How organisations change or don't

As an extrovert, I love to be with people. I am energised by being in groups and it’s through discussion and exchange that I actually think. In a crowd, the heat is on in the oven of my brain and new ideas and new connections are constantly bubbling up. Alone, the oven is lukewarm at best.

However… There are times… 

Every one of us here has been part of organisations. You’ve experienced educational organisations. You’ve experienced some kinds of work organisations. You’ve probably been involved with various kinds of voluntary organisations, and a family is also an organisation - a particularly important kind of organisation - and we’ve all had experience with at least one of those.

Finally, you’ve been involved with this organisation - New Unity. Although, when people say they don’t like organised religion, many of us are quick to say “don’t worry about that. We’re not particularly organised!” And therein lies much of our story today.

But first, religious light bulb jokes: 

Q: How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb?
A: 10, one to change it and 9 others to pray against the spirit of darkness. 

Q: How many televangelists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One. But for the message of hope to continue to go forth, send in your donation today. 

Q. How many Christians does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. Three, but they're really one.

Q. How many Quakers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. Ten to sit around in a circle until one feels the inner light.

Q. How many fundamentalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Q. How many Zen Buddhists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. Two, one to screw it in and one not to screw it in.

Amish: What's a light bulb?

Finally, and most importantly for us today, how many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?



  • 12 to sit on the board which appoints the nominating and personnel committee.
  • 5 to sit on the the nominating and personnel committee which appoints the House committee.
  • 8 to sit on the house committee which appoints the light bulb changing committee.
  • 4 to sit on the light bulb-changing committee which chooses who will screw in the light bulb. 3 of those 4 then give their own opinion of “screwing in methods” while the one actually does the installation.
  • After completion it takes 100 individuals to complain about the method of installation, another 177 to debate the ecological impact of using the light bulb at all, and at least one to insist that back in her day the lit chalice was quite enough.

This joke contains a kernel of truth. Change in congregations - in almost any kind of organisation actually - can be incredibly challenging and glacially slow. 

New Unity has been different from just about every other Unitarian congregation. From a low of six members some dozen years ago, we have grown - during the ministries of my predecessor and myself - to well over 100 members. That in itself is change, but it also means many other changes that have occurred and that continue to occur.

Why have we changed when others haven’t? I’d say that the simple answer is “death.” The fact that our congregation was on death’s door with few people and virtually no funds got us past the many obstacles to change. 

You’ve probably heard that the Chinese word for “crisis” represents both danger and opportunity. Well, that well-know "fact" is actually false. (I have to tell the truth up here!) But the sentiment is absolutely correct. 

Crisis forces us to break the patterns and obstacles that have held us back. At the point that imminent demise is staring us in the face, it just doesn’t do to say “ooh… I don’t know… we’ve never done that before” or to pull together 306 people to launch a lightbulb changing project. At that point, you just do what needs to be done.

In more normal times, when there is no crisis to smash away obstacles to change, organisations tend to become intricately and finely tuned to prevent change - no matter the cost.

Religious groups are a sterling example of this. At this point in time, only 5% of people in this country attend any kind of religious observances regularly, whilst many many more seek inspiration, community, purpose and meaning elsewhere. Despite the obvious reality that people still hunger for the things that religion provides, religious groups have proved themselves almost completely incapable of changing to serve those needs.

Why is change so hard in organisations?

I’m going to draw particularly on the work of the late Rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman today. His book “Generation to generation” was required reading for me as I prepared for ministry, and - in most American Unitarian congregations - a well cared-for copy of this book probably sits in that special place where they used to keep the bible.

Friedman and others took the learnings and understandings of family systems theory and applied it to congregations. That sounds like we’re going somewhere a bit too academic, and we’re not.

Family systems theory is basically what it sounds like. It seeks to understand family organisations as whole, intricate, complex systems rather than treating each individual within a family as separate and independent.

This way of thinking and working with families developed initially when doctors treating schizophrenic patients began to notice that symptoms would often improve or worsen depending on the conflict between the family’s parents. When the family was treated as whole rather than just the person exhibiting symptoms, remarkable progress was often be observed.

To cut to the chase, family systems theory came to understand that groups of people in close relationship develop some common, predictable, patterns. 

The systems tend to balance and stabilize themselves to reduce overall anxiety. Often, this involves emotional triangles, wherein the strain between two people is reduced by interactions with a third element. Strain between partners may lead them to interact differently with a child, for example.

And one of the most astounding examples of how these systems work is the way symptoms emerge. Like the schizophrenic symptoms in a child I mentioned earlier, one way of stabilizing a system is for someone to be sick - to become what is called the “identified patient” - the person who is carrying the illness for everyone else.

A community can be thought of similarly. The intricate pattern of relationships balance and shift, but ultimately with the unstated aim of constancy and reduced anxiety.

When someone in an organisation becomes difficult or strange, how often do we consider that they may simply be the vsible sign of a broader illness in the community. 

Often, in congregations, a particularly difficult person is removed and - after a period of calm - another person - previously unremarkable - steps up to assume similar behaviour - to take the place of the identified patient.

In a second book that Friedman was writing just before he died a few years ago, he extended his understanding of leadership in a book called “A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix.”

We live in a rapidly-changing world. In any organisation that must interact with that world - and that means all organisations - change is essential. And yet, family systems theorists tell us, organisations by their very nature resist change.

Here are words from Friedman:

"In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time [...] is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger."

Now, I know that these words go against much of what seems right to us. “Peace-monger?” Shouldn’t we all be peace-mongers? 

Perhaps a better term would have been “comfort-monger”. Organisations seek comfort. They seek to avoid anything that causes shifts in the way they are structured or function or the people who are within them.

Those who are offering change are seen as the enemy of the organisation’s health are ignored or worse. In fact, they are not the enemy of the organisation’s health, but rather the hope for the potential for change and thus the hope for the future.

Consider Mary Oliver's words:

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice–
though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’ each voice cried."
These is are the words of someone enmeshed in an unhealthy family system - a system that sacrifices the well-being of the speaker to maintain its own equilibrium.
But then she goes on to say
"But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do...
as you strode deeper and deeper into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do–
determined to save the only life you could save."

Friedman does not leave us without hope. He leaves us with a prospect that gives every one of us the power to create change from within ourselves. Friedman again:
"Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future."
Effective leadership comes from those who can define themselves - who can non-anxiously declare who they are and where they aim to go. 
Ultimately, Friedman brings weight and rationale to another piece of wisdom we hold dear: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Positive change comes when we extricate ourselves from the counterbalanced intricacies of the system, hoist our flag to the wind and say without anger or command “here I stand.” 
When we stand in this way, others will join us.
And then, when we move, it will be together.

May it be so.