by Fr. Joel Weir, Priest, St. Stephen the First Martyr Orthodox Church, Crawfordsville, Indiana
A Reflection on Adaptive Leadership as Practiced in a Midwestern Orthodox Parish
One of the biggest challenges in the past few years of my life as pastor at St. Stephens has been the planning, deliberation, discernment involved in addressing our need for more space. It was a great gift to be in the Wabash Pastoral Leadership Program in the midst of the most critical stages of this process. I recall how my LABB Project, which began as a plan for more neighborhood outreach via outdoor community nights and more gatherings outside the usual worship space quickly dovetailed with the question of our new space. I was able to bring to the strategic planning committee a perspective that shifted the focus from just ‘what do we need to serve/maintain our own parish community’s needs’ to ‘how can we be a benefit to our greater community?’.
The good thing is that I ran into very little resistance on this, and, in fact, it was this kind of vision that many in my parish already share. The challenge was and is how to realize this vision in a way that is authentic to who we are but also truly generous and ‘listening’ to the needs of our greater community. My time in WPLP gave me some good strategies of assessing what our real assets are with questions like: What is at the heart of what we do really well? What do visitors say they notice about our parish community? What ministries are already happening among our parishioners but also in our neighborhood that we can help encourage and mutually support? Again, these were all things already in the hearts and minds of many of us, but the deep study of Adaptive Leadership, especially fleshed out in the kind of specific discussions in my LABB Group and breakout sessions gave language and clarity to the process for me.
Late in 2018 our parish took the big step of purchasing a property across the street from our current building. The availability of the property was unexpected. As we found out more, and even learned the story of the family trying to sell it (it was a family home being maintained by the kids after the passing of the father and the mother moving to assisted living. The father and mother had come to Christ in that home, and hosted many Bible studies. At the closing the mother said that the father would be so pleased that a Church was buying the home) it became clear that this was the answer to our prayers and patience. Knowing the history of the home also gave us another part of our story to tell and to remind us of our responsibility to be good neighbors.
The challenges did not stop at the purchase of the property. This may be the moment when I drew upon (and am still drawing upon) concepts like the “Balcony View” and building partnerships/alliances as described in the Heifetz Adaptive Leadership model the most. A conflict arose around expectations/timeline of use of the new building. Specifically a lead Church School teacher felt his concerns over having classes across the street were not fully heard before we purchased the property. Several others were impatient with the fact that we were not moving faster to having fellowship hour at the new building. Another reacted to this pointing out that we had never voted to specifically use it for fellowship right away, and that if we were not going to use it for classrooms he thought we should just sell it and forget about the whole thing. In the midst of the conflict many were wanting me to listen to their concerns. I listened intently, affirming the desire that all had, on every side of this, was the good, responsible use of the new property.
In my times of reflection, I considered the ‘balcony view’. I considered the fact that some of the conflicts were not just about the property but had a history. I considered how there would have to be compromise on all sides but it would take a creative, adaptive response to make all sides feel like they were heard but also had real buy in still to the vision we had together as a parish when we agreed unanimously to buy the property. It would have been very easy to react, to go back to the minutes of what we had agreed and point out the black and white of what we agreed to as a parish. But I realized that would not be adaptive to the real concerns expressed. I knew that we needed a path forward, but I resisted the need to provide a ‘fix’. I also knew that I needed to reflect and have patience, as hard as that is.
I was mowing one Saturday. I knew the next day I was going to face a potentially heated meeting between Church School teachers and the Building Committee. A way forward came to me that was, in some ways, radical, in that it shifted the time of our Sunday service so that the Church School could meet before, but also opened up other avenues for creative use of the building I hadn’t thought of before. I ran inside and wrote the idea down quickly. Later I emailed the concerned parties for consideration. One thing I noticed in myself immediately was that I was excited again about the vision for the property. When the different sides considered this new idea there was consensus with the compromise. But also, others began to see some new benefits – I saw excitement again about the use of this new property. I began to see others talking about the vision again rather than the details. Of course, we needed to address the details, but a technical solution alone would not suffice in the long run.
The next big step will be this fall when we begin use of the new building for classes and events. No doubt new challenges and conflicts will arise, but I am sincerely grateful for the extra tools I have in my belt thanks to the WPLP, not to mention the colleagues I can call when I need a perspective outside of my own.