Organizational Identity with Dr. J. Derek McNeil and Kate Rae Davis | Podcast Season 03, Episode 01

by Jan 17, 2023Transforming Engagement: the Podcast


We’re starting a new series on the podcast about organizational identity – a topic that, co-host Dr. J. Derek McNeil admits at the beginning of this episode – can sound somewhat dry. But here’s why it’s important:

Most of us have some sense of our personal identities. But when you’re leading a group of people, whether that’s a small-town congregation or a multinational corporation, you as a leader need to consider your group’s collective identity. 

When a group discovers their organizational identity, its members can unite behind a common purpose and shared goals to confront problems, engage challenges, and make real impact – together. 

In this first episode of Season 3, season co-hosts Dr. J. Derek McNeil, President of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, and Kate Rae Davis, MDiv, Director of the Center for Transforming Engagement, discuss their work in supporting churches in their work to discover their organizational identity. In the midst of shifting contexts, this work is more important than ever. What is the mission of your church? What are you called to be? Who belongs to your church – and how are you creating a sense of belonging for them?

If you are the leader of a church or faith-based organization working to re-discover your church’s identity and serve your congregants and community better, we think this episode will be especially valuable to you. 

As you listen to this season, please let us know what you think. We value your thoughts and questions!

About this season’s co-hosts:

Dr. J. Derek McNeil is the president of The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Dr. McNeil has a PhD in Counseling Psychology from Northwestern University and an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior to his tenure at The Seattle School, Dr. McNeil served as faculty in the PsyD program at Wheaton College Graduate School for over 15 years.

Dr. McNeil has worked as a clinician in private practice, a diversity advisor, an organizational consultant, and an administrator. His research, writing, and speaking have focused on issues of ethnic and racial socialization, the role of forgiveness in peacemaking, the identity development of African-American males, leadership in living systems, and resilience.

Kate Rae Davis is the Director of the Center for Transforming Engagement. She brings a collaborative approach to her current role working with Christian leaders to restore their inner resilience and live into their purpose. She and the Center for Transforming Engagement team gather with experts from a variety of fields and shape discussions around challenges facing leaders in a complex cultural moment and discern how each might uniquely join in God’s work in the world.

Passionate about the church in its many forms, Kate is the recipient of the 2018 Bishop’s Preaching Award and can often be found behind the pulpit of her home church, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Ballard.

Supporting resources:

  • Learn more about Transforming Faith Communities, a free, one-year program that guides your congregational team to implement changes that address and fit your unique situation and context. By participating, your faith community becomes eligible to receive grant funds to support your growth. Together, you can transform your faith community, your neighborhood, and the future. Click here to find out more.
  • Don’t miss an episode: Subscribe to Transforming Engagement, The Podcast on AppleSpotify, or Amazon Music (Audible)

Episode transcript:

Kate: Welcome to Transforming Engagement: the Podcast where we have conversations about changes that serve the common good and a higher good. This season we’re talking about organizational identity, and Dr. J Derek McNeil and I are gonna have a conversation, just the two of us today, to open up that topic and share what we know and think as we prepare to learn from our guests this season.

Derek: Okay. Well, thank you for inviting me and having me.

Kate: Thank you for agreeing to co-host with me. 

Derek: You’re very welcome. 

Kate: It’s a bigger ask for you.

Derek: You’re very welcome. So, let me say that it’s interesting when you first asked the question, or at least you said, Hey, the topic is organizational identity. I kept thinking that’s such a dry topic in terms of the way it sounds: organizational. And I think it’s particularly the organizational piece that most of us think of organizations as institutions without a soul or, um,

Kate: Corporations just for profit, very cold.

Derek: Yeah. We have kind of a frame of organizations, much more corporate Yeah. And much more distant, you know, the power, the power organization that controls life in some distant sort of way. But I like the word identity, the putting the two words together because it suggests a bit of knowing about one’s self or an organization understanding what its purpose and mission might be. And so I think the words like organization in this culture get a bad rap. Organizations really are tools, groups of people who get together, who have some sense of their purpose, um, as are institutions, which I think are more formative in that sense. And, um, because we’re in such a space of negative trust of our organizations and our institutions, uh, I think we can undervalue them in terms of their impact or not– not necessarily see how much we have to think about changing and transforming them. So I, I think the topic of, um, organizational identity is an important one in a social context that’s shifting. You’ve heard me coin the phrase “between covid and collapse” which is as dysphoric as I get about things. <laugh>.

Kate: I’ll go a little more dysphoric, but not at this moment.

Derek: You do. but I  think I’m really saying, hey, we’re headed for social space where things are no longer as trustworthy and they don’t work as well. And we’re having more difficulty figuring out how to work with our complicated problems, or I might call them wicked problems, and they’re not evil, but they’re so complex that they’re not easily solvable anymore. And we need institutions, or at least gatherings of people who agree to work together to solve them. And we’re having increasingly more challenging concerns about that ability. Our foolishness is an all time high lately, as a country and our ability to work together, together is an all time low in terms of our trust. So we, we have a lot to face in how organizations and institutions and really people gathering, working together, engaging complicated problems feels more important to talk about.

Kate: Yeah. To tie that back to the organizational identity piece, part of what I’m hearing in that fragmentation, fracturing within organizations, the distrust is both that organizations haven’t showed up authentically. And our tension between my individual identity and what might need to be submitted in order to belong to an organizational identity. There’s so many examples of both of those. The authenticity thing– I think of the number of congregations that will say all are welcome until they have a lesbian in a relationship who wants to bear the chalice in a service. Well now we have some different boundaries around welcome that we weren’t as forthcoming with before, and that’s where hurts form. Around the, like submitting to a large identity to belong to a congregation often does require stances on issues increasingly in our distrust, our demand that our organizations name where they are in a number of really political issues, um, that each one of those stances, you know you’re lucky if you can find a church that 80% of what the official stances are, you’re like, yeah, I can be behind that. But then what do you do with that 20%? Increasingly our solution seems to have been, you go start your own church. You split. 

Derek: Well, I think you’re raising a lot of the, the complexity of some of the issues in current, the current moment, um, where identity, personal identity, how it fits with corporate identity and the sort of, I’ll call it deeper story of that organizational institution. Um, so I think we’re talking about the belonging part. Can I join, can I be a part of? I think the challenge that institutions have is they have a deeper narrative that they sometimes are not aware of, a deeper story, if you will. Um, what does sexuality mean to us? For instance, what does race mean to us, for instance, uh, what does it mean to be an outsider insider? And our deeper narrative says, Hey, even though we say all are welcome, we’re thinking about the insider nature of that, not the outsider coming to the inside nature of that. So the, it means, again, we do have to talk about, hey, what does our identity mean? And the statement all are welcome is typically framed with the categories that I’m thinking about, not the categories that are different than the ones I’m considering. [Kate:Yes.] And particularly organizations in terms of their deeper story and their deeper narrative. And so the, without exploring that, then they’re likely to invite people that they don’t really want.

Kate: Right.

Derek: But you know, the, the other challenge is, as we talk about these organizations and institutions, the practical piece is how to expand their definition of who insiders are.

Kate: Yes.

Derek: Um, and can, what’s the impact it has on their deeper story, because if we don’t consider them linked to those things, we’ll, we’ll be asking them to expand and they will really disorient because they don’t have the capacity to create a deeper story. 

Kate: Yeah. And the question of whether your identity is around that central good that we gather around or for identity is around the boundaries around outside of it. Where where you place your energies and sight will really change how open the organization can be to multiple individual identities. But I’m realizing we’re talking about all the problems that can come from a weak organizational identity or just distrust of organizations. Maybe we should get into some of the positive of what is organizational identity? What do we mean when we say that phrase? What is identity in a collective kind of sense?

Derek: Hmm. Well, I, I think of, you know, I probably early on started thinking of identity. I, I thought I wanted to do it my doctoral work on identity and realize it was too complex and gave up on that and did something else,

Kate: Individual identity. 

Derek: Individual identity. Um, but it got me thinking about, hey, how do we name ourselves and how do we name organizations? And so organizational identity for me is as much about, um, purpose and, uh, sort of people getting together upon an agreed upon sense of purpose. And the reason I mention deeper story or deep story is sometimes that agreement is found in emotional and embodied ways, not to simply, um, conscious and conceptual ways. So say for instance, a church might say, Hey, we’re interested in serving people in this sort of way, but then as you listen to their narrative, their deeper story, the history of this, the church, how it was founded, how it was birthed, how it was born, um, what cult[ivated it], you hear a different sort of narrative that may in fact conflict with the thing they think they wanna do. Um, I was, was doing consulting at a church, um, in Minnesota, and they were very interested. It was about race and ethnicity, and they wanted to have, um, African American people, and they were in St. Paul. And it was kind of interesting because they didn’t have any communities of African American people around them. They had immigrant folk that were closer to them, and even Latino folks or Latinx folk closer to them, but they almost wanted, they wanted to bus Black folk in a little bit. They almost wanted to bring Black folk a distance to come to this church because that was the frame of reconciliation they had. [Kate: Yes.] And so they didn’t think about the place they were in, the people they may have been called to serve in that sort of, um, parish. And they weren’t parish thinking. Most evangelical churches are a little less parish thinking, and they weren’t thinking about, Hey, what might be the thing we’re called to put our hand on. And, and it was interesting because they thought of their real conflict between Black and white was with black Americans and white Americans, and they didn’t quite know how to deal with the cultural aspects of immigrants. And so they didn’t quite know how to engage that group in language barriers and things like that. So often, depending on what we think we are, we may find our sense of purpose. And I think we’ve gotta look at who we believe we are, but also our deeper story, um, there’s more history and continuity that I think we need to consider.

Kate: It’s interesting, I also, in writing my thoughts to prepare for this conversation in writing ”What is organizational identity?” I started with mission because I think that’s something that leaders are familiar with, is we spend a lot of time on mission statements and what are we gonna put on the website? What is it we’re trying to do in the world? And I think of identity as the things that support that mission, both come out from it and then make it happen again. So our values, what we might call an organizational culture, but the, the, the pieces that help us actually achieve the thing that our mission does by drawing the right people into it, aligning them with that, and saying that the, the process by which we achieve that mission is as important as the outcome of achieving it itself. So identity is that front end process piece that gets us there.

Derek: Yeah. Yeah. Which is, and I like that because I, I think we spend a lot of time on the outcome and not the process. So you’re really saying, hey, it’s not just simply what we came up with in that statement, that’s shorter than a paragraph statement, it is the process, and I say that it’s the years we’ve lived with each other, exploring what it is we feel called to do in the world– and then how do we actually sit down and negotiate with each other around what we think our mission and purpose is.

Kate: Yeah. And that conversation that happens between the two of how our identity is both from our mission to support the mission, but then it also will over time put the mission in a new light. I mean, easy example of this, the Center for Transformative Engagement as a part of The Seattle School. And when you took on the presidency for the school–our mission statement, we had always focused on the phrase and about text.soul.culture–that had always been really loud. And you really shifted our focus to say service for God and neighbor, same mission statement, but putting the emphasis somewhere different because we’d been attending to identity and the context that we’re in– shifted how we have that mission. And now that’s also in turn shifting our identity. We talk a lot more about how do we engage with the community? What do partnerships look like? And those are fundamentally questions of service. Much more so than text.soul.culture. So the conversation between identity and mission, it, it feels so intertwined. It’s almost absurd that we’re having a season on organizational identity, but here we are.

Derek: Yeah. Well, I like that. Thank you for reminding me why I kept thinking: I think we need to talk about our purpose. It really was a sense that we spent a lot of time focused on ourselves. Text.soul.culture was how do I see the world? What makes sense of the world? And often it was how do I see myself in relationship to the world? And I think I needed to add a sort of social role component to that. And so it’s not just simply how do I see the world and how do I see myself in the world, but it was, how does the world also see us? And so what’s our service? And that mission statement was as much about service to me as it was about identity. And so I think you’re linking things that I think are true. They’re, they’re inseparable in a certain type of way, but developmentally we can begin a part and not– can finish, finish the process, if you will.

Kate: Cause we have had, always had, as, as long as I’ve been here of an, an identity organization that’s very reflective, very self-aware, and that can also make us a little bit insular. And to expand that into service takes that reflection, self-awareness, and it doesn’t get rid of it. It just opens up, what is that self-awareness for. It’’s for service to others, it’s for our social context, it’s for the transformation of the world. It’s taken something that was already true to our identity and actually opened it up much wider. And I think that’s such a beautiful example of how identity and mission can be in conversation together and really shape each other. Yeah.

Derek: And I realize, you know, as you’re talking, there’s some part of me, you know, I don’t say this out loud a lot, but there’s a dream part of me that says, hey, could we become folk who they say those are the folk who turn the world upside down in a, in the most positive sense in the most transformative, beneficial sense that we’re able to see ourselves, recognize our own woundedness, our own hurt. Where that hurt has come from, sitting in that, and then utilizing that hurt to, in some ways, uh, support and care for others mm-hmm. <affirmative>, but even bring change in their circumstance in this situation. So I realize I have that sort of dream. I don’t know if we’ll reach it in the institutional sense, but there is that there. And my hope is, you know, for us, is that in seeing ourselves more clearly, or churches that we work with, with, I mean, this is why I appreciate the, the Resilient Congregations project is really asking churches, well, not just simply tell us about your neighborhood, but tell us about you in your neighborhood. That is a kind of a two-fold process. You, but also you in your context. You and your spaces, what’s already being drawn, what do people see in you already. And how might that be a part of your identity as well?

Kate: Yeah. I, I have written a question: Why is organizational identity so important? And I, and as you’re speaking about that, not just your context, but also what you bring to that context, that sense of self in the relationship. We had a faculty member who used to say, it’s not enough to be a self that’s only in relationship. You have to also bring yourself to it. Um, and I’m, I’m thinking of kind a story that highlights the importance of knowing your own identity –is a church that I worked at some time ago locally here, who the church is really so gifted at arts and beauty, most beautiful liturgy, people come from all over just to experience this liturgy, to take pieces back to where they come from. That’s really what their identity is rooted in, is arts and beauty. And they brought in a new priest who had come up in a congregation that was really focused on serving the unhoused. And she kept pointing to the context of, well, you know, this, this congregation is rooted in a place lit off unhoused people, a place where they come for services. And she kept trying to make that this church’s identity because it had been her former church then, and she knew how to do that. And it was such a mismatch because the congregation spent a lot of time, a lot of resources trying to make themselves know how to do that. It’s not that they didn’t care. They felt immense guilt that they weren’t able to step into it better, but because she hadn’t read their identity well, people stopped going because they didn’t want to go to church just to feel badly about how they weren’t doing good enough in this thing that really wasn’t an outpouring of their identity. So that’s, for me, the, the, the mismatch of that kind of exemplifies the need to really listen to who the con[gregation], who the organization is, know who you are, what you bring, and then find how that matches the needs in the context, which might not match the greatest, most obvious needs in the context. But if there’s not that match, then the organization itself will fall apart without the, without a cohesive and true-to-themselves service. 

Derek: Well, you kind of, wow. There’s a powerful issue: the fit between a leader and their organization, if you will.

Kate: As well as between the organization and their context.

Derek: Yeah. Um, and you know, I think sometimes when you choose or say yes to the role of being a leader of an organization, you haven’t thought through a bit of, again, who they are, who they’ve been, their deep story, or you think about, I’m supposed to come and change them. Which I think to some degree, is true, I think. But I, I think I’d like to think of that in a more of an integrative way than a “stop that, start this” sort of way. What is in you that you bring in leadership and what is in them that you’re being asked to join? What is the new thing you’re bringing to help them keep continue their development towards something? Because I think organizations also need vision. And I think they need their leaders to offer a sense of vision about what they could potentially be. Um, so for instance, for me, with the school, I think all the ingredients for something are there, but the way we thought about ourselves or still think about ourselves, to me at times, feels smaller. And I recall using the example of could we be for a larger entity than just for ourselves? This is the other sort of part of looking at purpose and mission. And can we be for this community in a broader way? And maybe that community is much broader than we actually think it is. Could we be impactful to a nation? And depending on the sense of institutional insecurity, uh, the ways it protects itself from being exposed and failing may not risk a bigger dream. Um, but yet in the story, the deeper story, you actually hear a bigger dream. So I, I’ve used example of Jacob becoming Israel. Within Jacob’s story is a bigger dream, but Jacob spends a good chunk of his life once he’s banished from home, um, really trying to make his own story – and his own – until he has an interruption disruption in the desert. And the renaming is not like all the new character as much as a shift of authorization. The dream that you’re dreaming is too small. There’s a bigger thing you’re called to do. And he struggles with that. And so I think institutions can struggle with a bigger vision of a leader, but I still think there has to be some sense of fit continuity with that leader, the organization, and the environment.

Kate: Yeah. It’s, it’s helpful to hear the, cause we do like lot leadership, we talk about change, introducing change, change management, and to hear your frame of, it’s not a “stop doing, start doing” but a additive. So you’ve never said, “Stop being so self-aware. Stop being so reflective.” But be reflective unto service, add in service. And you don’t say, you know, “Stop looking at woundedness and trauma.” But keep doing that. But also bring in conversations on resilience, thriving, wellbeing. So it’s, it’s the raising our sight to a horizon that is bigger and in some ways frightening. We’re not sure we know how to do those things. We know how to do this part of it. Um, but to keep the continuity of that part towards that horizon and say, you’re already so close to that horizon with what you’re doing already. Yeah.

Derek: And we, and we’ve talked about that resistance to keep growing, that fear of, hey, I, we know how to do this. Why are you asking us to do this additional thing? Or even think more broadly cause we don’t know how to control that larger thing. We’ve actually learned how to do something very well. I think that’s always a challenge. Um, and then some organizations need shrink, but many need to kind of grow and expand and keep learning. So one of the things, you know, you, you’ve heard me talk about is, are we a learning institution, have we learned, made mistakes, and continued to grow? Because I think that process you’ve described is developmental, as opposed, to as, again you say, “stop and start”. There’s a story that was profound for me cause I, I think that that learning is deeper than just simply conceptual. In other words, “I got it in my head. I’ve got a great idea.” Um, was working with, uh, a church, a denomination, that was, um, really struggling with, in the middle of a church split if you will, or congregational, not a congregation, but a denominational split. And they were asking questions about what their purpose and their meaning and all the unique circumstances I won’t go into cause I don’t want to identify the churches clearly. But, or the denomination. But I had to travel to this place and we were doing interviews working for a company, uh, actually a marketing company as, as a counseling psychology person doing interviews for a marketing company – a long story in that. And this exercise would have people who, in this case with this church leadership, would have them, um, do interviews where they would close their eyes, we’d ask them a series of questions that were much more sensate-oriented, um, like, close your eyes and you know, can you think of some place that was very special to you? Or the first time you were in church, et cetera. And we would ask questions. What was the first time you were in church? Close your eyes and tell us what you see. Just look around in your mind’s eyes. So it shifts you away from your own visual cues to much more emotional body-feeling cues. And I remember interviewing, um, I think it was like the head trustee or this church he was. And, and I wasn’t sure if I was gonna like this person, you know, sometimes meet people and you say, I don’t know if I really like you. And he was a little brash and a little bit arrogant and, um, older. And I, I had all my stereotypical things going on and I have to confess. And as we started into to the interview and I asked him close his eyes and I asked him a series of questions and we started talking about this church. Um, I asked him, really from his first early church experience, and he talks about playing ping pong in the basement of his parents’ church as a little kid and to this new church and he started using language as haven or safe spaces and he started crying and closed eyes. He started sharing about what this church meant to him and why he was at this church. And it was one of the teariest sessions – he couldn’t see me crying, but I was crying too. Because I felt what was important about this church, I felt the identity of this church, not just simply we conceptualize it in a great mission statement but it was an image, it was a metaphor that had potency and power for him. And so I think churches had to think, what’s our mission statement? And then they also had to think, what’s our embodied sense? What’s our metaphors for this thing, that the reason we feel compelled to keep doing it, to persist in our service? And, um, my hope is for us, as you know, for the Center, is that we help churches find both those things. What’s our mission statement? What, what’s our community saying we need to be about and have purpose? And then what’s that deeper story, that’s embodied story in us that says, this is why we’re called to such a time as this to be in this place? 

Kate” What’s interesting to me about that story too, like yes, the embodied nature, which is, you know, we can, we’re such a data driven society, we want to do the market research and know the demographics of our neighborhood and the resources of our church and align those things. But really what I appreciate about your story is you’re doing work for the denomination, which denominational identity is its own type of thing, but kind of by the nature of it, very abstract, like, it has to be a little bit vague in order to hold so many congregations. But then like really what brought it into the body was the congregational identity. Like this community church that I walk into, which I, I think I, I’m so appreciative of our work with that congregational level because it really gets into the bodies and communities where faith is lived out, where the identity can become mission in a really embodied way, in a non-abstract way. 

Derek: I think that’s why I like the work that you, and I’m gonna say you all, we all, are doing around metaphors. Metaphors can help us get to, again, I call it deep story and some might call myth. What’s the story of us? What do we believe we’re supposed to be about? And it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always accurate, but I think the exploration allows us to say, you know, we no longer do that. Or we seem to be moving in this direction. So there’s a dynamic quality to it, but there’s much more of an effective quality. And I think, uh, you, you’re right. I think we are data-driven, particularly dominant culture. I think there are subdominant culture groups that are much more affectively connected to what it is they’re called to be and or even transcended. They’ll say, Hey, we believe the spirit of God has called us to do this at this place in this time. And I, I would love us to awaken those aspects of us as people of faith to say, you know, God’s interested in what we’re doing in this space. And, uh, our bodies make sense in this space. And we feel tooled to do these things in this space. So that having kind of multiple layers of why in some ways our calling, our sense of purpose for an organization identity, if you will come forward.

Kate: And part of what I’m hearing in that too is we’ve been talking about the importance of organizational identity in the spaces outside of our organizations, what it’s doing in our communities, but I’m also hearing some of the pieces of why it’s important internal to a community to have that sense of belonging that I have a place here, my body is accepted here, I have a sense of trust with this place as a whole, you know, there’s always gonna be those one or two people who I don’t necessarily trust, but as a whole I’m trusted. I trust here, I’m cared for here. Um, the importance of all these internal pieces that keep a community together regardless of what happens beyond its falls.

Derek: Yeah. And, and I think the sense of belonging again, speaks to organizations. I mean, um, belonging is such an interactive dynamic. You belong to me. I belong to you. It’s not like I belong, but nobody else recognizes it. [Kate :Right.] There’s a sense that, hey, this is part of your insider community. And I think that’s when we talked about before, of the sort of boundaries that community we have to kind of think about, you know, cause Christ has such open boundaries and we tend to, for our own safety, tend to close those boundaries a bit more. And I understand that. So I’m not like a boundary-less, I don’t think you can have an organization or an institution or gathering or a group without some exclusion. I, I think the, the movement to include everything is not fully possible. You have to have some boundaries. But I think the question is where are those boundaries? [ Kate: Yeah.] Where are they drawn? And we tend to draw them much more inclusively than I think Christ draws them, quite honestly. And, um, but I do think there is a sense of, we, something in our brains clicks over when I see you as an insider versus an outsider. And there is something about being brought into Christ, being brought into the church, being brought into the body, that’s very important in terms of seeing you as an insider.

Kate: And I think that that sense of inclusion and that all things being brought into the body, all people being brought into the body, inclusion then for me is like an eschatological statement. It’s a here’s where we want to be going. We’re not there yet, but how do we form ourselves to be people who can include one new type of person, one type of person we haven’t been in a relationship with before with enough safety to make that, to actually form us, but also with enough discomfort for it to be a new type of formation and not just, a, reaffirming institutions and segregations that have existed before. 

Derek: I agree. This is where, you know, I think the, the, the generational conversation, and I’m a little older than you, um, comes into play because I think the current, um, external environment, social environment says, hey, we need to be inclusive in the ways we have not. I think the answer to that is yes, but it’s not in the opposition of being, um, having some exclusivity. So there’s a tension there, there’s a dynamic. Um, much uses of containment. Without some type of boundary. I can’t contain and hold what it means to grow and develop. There’s a fragmentation. And all-inclusive means there’s no boundaries and there’s also no intimacy. I don’t know how you have intimacy without some degree of containment. So this will be I think, a challenge for us in the next multiple generations of how do we include people we put out [Kate: Yeah] that need to be in, but how do we also boundary. What’s sense of containment and safety that we’re actually able to bring to communi [ Kate: Yeah.] organizations and communities?

Kate: I think, you know, living in very progressive Seattle, there’s a, a push for, make everything inclusive all at once. And I, I think, you know, if we talk red, blue divides, the, the blue divide feels that it feels so threatened. It’s too much difference to take in at once. So what’s the, the measured pace of unsafety to then integrate that into safety before you take on the next unsafety. That’s really complicated when there’s so many identities that can feel unsafe. [Derek: Yeah.] Where do you start? Which one is the, and that of course brings us back to the contextual piece of who’s your neighbor? [Derek: Yeah.] The church that you consulted with who really wanted to work with Black folk. Well that’s not your neighbor. Go talk to your immigrant neighbors. It’s, which, which even that is, is almost like, so recognized as so foreign that it wasn’t safe enough. We weren’t, we weren’t ready. We can’t feel safe enough engaging that much difference.

Derek: Which I actually think is as much, um, biology as it is sociology. I think maybe that’s the other sort of piece I think the, the, my body won’t take in, but so many people at one time, in terms of being part of my gathering. And I don’t think we give credence, credence to that is – I will at some point decide, well you’re not, you’re not all with me. Whether I think of it as um, ethically good or not is like, well I’m just going to include a certain number of people cause it’s too much for me to take in to feel safe. And so I do think these are the conversations we’re gonna have and struggle with into a future, is what, what does it mean that Christ holds all things together? What does it mean that the, you know, um, uh, I, the body takes in the brokenness of us, the woundedness of us as well as the arrogant, the elite of us, it, that capacity, it’s easier for me to take the broken than elite. So even in terms of those boundary, how do we have a certain sensitivity that there is some need for containment , but the same time we’re being called to not have too much judgment about what we keep out. And there is a tension in that that I think part of what’s splitting the Christian Church, particularly evangelical church, right now are some of those questions who are the insiders and who are the outsiders? And it cannot be a political question. Um, when we turn it over, politics does not have the capacity to integrate and hold those outsiders as insiders. And so, um, we have to find other voices within us, other streams that really cause us to be open and compassionate and caring and identifying and belonging to people who are not like us. 

Kate: Yeah. I really like identity as a source of containment. It’s not the only one, but a way to think about how do we create enough safety and enough unsafety, but enough safety. Um, which is maybe a good pivot for, as we’re talking about identity and some assumption that many of our listeners might be leaders in their own context, whether that’s formal leadership or um, active ministries from other roles. What do leaders do with organizational identity now that we start thinking about this and hearing the importance of it, what’s the next step?

Derek: Um, it’s interesting– what came to mind when you asked the question. I hadn’t thought this before I asked the question. And um, it goes back to the story of Jacob becoming Israel. And um, Jacob is faced, after he has his experience in the desert, with the angel, he’s touched, wounded, if you will, in this sort of new awareness. It’s a couple chapters later. Jacob has to be reminded again. Oh, by the way, I changed your name. I think part of leader’s responsibility in that sense is to remind us that, by the way, our name is this and it is to call us back to the mission. I appreciate Keith Anderson’s tutelage of me, um, and my former role, when he was president, he’d say: mission, mission, mission. And it’s to remind us that hey, we, we actually have a higher calling that we’lll, in our practice of living in the complicated things, that we have to live in, forget that we still have to have a thriving towards something a bit larger than the logistics that we have to work out [Kate: Or the next crisis that’s in front of us] or the next crisis we have to manage. Yeah. And I think first and foremost, the leader’s responsibility is to keep saying, Hey, we have a higher purpose. We have a mission. We’ve gotta live into that mission and remind us of our story, if you will. It’s kind of rehearsing. I think the other thing is, um, leaders have to help their groups, their congregations, their organizations, um, to figure out in these times, how do you negotiate tough times? How do you negotiate traumas? How do you negotiate, um, what is restoration might look like? How do we hold together in the midst of a rocky sea. Um, you know, I’ve used this story of, you know, in this time, this season post-Covid of Jesus asking us the cross the sea and “don’t you care that we perish?” and Jesus does Jesus’s thing, if you will, and they’re marvel, wow. You’ve got more, more than we know is here, active here. But I think in that same sense, the leader has to keep rising up in the midst of storms and saying, it’ll be okay. We’ll get to the other side. Um, and we have to trust God to get us to the other side. So there’s a, there’s a certain reminder again that the story is not just simply who are we but where we’re going. I think there’s also a need to kind of remind us, um, that there will be challenges in suffering along the way. There’ll be things we have to engage even to increase our resilience, to not give us a sort of notion that just because we’re doing it, we’re special, it’s gonna be, but to remind us that no, it’s gonna be a challenge for our formation. The rockiness is important for our becoming. We can’t simply become because we think a better idea, that we have to have embodied experiences. So I think there’s both reminders of mission, uh, kind of encouragement that we can get through and also some sort of anticipation of what we might have to face that leaders are almost called into. And lastly, I, you know, I think, uh, there’s an interesting piece which may become harder for some folk, but I think more important, particularly for churches, I think your folks have to know you care for them. And that means you’ve gotta grow your own compassion capacity. Um, you have to deal with your own personal stuff so that your threat and fear meter doesn’t pop off. And um, because I think people are over, can be overwhelming, but they need to know that you can sit with them in some of that overwhelmingness and care for them and have some sense of who they are. That can be challenging cause I think it challenges your own capacities if you haven’t prepared yourself for that. It can feel like just way too much and sometimes, quite frankly, it needs to be boundaried and it is way too much. Yeah. Um, but those are the things I think that come to mind when you ask the question.

Kate: Yeah. I think other times to the too-muchness, sometimes, um, you know, we talk a lot about the first group that any of us is in is our family group. And the way that we learn to be in a group is what, how our family trains us. So sometimes if a particular congregant acts in a way that activates your family story, your threat response might be [ Derek: good question], more reactive than you want to be. And so that, that piece of a leader doing their work, you can really derail the direction that you’ve set your organization to go into in just a couple minutes of an unregulated response. Um,

Derek: Yeah, I do think that, right. I think I read somewhere in someone’s book, um, the promise that leaders that every, every leader will have betrayals. Every, there’s no leader who won’t have something happen that you feel betrayed by the people you’re leading. And if you only respond to that as a threat and without a degree of compassion, because in some ways you’re cued up from your own history, your own family dynamic, the situation as it is, that you can fall back into old defensive ways of being, which may not help resolve or bring that person or release that person in a way that is supportive of the mission and supportive of the organization. And so I do think you, you have to at least be aware of your vulnerabilities. I don’t think you get to fix them. But you do have to be aware of your vulnerabilities and how we trip

Kate: Up. This is kind of a nice, uh, circle to have made that we’re ending back in that matter of fit between a leader and organization, um, and really individual identity and organizational identity. And especially when you’re in a leadership role, how much your identity has the ability to impact or change. I wanna, um, because I like to end with the practicality of things, I, I wanna kinda recap what I was hearing. I may put a frame from, from your responses on what leaders should do with some of this. What you really talked about was memory which we might call faith; vision which we might call hope; and then safety, care, and compassion which we might call love. So just wanted tp, like, as I was hearing that through the frame, I wanted to offer that back as a maybe easier to hold. Um,

Derek: And somewhere that’s in my notes, by the way,

Kate: Faith, hope, and love. It usually is. And the other piece I wanted to add, add that I think you, you almost do this so naturally, whether that’s by character, profession is listen, like I, I see you spend so much time with your direct reports, with students, with alumni, hearing about their experiences of the school and taking in those stories. Even your story of doing the marketing consulting with, um, the man with his eyes closed and you crying, him crying, well that’s, you’re listening to him, both his words and his experience so deeply and then bringing that into that symbolic frame, that story that you’re able to tell back the church about itself. But I just wanna really encourage that a lot of, a lot of what we’ve talked about today for identity really starts with that, with listening to where are people, where are your people and what’s the commonalities, what’s the common thread between those stories that you can narrate back to them.

Derek: And, and I want, I want to add to that cause I can hear my wife in my head saying, you don’t listen to me. Um, and so the sense that, um, it is at times easier to listen than at others. And, um, when our people who we are leading cue us up in those same family ways, it can sometimes be easier to –”I know what you’re gonna say”– and we can not listen deeply. And I think that’s why I’ll, I’ll, you know, in my piece in talking about, again, deep stories, um, and I wanna say, the sort of challenge of hearing below what’s being said.

Derek: Um, and that’s listening at an emotional level, that’s listening to where you see yourself identifying with, they become an insider for you, not someone you’re trying to hold out even as an outsider or an insider who you’ve moved to the outside. Because you know what they’re going to say already or you know their critique of you. And I think that’s, those are challenging pieces. I know a lot of the critique of me and the challenge of listening, knowing, well I know you have this perspective, but I still need to hear what you’re saying, feels important if, in fact, I’m going to be the person to encourage us around our collective sense of vision about where we are trying to get to. Not just simply what I want you all to do. And so I think there’s, that comes with a certain amount of support in community. And so leaders should not find themselves alone in their work. And the listening is because at some point someone listened to you. And my hope is that leaders would find people who can actually listen to them, not be in isolation, to think they have to be the holders of people’s truths without, in some ways, bearing their own to someone. Or else I think that also sets them up to kind of be burnt out and worn out from the work.

Kate: Put put that back in the faith, hope, love frame, the practice of receiving love and then letting that feed your faith and hope so that you have more to give out. Cause it can’t just be a unidirectional. Well I feel like you and I could just be recording this whole season on our own. There’s so much here. Um, but I’m really excited to get, to keep talking with you and invite some other people in to learn from and learn with and maybe play with some of our frames a little bit. 

Derek: Sounds good. Thank you. 

Kate: Thank you.