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Leading Another Way: A Q&A with Stephen Lewis, Matthew Wesley Williams, and Dori Baker

In this time of leadership crisis, both in politics and in the church, people are searching for new models for leading and discerning change, for themselves, for the communities they serve, and for the world. A new book published by Chalice Press this winter, Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose by three leaders of the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) shares a counter-cultural and deeply spiritual approach to leadership grounded in community wisdom and discernment and employing four “CARE” practices to guide transformative change.

We caught up with Another Way authors Stephen Lewis, Matthew Wesley Williams, and Dori Baker to learn more about why we need another book on leadership right now, common mistakes organizations make when trying to lead change, their writing process journey, and the one piece of advice they’d give to people wanting to live and lead change today. 

Q: Stephen, Matthew, and Dori, thank you for the gift of Another Way. To begin, tell us why we need yet another book on leadership right now?  

A:  Because our current leadership models conspire to drain the very life out of our leaders and the communities they serve, thereby reinforcing the death-dealing, soul-destroying realities we say we want to change. The majority of leadership books focus on individual leaders, resulting in leaders who rise up only to burn out, leaving a vacuum.  We uncover leadership approaches that tend to the community, nurture the community, and result in desirable change on behalf of the community. The CARE practices we share here catalyze groups of people to discern, lead, and live together out a greater sense of meaning and purpose.

What inspired Another Way?

Another Way grows out of our individual quests for “another way” to live, lead, and fulfill our purpose. We live in a culture that prioritizes hyper-individualism and performance over character, integrity, and shared humanity. Each of us journeyed into leadership, experienced frustrations and burnout, and went looking for another way to lead. We share what emerged over a dozen years of listening, learning, and experimenting with young leaders across the country through our work at the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE). 

What are some of the common mistakes leaders of organizations make when trying to lead change? 

A common attempt is to treat the symptom rather than the cause. Pastors experiencing burnout and crises may learn to emphasize self care, yet they remain in toxic cultures that require them to be “on”  24/7/365. Unless leaders learn how to create the conditions for all people to slow down, lean into what we care deeply about, and design new structures intended for human flourishing, we will default back into the same patterns we know. We need to learn to “know by heart” better practices that help us design better institutions. Another Way mines the rich soil of Christian faith to tell better stories and design better organizations. 

Change management is usually framed as a zero sum gain -- an all-or-nothing sprint -- when in fact, purposeful change is iterative, unfolding and evolves over time. We often reduce leading change to small, manageable interventions made by a few people at the top, when leading purposeful change often demands more from us and our peers, collaboration aligned with flourishing for all. If we approach change as something that only we can do when we want to do it, we are thinking way too small for what’s needed today. 

What have you learned in your own organization about how to best effect lasting and profound change? 

Another way is possible! We designed an organizational culture and developed an organizational muscle that reflects a commitment to a way of thinking, seeing, being, and acting and that becomes organic, regardless of one leader’s presence or power. We practiced this over time, remaining self-aware, welcoming critical reflection, building new default mechanisms. Humans attune to fight or flight, but we can also discipline ourselves to slow down, learn to trust, and lean into uncertainty. We remember that culture eats strategy for breakfast, so we need to create new cultures. We learned that once you taste it, you begin to believe it: Another Way is possible! 

At the center of your book is a set of four practices, set forth in the acronym CARE. How do these change the way we lead and live together? 

They are fractals of a whole. In each, you find the other three practices.  They are habit forming practices that shape a way of being with one another and interactions between each other toward an unfolding journey of discerning collectively a life of meaning and purpose, as well as our individual role toward that end. Discernment is a change management process: we are leading change necessary within ourselves, our organizations and communities in order to move from our current reality to a future that is more hopeful and life-giving. The four practices are grounded in the discipline and value of discerning, reflecting and acting together.

Was there a “eureka” moment in the discovery of the CARE process? 

Many small “eureka” moments struck. We (Matthew and Stephen) began experimenting through Project Rising Sun, an innovation designed to support young pastors of color through practices we found to be life-giving. We would return from an event, look at each other, and say, “This stuff works! It really works!”

A flash of insight struck at a Presbyterian church in rural South Carolina. We (Stephen and Dori) walked 20 leaders through a series of practices over the course of a two-day retreat.  We choreographed a leadership dance made up of big questions, small conversations between friends, over meals, along the way, as life happens. When we stepped back, we saw a flow from (C)creating hospitable space, to (A)asking self-awakening questions, to (R)reflecting theologically together, to (E)enacting next most faithful steps. After moving together in new ways, the leaders in the church sat together to redesign their calendar and plan for the year in a spirit infused with mutuality and care.  After that, Stephen saw the acronym CARE emerge. 

We did lots of iterative experiments -- developing and revising each of the four disciplines. With each experimentation -- April 2009 Project Rising Sun (C, A), Lenten Season 2010 with five congregations (R, E), September 2009 John Knox (C.A.R.E), September & October 2010 Introductory and 4 Day Training (C.A.R.E), February 2011 Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (C.A.R.E), and 2014 Christian Leadership Forum (R,E) -- clarity emerged and other people started saying “This stuff works! It really works!” 

What is your favorite or most impactful CARE case study? 

The one described above, externally. Our own organization, internally. 

The Christian Leadership Forums during 2014 through 2018, DO GOOD X, and the organizational restructure in 2013 and 2017 regarding the different iterations and expressions for how to do CARE. These events represent our best thinking to date. The most impactful case study was the organizational restructure in 2014. Older iterations and case studies of CARE but fun experiments were the first two-day introduction to CARE at Emory Conference Center and the impact it had on Romal Tune and others in addition to the five congregations that practiced CARE during the 2010 Lenten Season and what they reported to us in May 2010.

Other than finding the time to write, what was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?

Synchronizing our different voices, perspectives and experiences from our different roles in the organization. A book about collaboration needed to model a deeply collaborative process. 

We held a lot we urgently wanted to share. Rather than “divide and conquer,” we slowed down, accompanying one another and really helping each other express our emerging truths.  By the end of the process, we were completing one another’s sentences, but along the way we had to confront our differences, bump into each other, apologize, forgive, and recommit to the important work that wanted to be written through us. 

Discerning how best to share and present the content of the book.  There were so many different ways we could have gone, but storying the practices was the best way to move forward.

What did you enjoy most about writing Another Way

Remembering the stories and building off of each other’s ideas.  We have a much richer product than what any one of us could have created on our own. 

As we share the book with a widening audience, we enjoy inviting people into the purpose of the book, which is, essentially, the purpose of their lives. What are you hear for? What future will mourn if you don’t step into the purpose that grows uniquely out of your gifts and identity? People are coming alive in those conversations, and that is deeply gratifying!

What do you hope readers will take away from Another Way?

That another way is possible! That what we value deeply and what we can trust at our core demands that we CARE-fully lead change on purpose in ourselves, our organizations and our world.  Otherwise, a more hopeful and possible future mourns because of our lack pursuing the alternative to the status quo. There is a future that mourns if you and I do not step into our purpose!

How do you see the work in Another Way playing out over the next few years?

We will continue to build the community of peers and learners to explore, grow, and expand this work. We do that by continuing to strengthen FTE’s organizational muscle around the practices, and by continuing to offer, Co-CREATE, a training for people who want to practice going deeper with our facilitation practices.  Each time we bring others into the work, we discover synchronicities and common longings. We learn that we are not alone in the search for a better story: we see pockets of resistance to the status quo, where courageous leaders are creating a future that’s hospitable and welcoming for all.  

If you could offer one piece of advice for those seeking to live and lead profound change in their lives and in the world, what would it be? 

All change begins with us and the next faithful steps we take on the journey toward the purposeful change we seek.

Don’t go alone! Surround yourself with a diverse group of visionaries who hold experiences and wisdom different from your own. Leadership is a communal practice.

For more on Another Way and to order, visit here. 

Stephen Lewis is the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), which focuses on cultivating a new generation of Christian leaders.

Matthew Wesley Williams is the interim president of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dori Baker is senior fellow at the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE). 

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