. Yet in an ever more secularizing culture is this wise? Every priest considers his prophetic calling to be a change agent in parishioners’ lives. Shouldn’t there also be consideration of serving as a change agent of the entire parish? – to see the community as an organic whole thus allowing the priest to work not just “in” a parish but also “on” a parish.

In a recent Harvard Business Review blog, Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter said “a clear destination is necessary to guide the journey of change. Many change efforts falter because of confusion over exactly where everyone is expected to arrive.” She goes on to introduce things that effective leaders of change must do. These include envisioning the future and the results of engendering change.

Before listing these, however, an important caveat must be noted as regards Orthodox parish or organizational leadership and envisioning. All envisioning must be based upon the mission of the church in general and the contextualization of that mission in the specific parish or organization.

So reflect upon the parish as it may appear 3-5 years from now. What needs to change and what steps are necessary to implement the change? Consider all aspects of parish life. Then develop a compelling case for change and as eloquently as possible articulate how the parish or community would benefit from these changes. This often receives community approbation through a comprehensive and inclusive strategic planning process.

Here are Professor Kanter’s suggestions. Many are well-known cliches but useful nevertheless when considering organizational change:

  • It’s important to keep the steps simple and easy to understand. Otherwise, people can feel paralyzed and nothing gets done.

  • Realize that change is a threat when done to us but an opportunity when done by us. Resistance is always greatest when change is inflicted on people without their involvement, making the change effort feel oppressive or constraining. If it is possible to tie change to things people already want, and give them a chance to act on their own goals and aspirations, then it is met with more enthusiasm and commitment.

  • “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.” Big goals can seem overwhelming. The magnitude of the problem, the difficulty of the solutions, the length of the time horizon, and the number of action items can make change feel so complex that people feel paralyzed, and nothing happens. Do something, get started, take the first steps however small they seem, and the journey is underway.

  • A clear destination is necessary to guide the journey of change. Many change efforts falter because of confusion over exactly where everyone is expected to arrive. Zoom in on the destination on your mental map, and then zoom out to pick the best path.

  • “Change is a campaign, not a decision.” How many people make vows to improve their diet and exercise, then feel so good about the decision that they reward themselves with ice cream and sit down to read a book? To change behavior requires a campaign, with constant communication, tools and materials, milestones, reminders, and rewards.

  • “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Baseball legend Yogi Berra was known for oddball sayings that contain gems. There is an aspect of change that involves trial and error. Fear of mistakes can sometimes leave paths unexplored. It’s important to seize unexpected opportunities. Some sidelines are dead ends, but others might prove to be faster routes to the goals.

  • “Everything can look like a failure in the middle.” There are numerous roadblocks, obstacles, and surprises on the journey to change, and each one tempts us to give up. Give up prematurely, and the change effort is automatically a failure. Find a way around the obstacles, perhaps by making some tweaks in the plan, and keep going. Persistence and perseverance are essential to successful innovation and change.

  • “Be the change you seek to make in the world.” Leaders must embody the values and principles they want other people to adopt.


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