One candle flame
Small and impermanent, with almost no structure to it at all
And yet it is visible from a distance
It can clear a room of its darkness
Our small actions too can have great power
A casual kindness can heal a pain
A smile can rescue a day
A loving word can save a life
You may never know how you have changed the world
Know that you can
Let your light shine
Reading: from Rules for radicals, by Saul Alinsky (1971)
THE GREATEST BARRIER to communication between myself and would-be organizers arises when I try to get across the concept that tactics are not the product of careful cold reason, that they do not follow a table of organization or plan of attack. Accident, unpredictable reactions to your own actions, necessity, and improvisation dictate the direction and nature of tactics. Then, analytical logic is required to appraise where you are, what you can do next, the risks and hopes that you can look forward to. It is this analysis that protects you from being a blind prisoner of the tactic and the accidents that accompany it. But I cannot overemphasize that the tactic itself comes out of the free flow of action and reaction, and requires on the part of the organizer an easy acceptance of apparent disorganization.
The organizer goes with the action. His approach must be free, open-ended, curious, sensitive to any opportunities, any handles to grab on to, even though they involve other issues than those he may have in mind at that particular time. The organizer should never feel lost because he has no plot, no timetable or definite points of reference.
Message: by Rev. Andy Pakula
Things change. We don’t always understand exactly how they change. It happens. Most often, it’s only when we look back over time that we understand how change happened. Or maybe we don’t - maybe we create a useful narrative about how change happened - a story that simplifies and satisfies us and others.
When I came to this community nearly thirteen years ago, it was tremendously different. I don’t think that even a single one of you was part of the congregation at the time.
It was a small group. It was much more traditional.
Since that time, the congregation has become much younger, four to five times larger, and much more active and vibrant.
There are more programs, more groups, more social justice initiatives.
The budget has grown. When I arrived, there was no staff besides me. Now we have about three more full-time equivalents.
It has been a tremendous and exciting ride and I remain enormously hopeful about the future. Our National Lottery Heritage Fund grant, the great leadership among you, the new initiatives… It all gives me great hope for where we are going and for how this community will continue to grow and evolve and impact the world when I inevitably cease to be your minister.
I am often asked how we did it.
We were a tiny congregation and now we are the largest congregation in British Unitarianism – a movement where the median congregational membership is only 15 people and a large proportion of the congregations have membership in the single digits.
How did we do it?
Plenty of people have advice about how to grow congregations. This program or that. Social media. Rock music. Great welcoming. There is no shortage of advice - usually available in exchange for a significant consulting fee.
And I could give advice too. But the truth is I don’t know. I don’t have a recipe for congregational growth.
Over the years, we have done many many different things we thought might be helpful. Some of them seemed positive. Some failed. For most, we didn’t really know the impact.
How important was it that we got seat cushions for the Newington Green Meeting House? Attendance didn’t zoom up when we got them, but did it make a difference over time?
We don’t have an identical congregation where we can do everything the same except the seat cushions. We can’t do that experiment. So we will never know for sure.
Our transformation was undoubtedly due to hundreds or thousands of factors. Some we thought were a big deal. Some we didn’t even notice we did. Some we had no control of at all. All these positive factors came together and outweighed all the negative factors and good things happened.
So, I don’t know how we did it. Of course, if someone is willing to pay enough in consulting fees, I will gladly create a satisfying narrative and give them useful-sounding advice.
But the reality is that change is complicated. Teasing apart what factors really caused our growth is more complicated than we can know without tracking and testing every single action and impact – something that would probably require an astronomical amount of people, time, and computing power.
It’s complicated because a congregation is a system – a network of people and actions and causes that interact in tremendously complex ways.
When I did a business degree at the beginning of this millennium, I learned a lot of narrowly useful things – like accounting and finance…
But there was one thing I learned which has had an impact on me that I would never have suspected. It is a technique called causal loop diagrams. I know that this is becoming geekier than many of you can stand, but bear with me here.
So, a causal loop diagrams is a tool for depicting and understanding systems.
This image shows a causal loop diagram representing a very simple system. The more eggs there are, the more chickens. The more chickens there are, the more eggs. What will happen to the number of chickens and eggs in this very simple system?
So this is an example of a reinforcing look. It will simply take off without some other input to modulate it. So, if we start to think about the real life system, we might think of limitations of food on the chicken population.
This second image shows something modulating the number of chickens. Apparently chickens like to cross roads but crossing roads leads to a decrease in the number of chickens. (See the minus sign?) So, road crossings and wandering chickens tends to limit the chicken population. The red loop is called a balancing loop because it counteracts the explosive increase of the reinforcing loop.
This is a very simple and unrealistic example.
In real life, there are farmers to consider. There is feed. There is temperature which probably affects how often the chickens lay eggs.
There is the process of taking eggs away for food. And when we get there, we have to think about the markets for chicken and eggs, which will depend on how many people are vegetarians or vegans, how much chicken and eggs cost, how the economy is doing, food fads, and on and on.
If you really wanted an accurate model of the rate at which chickens and eggs are produced, it will have thousands if not millions of different variables having large and small effects.
And to make it just a bit more complicated and unpredictable, the effects happen on different timescales. Eating eggs has a fast effect. A campaign to get people to be vegans might take years to have its impact, but that impact could be enormous.
The next one is a bit more complicated…
It’s a model of childhood obesity. And although it is complicated, it doesn’t nearly consider all the factors involved. There are factors not even considered here, like how parental actions and attitudes are shaped.
So, does this model allow you to predict what would happen if schools served twice as much fresh fruit?
No. The model would suggest that it might have some effect but it isn’t anywhere near complete enough to predict how a particular change would change the rate of childhood obesity.
Cause and effect in systems like these are much, much, much more complicated.
Why have I tormented you with this geeky explanation of causal loop diagrams? In part, I want to show you because they changed how I think about systems. I thought that things were more predictable – that we could do this and expect that to happen.
It’s not true. Making a model like this helps to get a handle on a system, but predicting effects with any accuracy is almost impossible.
And I also showed you this because we are people who try to make change in complex systems.
If we consider any social progress that has happened in the history of humanity, the view from the present lets us imagine it was simple. Wilberforce proposed a bill, Martin Luther King had a dream, Gandhi marched, the Suffragists fasted… and change happened.
All of our historical narratives are necessarily oversimplifications. If they weren’t, the accounts of even simple events would be unreadably long and boring. We would lose track of the importance of the outcomes in the face of all the details.
Today, we want to make change happen. We want to address the climate catastrophe. We want to end racism. We want mental health care to be better. We want to end homelessness.
For every one of these challenges and more, the systems within which they exist are vast and complex. We take action and we hope and we expect. And we are often disappointed at the outcome. It wasn’t what we’d hoped for. And when it doesn’t happen, we lose heart. We lose hope.
Remember that systems are complex. Your action combines with other actions taken here and maybe far away. Their impacts may take time. They may not contribute to the outcome you want, but you also won’t know.
Small things can make a big difference.
One day in 1961, a meteorology professor named Edward Lorenz was entering data into a new cutting-edge weather modelling system. He had done this particular simulation before, but this time he made a seemingly insignificant change. He rounded one of his variables from .506127 to .506. That’s a difference of 0.02% or two ten thousandths. It’s almost the same. Almost.
Lorenz went off to get a coffee. When he got back and took a look at the simulation, it was clear that something was weird. His tiny rounding change completely changed the results - two months of simulated weather came out totally different.
This eventually led to the understanding called “the butterfly effect”. When we are considering complex systems like weather or the progress of social justice, tiny changes can make enormous differences. Those changes may not happen immediately and they may not happen where you can see them, but they may be profound. The way a myriad of small cases can impact a system are too complex for us to predict, but they play an enormous role in how huge changes happen.
And today, you may be despairing because you can only take actions that seem tiny relative to the scope of the challenges. And you may think that your actions are having no impact. Can you make a 0.02% change?
Bringing about positive change in the world has always been complex and unpredictable. We don’t know what will work. As Alinsky advised, don’t worry so much about strategy. Take action and analyse, and then take action again.
Today, it may be your well thought-out strategy that makes a big difference but you may also have changed the future dramatically with a smile or a kind word.
The key is to remember that the absence of an immediate and large positive impact is no reason for despair. What we do today can make a much brighter tomorrow.
Look forward. Take action now. Have hope.
Change happens not primarily because of what is visible - the dramatic words and deeds of great women and men
The world is transformed through the countless small actions that history forgets in its simplified distillation of unfathomable complexity
Your small effort, your quiet word joins with those of innumerable others to create an overwhelming force for change
This is how change happens - tiny forces joined together
It is happening even when we can not sense it
Together, we can.