Many years ago, a group of my colleagues and I read together Alan Deutschman’s Change or Die. The dramatic title belies the simplicity of his key message—shifting one’s mindset and adopting a positive frame, believing that change is possible, can allow us to undertake that change, even when it seems nearly impossible.
Deutschman makes the case that this is true for both individuals and organizations. In face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all been confronted with this kind of high-stakes change. Across the last 18 months, organizations and leaders have paused, waited, adapted, innovated, and reimagined the way that their missions can be achieved.
These activities are what enable an organization, made up of people, to learn and move ahead into an unknown future. There’s no going back on this change—even if we do survive it, the scale of disruption is so great that the former context no longer exists. Sustainability is only found through forward motion.
A learning culture
An organization with good learning habits will enjoy a distinct advantage in sustainability. When we are willing to cultivate internal practices of growth, development, and shared knowledge, the work itself will be inherently easier to sustain, and our external relationships will generate support that also contributes to sustainability.
This learning orientation can be described in various ways, but some key aspects are an open culture with a shared vision for the work, ongoing habits of feedback and assessment, an encouragement of individual mastery and expertise, adoption of accepted best practices, and a willingness to experiment and take risks.
These elements of a learning culture in organizations build strength that allows for the kind of change that Alan Deutschman described … framed constructively, oriented toward the future, generative because we believe in what we can accomplish individually and collectively. This is a fertile ground for sustainability.
Keys to sustainability
There are two particular aspects of sustainability in a religious context that merit further consideration here, because of the influence they have on the practical experiences of religious leaders, and their complexity in our organizations’ learning practices. The first of these is the work of development, and the second is evaluation.
Development sometimes means “developing resources,” a politely obscure euphemism for “raising money.” However, development can also be understood more holistically, to be about the development of relationships, of mission, of partnerships, of resources that include but can also extend beyond financial investments.
I like the action verb: to develop—a friendship, a partnership, or a collaboration—as it can be profoundly creative and generative for any organization, and when it is done in the context of shared religious commitment, it also points to the ongoing nature of this work.
Development doesn’t end. As a good Wesleyan, I am compelled to remember that one never quite arrives at perfection, but must always remain on the journey. Our religious traditions give us powerful lessons in change and development, aimed at spiritual sustainability.
By contrast, evaluation can seem like a small technical element of sustainability, just a single step in any organization’s programmatic or operational process. We plan, we execute those plans, and then we evaluate how we’ve done. This makes evaluation easy to leave underdeveloped, a task to check off a to-do list rather than a holistic and ongoing practice.
However, those interested in constructive change and a future orientation, people leading what we might call learning organizations must cultivate robust and integrated ways of assessing what we’re learning, doing, and sharing with others.
It is no accident that we use an expansive vocabulary to describe the work of sustaining religious organizations and their activity, including the practices of development and evaluation. I regularly describe this organizational work in terms of economic model, theology of money, fundraising, stewardship, generosity, or mission advancement.
That just scratches the surface, because so much of religious institutional life is bound up in change management, effective leadership, or the expression of collective values. In fact, we are in the process of developing a specialized glossary for the work that we engage at Lake Institute, because we believe that language, the way we talk about what we do, is so important.
Language can frame our action, and it can create opportunities for a deepening curiosity. In Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline, he talks about learning organizations as places “where people are continually learning how to learn together.”
It is this creative collective engagement that will enable the kind of change that Deutschman advocates in his model, and developing our vocabulary, flexing our learning muscles, will give us tools to sustain the work into the future.
Melissa Spas is managing director of education and engagement at Lake Institute on Faith & Giving.