Organizational Leadership and Change
The organization for which I work, the National Council of Churches, has been the main vehicle for ecumenical relationships in this country for more than 50 years, having morphed from its predecessor organization that was itself around for some 50 years before that. Ecumenism is first and foremost the search for Christian unity through the reconciliation of theological issues that divide the churches. While the NCC and similar organizations are engaged in this pursuit, equally importantly they witness to the churches’ common convictions through advocacy on issues related to justice and peace. The NCC has built a proud legacy through its work on such issues.
Among other things testifying to this legacy are photographs of NCC leaders marching for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King, Jr.; lingering anger in some circles for its opposition to the Vietnam War; lasting friendships with Russian, Chinese, and Cuban Christians for being a lifeline to their churches during more perilous political times; a reputation for consistently bringing the perspective of indigenous Arab Christians to Middle East advocacy; financial reserves resulting from an anonymous $7 million gift for taking a stand against the Iraq War; and rebuilt lives because of sustained efforts to aid those affected by Hurricane Katrina. On these and other issues, the churches’ message of justice and peace has been clear and unchanging.
But the context in which this message is proclaimed has been changing. Due to various societal factors, decreasing membership in most churches and increasing numbers of people uninterested in religious affiliation are the norm, with the result being that the churches’ voice on critical issues no longer receives the same hearing as it did in decades past. Even the primary pursuit of unity among churches no longer seems to possess the same urgency, given these same factors. So how do you retool a historic organization to be more effective in a changing religious landscape, especially at a time of limited resources?
One way to approach this task is to take the steps customarily associated with organizational planning and change management. Redrafting the mission statement; narrowing priorities; realigning program; spinning off initiatives that can stand alone or find a good fit with other organizations; attending to board governance issues; redrawing membership responsibilities and benefits; rewriting bylaws; doing strategic, communications, and development planning; overhauling the budget: all of these are part of the NCC’s reorganization. Spearheading the overall process has been a change management consultant hired as the transitional executive leader; senior management team members, including myself, have been tasked with planning and implementing the envisioned change. Though participating in all of these processes, my efforts have focused primarily on membership, development, and program.
What does this mean on a daily basis? Last week I drafted the development plan for the new board development committee; in the weeks ahead I’ll edit it before presentation to the board for adoption. After months of redesigning how the programmatic work of the NCC will get done moving forward, two staff colleagues and I presented it to the board a few weeks ago; just this morning I awoke to an email from one of these colleagues summarizing board members’ reactions to the evolving redesign, and in the coming weeks we will tweak it according to their feedback. This week or next I’ll conclude the negotiations with another organization to which one of our spun-off initiatives is moving. And in the months ahead, I’ll likely play a role in the strategic planning process to come in the next phase of the transition to a “new” organization.
It may sound funny, but today my CV has as much about executive leadership as it does about specific content areas of expertise. Indeed, over the years, through senior staff and board positions, I have learned and done much in the way of executive leadership. At the same time, I have been able to apply the business sense I gained in my for-profit days to managing non-profits. Perhaps this is why I am so looking forward to tomorrow, when a college student studying non-profit management will be interviewing me as part of a McKinsey capacity assessment she is doing as a class project.
Tomorrow we will get into some of the programmatic responsibilities that make my work so enjoyable.