It all started with a sign.
One year after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, located only a few miles away, found itself at an intersection. At the invitation of the congregation’s leaders, one of us was asked to guide them through a strategic visioning process. Through that process, the congregation identified three core values: community, welcome and diversity. Facing a racially-divided city and a volatile national conversation on issues of race and justice, Holy Communion could not help feeling that these core values were pushing against each other, if not altogether incompatible.
This realization came in the form of a literal sign — or rather, a debate about signs. A racially diverse congregation (40 percent black, 50 percent white and 10 percent mixed or other ethnicity), the vestry was divided on whether or not to put a Black Lives Matter sign on the front of the church property. The white vestry members were largely in favor, indicating that they felt doing so reflected the desire of Holy Communion to be in solidarity with an important contemporary movement. However, the African-American members were largely opposed and expressed discomfort with the cultural implications of the sign, citing concern that it might contradict some of the congregation’s values — specifically, that of welcome.
The path forward for Holy Communion on this issue involved collective discernment of their community’s “why.” This “why” became critical to how they celebrated the story of their community and spoke about what God has done in their midst. This “why” reflected the community’s animating core values, which inform their understanding of God’s distinctive call about how to organize their common life together and explain their mission in and to the world. For Holy Communion, understanding and articulating this “why” enabled them to exercise a renewed organizational imagination.
The exercise of this form of practical wisdom cultivates the conditions for formation of people of faith by gestating new forms of communal life and enabling the community to release longstanding ways of ordering their common life. Although necessarily informed by the creaturely patterns of organized, religious life – from budgets to email to meeting notes – an eschatological horizon simultaneously folds back upon communities of faith and invites the ordering of a common life accordingly. The cultivation and exercise of this form of Christian discipleship may lead to a more hope-filled way of being in organizations and communities even as it invites the freedom to imagine new ways of organizing a common life.
Accordingly, as the leadership of Holy Communion identified these values, they wrestled with the question of whether this sign would either help them live into their values or create distance from them. It was in that wrestling that they were moved, not to compromise, but to a unique expression of their own values. This took the form of them making their own signs, which read: “We will remember Michael Brown.” Their rector, Mike Angell, noted, “We wanted these signs because they were simply true.” This wrestling simultaneously stretched and invigorated the congregation’s organizational imagination, enabling them to birth new ways of being into life, as well as giving them the courage to grieve and celebrate what needed to pass away in this process.
In Holy Communion’s story, we see two expressions of organizational imagination, which we are calling the interrelated practices of organizational hospice care and midwifery. In the face of a rapidly changing culture and organizational context, we believe that renewed attention to organizational imagination and these two practices is needed to develop faith-filled ways of cultivating new organizational life and attending to respectful organizational death as part of the vocation of Christian discipleship. As liturgical and ecclesial beings for whom participation in organized communities of faith orients us properly in relation to one another and to the Triune God, the imagination that informs how we organize our common life invariably reflects the mortality and new life that is intrinsic to Christian faith and liturgy. Although these twin practices of organized religious life have historically either been underexplored or considered separately, we believe that renewed reflection on their interrelationship and the resources that sustain this form of practical wisdom can offer resources to sustain and renew faith-filled of organizing a common life.
Organizational hospice care
In their book “Hospice Ethics: Policy and Practice in Palliative Care,” Timothy Kirk and Bruce Jennings provide an orientation to the vocation of hospice care. They write that hospice care is characterized by a holistic and interdisciplinary framework that attends to “the dying person in relationship with family and others; and marked by the values of relief from suffering.” It expresses a “commitment to presence and nonabandonment, and quality of the life lived in and through the dying person.”
At Holy Communion in particular and faith communities in general, faithfully asking “What is God calling this organization to be/do?” must involve considering how to face mortality and die well as those beloved by God. The same goes for aspects of organizational life. The practical wisdom necessary to organize a common life requires a form of organizational hospice caregiving because it involves attending to ministries that may be deathly ill. The erosion of social legitimacy and the unsustainability of many organizations create the conditions that allow the painful perseverance of ministries, even when they have passed far beyond the state of repair.
For many, the death of these cherished institutions and ministries feels like standing in the surf with our feet in the sand – only that with each wave, the ground beneath is not refreshed by the lapping water, but, rather, becomes more arid and dry. The communities we serve, the institutions in which we participate and the churches where we were baptized, married and hope to be buried — the very way of life engendered by these places and shared relationships feels threatened. In such cases, the exercise of organizational imagination requires tending to our communities in a way similar to hospice care by easing the pain of loss, comforting individuals while they grieve and facilitating the respectful passing of certain forms of organized religious life.
For Christians and Christian communities, the form of practical wisdom required to exercise hospice care can be found at the center of the Christian tradition. From the earliest Christian witness of providing care for the dead and the dying (such as the women who followed Jesus in Luke 23-24), Christian thought and practice have informed the respectful care of the terminally ill. For communities of faith, cultivating the vocation of organizational hospice caregiving does not emerge from organizational necessity, but from the collective witness of the Christian tradition.
When exercised in the care of “sickly” or “dying” religious organizations and programs, organizational hospice caregiving requires the sobriety that comes from recognizing the inescapability of death in our individual and collective experience. Life in human organizations requires facing the very fragility of the organizations that we receive, which, of course, are also marked by the fragility of the human condition. The conclusion of a program, the departure of beloved leadership, the loss of social prominence, the decrease of funding, even the closing of an entire congregation or organization — these and many others represent the inescapable experience of organizational death. Because death is undeniable, the individual and collective ordering of a common life requires the virtues needed to extend hospice care.
Pastors, college presidents, deans, provosts, nonprofit leaders, lay leaders and others all may support this form of care by creating space to celebrate the contributions of an organization or program, naming the losses they are experiencing and narrating the death of a given organization or program in light of the reconciliation of all things. Although the particular practice of hospice care may vary across a given community, every participant – from those in formal leadership roles to the newest members – is able to contribute to this exercise of organizational imagination and offer care for the beloved aspects of a community.
At the same time, the history of Christian witness may be understood as the ongoing reverberations of the proclamation of Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Precisely in this moment of decisive social, ecclesial and organizational transitions, the exercise of organizational imagination also invites the practice of organizational midwifery. Doing so invites individuals and communities to seek to understand the new ways of being that the Spirit is birthing in our midst, as well as help communities to faithfully receive the gifts that have been given to them.
The word “midwife” literally means being with a mother at childbirth. Reflecting a long history of training and practice, midwives support labor and delivery in a variety of settings (homes, hospitals, etc.) by working collaboratively with mothers and a care team to support the delivery and postpartum care of mothers and their children. In many cases, the vocation of a midwife is ordered by a commitment to deep collaboration with a birthmother, both regular and clear communication and a shared goal of bringing new life into the world.
For religious leaders, organizational midwifery begins by focusing on the abundant possibilities of life in relation to a creative God. Despite the perceived scarcity that characterizes many communities of faith, organizational imagination invites a form of hope that looks for the emergence of new ways of being in relation to another, our neighbors and the Triune God. Sanguine, yet not naïve, the organizational midwife wisely attends to the new things that others – namely the Spirit –
are bringing into being and cultivates their signs of life when they emerge.
At Holy Communion and elsewhere, there certainly may be signs of “labor” within communities: the uncommon emergence of like-minds, pressing questions from the community or the subtle movements of the Spirit. While organizational “labor” frequently includes the experience of pain, as the collective body changes and grows, nurturing this process may include attending to discomfort, adapting necessary organizational infrastructure, naming and cultivating participatory hope, galvanizing a shared vision around a shared purpose, resourcing new and emerging ministries and creating the conditions in which individuals may meaningfully encounter and connect with one another. In all, the practice of organizational midwifery creates spaces for new life to emerge, learning to attend to the subterranean movements within a community and following a deliberate and patient process of collective discernment.
Ultimately, the outcome of organizational midwifery involves bringing a new form of religious life into existence. For Holy Communion, the practice of organizational midwifery led to the creation of their own sign and new programs that more closely aligned with their core values. Yet, like the birth of a child, the creation of something new brings with it the introduction of previously unforeseen challenges and opportunities. The “new life” of a community of faith or program contains within it a dynamic possibility that cannot always be controlled or calculated — the very humanness of these communities conveys upon them the capability to do good and unleash pain and harm. As with anything, these new ways of being in community cannot escape human fallibility and sinfulness.
For religious leaders and communities, the task of organizational midwifery requires helping individuals in our communities come to recognize their interconnected existence, creating the conditions in which individuals and ideas may encounter one another and tenderly nurturing along the remarkable, vulnerable and creative process whereby the Spirit brings new life into a community enlivened by God’s (re)creative way of being.
A dual exercise, a united movement
For communities in transition, organizational imagination is required to order a common life because it attends to the individual and collective practical wisdom that informs the formation of people of faith. The story from Holy Communion displays an organizational imagination that pursues the dual exercise of organizational hospice care and midwifery in a diverse community of faith. Rather than responding unhelpfully to an uncertain context and disagreement within their community, Holy Communion leaned into the question, “Who are we as a congregation and where do we want to go?” and began to identify and make decisions out of their unique “why.”
The cultivation and exercise of organizational imagination cannot, of necessity, be separated from the individual and collective imagination that informs the organization of a common life. Those in positions of religious leadership may frequently express this form of imagination, but it also cannot be removed from the practices and collective imagination of the larger community of faith. When taken together, pastoral, collective and organizational imagination remain inseparably joined and symbiotic on the others.
As expressions of organizational imagination, the practice of organizational hospice caregiving and midwifery emerges through embodied encounter and listening rooted in a rich history of spirituality and ordered by God’s eschatological promise. Rather than two competing practices that communities and religious leaders must choose between, organizational hospice caregiving and midwifery represent a united movement that orders a common life in relation to an ever-creative God. When taken together, these practices can inform the renewal and faithful expression of organizational imagination as communities discern how God is calling — and then respond faithfully.
Dustin D. Benac is a doctor of theology candidate at Duke Divinity School. His research and writing explores the intersection of theology and organizational theory as it pertains to religious organizations and institutional leadership. You can find him on Twitter at @dustindbenac. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Erin Weber-Johnson works with faith-based organizations in areas of fundraising/stewardship and strategic visioning as a consultant at Vandersall Collective. She is co-founder of the Collective Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to address the gap in giving data for faith communities of color. Previously, she worked nine years the Episcopal Church Foundation as senior program director for strategic resources and client services. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.