Monday, August 9, 2010

Systems Ju-jitsu Part 12: Tactic 9. Defect in Place

This week’s Systems Ju-jitsu tactic is called Defect in Place. This is a potentially tricky tactic that must be practiced at the right time for the right reason. Essentially, defecting in place is when a leader chooses to fail to “act as the leader” by not taking responsibility, or engaging in rescuing, for something people are demanding of them.

During my first month as a pastoral associate in charge of education at one church I sat in on the education committee’s monthly meeting. During that meeting they were planning the fall Christian education kickoff activities. At one point one member pushed the idea of again holding a plenary assembly on the first fall Sunday to kick off. It was apparent that no one else on the committee wanted to do this, but no member seemed able to say so and offer an alternative. As the new person in the group I took a stab at asking “dumb questions” about this activity. The responses were all negative, citing problems, dislikes and inconveniences the church had always experienced with this event. The more I heard the less enthusiastic I became with the idea. Despite this, the group (reluctantly) went along with the plan and mapped out the schedule and activities for the assembly. The lack of energy or enthusiasm for this kick off event was depressing and puzzling. Here was a group marching ahead planning for an activity no one wanted to do but helpless to do otherwise!

On the day of the event I sat near the front of the church sanctuary. Everything that could go wrong did. People were late getting to the assembly, the pianist never showed up, a couple of teachers did not arrive in time to greet their classes, the ushers did not prepare the room, etc. The person on the committee who was enthusiastic about the event led the assembly in the most confusing bumbling matter. No other committee member took a leadership role in the program. All this uncharacteristic of a congregation that was professional in all it did. It was painful to watch.

As I sat there near the front I could see people looking my way. I was the new staff person with responsibility for the Christian education program. How could I let this event fail? Why didn’t I go up and help the program leader who was lost and disorganized? One committee member reported afterward that a church member whispered to her, “He was  just sitting there! Why didn’t he do anything?” Not a very auspicious start for a new staff member!

What no one realized is that I had determined that my function in this case was to defect in place. I had witnessed a group of people I would be working with stuck in their inability to make a decision. The group members were unable to speak honestly and take action for what they all clearly felt (they did not want to do the assembly). They were unable to be imaginative, think creatively, come up with alternatives, or be clear about what they DID want to do. That facilitated the group’s being led by one member’s predilection regardless of how misguided it was. Given that situation, the worst thing I could have done would have been to rescue the assembly event. Additionally, it would have been a poor action for me to overfunction in my new role by thinking for them and taking responsibility for the program or its planning.

Defecting in place freed me from taking responsibility for something that was not my doing and allowing the group to own their (deserved) pain of embarrassment. At the following month’s committee meeting I made sure the agenda included an assessment of the assembly. While the group at first was reluctant to revisit the embarrassment, it became an opportunity for me to address the group process I observed, and, to define my working relationship with the group---because the responsibility of the education ministry was theirs, I would not be an overfunctioning staff member. It was a good first step at helping reformat the group dynamics at work in the committee. 

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