Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Contemporary Challenges of Leadership: Coalition-Building as a Way Forward

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

My past two posts have explained how The United Methodist Church is an increasingly complex system beset by a wicked problem and how, given those conditions, leadership is an attractive approach to addressing the problems of the denomination. Leadership alone, however, is a flawed solution given the complexity of the system and the limitations of knowledge and power possessed by a single individual within the system, even if that person is a leader within the system.

As this post will explain, though, while leadership may be a flawed solution, that does not leave us without hope. An approach focused on coalition-building, collaboration, and communication can be effective in effecting change in complex systems. Moreover, when leadership is oriented towards contributing to such an approach along with larger groups (rather than towards the top-down exercise of power by an individual), coalition-building, collaboration, and communication can strengthen and enhance the exercise of leadership.

All of this has implications for The United Methodist Church as it moves towards the next stage of service to which God is calling it.

Coalitions, collaboration, and communication
The problem with a leadership-focused approach to the wicked problems of complex systems is that the complexity of the systems exceeds the ability of any one individual to understand how the system works and the ability of any one individual to control the system. The solution to this limitation is to locate understanding and control of the system not with any one individual but with coalitions of individuals and groups working together to address the problems of the system.

Having more individuals committed to finding solutions means more collective knowledge of the system, both of its individual parts and of how those parts interact with one another. It also means a greater ability to influence the system via more pressure points. This greater collective knowledge and greater influence means a greater ability to effectively address the problems of the system and therefore a greater chance of success in doing so.

Collective action does not just happen, though. It must be organized through the slow, labor-intensive work of coalition building. Coalition building involves getting groups to agree to work together on a common problem or towards a common goal. Coalition members do not need to agree on all issues. Indeed, successful coalitions will likely include members who disagree, perhaps quite passionately, on issues other than the central motivating issue of the coalition.

Thus, three central tasks in building coalitions are identifying a salient issue that is shared among different groups, facilitating trust building among groups that will disagree on some issues, and persuading groups to commit to work together on shared interests despite their disagreements elsewhere.

The success of such work requires participants in the coalition to be able to hold tensions, accept imperfection, and even to forgive one another. It also requires a collective sense of responsibility for the problems of the system. Blame works against fostering such a collective sense of responsibility, since it assigns responsibility for the problems of the system outside those casting blame and is thus an excuse for not acting oneself.

Once a coalition has begun to form, it proceeds by collaborative action. Collaborative action is action taken by different players and often in different forms towards a common goal. Collaborative action does not mean that all coalition members do the same thing. Indeed, the most effective coalitions employ a diversity of strategies to realize their goals, which allows a diversity of participants to contribute their skills and energy in a diversity of ways. While coordination is necessary, conformity is a sign of the weakness of a coalition, not its strength.

Throughout the whole process, communication is an essential. Communication is necessary to bring coalition members together. It is necessary to identify the salient issues and goals of the coalition. It is necessary to build trust among members. It is necessary to coordinate the disparate actions of members. It is necessary to measure progress towards goals. Communication is the one thing absolutely necessary for successful coalitions.

Like collaborative action, communication involves contributions by many people. The more that information sharing can happen through a network rather than through a hub-and-spoke model of central gatekeeping, the more easily information can be shared throughout a coalition and therefore the more effective the coalition will be.

Those convening, promoting, coordinating, and communicating coalitions need not be formally recognized leaders within the system. It is possible to leverage personal connections, charisma, or other resources to engage disparate groups to come together around a common issue. Formal leadership does not disqualify one from doing such work, but neither does it automatically compel one to engage in such work. Thus, an approach that is based around coalitions, collaboration, and communication is not necessarily one based on leadership.

Yet, leaders can use the power and information at their disposal to contribute to coalitions. This requires leaders to acknowledge their own limitations and prioritize common objectives over personal status or control. Even when formal leaders participate in coalitions, the primary responsibility for progress must remain with the coalition as a whole, not with any leader or leaders associated with the coalition.

The Reform and Renewal Coalition
Arguably one of the most effective political forces within The United Methodist Church since its inception has been the Reform and Renewal Coalition. It is not a coincidence that this has been a coalition, not the work of a single organization, a single leader, or even a handful of leaders.

Instead, the Reform and Renewal Coalition has brought together multiple Traditionalist organizations and individuals with overlapping but distinct foci, but all aligned together around issues of Traditionalist understandings of marriage and theology. These groups and their members have worked separately but in coordination towards agreed upon goals. A variety of means of communication including publications, personal networks, and conferences and meetings have allowed communication to flow throughout a Traditionalist network, thereby facilitating the work of the coalition.

There have been prominent figures associated with the Reform and Renewal Coalition, but the Coalition has had no one single leader. Some bishops have been supportive, but most of the identified leaders are not people with significant formal positions of power within the regular structures of the denomination. Instead, the Reform and Renewal Coalition has operated through coalition-building, collaboration, and communication.

While Progressives and Centrists are likely to see the Reform and Renewal Coalition as contributing to rather than solving the problems of the denomination, that should not detract from recognizing the coalition’s success on its own terms.

Traditionalists have been less well coordinated recently, mostly because of differing ideas about what they should do next in the wake of General Conference 2019 and the launch of the Global Methodist Church. These varying opinions have deprived the coalition of its focus and its coordination and therefore its effectiveness. But these challenges are just further proof of the importance of well-functioning coalitions for success – policy success comes not from one’s ideology but from one’s organization.

Implications for the future UMC
With the exit of many Traditionalist congregations and individuals from the UMC, the splintering of Traditionalist plans, and the shuttering of some of its components (such as the Confessing Movement), it is clear the Reform and Renewal Coalition will no longer continue to dominate United Methodist polity debates in the same way they have historically. What is not yet clear, though, is whether a new coalition will emerge among those who choose to stay UMC that will set the direction for United Methodism for the next several decades.

Whether or not such a coalition emerges will likely depend on whether groups and leaders from disparate parts of the denomination can come together around concrete policy goals. Although the goals of the Reform and Renewal Coalition were primarily related to sexuality, the goals of a future coalition need not be. Other issues such as decolonizing the church, regionalization and contextualization, evangelism, or something else could prove galvanizing for a new coalition. Whether or not an effective coalition emerges depends on many things, but it starts with the identification of a salient issue.

To bring this argument back to its beginning, the recently elected bishops will certainly make an impact on The United Methodist Church, especially in the episcopal areas they serve. But they will have little ability to set the future direction of the denomination on their own. Instead, what will be more significant than any of the recently held elections is what sorts of coalitions emerge to direct The United Methodist Church into the next stage of its life.

Bishops may contribute to such coalitions, but it will take a broad sense of responsibility for the future of the denomination, a commonly agreed-upon set of issues or goals, a willingness to work together among disparate groups, some of whom will disagree on some issues, and extensive communication among a network of partners to really set the direction for the future of the denomination.

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