Keep the Faith, Change the Church.

Harvard Scholar Discusses Leadership & Vision

"Adaptive change in an insulated organization like the Church takes a long time, with a lot of people staying in the game and not giving up," according to Harvard scholar.


Voice of the Faithful can "provide the space for people to have conversations they are not allowed to have," said Ronald Heifetz, a Harvard Kennedy School scholar, duriing a fundraising even Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Heifetz, who coined the term "adaptive leadership," is a founder of the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership and a co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates, which consults to corporate, nonprofit, and public sectors worldwide. he spoke to an audience of primarily VOTF members about how his idea of adeaptive leadership can help organizations like VOTF make gradual, yet meaningful progress during changing and often challenging times.

Leadership is "only interesting and relevant when you're in a community facng a set of challenges," Heifetz said. VOTF can advocate for change from within the larger Church community, but the Church, "a social structure" that "needs order to make the group work," is constrained by the authority it believes is necessary to maintain order. So, the Church is constrained from making the changes necessary to address issues and solve problems. This "can help us understand what went wrong in the Church" that led to scandal.

What is needed is to practice leadership without authority. Svea Fraser of Wellesley, Massachusetts, one of VOTF's founders, recalled Heifetz's admonition that we "need to develop more capacity to meet challenges adaptively," rather than default to technical solutions we already know, which usually leads to failure. The Church is not a business that will fail if it does not adat  and so continues doing only what it knows how to do, repeating the same mistakes.

The Church needs a movement like VOTF to identify "adaptive issues" and lead people to come up with solutions without resorting to authority. Such "adaptive issues" reflect a gap between aspirations and current conditions, Heifetz said. To solve these issues takes a long time and involves going beyond organizations' and individuals' competences to use the collectve intelligence of the community to foster the health of the organizatioin.

Long-time VOTF member Frank McConville of Wellesley, Massachusetts, put it this way, paraphrasing Heifetz's remarks: "Leadership requires vision and the ability to influence a community by the truth and the benefits of a propsition which usually has been acqyired by participation, dialogue, questioning, and testing to reach a consensus."

For VOTF, change has taken place slowly and not necessarity obviously. People have not necessarily been "anxious to be enriched by our opinions," Heifetz said. But attitudes about the clergy sexual abuse scandal have changhed and the language of transparency, accountability, and clericalism has been adopted. Even so, VOTF is still presented with an "adaptive challenge."

A gap still exists between expectations of where VOTF would like the Church to be and where it is. The Church views any attempt or suggestion to change its structures as loss. "We're asking the Church to exercise competencies it doesn't have," Heifetz said. "People resist change that is perceived as loss, and you have to respect the losses people will suffer during change." He mentioned three categories of loss: 1.) broken relatinships; 2.) loss of market share; and 3.) loss of loyalty.

With regard to the Church, all three categories of loss are represented in people who have left the pews. Getting them back and keeping others in their seats is going to take a long time. VOTF might help accomplish this and attract new members by developing new ways of being community or creating sources of value for people other than solving the clergy sexual abuse scandal. VOTF was born in crisis and needs to identify new crises or find out how to continue in the absence of crises, according to Heifetz.

"Adaptive change in an insulated organization like the Church takes a long time, with a lot of people staying in the game and not giving up," Heifetz said. "Real progress has been made, but it's going to take a couple of generations, especially around an issue like how clergy handle sexuality, before the problem will be solved."

VOTF member Ron Petitti of Braintree, Massachusetts, said Heifetz basically wanted us to "know that VOTF is bringing peace and hope to the Church and its members, so don't stop.