Thursday, April 17, 2008

Institutional Problems, Personal Solutions

Dysfunction in the context of a religious community is one of my areas of research interest. As an Orthodox Christian who is also a social scientist, I am more than a little distressed at the lack of good research that examines how as a community the Orthodox Church responds to the different kinds of trauma that can happen in a parish or diocese. Absent this research, we might find ourselves, for example, at a loss as to how to respond pastorally to the unexpected death of a child in the parish, or some kind of misconduct on the part of a trusted lay or clerical leaders, or any of a myriad other more or less predictable events.

Recently Emory University's business school published an interesting article entitled "When Supporting Employees Enhances a Company's Competitive Advantage" on their blog Knowledge@Emory. The article summarizes the contribution on this issue made by panelists during the fourth annual Atlanta Competitive Advantage Conference (ACAC) held at Emory University's Goizueta Business School.

One comment that stood out for me was that made by Margaret Cording, assistant professor of management, Jones Graduate School of Management, Rice University. She said that during times of change, employees actually "go out there looking for signs of fair treatment" by those in management. In other words, as Cording and her co-author D. Brent Smith, associate professor at the London Business School, argued during times of key change, a firm's performance is increased when the firm demonstrates fairness and care for the employees' emotional well being. According to the article, Goizueta's Russell Coff argues that "the link between employee satisfaction and performance indicates . . . that a problem at the macro level might best be solved at the micro level."

What does this mean for the life of the local parish in times of transition?

In simple terms it means that the resources of the parish, and by extension the diocese, need to be intentionally at the service of the good of individual parishioners and clergy. Monica Worline, assistant professor of organization and management at Goizueta Business School, in her paper, "Organizing Resilience by Cultivating Resources: A Practice Perspective," argued that five practices:

  • Orienting
  • Acknowledging
  • Playing
  • Helping
  • Acting with Compassion

were important in the cultivation of personal and share resources—knowledge, positive emotion and high quality connection—that were important in foster resilience in response to the stress associated with change. As the article notes that in the hospital billing unit that the study examined there was a

tendency to "celebrate everything," she says. "From most manager's perspectives, 'playing' is a waste of time. But doing fun things, [the billing department] cultivated this positive emotion, this ability to tackle challenges. And that helped them adapt at a collective level." Additionally, when one employee faced a personal financial crisis, fellow employees left an envelope with cash on her desk. "These things go on all the time [in the unit]," says Worline. The practice of "noticing suffering," adds Worline, cultivates relational knowledge and attention—resources that also help employees be more adept in their work.

Looking at the list, I wonder how these might be applied to a parish in transition?

In my ministry I have found that the last two practices, "helping," and "acting with compassion" are not effective and rarely raise above the level of the sentimental apart from the first two practices, "orienting" and "acknowledging." Pastorally this means making clear not simply the ultimate goal of the parish (the Kingdom of God) but also the more proximate and immediate goals of the community. These goals, even if they are rather prosaic, are important as steps along the way to the Kingdom of God.

Often we fail to realize that while these proximate and immediately goals are secondary and contingent, they are still important. There importance comes not only from the fact that they are steps along the way, but because the make concrete in our everyday experience our own journey to the Kingdom of God. Our experience of the Kingdom cannot be divorced from our daily experience. Why? Because while we are not "of this world," we are certainly "in this world" and this cannot be forgotten. This, or so it seems to me, is one major themes of the Epistle of St James, faith and works are not divorced (2.13-26).

But being right practical and eschatological orientation is not sufficient.

To be continued…

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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