Recently, after 61 years on this earth, I finally had the chance to visit the Magic Kingdom. That’s right. Me… in the land of Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan and Cinderella’s Castle. I was in Orlando for meetings with the Central East Regional Group and the Congregational Life Staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association. But one night, we left reality behind and immersed ourselves in the fun and illusion that is Disney World.
I came away from that night with more than just a fun experience. I learned some valuable lessons. I realized that the principles and practices on which Disney builds their empire can be used by leaders in our Unitarian Universalist congregations to achieve similar success. I learned that the popularity and staying power of Disney World does not happen by accident or haphazardly. It is the result of careful planning, attention to detail and adherence to a mission, practices that our leaders should be following.
Lesson #1: Don’t Lose Your Head
The cartoon characters that roam Disney World have to be “on” for the entire time that they are in costume. It’s only when they go underground and can take off their heads that they are able to be off character. Similarly, our leaders need to be “on” when they are performing their duties as role models, mentors, teachers, listeners and the other requirements that come with leadership. Leaders cannot afford to be anxious or negative or cynical or any of the other luxuries that are the province of the general membership. This does not mean that leaders should not be authentic. Indeed, authenticity and transparency are two of the watchwords of a successful leader. However, leaders have the responsibility to maintain a calm and confident presence when leading the congregation. Anything less is unacceptable.
Lesson #2: Empower the Congregation
In the Magic Kingdom, every employee is empowered to help a guest, no matter their position or sphere of authority. This means, for example, that if a guest with a problem or a question approaches the person who changes the trash can liners along Main Street, that employee has the right and the responsibility to answer the question or solve the problem, or to stay with that guest until they have handed them off to someone who can answer the question or solve the problem. In other words, every employee at Disney World is made to feel a sense of ownership in what happens in the park; a belief in the possibility that the Disney experience is theirs to create…just as much as it is Goofy’s and Minnie’s and the guy who puts you In the boat at the Pirates of the Caribbean exhibit. In our congregations, leaders must also instill this sense of ownership in its members so that every person feels that the congregation is theirs to create. Peter Block, author of Community: The Structure of Belonging, says that this can only occur when each of us feels that we are cause, not effect. By constantly asking for input from the congregation and acting on that input where appropriate; by lifting people up for their contributions to the congregation; by valuing each and every member of the congregation, leaders can instill this sense of ownership. The result can be magical.
Lesson #3: Be Our Guest
In the Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast, Lumière sings to Belle,
“Be our guest! Be our guest!
Put our service to the test
Tie your napkin ’round your neck, chèrie
And we’ll provide the rest”
Don’t worry. I’m not going to do the rest of the song.
The people at Disney understand that making first time guests feel welcomed, valued and satisfied will increase the chances that they’ll come back…and they do, in droves. Similarly, in our congregations, we need to understand that welcoming the stranger is paramount if we are to increase our numbers and grow our faith. Leaders need to be out front in welcoming guests and making them feel at home. We cannot be so consumed with getting church work done during coffee hour, for example, that we neglect those who could potentially become contributing members of the congregation. Our focus should be on our guests. Perhaps the “welcoming committee” could be renamed “Guest Services” and greeters referred to as “Guest Relations.” Let’s put our energies into being more hospitable and joyous and happy to see new people…and it’s the leaders who should be the first ones with their hands out in greeting.
There are many leadership quotes attributed to Walt Disney, but the one that intrigues me the most is this: “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” As a leader in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, aren’t you curious to see how great, how strong, how vital, how large your congregation can become? Isn’t that curiosity enough to inspire you to keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things? Let’s start by adhering to the lessons that the Magic Kingdom teaches us.
And, by the way, it’s also okay to occasionally wish upon a star.
Mark Bernstein is the Growth Development Consultant for the Central East Regional Group. He has been an active lay leader having taught religious education, serving on the canvass committee, being a worship associate, and being elected to the board of trustees twice. His professional career has been as a direct support professional and administrator in the field of disabilities. Read more…