Part 3: The “What If …?”

3. The “What If …?”

What could things look like in a world of respect where we confront abuse?

“Gold Guy Team On Life Preserver” © Scott Maxwell. Fotolia #14472111. Licensed to Brad Sargent/futuristguy.

“Gold Guy Team On Life Preserver” © Scott Maxwell. Fotolia #14472111. Licensed to Brad Sargent/futuristguy.

What could a world of good look like? Let me begin that practice with what solidified my understanding of doing good, plus doing no harm. I’ll start with those two mostly negative experiences, and then share the contrasting positive one.

But before I talk about what happened to me, let me emphasize a few points: Rarely is any person or organization 100% horrible, and the “differences” we find between ourselves and their systems cannot always be accurately labeled “abusive.” Some attitudes and actions are clearly abuse, full stop, no debate. But there is also a significant grey zone where the issues are not always so clear, or the overcontrol was not so intentional (even though harmful). Here we need to figure out the explanation for what happened, although that never excuses the damaged done.

Also, it is far too easy to overgeneralize when we’ve had a negative experience, and assume that the entire enterprise is therefore evil for everyone it touches and therefore should be abandoned for being utterly toxic. Maybe so, maybe not. I hope the tools I present will you help sift and sort through points in a given organization, to discern those that are worthy versus destructive.

That said, I also firmly believe that there are some individuals and groups that we just cannot work with. Their black-and-white, yes-or-no, win/lose mentality makes it impossible even to engage in constructive, civil conversations, let alone collaboration for the common good. In these cases, there is no such thing as dialog – only diatribes, ultimatums, and intolerance for any who refuse to wholly accept their staunch viewpoints.

Often, such people don’t really want to work toward the common good with anyone else anyway. But that isn’t always apparent at the outset, especially if they pretend to be respectful and engaging. It can take time for even the most discerning person to figure out that there is an unyielding agenda involved, and that so-called collaboration is really just a guise for co-opting others to siphon off their ideas, energy, resources, and/or reputation.

So – here is my concentrated “espresso version” of how things unfolded with two churches where their leaders and systems proved destructive over time. While each account is a bit longish compared to other sections or anecdotes I’ll be sharing eventually, they’re foundational snapshots of experiences that significantly shaped the material in this volume.

Church #1 – A Culture of Conformity

Church #1 began from scratch. It was a start-up church plant in a place where many people are spiritually-oriented but not particularly engaged in formal religion. People here seem to kind of like Jesus and some of his teachings, but haven’t always had positive experiences in their encounters with churches or Christians. I get where they’re coming from. It’s a struggle to live like the one we claim to follow. Isn’t that so, though, for anyone from any kind of philosophy, spirituality, or religion?

Anyway, this church’s charismatic leader used a conventional vision-casting approach to get people interested in following him. He laid out an unconventional vision for the ideal he was aiming for: He wanted to develop a participatory community in this “post-Christendom” culture where Christians are no longer the dominant voice in society. How we would serve would depend on who we were and our gifts and abilities, not just importing some pre-packaged programs developed somewhere else and slotting people into a role as a drone or a clone. When so many churches seem to have so little local flavor, this sounded absolutely great!

He ended up with a fairly wide range of people on board to help him. Many were 20/30-somethings, and they processed life in ways that didn’t fit in the conventional church. So, with a guiding vision for something rather fresh and different, people showed lots of energy and enthusiasm. The church welcomed all kinds of people, and it seemed to be going and growing well!

But then something weird happened with the leader and everything changed. Personally, I think part of it was that he started experiencing culture shock. The vision he cast was not really who he was. It sounded great in theory. But he didn’t really so much embody the vision himself. It turned out he seemed to be more black-and-white in his thinking instead of wrestling with spiritual mysteries, many of which are paradoxical either/or issues. I saw him delegate and distance himself from people directly impacted by his decisions. I watched him withdraw from engaging people in ways that create robust community. He seemed to borrow others ideas instead of innovating from his own personal intuition.

Also, things were growing in ways that he couldn’t control. It seemed he was spiraling into culture shock from trying to cope. When someone has to stretch themselves that much over a period of time, mental overload and energy drain overtaxes their resiliency and flexibility. Instead of being able to snap back after stretching forward, they revert back to who they were. Has that ever happened to you? It has to me …

In his book, The Ethics of Excellence, business author Price Pritchett says, “The organization can never be what the people are not.” This church’s unique vision depended on a leader who, it turned out, didn’t carry the vision and so couldn’t live the theoretical vision he cast. So is it any surprise that it went into regression instead of progression?

As it turned out, this vision-casting leader disappeared for a few weeks and wouldn’t talk to us – myself and another co-leader he’d committed to work with – or answer our emails or voicemails. When he finally emerged from seclusion, things were never the same. The vision of a participatory community started eroding back to a conventional, hierarchical organization with a program-oriented approach that ignored the unique capabilities of volunteers. And, sadly, he became a traditional CEO leader, putting everyone and everything under his control, having first and last say on every decision. The church ended up with nothing much different to distinguish it from others in the region.

And so, gradually, different clusters of people caught on and lifted off. It didn’t take all that long until those who remained were those most like the leader – rather conventional after all, okay with being slotted into a mechanistic program role where service required anybody instead of somebody with specific abilities. It limped along, never becoming the vibrant community that had been cast in the original vision. Those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform to the leader’s legalistic norms eventually left.

I was one of those who left, after investing two years there. I kept in touch with many who remained, because they were friends before this experience. In fact, I’d invited them to join this enterprise – which I later regretted when I realized I’d been co-opted for my innovation and my network. Many of my friends likewise left over the next few years and got in touch with me to process the negative impact of their experiences. For most of us, it wasn’t just disappointing, it was actually destructive. Some of us even had severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder – a topic I’ll share more about in Volumes 2 and 3 where I address in depth the dynamics of power abuse, and how to respond to toxic systems of control.

Church #2 – A Culture of Chaos

Meanwhile, I really should’ve been more guarded about an organizational “rebound romance” with the next place I landed in … but I wasn’t. But then, how often do we get caught up in situations that eventually turn sour, because we have a drive to make a difference and we got recruited to what sounded like a good purpose? And that’s what happened to me. But if I’d known up front what was really going on underneath the surface, I don’t think I would have gotten sucked in. At least, I think I wouldn’t. But, such is life: Steps of wisdom are preceded by missteps of foolishness. Sometimes we founder or fail, and hopefully learn and move forward …

Anyway, the leader of Church #2 was charismatic, like the leader of Church #1, however with some key differences. He was far less traditional, much more creative, and exceptionally oriented toward the future.

In fact, it was his interest in the future that drew me in. More than most church pastors I knew at that time, he was aware of what could happen if an organization didn’t prepare itself to hand its legacy over to a next generation of leaders. Plus, this particular church had almost no 20/30-somethings – but wanted to welcome them in, to make it more intergenerational as a community. So, would I consider working for them as a consultant to help bridge this congregation to be more “postmodern friendly”?

That picture of a more positive future resonated with my passion for intergenerational interaction, going back to the 1970s when some of my earliest volunteer work was with an advocacy and activity group for senior citizens. This charming pastor set out the hook, and I bit the bait. I did what I could, sharing with him, staff, and parishioners about the ways the world was changing, and what it meant to connect with emerging generations. And indeed, many church members in their 40s, 50s, and 60s eventually had ah-ha moments in which some of the global changes in paradigms and cultures now made more sense.

While that was exhilarating, other aspects of this church were debilitating. Worst of all was the lack of coherence in planning, and follow-through in strategies and structures. It seemed like the vision and mission changed every few months. The lead pastor would get excited about The Next Big Idea on the relevance horizon, and make sure the budget was there to send a large contingent to The Next Big Idea Training Seminar. But by the time we trainees had gone to the event, read the materials, and were ready to follow his leadership in implementing it – he was on to The Next Bigger Thing already.

In short, charming turned to alarming. What a tremendous, terrible waste of financial and human resources! This reinforced my understanding that there can be just as much fall-out from lack of follow-through and too much flexibility, as there can be from implementing a programmatic regime with too much rigidity. Again, these were things I don’t recall having been taught on or talked about in seminary courses on church planting or leadership or administration.

Also, there was a horrific lack of documentation on, well, all kinds of planning issues that should have mattered. I’m not noting this simply because, as a writer and archivist, I value documents. No, if you fail to write down what your leadership teams’ decisions are; when, when, and how they reached them; who is responsible for this or that to-do item – then sooner or later, it takes you off track. Who remembers clearly what was supposed to be done, when it is days, weeks, or months later after the meeting where the decisions were reached? What happens if a crucial action item or deadline gets overlooked? You can’t have accountability or transparency when you don’t invest in the simple art of note-taking accuracy.

Another odd element in the mix was that we weren’t really allowed to critique things, or suggest how to improve processes and procedures. We were encouraged only to be “positive.” Analyzing any values, beliefs, or behaviors for gaps or excesses would automatically be seen as “negative.” And while constructive criticism was discouraged because it deteriorated “community,” this actually reinforced the pastor’s centralized control.

In fact, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants strategies and structures can break down trust while shifting all control into the hands of the leader. And overdependence on any one person on a team warps appropriate authority into inappropriate authoritarianism, which, as I have repeatedly encountered, is an almost automatic segue into abuse of power. You might not expect that to happen in an environment of apparent freedom and creativity, and yet, surprisingly, a service environment of chaos can turn out to be just as controlling as one of compliance.

Sorry if this seems overly negative. But the reality is, without the backdrop of understanding how systems end up abusive, aren’t our attempts to implement purely positive best practices likely to flop? These two churches were not completely negative experiences. However, doing some good cannot justify doing any harm, nor cancel out its effects. And some of those destructive impacts can take survivors years to deal with: wounded spirits, implantation of severe self-doubts, post-traumatic stress disorder, broken relationships with family and friends.

But there is hope. Leaders and participants on teams and in organizations can find ways to do good without inflicting harm, or at least put strong measures in place to prevent harmfulness. They can also reconcile relationships and ameliorate personal damage when something does happen to go wrong. Here follows some of my experiences and perceptions with one of this type of healthy, sustainable organizations. And, from my vantage point of 40 years experiences, it’s in my top three non-profits that I’ve ever worked with! Which is why I’m still with them, 10 years later …

Constructive Impact: Collaboration, Generations, Integration

Parallel to the very draining experiences of compliance and chaos in those two churches, I was privileged to observe the beginnings in 2003 of what eventually became Matryoshka Haus – “M Haus” for short. It kept my hope to make a difference for good afloat when those other situations threatened to sink it. M Haus is a network that’s been described as “part mission incubator, part think tank, part social enterprise, and part creative company. We are an umbrella organization that both initiates our own projects and provides support and resources for our partners’ projects.”

Matryoshka are those sets of Russian nesting dolls, and Matryoshka Haus activities and ministries are intentionally created to fit with and fit within one another. They are also designed from an organic approach that helps them be viable, adaptable, reproducible, and sustainable – all key features we expect from living organisms that survive and thrive, so why not expect them from impactful organizations? M Haus projects also sometimes have virtual connections, online project management components, and international constituencies. So, the multiplicity of its dimensions makes for an excellent case study in contemporary mission statements and methods.

This network was founded by social entrepreneur Shannon Hopkins early in the 2000 decade, and she’s built it from the grassroots, gradually and relationally. Shannon started up her own sales business in her 20s, and has used those entrepreneurship skills since then to collaborate with people from the UK, Europe, North America, and South Pacific primarily, to catalyze a wide range of collaborations:

  • Group journeys along the El Camino de Santiago gave a nature-based and historically rich metaphor for travelers to consider their personal, spiritual connections among other people, creation, and God.
  • Doxology was an interactive art exhibition that was staged and staffed in the UK and US by an intergenerational team of singles, couples, and families.
  • NET: Network of Entrepreneurial Talent is a connection hub for building relationships through professional dialog and mentoring, for next generations of social entrepreneurs in the UK.
  • The Truth Isn’t Sexy was a successful UK campaign in 2006-2008 to address the demand side of human trafficking through paying for sex. This was on the leading edge through considering demand-side dynamics; it received commendations and awards for its “best practices,” and sparked political action in Parliament. Other organizations in the US have adopted some of its approaches.
  • Sweet Notions emerged as a spin-off of The Truth Isn’t Sexy, as some team members searched for ongoing ways to empower women from difficult backgrounds like homelessness, violence, trafficking to rebuild a healthy life that is emotionally, relationally, and financially sustainable.
  • The Transformational Index provides a system of tools for planning outcomes, implementing processes, and evaluating and revising endeavors that involve better lives for individuals and communities. It also gives a set of “indicators” for change outcomes, plus ways to measure the impact in qualitative terms, not just in the usual quantitative ways of money and time spent. (I am one of the three co-authors of “The T.I.,” along with Shannon Hopkins and Andy Schofield.)
  • Good Brunches is a regular gathering for good people to get together over good food for great conversations about pursuing the common good.

There are probably other successful networks that catalyze such a wide range of projects. I suspect it’s far more usual to create a template for just one purpose or project and then transplant it. But the main thing at M Haus has never been to start and then maintain our own projects. Rather, it’s about developing a design process and tools for creative solutions to all kinds of transformational activities to aid “for-benefit” groups. That’s why I’ve geared Do Good, Plus Do No Harm to complement Matryoshka Haus processes, and especially The Transformational Index.

I’ve constantly been impressed during my years of participation in M Haus by our core values and productive processes, to see them lived out in relationships. To me, these are living demonstrations of what “doing good, plus doing no harm” can look like. Consider, for instance, a summary list of the core values for how we choose to connect with one another. (We’ll look at the full document later, and it includes more than just a statement of values.)

The seven core values described in a 2007 document include:

  1. Holistic learning, with content experienced in context and in community.
  2. Just inclusivity, treating each other as colleagues and respecting one another’s perspectives.
  3. Accessibility with responsibility, showing trust by sharing life together and persevering in these relationships.
  4. Reciprocal learning and mutuality, which creates an environment of trust that allows for risk.
  5. Fluid leadership where no one person oversees everything, where all members participate, and where each leads in some aspects according to where he or she is best capable.
  6. Entrepreneurship, being free to be creative and take bold risks, kept in responsible balance with critical reflection and community discernment.
  7. Independence with interdependence, so we as individuals are in connection with community, in order to prevent crass individualism or mere social conformity.

Does any of that seem to you like how the world should be? It sure does to me. These values aren’t just intellectual concepts – though highly thoughtful people formed the team that wrote them. They aren’t just nice things this community aspires to. They are concrete ways we create a workable environment for personal and social transformation, ways to drive our imaginations and activities to work for a better future for all people. It’s something to aim for, something to embody along the way. And I’ve seen it as a constant in all my years relating with M Haus members.

I’m sure you’ll see these various values interwoven throughout this book. They represent what I have long resonated with, and the best of all I’ve wanted to become. I’ll mention Matryoshka Haus projects occasionally and there will also be some online resources for using M Haus as a case study in emerging quadruple bottom line change that respects community, ecology, economy, and spirituality – or, if you prefer the alliterated form: people, planet, profits, and purpose.

And I’m looking forward to Chapter 6 and sharing one of the key processes that I believe gives M Haus its sustainable momentum: It composites teams with complementary roles of catalyzers with project managers, who actually respect the gifts of each other, listen to each other’s questions and suggestions, and adjust the plans so that doing good can be done even better!

(Okay, a hint of what’s to come: If project managers run everything, the team eventually becomes mechanistic and compliance-oriented, and it fails. If catalyzers run everything, the team eventually wears out from the chaos and lack of clear, reasonable processes and procedures. Sound familiar, ala Church #1 and Church #2?)

And now, on to Chapter 1 and the topic of paradigms: one of the key sources for both grating conflict and great collaborations …

*     *     *     *     *     *     *

Do Good, Plus Do No Harm

How to Create Safe Transcultural Connection Zones for Sustainable Social Transformation


Let’s Get Started! Getting the Big Picture of Meaningful and Measurable Transformation …

  1. What is “Do Good, Plus Do No Harm” About? – The need for balance by both doing good and preventing harm.
  2. The “What, So What, and Now What” of this training curriculum – Building blocks, benefits, and next steps.
  3. The “What If …?” – What could things look like in a world of respect where we confront abuse?

Chapter 1. Paradigms and Pathways

  1. Paradigm as Narrative Source, Trajectory as Story Arc
  2. Identifying, Tracking, and Measuring Elements in a Trajectory of Transformation
  3. Discernment and Decision-Making

Chapter 2. Safe Meeting Ground for Working on the Common Good

  1. Identifying, Mentoring, and Promoting “Safe” People
  2. Creating a Safe Collaborative Work Environment
  3. Developing Safe Processes for Quadruple Bottom Line Activities

Chapter 3. Suitable Mission for the Participants and Recipients You Actually Engage

  1. Mission, Vision, and Purpose
  2. Key Sources of Conflict in Workstyle Communications and Cultures
  3. Resources and Problems, Participants and Recipients – Maintaining a Dynamic Tension

Chapter 4. Sensitive Messages Across Cultures as Peer Participants in Purposeful Service

  1. “Cultural ReCon” and Discerning Cultural Distance
  2. Abiding with Humility, and Aiming for Social Realitopia
  3. Moving From Cross-Cultural Engagement to Transcultural Transformation

Chapter 5. Survivable Methods in the Face of Unavoidable Internal Changes and Radical External Trends

  1. Drivers of Global Change and Surfing the Waves of the Future
  2. Organizations, Intergenerations, and The History-Bridging Team
  3. Strategizing and Structuring to Survive Long Term

Chapter 6. Sustainable Momentum for a Legacy that Lasts Beyond Two Iterations or Generations

  1. Strategy, Creativity, and Continuity
  2. Structures and Flexibility
  3. Culture and Resiliency

Chapter 7. Peers and Teamwork

  1. The Key Art of Strength-Based Compositing
  2. Elements and Paradoxes of Peerage
  3. Six “I” Roles in a Pluralistic Setting

Chapter 8. Partnerships and Collaboration

  1. The What: Partnership Concepts and Contours
  2. The Who: Wise Selection of Collaborators
  3. The How: Processes, Procedures, and Practical Issues

Chapter 9. Robust Project Impacts and Transformation Metrics

  1. Piecing Together a Transformation Plan, Introducing The Transformational Index
  2. Planning and Implementation on Three Paradigm Levels: Theoretical, Organizational, and Relational
  3. Evaluating and Revising, with Both Qualitative and Quantitative Measures and Markers

Final Project for Group Analysis/Deconstruction and Application/Construction:

  • The Legacy of Three Generations of Social Transformation from the 1980s Until Now – Band Aid, Live Aid, Farm Aid, We are the World, Hands Across America, and more …