As I watched the election results roll in on Tuesday night and the responses of the various commentators, it became apparent that many of the Republican leaders and spokesmen (e.g. Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and George Will) were flummoxed by the results that conflicted with their predictions, even as the numbers confirmed the president’s re-election.  In contrast,  the predictions using Nate Silver’s political calculus (published at http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/) were incredibly accurate.  Political pundits have been pointing out how the “bubble” that the Republican leadership has been in has prevented them from seeing the changing political and social contexts that influenced the results.

With my own feelings about the politics aside, I want to focus on some of the leadership assumptions and mistakes that led to the misjudgments of the Republican leadership, and the lessons they have for us in our congregations.

  • There is a small elite group who have the best answers and are meant to lead.
    In our congregations the small elite group may be the subset of the congregation who “know how we do things here.”  New leaders tend to be recruited from a similar demographic since the existing leaders have an easier time imagining them as leaders.
  • White, straight, male culture and privilege is the foundation of the “real America.”
    Our congregations have made huge strides in being inclusive of women and LGBTQ members, but most of our congregations still have a dominant WASP culture that is apparent to any person of color that walks through its doors.  This bubble of white privilege is one of the biggest challenges facing UU leaders.  The bubble of white privilege is reinforced when we don’t insist that our congregational leaders attend Anti-Racism/Anti-Racism/Multiculturalism trainings with the same enthusiasm that we send them to other leadership trainings.
  • We have all the knowledge we need — listening to people with different views or experiences is a waste of time.
    Congregational leaders often don’t think to look beyond their congregation’s walls for ideas or answers.  They may believe that their own congregation is unique in their situation, but there is likely a congregation down the road (or in another district) that has similar challenges.  Part of the goal of cluster-building and regionalization is to help congregations connect to one another and access the wisdom of the wider UU movement.
  • If someone presents a theory or idea that is not in perfect alignment with our worldview, its premise must be faulty or the evidence questionable.
    In the case of UU congregations, many of our leaders are resistant to learning from other denominations because of the Christian language or the way they articulate organizational wisdom with theological (rather than scientific) language.

Our congregational roots are based on the theological assumption that the will of the spirit is determined by the discernment of the whole body of the community, not by the proclamations of a few leaders.  Our liberal roots are based on the scientific method where theories are openly shared and tested.  In the world of paradigm-shifting problem-solving, the solutions often come from the margins and borders, and often sound a little off-the-wall at first to those near the center.  (One practice is to treat every idea as “a good idea” for five minutes to give is a fair hearing.)  We are called to have those holy conversations of creative interchange — conversations that need a climate of openness and trust that won’t happen when one group is marginalizing another group.

(Our democratic government is based on similar beliefs about the free interchange and discussion of competing ideas to solve real problems, as MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow reminds us in her post-election commentary on the election results.  Please excuse the partisan slant.)

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About the Author
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Leadership Development Consultant, Central East Regional Group (CERG) of the UUA. I have a vision of Unitarian Universalist congregations being led by thousands of diverse, spiritually mature and passionate people ready and willing to spread the good news of liberal religion.  I believe ministry is best when shared between lay and professional leaders. More information about me can be found on the UUA website.
  • I’m unsure what “will of the spirit” means in a UU context. How about “will of the people?”

    • Hi Peter,
      I hesitate to use the term “will of the people” because it gives too much weight to the status quo (we humans like things to stay the same) that inhibits growth and transformation. I used a small “s” spirit to call to mind the process in which complex systems (such as our congregations) can transform if we are open to and trust the process. It’s the spirit of inspriation, not a supernatural Spirit. (You may see the influence of Henry Nelson Wieman’s notion of Creative Interchange here as well as Harrison Owen’s organizational transformation in my thinking. 🙂 )

  • Bill Reid

    I would readily agree that the Republican Party does indeed appear to believe that White, straight, male culture and privilege should be the foundation of the “real America.” I agree with all of your observations and comments. But I see a somewhat different bubble than you see. I believe that most UUs operate from the assumption that white males do indeed have unearned privilege (and therefore white males need and deserve no more than benign neglect). All stories like these tend to create ‘bubbles.’

    What I see is a reality that white, college educated, emotionally intelligent, females are the foundation of the real UU congregation. 60% of our UU Sunday morning congregations are female, as well as 66% of our congregation volunteers, 75% of our congregation leaders, 75% of our UU seminary students, a super majority of the authors and featured photos in the UU World, nearly 100% of UU educational curriculum authorship, and in the case of my UU District (PNWD) 100% of our District professional staff. If you search our districts for an ‘annual Men and Ministry’ program, or any other male oriented programming, you will find virtually nothing, the UU Men’s network is dead. We recognize that we are inside a ‘white’ bubble, but we can’t see the gender bubble around us. UU Multiculturalism stops short of recognizing that men might be a culture in need of some acceptance.

    The world has changed since 1977, but inside our bubble we still see white men as nothing but oppressors. We fail to notice the failing grades for Boys in K-12 education (300% higher), or notice that men currently earn only 40% of college degrees, including advanced degrees. We also fail to notice the higher suicide rates (300% to 400%) and the higher rates of substance abuse, crime, and imprisonment. We don’t notice the prevalence of young men with undiagnosed and/or untreated mental illness who pick up guns and commit mass killings (we notice the killings, but can’t see gun violence as a gender issue).

    As long as men continue to earn $1.00 for every $.0.75 that women earn, men will be undeserving of our collective attention. Inside our bubble, women are downtrodden, and men are the problem. As long as we believe that life is just a bowl of cherries for white privileged men, we have no motivation to examine our UU Ministry to men. I believe that the UUA and our member congregations are failing to minister effectively and appropriately to men, but we can’t see that from inside our bubble.

    Thanks for your excellent observations about leading from inside a bubble; may we burst them all.

    Bill Reid