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.)