Organizational Identity Season Epilogue | Podcast Season 03, Episode 06
In this final episode of our podcast series on Organizational Identity, co-hosts Dr. J. Derek McNeil and Kate Rae Davis, MDiv, revisit the many rich conversations they’ve had with our guests this season and highlight some of the key takeaways for leaders, congregations, and organizations. We hope these conversations have supported you as you strive to understand the identity and purpose of your faith community in the midst of changing contexts.
Thank you for listening! We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for future topics you’d like to hear us engage. Please click here to let us know what you think.
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.
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Kate: Welcome to Transforming Engagement in the podcast where we have conversations about changes that serve the common good and a higher good. Today. Dr. J. Derek McNeil and I are recapping the last season on organizational identity. Hi Derek.
Derek: Hey, good to see you, Kate.
Kate: You too. So we have had conversations with quite a diverse array of people and very different experiences, identities themselves, and today we’re trying to come up with a few themes from what we learned across all those very different sets of experiences. What’s something that stood out to you?
Derek: Well, I think maybe an overall something that stood out for me was a reminder that we’re in a season of change and dramatic shifting and all the conversations we’ve had, to some degree, either about change or stability and how we manage those. Some tensions, I think, coming out of dramatic sort of cultural and health pandemic and things like that. I think a lot of organizations have changed or changing and the question of their identity in the midst of that change, how it is at least either being affirmed or disaffirmed or eroded or strengthened qualities. So I appreciate the sense of challenge that certainly came out when we talked to folk in pastoral ministry. And also the challenge of staff and staffing and what it means to be a certain type of staff in a certain place was very loud. And then some of the internal things about, hey, shifting culture, and also what does it mean to be this organization in this cultural context. So a lot of good conversation, and I think we’ll be kind of reflecting on it for a while to come, but just appreciated the guests that we had, and some of the thoughtfulness they shared with us.
Kate: Yeah, change did feel loud and I like what you said at the end there – both the internal to an organization – Gail spoke a bit about decisions of her staff makeup and what their identity is has been and is becoming in this more increasingly post-Covid era. And Melissa’s framing of that too as a, do you understand this change as an expression of your identity or an adaptive, adaptation, from who you’ve been and the tensions that can arise from that?
Derek: And I appreciate it. I think it, an –putting those things together– Melissa’s sense of language about heritage. And I think often, well at least in this particular social, cultural period, we have a lot of questions about our heritage or our history or our traditions and there can be sort of blanket resistance to tradition or blanket resistance to those things that were historically a part of our heritage. And I think she challenged me to think about how do we actually take in our heritage and mingle it with the currency or the current moment we’re in as opposed to attempting to manage the current moment by jettisoning our heritage. And so that’s an important tension in terms of particularly the story of identity and this notion that we come through a period of shaping that is our heritage. And even though we may want to shed some of those things of our heritage, it is still a part of us that has to be integrated in. So I came away thinking the challenge is not shedding, but integrating. How do we see ourselves now in this place, in this time with the sort of events that we’re expressing? So. And I recall you were struck by one of those conversations about values.
Kate: Yeah, well as you brought up heritage, I I’m hearing now heritage is kind of linking somewhat of values and stories in the midst of change because–asking about Diana Butler Bass who wrote a book on re-trading and helping congregations to identify their historical values but then change the behaviors that they live those values into. We talked about that a bit with Rick Beaton, but the part of that traditioning is really that story. It’s how were those values formed? How were they handed down–and be able to continue to tell that story and pass on that heritage to the next generation really bridges those two pieces. And I think that –I’ll appreciate Rick’s–I can just picture him kind of cringing at me going back to values and he would say behaviors–that the commitments to behaviors over our ideals and I think story can offer us that too, can offer us the invitation to live into a different set of behaviors rather than just holding on to espousing the values that don’t necessarily impact what our day-to-day looks like.
Derek: I think in that too, linking the challenge of connecting behaviors with values or with a sense of who I am, again in a moment, where we are prone to calling people hypocritical or not living into their Christian values or not something in terms of their values and to realize that is much more difficult than maybe it initially presents itself ideologically. And I do appreciate Rick’s focus on behaviors, because it allows us to retell our story around what we’ve done in a new valued sort of way. In other words, we did do that, we were able to, we might consider and what does that mean about who we are? So linking behavior and stories feels important. I think that the thing that with Melissa, there was, it wasn’t a sense of this is a history, here’s a story. There was also a sense of we are living in the moment and we’re creating this story now.
And I think that’s the challenge of building communities that are more open and expansive is that we are living the story, not just simply writing down what happened. We are living it, and writing it as it occurs. And how does that create in us behaviors that are more generous and generative, how does it create in us a sense of our belonging, our belovedness as a community, and how does that create in us a sense of mission, not escaping the world but engaging it, and with a set of traditions that can actually carry forward into a future as opposed to have to be dropped off. And so, some good challenge to the notion that because something looks like something then that means it can’t move into a future.
Kate: And you’re touching on a way to hold across differences and discourse. And I’m hearing the focus on behaviors over values could actually be a way to bridge some of our divides that are so loud in the country right now. Katherine Hayhoe is an environmental scientist who is now famous for speaking to evangelical Christians, conservative Christians. And she doesn’t try to convince them of the value of caring for land or caring for watersheds or she doesn’t talk about that. She’ll talk more about the policies that would make it more affordable for their kid to drive a pickup truck into town when they need to because it would’ve run electric instead of gas. And yeah, they’re totally behind that, 100% behind that. So we can get to the same behaviors even with very different motivating values and that still serves the common good without having to enter into this ideological rift, which I think when Linda talked about values being human-centered, it’s another way to approach that same frame of values and behaviors. I’m gaining – this whole conversation’s going to be increasingly interested in the relationship between our values and behaviors, what we believe and how we act. And it’s a conversation that goes both ways. And I think we, something in our culture, we think that the values are the source of a stream that only pours out from that.
Derek: They’re almost as has, they’ve been talked about, abstract values that I have to be loving or I have to be something or other. And they almost have an abstract quality when we say ’em that way or these are my values. And really we’re talking about the sort of behavior between people or the behavior between our institutions and behavior with other folk in our team, our group, our community, and how we live out this sort of certain type of ethic behaviorally with them. And I like that sort of word becoming flesh quality as opposed to the stagnancy of the simply the written thing – we agreed to a set of seven things. How we struggle to kind of live and become a community and try to live into behaviorally those things we think are important for us to live into.
Kate: Word made flesh makes me think it’s also because it’s the word of the historical scriptures made flesh in Jesus, which then our then made a word again in the Newer Testament writings of scripture, which then are made of flesh again through our living it out. The conversation of that continues again both ways.
Derek: And I think, and I’m not sure if we’ve had an explicit conversation, but this is what comes to mind at the moment: living together is not just loving, it is also challenging, it is also, tussling is my word, of course. It is also holding each other in both comfort and accountability, and I don’t never, don’t like the word accountability when it’s used, because it almost has a judgment quality of performance as opposed to we are family, are we not? We are friends, are we not? We care for each other, do we not? And that sort of challenge of accountability and the relationship and then how should we belong? How should we engage? How should we struggle? How should we fail and recover and repair? And so it brings the mind a sort of value that’s much more dynamic than ideological. And again, I want to contrast these things as they’re different or separate things, but they appear to be different values. Once I identify what it is I think is important and how do I struggle with you or someone else to live into these things. And this is faith and works.
And it was lovely again to have these conversations. I particularly appreciated maybe as we talk about behaviors, Linda’s take on practices and the fun way that she got her community to kind of shift as a culture or the cultural practices. And I think sometimes we have to think of the values or behaviors as practices, not statements, propositional. And how do we energize our meetings? How do we energize our projects? How do we energize our dynamics with each other, with these practices of belonging or practices that allow us to express who we are. We have a, I won’t call Gene’s name, but I’ve called Gene’s name, a CFO, who I appreciate his, made a statement to me the other day really about how much he feels more comfortable bringing his whole self to work,
Which was I, I’ll say precious in a deep sort of way, and particularly coming out of a business situation. And I think –and Linda’s in a business situation–how do you bring a sense of belonging to a space that historically, heritage, says we don’t bring that to work, we leave that at home, but how do we in some ways humanize each other in places we spend a huge amount of time, and will struggle with a huge amount of together aloneness without that sense of belonging and bringing ourselves to our work. So [Kate: yeah], again, a lot of good learning, rich learning about practices. And caring for your people was important, an important one.
Kate: I felt in hers, her descriptions of her staff time, that sense of play. And it made me, I’m thinking now on reflection, how, and I don’t know if this is Christian organizations or just a kind of very Seattle Schoolness about us, where we’re often very serious about our rhythms. I think it’s also a church thing. We have Advent and it’s all anticipation and revelation and then we have Lent, and that’s very heavy in its own way. When we do practices as a rhythm, they tend to be heavy. And it felt really refreshing for her to talk about these playful all-staff meetings. I’m like, oh yeah, you can have rhythms that are also fun rhythms outside of Christmas Day. And I appreciate that sensibility. I think it’s easy to lose touch with, in the, I’ll say human services fields, counseling, psychology, and pastoral spaces, because people usually come to us with the heavier things. And it can be harder to get to that fun.
Derek: I think with it certainly may be part of a Christian tradition and us for sure <laugh> as a school. [Kate:yes]
But I also think it has cultural heritage pieces, the things that sometimes we call, we don’t acknowledge as heritage. This desire to save the world, in us, as a school, is not held by all populations around the globe in the sense of Christian people. Yes, some Christian folk have a great deal, more fun than we do, but dare I say, maybe it might be part of a European tradition to want to save the world in a certain type of way, which means you’ve got to control the world in a certain type of way. And I think this is part of the fullness of the church and it’s multi-ethnicity and multicultural space that we don’t take advantage of. We don’t take advantage of the celebration of other churches or fully know how to engage it. We become bystanders to our tradition that we haven’t lived into culturally, but is a part of our Christian tradition.
And so, part of that sense that we are held in this sort of unity is lost when we kind of find ourselves in cultural enclaves in that unity. And then we probably deify the cultural part that may really be cultural and not part of the larger church or body. And so I think that was probably in terms of Gail’s conversation, she spoke maybe the complexity of that, being a multi-multi church if you will. But there’s a celebration in us learning to celebrate together in at multi-ness and recognizing the different aspects of us will bring different part of the celebration or the seriousness. Neither is good or bad, and how we integrate those things into us or see those as part of our heritage as well. And so, sometimes when we talk about heritage, we think it is much more culturally singular than Christian. And how do we live into the sort of heritages that are part of our birthright, new birthright, that would allow us to be more expansive in certain ways and more celebratory in others and maybe a little less controlling.
Kate: Another theme that we didn’t talk, we talked about with Gail a bit, but less when our other conversations, is the relationship between a leader’s identity and the organizational identity. And Gail touched on that, especially leading as a woman, leading as a woman in evangelical spaces. But even putting Linda’s playfulness through that lens. Oh, of course, their team is playing together because Linda’s playful, and how much a leader’s personality can really influence the personality of an organization as a whole, by the people that are attracted to that leader, and the way that the leader structures their meetings, their work, their agendas.
Derek: Now I think this is why that the sort of caveat of the what a leader works through in terms of their own emotional and spiritual and psychological dynamic becomes really important for the church and or the organization that they’re leading. And sometimes we think of leadership as “go where I want you to go” or “go where I’m leading you to”. And I think some of the rich part of leadership is “help me to become, and so I help you to become”. And so the mutuality of becoming and working on the things that have wounded us that we bring into the present in terms of our leadership, because we ask people to live with our woundedness, and if we’re not aware of our woundedness, we’ll ask them to distort themselves to live in our woundedness or their taste on leadership will ask them to distort themselves for the sake of the leader.
So that means a sort of mutual growing that feels important. And I think there is a leader, but there’s leaders. I want everybody to kind of take some degree of self-authorization for that healing of us as a community and not blame the leader when they can’t do it or the leadership–we can get into it. But I think you’re very right in terms of those, the folk who have been called or chosen or identified in those roles have to do their own work, their own work internally, their self-work as well as the work of shifting the culture or the identity of the institution. And those things are not unrelated or not uncorrelated. They’re connected.
Kate: And are never done, are both always in becoming, that sense of mutuality that I would encourage leaders to have done some amount of that work before they get too far into a leadership position, but that it’s always going to be continuing to reveal new parts of ourselves, and new ways we get activated. And goodness, I’m remembering when you transitioned to The Seattle School’s Presidency, which was a rapid transition, and I called my team together to tell them of the changes, and, young team, we’d been together for, I don’t know, a year at that point. [Derek:Mm-hmm]. A year and some change. And my message to them, they asked, what does this mean for us? And I said, Derek will spend less time with us, and I’m going to need more help and learning how to become a leader that you all need. And that changed the group dynamics so wildly. People invested so much more when I was open about I don’t know how to do this. You all have to help me figure out what you need for me to be able to do this. It was such a –I could feel the dynamic shifting as that meeting was unfolding. And I’m curious for you leading in The Seattle School and you’ve led in The Seattle School in some various roles over the years, if there’s moments that you can feel any of that mutual shaping, the way that you’re shaping us or the way that we are shaping you.
Derek: It’s interesting. I just got off a conversation with a former, our VP for advancement. We were talking, he was talking about how he’s praying for us and
He asked me how I was doing. And it is a little bit different in this role than other roles. I have said in this role, it’s the role that I need the most help in. Most of what I do is facilitate and support, and if anything really gets done, it won’t be probably my hands, it’ll probably be somebody else’s hands that I’m supporting. So that was a big shift for me, and to have some hands on, I could have some sense of effectiveness because I could do it. This, I have to manage my trust in other people and trust in that regard. So there’s learning in it, though, I’m not sure if they think of it or you would think of it as learning for me, but I’m learning to let go. I’m learning to manage my frustration, learning to manage my control needs and to facilitate us doing something.
And so it moves away from me doing something to us, being, doing something together. And my job is to link and facilitate. And so that’s a learning even though it may not be expressed that way. And it’s a mutual piece, because as you talk about your team, you learned some things about them even as they were learning some things about you. You learned, okay, who can play this role for us and who can step into this and how do we find the best spot for you to be effective in the spaces? And it shifts you into that mode. And I think that’s some of the best work we do as leaders is to facilitate other people being effective. So that’s been a learning for me and a releasing and letting go. There’s loss in that and there’s tremendous gain in it. And so I think I feel the most pleasure when I see us all in the boat rowing together without talking.
There is a sense of we have internalized our own tempo in such a way that we’re rowing together without, we don’t have to talk. We know who each other is because we’ve done the homework beforehand. That’s not a magical thing. As much as we’ve done the gritty work ahead of time to chew on it, chew on each other at times, and to learn what does it mean for us as an organization to both form a story, form an identity together, have a sense of belonging, and to be able to approach a task and feel successful at it. Now, I wish that moment were always, it’s just not. It happens momentarily, then it goes away because something else makes you anxious and then you try to recapture it again and it goes away. It’s not a steady state as you’re saying, that development, that learning is not steady. But I think chiefly the challenge in learning for me is manage my own desire to be more than I possibly could be, to accept that I will fail regularly. And everyone else might not feel the sense of failure around that, but I will. And how do I negotiate my history of other failures, and the shame that may come from that and how I work with that and keep growing and realize you’re not the most important thing going on. We are. And how to turn sort of narcissistic injuries, if you will, into collective stories of “we did it together.” So that’s the learning. I think, we’re, I’m doing, still doing, I’m still.
Kate: Yeah. Yeah. I want to say lovely, but kind of with a darkness, with a heaviness, with a, [Derek:mm-hmm]. The struggle of it is something, it’s like when you watch someone finishing a marathon, it’s not just glory, it’s also oof. It cost you something to get there.
Derek: And in my mind, you’ve run a marathon and
Kate: The last two years have been at least one marathon. Yeah.
Derek: There are places when you realize I can’t do it anymore. I think that’s another sort of normal, particularly in this period of change, dramatic change. I think we’ll have moments of feeling: I can’t do it anymore or I don’t know where the energy comes do this. And this is where I think, again, we’re learning. I’m learning to say, God, I need you, not just simply humans, I need you, but God I need you. Which then speaks to my sense of some part of me not absolutely being able to do something. When I ask everybody else, I say, I could do that job if I could do that job, but I need you to do it. But when I ask God, I have to come to really kind of accept that Derek is unable in who he is and who he’s been shaped to be, unable to cross the finish line in the victorious heroic way I’d love to. But I actually think that’s when God is most full in our weakness. That’s the promise. The strength will be full.
Kate: I also think that’s for the strength of community, and again, that organizational sense of who we are, really becomes strong. I attend an Episcopal church, so we say the Nicene Creed every week. And I love that it starts with, we believe, it doesn’t matter what I believe on any given Sunday because I might not believe a single sentence of it. I might just be wracked with doubt. But we believe, and I can still come and be held by the shared belief. And I feel a very similar way in the organization– days when I’m just like, oh my goodness, is any of this working? What are we doing here? I can still show up. Because there are other people who are feeling like, Hey, we have got this. We are having a great year. It’s going to be great. And we believe even when I don’t believe. Yes. And
Derek: I think that helps coach us out of this sort of hyper-individualism that we all culturally, Western culture brings, to acknowledge that, hey, we have this and we have you. And I think that’s– that sense of mutuality or reciprocity– is important to that sense of belonging. And there’s not a day, or at least for everyone, there is going to be a day when we can’t carry it. It has to be us carrying each other across. And also in that I am a bit of the mystic where I think it also gets beyond even the we, the we falls apart at times too. We can be so terrified that we’re unable to hold each other and we will fragment. And that’s when I have to trust that God holds all things together. And as well,
Kate: That seems like a beautiful ending spot for this season. Making it bigger than the individual, bigger than the organization and leaving it to God. Yes.
Derek: And I’ll say this, and I, that’s the story we have to learn to tell the story. That’s the story we have to learn to tell.
Kate: Thanks for hosting this season with me.
Derek: Thank you.