This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Shared identity and shared purpose

Two essentials for a healthy organization

Every congregation and organization I’ve consulted with or been part of the last 30 years included individuals and groups with widely differing perspectives on important issues.

Much like in the natural world, a diversity of perspectives appears to be the default setting in our social systems. But while the great majority of these congregations and organizations managed their differences with grace and respect, several were ripped apart by them. Why do these inevitable differences tear some congregations and organizations asunder while others seem to be able to manage them with relative aplomb? Several hypotheses exist to explain this phenomenon.

Adherents of Family Systems Theory and other leadership theories point to the critical role of leaders and their ability to differentiate and maintain a “nonanxious presence.”

There is no question that leaders set the tone for how an organization or congregation deals with conflict and anxiety. But I’ve witnessed several highly skilled and non­anxious organizational leaders swept away in a tidal wave of destructive conflict that overwhelmed even their admirable ability to self-manage.

Communication and Negotiation theories tend to emphasize process and skills more than leadership and encourage individuals to listen effectively and speak respectfully. This emphasis on process and communication skills is essential, as healthy communication increases the likelihood of reaching shared understandings. Yet I’ve known congregations that implemented well-designed collaborative processes (with substantial opportunities for respectful engagement) and still suffered significant losses due to high intensity conflict.

Why are such leadership and communication strategies sometimes inadequate? While both are critical variables, there are many other variables that are beyond leadership’s ability to control or even manage. Many of these variables come from the external environment—particularly from the profoundly polarized culture (at least in the United States) in which organizational and congregational members now live and work.

When some of the members of your congregation or organization watch only Fox News and other members only MSNBC, you are importing polarities into your system that will eventually surface no matter how sophisticated your conflict avoidance strategies.

Leadership strategies
In the face of these powerful external realities, you as a leader fortunately have two formidable strategies at your disposal. The first strategy is to manage yourself well—to interact with others in open and nonanxious ways—and to engage conflict well. Leadership seems to have the greatest impact for good when it proactively deals with conflict when it is still at a manageable stage. Conflict-competent leaders learn to invite disagreement and move toward conflict rather than avoiding it, which keeps conflict manageable. And nonanxious leaders are a gift to any system—especially when they also possess the rare ability to hold themselves and their roles lightly.

The second strategy is to construct a shared sense of identity and purpose that will bind your congregation or organization together as you navigate the shoals of discord in the broader society. A clear sense of identity is expressed primarily through rituals (such as worship in a congregation and ceremonies in an organization) and artifacts (such as mission and values statements). A clear sense of purpose is articulated primarily through verbal reminders from leadership of why our organization or congregation exists and through written vision statements and goals.

Clear identity
As with an adult individual, clarifying its unique identity is a fundamental first step for a healthy organization or congregation. As Richard Rohr says in Falling Upward, “When you get your ‘Who am I?’ question right, all the ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves.” The importance of a clear identity is underscored in Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth—a congregation wracked with internal divisions and immoral behavior by some members. In 1 Corinthians 1:1-10, Paul invokes the name “Jesus” (or “Christ”) 10 times, finishing with an appeal “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ … that there be no divisions among you.” This is more than an appeal for unity—it is also a clarion call for a shared identity in Jesus the Messiah.

Identity is vital not only for internal unity but also for our engagement with others outside our organizations and congregations. As Rohr observes, “None of us can dialogue with others until we can calmly and confidently hold our own identity.” After facilitating hundreds of dialogue processes on multiple issues, I’ve noticed that the critical difference in how people communicate is not related to conservative vs. liberal perspectives but is highly correlated with secure vs. insecure individuals. Those who are calm and confident in their own identity and beliefs tend to communicate with calmness and confidence—regardless of where they stand on any political or theological spectrum. Others with less confidence and more anxiety seem to possess an insatiable need to condemn and convert others.

What is true for individuals also holds true for organizations and congregations. An organization or group that knows who it is and what it stands for is capable of engaging other organizations or groups without fear of being “tainted” and without any need to convert the “other.” Like Jesus (who knew who he was and from where he came), they are able to share who they are in a spirit of trust rather than fear. Congregations and other faith-based organizations with strong identities are thus instinctively ecumenical.

Shared purpose
But while vitally important, a clear and shared identity is not sufficient for organizational effectiveness. Congregations and other organizations must also develop a clear and shared purpose. As with identity, a shared purpose provides a social glue to organizational members. When we work together at a common purpose, we find it more natural and more meaningful to also worship together or learn together.

The purpose-driven-church movement tapped into this intuitive desire to clarify why our congregations and faith-based organizations exist. Most Christian congregations function primarily to worship God, disciple members, fellowship together and carry out mission and service activities. Often congregations will structure themselves according to these core purposes in the healthy conviction that form should follow function. (In other words, that how we structure ourselves should reflect what we’re trying to accomplish in the world.) They will also engage in strategic planning or collective visioning to establish future priorities.

What does it look like when an organization or a congregation possesses a clear and shared purpose? The telltale sign is when any member of the organization can tell you clearly why the organization exists as well as his or her role in carrying out that purpose. An elementary school teacher reports that his job is to prepare the next generation to be educated and thoughtful citizens. The executive director of a faith-based not-for-profit organization tells you that her or ganization exists to eliminate homelessness in her city. If an organizational member can’t tell you—in a sentence or less—why the organization she or he is part of exists, it is likely suffering from an unclear and/or unshared purpose.

Identity and purpose enacted
Organizations and congregations that have a strong, positive and shared sense of identity and purpose tend to attract adherents and financial support. Two examples of these in Anabaptist circles are Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). Both organizations are utterly clear about their identity (Anabaptist Christian) and about their purpose (“disaster response in the United States and Canada” for MDS and “relief, development and peace in the name of Christ” for MCC).

I’ve worked with scores of organizations (including congregations, schools and universities, mission groups, camping/retreat ministries and retirement communities) that became equally clear about who they are and why they exist. Leaders of these organizations and congregations communicate the shared mission, values and vision in a variety of ways—including through speeches and websites—and members understand that they are part of an organization with a clear sense of itself and its calling in the world. As an organization becomes increasingly clear about who it is and why it exists, it’s not unusual for some members to self-select out while others are drawn in. As Jesus’ disciples discovered, once the direction of a group is known, not all those invited to follow are prepared to go the distance.

The cost of failing to clarify identity and purpose, however, is painfully high. When we are part of a congregation or organization that lacks a shared identity and purpose, even the smallest conflicts become a threat to the integrity of the group. Leaders are peppered by desperate cries to “address the issues,” even when the infrastructure is not adequate to support such an encounter. Such an organization is much like a middle-aged couple that loses all sense of connection once their children have grown and left the home. Their previous identity (as parents of young children) and shared purpose (to raise children) now concluded, they find that there is nothing left that holds them together.

Ongoing work
This points to the final reality of the task of clarifying identity and purpose: It never ends. Since every organization is an organic (living) system in a dynamic (ever-changing) environment, leaders must give continual consideration not only to the communication of but also to the ongoing development of their organization’s identity and purpose. Identity and purpose truly have no grandchildren—they must be appropriated (and usually tweaked) by each generation of organizational members.

The antidote to destructive conflict in our congregations and organizations is therefore not simply communication skills training or leadership development. It is, rather, a commitment to strengthen our shared identity (as 21st-century followers of Jesus in the Anabaptist tradition) and our shared purpose (which will vary from organization to organization). We resist the virus of destructive conflict not by directly attacking the virus but by preventive efforts and by strengthening the organism.

Preventing destructive, high-intensity conflict starts with leaders who move toward conflict when it is small and apply appropriate processes and skills. But strengthening the organism occurs when leaders work collaboratively to establish a shared identity and shared purpose for the organization or congregation. For leaders, these two commitments are our greatest personal and institutional assets when assaulted by the viruses of societal discord and polarization.

David Brubaker
David Brubaker

David Brubaker, associate professor of organizational studies at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va.

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