Sunday, January 16, 2011

Getting the Outsiders' Perspective

From the Gettysburg PO
by President Michael Cooper-White
Getting the Outsiders’ Perspective


Several items on my Amazon “wish list” were received as Christmas presents; but a most intriguing book came as a complete surprise.  “Future Savvy” by Adam Gordon (AMACOM Books, 2009) aims to help readers gain insights for planning by becoming more adept at what Jesus referred to as “reading the signs of the times.”  Chapter 3 of Gordon’s book confronts us with “bias traps,” that is, ways we often get into trouble because of what he calls “insider bias.”  Put simply, it means that failure to make necessary changes when they are called for results from false perceptions that things are alright as they’re going, and we can continue doing business as usual. 


To drive home the point, Gordon rehearses the history of innovation, citing an analyst named Bob Seidensticker who poined out that: “The digital watch didn’t come from established watch companies, the calculator didn’t’ come from slide rule or adding machine companies, video games didn’t come from board-game manufacturers, the ballpoint pen didn’t come from fountain pen manufacturers, and Google didn’t come from the Yellow Pages.” (p. 73)  As insiders in any profession or venture, we are just too close to things, and have our biases and vested interests that hold us back from imagining a future significantly different from the status quo.  We think that our current “products” are the best that can be offered, thereby failing to imagine innovative approaches or inventions that can truly change the world or at least the arena in which we serve. 


Hence, concludes Gordon, it is critical from time to time that we intentionally seek insights and perspectives from objective outsiders who can see things hidden in our insiders’ blind sides.  “Outsiders are more likely to be willing to see change and are therefore more likely to see it and forecast it.  Outsiders will also generally have more experience of forces and factors from other fields, or bring a comparative perspective as to how things have changed in other industries, and be willing to apply these analogies.”  


A predecessor pastor at the inner city parish I served during my first call is reported to have occasionally dressed in casual clothes when he would “hang out” for a few hours in a park across the street from Angelica church.  He’d mill about and ask the park visitors what impressions they had about that church across the street.  From these “outsiders” Lloyd Burke gained valuable insights about how Angelica and its ministry were viewed in the local community, and how the church might better meet the needs of its neighbors.  Similarly, when I was a synod staffer, my colleagues and I worked to develop a parish review process that included visits by members of other congregations in the synod; their job was to provide unvarnished feedback on how they were welcomed, the church’s signage, accessibility to visitors, and the like.  Wise were the parish leaders who availed themselves of such an “external audit” and non-defensively received and acted upon feedback offered by the visitors.


Here at the Seminary, we turn to both true outsiders and what I call “inside-outsiders” or maybe “outside-insiders” with some regularity.  Chief among the latter, of course, are members of our Board of Directors, Endowment Foundation trustees, President’s Cabinet and others involved in what we refer to as “shared governance.”  These gifted and committed partners in ministry bring their wisdom from many walks of life.  They know the Seminary well enough to offer knowledgeable feedback, yet because they do not work or study here on a daily basis, come with a degree of objectivity that can often see things we true insiders cannot.  As needed and as required by law or otherwise, we have regular visits by outsiders with particular expertise; chief among these are the auditors who come in annually to scrutinize our financial records, reporting procedures and legal compliance, to ensure we’re being good stewards of resources entrusted to us.


A unique group of outsiders will be on campus for three days or so next month when we host our once-a-decade visit by representatives of the two bodies that grant us formal academic accreditation.  Accredited status is critical to signal to prospective students and the broader public that we are a reputable educational institution that meets the highest standards for U.S. graduate schools.  Also hinging on accredited status is our ability to offer students federal monies granted for student loans.  Then, in March, we will host our annual “episcopal visit” by the eight bishops of the ELCA’s Region 8, another group of inside-outsiders whose needs for rostered leaders are met by us and our sister seminaries.  Generally affirming in their feedback, both bishops and peers from other academic institutions can also suggest areas where we can make improvements, and occasionally raise issues that require immediate attention lest we fall short of meeting our own goals and fulfilling our highest aspirations.


In any setting of ministry, with a bit of ingenuity, it is possible to solicit and receive some assessment and feedback from outsiders.  In my experience, congregations that are highly defensive or altogether resistant to such insight from outsiders are on the decline.  In theological jargon, they are what Luther and others described as “incurvatus in se,” that is, turned in upon themselves, thereby failing to meet our Lord’s mission mandate to “go out” and tell the Story to those beyond our immediate circle.


As always, I’m open for some feedback and insights from students, friends and Seminary supporters (and even or perhaps most especially those who feel they cannot currently support us!), both about the Seminary and about ways you have found to gain valuable perspectives from those you regard as outsiders.