Clergy Isolation and Superchickens pt. 2

(For greater context, you may want to read part one in the previous post.)

In her TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan shares a study led by evolutionary biologist William Muir who was interested in productivity. Muir wanted to know if anything could be done to create more productive chickens, so he created an experiment. Heffernan explains,

"Chickens live in groups, so first of all, he (Muir) selected just an average flock, and he let it alone for six generations. But then he created a second group of the individually most productive chickens -- you could call them superchickens -- and he put them together in a superflock, and each generation, he selected only the most productive for breeding. After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump and fully feathered and egg production had increased dramatically. What about the second group? Well, all but three were dead. They'd pecked the rest to death. The individually productive chickens had only achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

We know that human beings are not chickens, but according to Heffernan, for the past half century, many organizations operate like the superchicken model. She says, "We've thought that success is achieved by picking the superstars, the brightest men, or occasionally women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power. And the result has been just the same as in William Muir's experiment: aggression, dysfunction and waste."

Heffernan's talk goes on to share additional research done by MIT researchers who ran studies to determine what makes groups successful. Their research identified three characteristics. First, really successful teams showed "high degrees of social sensitivity" or what is sometimes called "empathy". Second, successful teams were mindful to give equal time for everyone to share so that no one or two voices could dominate the conversation. Finally, the more successful groups in these studies had a higher number of women in the group. It was unclear what it was about women specifically. Some say the since women typically score higher on empathy tests they brought more empathy to the group. Others say it may be that women add to diversity of view and groups benefit from diverse points of view. Regardless of the reason, what this study shows is that social connectedness matters in the success and productivity of groups. The more socially connected the greater chance of success. Or as Heffernan states it:

"What happens between people really counts, because in groups that are highly attuned and sensitive to each other, ideas can flow and grow. People don't get stuck. They don't waste energy down dead ends."

The reality is that the many UMC conferences are like other organizations, we build our leadership around the "superchicken" model. We direct resources and energies toward superchicken pastors and even superchicken local churches. The tragic irony is the more we elevate the superchickens, the more we unintentionally affirm the model that implies that one's "success is the result of suppressing the productivity of the rest."

For instance, local churches and even local pastors are not rewarded to collaborate. Each year local churches and pastors are asked about the ways that local church is bringing people to Christ and helping them mature in the Spirit of God. The local church/pastor are incentivized to speak about how they are doing that in unique ways. We reward individual creativity, we applaud individual effort and we ask the same individuals we think are successful to be the dominate teachers of our conference. There are explicit and implicit incentives to strive to be a superchicken church or superchicken pastor in ways that are perhaps leading us to peck ourselves to death. Conversely, there are too few incentives for local churches/pastors to connect, collaborate, and share. There is a fear of what will happen if the local church/pastor proves to not be creative or innovative enough on their own. The pastor may move or the church may be deemed as less successful or vital and receive less support. What makes superchickens successful is to out-think or out-do the other chickens with superior individual gifts and graces. If the superchicken were to share the secret ingredients of their "success-sauce", then superchickens become vulnerable to no longer being seen as a superchicken in a system that rewards superchickens! 

 Most leaders have thoughts on "how to fix" the problem. There are strategies and tactics to be sure that might be employed. However, the heart of the matter needs a better diagnosis. We need to seriously examine the emphasis on the "superchicken" model we have embraced.

Otherwise we will peck ourselves to death.