Recently, I came across a story about a psychological study called the Stanford Prison Experiment. It was 1971, and psychologist Philip Zombardo wanted to explore how people’s behavior is impacted by external circumstances. The idea that individuals possess unlimited freedom to pave their own path through life and go their own way is as American as apple pie, after all.  

But is it true?

What Zimbardo did was this. He selected 24 Stanford University undergraduates. None of them had criminal backgrounds, psychological issues, or major medical conditions that would complicate the study’s findings. The 24 undergrads then agreed to participate in the planned two-week experiment in exchange for $15 a day. Their task was to take on the role of either a prison guard or a prisoner, and to play that role for the entire two weeks.

Here’s what happened to those 24 intellectually brilliant Stanford University undergrads. 

One report puts it like this: “The experiment had to be stopped after just six days due to what was happening to the student participants. […] The guards began to behave in ways that were aggressive and abusive toward the prisoners, while the prisoners became passive and depressed. Five of the prisoners began to experience such severe negative emotions, including crying and acute anxiety, that they had to be released from the study early. Even the researchers themselves began to lose sight of the reality of the situation. Zimbardo, who acted as the prison warden, overlooked the abusive behavior of the prison guards until graduate student Christina Maslach voiced objections to the conditions in the simulated prison and the morality of continuing the experiment.”

That’s the findings of the Stanford Prison Experiment from 1970. That’s what can happen even to people whose education and social privilege would seem to preserve them from such evil. But it does not preserve them. When people were inserted into the rigidly hierarchical system of guards vs. prisoners, and that system had time enough to settle, the system became all. The system dictated how people defined themselves and what they were supposed to do. People who were initially equal became radically unequal. People who were simply university students participating in a psychology experiment somehow ended up forgetting who they were. The ones play-acting as guards became real guards, and the real abuse they inflicted upon people play-acting as prisoners swiftly re-wired their sense of self, until they saw themselves as real prisoners. Even Zimbardo himself, who was directing the experiment, lost his head. 

Did we, in fact, really need a psychology experiment to prove this to us? Friedrich Nietzsche was exploring the “master vs. slave” dynamic 100 years earlier, and how that rigid hierarchy dynamic takes over everything. 

1900 years before this, Jesus was murdered because he went too far in exposing the dynamic of “spiritually pure vs. spiritually impure” that had taken over the Judaism of his time and controlled people like they were puppets. 

Today, over and over again, we see police and people of color acting out their tragic roles exactly as the Stanford Prison Experiment would predict. 

The Stanford Prison Experiment is just no mere “experiment.” It is reality. Real-life variants of this reality are everywhere around us.

Which means that if Unitarian Universalism is to be relevant to our times, it must be sophisticated when it comes to the reality of systems. Systems—social arrangements—constitute people’s individual sense of self and their behaviors; systems have everything to do with quality of life. If the system is wrong, good people are going to suffer. If the system is right or near-right, suffering is reduced, and satisfaction is far more likely. 

That’s what I’m trying to get at with this sermon’s title: “What Traffic Lights Can Teach Us.” What happens to individual drivers when the larger system of traffic lights is messed up in some way or other? If there are no traffic lights and signs, or if the lights and signs are not coordinated in the right way, the result is cars crashing way too often. Doesn’t matter how much gas is in an individual car. Doesn’t matter how qualified and skilled the individual driver is. All that individualism stuff is irrelevant. What is relevant has to do with the systemic arrangements that enable individual cars to share the roads effectively—or not. 

Historically speaking, this is something Cleveland understood first before any other city in our nation. Cleveland was in fact the very first city in all of America to install electric traffic lights. It happened on August 5, 1914 on Euclid and East 105th. Isn’t that amazing? (Thanks to Gaile Schafer, West Shore historian, for bringing this to my attention.)

But my purpose today isn’t so much discussing Cleveland traffic, as it is to invite you into an analogy. To see that how we, as the West Shore congregation, organize our system for sharing in the work of ministry together is analogous to how a city might organize its system of traffic for individual drivers sharing the roads. We have 60+ separate teams and task forces and committees and groups doing things here—never mind all the individuals that are also involved in doing things—and our hope at West Shore is to have a truly helpful system of congregational traffic lights and signs that prevents crack ups and collisions, and enables people to feel good about what they are doing. Most definitely we do not want to be working in an organizational system that encourages conflict and dissatisfaction. 

We don’t want that.

It gets to the heart of one of the reasons why a church like ours exists in the first place. The reason is, as Gandhi once said, “to be the change we wish to see in the world.” All around us we see systems that create suffering. All around us we see variants of the Stanford Prison Experiment. But can we show a different way? Can we demonstrate our spiritual leadership to Cleveland and beyond by doing the thing that leaders do, which is to go first and to show the way forward to a better place?  

No matter how we demonstrate that—even if all we’re talking about is how we organize the ministry that we all share in—still, every little show of leadership counts.

Every little bit. 

In a moment I want to present the fruits of a year of labor—of the Organizational Development Committee of the Board, which was composed of Victor Ruiz, Gary Kustis, Lois Riemer, Marie Grossman. These folks were commissioned by the Board to investigate how West Shore currently organizes itself. When I officially began work last August, I joined them and we got busy. Just some of the relevant questions we were asking include: How are current arrangements working? How is authority and responsibility shared? How are groups accountable to the overall health of West Shore? How, finally, are we communicating with each other? Does information flow throughout the congregation well, horizontally and vertically? To what degree yes or no or maybe? And on and on. 

Lots of questions!

A year later, we’re ready to present what we think is an awesome plan moving forward, one which the Board has already vetted and approved. 

This is not easy, again because of the shadow of the Stanford Prison Experiment. We’ve got a new plan, but how can we be sure it does not merely reproduce old, top-down oppressiveness? How can we be sure it’s not just a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

In this context, it’s important to hear a voice coming from the feminist movement. Feminist Jo Freeman says that it was inevitable that the women’s liberation movement would hit on a possible solution through “structurelessness.” If, after all, the problem is a rigid hierarchy of top-down leadership and bottom-up followership, why not get rid of hierarchy all together? Why not embrace looseness and informality—everybody a leader and everybody a follower all at the same time!—as the way of getting things done? 

Don’t talk about yet another system—away with all systems! 

It’s another kind of experiment, and as for how it worked, the title of Jo Freeman’s article says it all: “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” “[S]tructurelessness,” she says, “becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.”

The issue is never “Shall there be a system in place, or no system?” There’s always some system in play; the only real question is, to what degree are the rules of the game formally stated? Though things in a group may appear structureless, in time you start seeing that some people regularly talk more and get heard more, as opposed to others—and that’s the clue right there that rules are in play but informal and known only to a few.

So-called “structurelessness” is oppressive. When the game is “everyone is simultaneously a leader and a follower,” what you really have is the situation from George Orwell’s book Animal Farm, in which the saying goes, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This truly is yet another variant of the Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s also just terrible for getting things done. People talk in circles. No one is sure who is responsible for what. Projects grind to a screeching halt. The end result is that frustrated people leave. That’s what the history of women’s liberation shows. 

Jo Freeman published her article almost fifty years ago, in the early 1970s, but her wise voice continues to be instructional to people like us who both (1) want to interrupt oppression and (2) create a flexible system of leaders and followers which enables things getting done in accountability to our shared values. 

Quickly, I will add one other issue of note that relates to lack of sufficient structure in any given team. It has to do with the confusion it spreads outwards to the rest of the larger organization, like ripples on a pond. For example, if I am a staff person who is supposed to support a group that is trying to accomplish something, and I receive seven emails about that particular initiative from seven different people at seven different times of the week, I guarantee you, I am confused. I don’t know who is authorized to be asking me for things. I don’t know if what the seventh email is asking for is different from the first. I am exhausted from having to chase down all the messages, and I’ll probably miss some, because I get a lot of emails related to all the many other things that are on my plate. The unfortunate upshot is this: you are not going to get the service you need from me. 

Staff in a large church like ours simply can’t function in a situation of so-called “structurelessness.”

Enough with that. Structure and system are inevitable and needed. The only question is, can we avoid rigid hierarchy in favor of flexible hierarchy? Can we formalize a system of leadership traffic lights and signs that helps make our shared ministry shine at West Shore? 

Can we? 


Can we formalize a system of leadership traffic lights and signs that helps make our shared ministry shine at West Shore? 

Yes we can! Cleveland gets the need for traffic lights. 

Yes we can.

And that is what the new plan coming from the Organizational Development Committee and approved by the Board is all about. It is of course no silver bullet—it is of course not perfect—but perfection is an enemy of the genuinely good. Perfection is an enemy of genuine progress. 

Here is what genuine progress might look for, for us. 

Begin with our foundational design as a democratic institution. This part, by the way, is not new. Congregational members hold ultimate authority and, one of the things they do with their power annually is vote for Board of Trustee members. The Congregation delegates a great deal of its power to its Board of Trustee representatives because the Congregation knows (or ought to know) that when everybody takes charge, no one takes charge. It’s just more structurelessness. So, our Board is duly invested with the authority to make key decisions on behalf of the whole. Our Board is also ultimately held accountable for the health of the whole.

Let us give thanks for our Board of Trustees. 

Now, the Board also does a good bit of delegating. While it does not let go of the responsibility of monitoring the congregation’s health, it understands that running the programs of a complex and large institution like ours is entirely beyond the bandwidth of Board volunteers. It requires paid professionals on the job to ensure consistency and quality of leadership. 

One of those paid professionals is the Senior Minister, and to this person the Board delegates responsibility for running the programs of the church. Where programs are concerned, the buck stops with the Senior Minister. If things aren’t working in our religious education ministries, our justice ministries, our worship ministries, and on and on, the Board is going to hold the Senior Minister accountable. Someone must be accountable. There must be a place where the buck stops. 

Again, if everyone’s in charge, no one is. 

I hasten to add that this does not mean the Senior Minister actually does everything. For all our sakes, I hope not! Hundreds of volunteers make West Shore happen, and their work is supported and coordinated by our talented and dedicated Staff Team. As the Head of the Staff, the Senior Minister collaborates with staff members and works to ensure, as far as is humanly possible, coordination and excellence in the work of all the busy bees in our midst. 

This is the basic foundation. Power is delegated, and those to whom it is delegated are accountable for what they do. This is nothing new. But now comes the question, which the Organizational Development Committee asked: “How are we doing? Power is energy, so is energy flowing throughout the system? Are there stuck points we want to address? Are we struggling in some areas?” 

What the Organizational Development Committee came to see is that there’s …. issues. One has to do with communication. Look at the organizational chart on your screen and, on the bottom half, you’ll see all the smiley faces which represent the 60+ separate volunteer teams/groups that are busy bees doing ministry work at West Shore. But 60+ separate volunteer teams/groups means that communication is a real challenge for us. Higher-level leadership struggles to get the attention of all the various groups and to be sure that key information is communicated and received; whereas volunteers can struggle to communicate problems they’re facing at the “grassroots” level to higher-level leadership. Furthermore, volunteers can feel isolated in their service area and not connected to other groups or to the mission of the congregation as a whole. Part of this disconnection is not regularly hearing about the stories of our successes, so folks are missing out on a huge opportunity for inspiration and motivation to do more. 

In short, information does not flow as well as it needs to for people to feel sufficiently connected to their work, to others, and to the institution as a whole.       

An additional issue is the relatively small number of people involved in higher-level programmatic leadership. Yes, West Shore is a large congregation and cannot function effectively if everyone tries to be in charge of everything. Our style of democracy must be representative in nature. But we need to expand the range of representation. We need more key leaders who are congregants to be a part of the deciding and doing. The Board has made the Senior Minister ultimately accountable for the quality of church programming, and that doesn’t change. But what this Senior Minister wants to do is use his power to expand the number of congregant voices that are at the table joining his (and by that I mean mine). I want to share power. 

Third, and finally, the Organizational Development Committee saw that West Shore’s current system has little bandwidth for higher-level strategy and policy development. It’s often squeezed-out by the practical time-constraints of implementing programs that the Minister, paid staff, and volunteers face when trying to get things done. Finish one thing, start the next, ad infinitum. But you can get so caught up with individual trees that you lose track of the larger forest. One example of this lostness is how it’s really hard to get people talking across program and administrative areas about topics that are big enough to touch on them all, like fundraising, or leadership development, or member engagement. Every program area ought to contribute to the success of these larger ventures. If they’re not, we’re in trouble. 

Take leadership development. It’s been widely noted that newer members are often quickly burned out by the many invitations they receive to serve as volunteers. The invitations come from all corners. This could be prevented if our different program areas were having more intentional, strategic conversations about how to develop the leadership of new members. There just needs to be an across-the-board agreement on the basic philosophy that says that the #1 goal for a new member is to make five friends in the congregation. If they make five friends, then West Shore will truly become a home to them. Make five friends first, and then let’s talk about volunteer opportunities. Or let’s talk about special volunteer opportunities that are great for building friendships. Anything that doesn’t burn newcomers out. 

We’ve got to make time for these larger conversations. Individual programs are important, yes, but let’s not forget about the forest that all our program trees exist in, and how the different trees rely on each other….

So—three issues where West Shore programs are concerned: communication struggles, insufficiently shared leadership, and lack of intentional time devoted to collaboration across program areas and strategy development. 

As a side-note, let me say that I really don’t mean to be a Negative Nellie here, or a Debbie Downer, or a Cranky Christopher. West Shore is awesome in so many ways. But you can be awesome and there can still be room for improvement. 

Above all, what the new system our Organizational Development Committee has developed and our Board has approved amounts to significant change. We are asking the congregation to change. And that’s going to take everyone’s effort and everyone’s participation, and no one should be asked to give that effort and participation without clear reasons why.

That’s what I’m trying to offer here. 

So, what are these changes?

As part of identifying them, the Organizational Development Team looked at some other large Unitarian Universalist congregations and what they did to solve similar issues, and what has been successful. These are the changes we’re encouraging West Shore to embrace: the creation of three things: (1) Program Councils, (2) the role of the Ministry Associate, and (3) the Central Coordinating Team. 

I’ll summarize these one at a time. 

A Program Council is a way of bringing together teams and task forces that share a common theme. An example would be the Worship, Music, and Arts Council, which would be attended by duly elected representatives of all the various West Shore groups which seek to engage our religious values with our senses, in the form of worship, music, and art. Groups represented would include the Worship Associates, the West Shore Choir, our Tech Team, the Aesthetics Team, Thursdays@West Shore, and so on. 

That’s one Council, and we would have four others at West Shore: 

We would have a Religious Education and Engagement Council–members would represent Children’s RE, Youth RE, Adult RE, OWL, and Membership Classes and events, and the like.

We would have a Justice and Outreach Council–members would represent the Social Action Committee, Faith Communities Together for a Sustainable Future, Undoing Oppressions, Queer & Allies, West Shore Allies Against Human Trafficking, programs with Community Partners, and so on. 

We would have a Caring and Community Council–members would represent the Pastoral Care Team, Support Groups, Helping Hands, Connection Circles, Denominational Affairs, Partner Church, perhaps InReach, and others. 

And, we would have a Ways and Means Council–members would represent Leadership Development, Stewardship programs including education and fundraising, The Legacy Society. Building & Grounds, the Personnel Team, and so on.

These would be the five Program Councils at West Shore. Representatives coming from 60+ separate, scattered groups, would come together in the context of just five Councils. Do you see how this might instantly improve communication channels at West Shore? Each Council would meet at least three times per year (more often as necessary), and the focus of the meetings would be to encourage and enable teams to learn important information, coordinate event scheduling, identify synergy opportunities, troubleshoot challenges, discuss financial issues, and report on accomplishments. And there’s more: 

·      To create a sense of community spirit that is encouraging and energizing; 

·      To ensure that all Council-related teams start the program year by establishing goals in line with the Board’s Annual (Strategic) Vision of Ministry;  

·       To ensure that, at the end of a program year, all teams share their accomplishments in the Annual Report, and that they are a part of the budget formation process; and finally–

·      To collect any important “grassroots” feedback that needs to be reported to the higher-level leadership.   

That’s the skinny on Program Councils. But now, who leads them? 

Each Council is led by the Minister or paid staff person whose job description most closely aligns with the theme of a given council. But they would be joined in leadership by a Ministry Associate, which is the second innovation that the Organizational Development Committee proposes. Each Council would be co-led, in other words. 

What is the Ministry Associate role? This is the second innovation the Organizational Development Committee recommends. Essentially, it represents a critical way to expand the range of congregant leadership at the table. Each Ministry Associate is a congregant volunteer who serves a three year term. As volunteers, they are committed to the health and wellbeing of West Shore as a whole and excited about working to support that. They understand and appreciate the workings and complexity of large churches. They are respected and trusted in the congregation. They are skilled in working with people. They have initiative and energy and can get things done. They are good with facilitation and organization. They are self-aware and emotionally healthy. 

Let me also say that a Ministry Associate for a given Council would ultimately be selected by the Senior Minister, of course upon the advice of respected leaders within a given Council. This is appropriate, given the fact that the buck does stop with the Senior Minister where programming quality is concerned….  

And now for the third and final innovation: the Central Coordinating Team. This is yet another way in which we aim to expand the range of congregant leadership at the table. It’s also the way to open up more space for collaboration across program areas and strategy development. 

Essentially, the Central Coordinating Team is composed of the Senior Minister, the co-chairs of the five Program Councils (this includes Ministry Associates), together with a Board Liaison, several members-at-large, and additional staff as needed.

The Central Coordinating Team meets at least six times per year to do a lot of things. One is to educate Program Council Co-Chairs on important congregational timelines, needs, and policies so that they, in turn, might educate Council members. Another is to listen to what Council co-chairs have to say about issues and needs they are hearing coming from volunteers at the grassroots. Still more is to ensure that fundraising, leadership development, and member engagement (which play a role in all program areas) are alive and well in the congregation. Yet a fourth function would be to identify needs for continuing education for church volunteers, and offering training programs.

Two additional functions of the Central Coordinating Team deserve special mention. One is to support West Shore’s accountability to our congregational covenant of healthy relationships and to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism values. Accountability needs to happen from the center and move outwards from there. It doesn’t work very well when it originates at the margins and tries to fight its way inward. The Central Coordinating Team would be of tremendous help here. 

As for the other function deserving special mention: this one relates to knowing how we’re doing. How can we improve if the information we’re relying on doesn’t get beyond informal impressions and squeaky wheels? How can we improve, when we don’t know what the silence of most people means and how to interpret it? So, the Central Coordinating Team would be responsible on an annual basis for commissioning a Task Force to do a systematic, deep-dive evaluation of one program or administrative area, with the results being submitted to the Board. You may have noted the need for some members-at-large on the Coordinating Team, and this may just well be the main role for them.  

The Central Coordinating Team is meant to do a lot–but the main theme behind all its functions is to include more congregant voices at the table, to help hold our many programs and program leaders together, to make sure people are talking to each other, to make sure information is flowing from bottom to top and top to bottom, to enable our congregation to learn from its success and mistakes and to grow. It’s meant to make our ministry work together easier …. easier, if we had sufficient traffic signs and traffic lights at West Shore, helping all our individual drivers drive well. 

That’s really what this is all about. We all know—the Board, the Organizational Development Committee, the staff, and myself—we all know that West Shore is packed with talent and passion. 

The opportunity before us is to go to the next level in organizing all that talent and passion. Not through rigid hierarchy, nor through structurelessness, but through a flexible hierarchical system in which information flows more freely through the entire system, more congregants are involved in higher-level program decisions, and our separate program areas can get out of their silos and start talking to each other more than ever before. 

It’s about “being the change we wish to see in the world.” It’s about being able to change more lives. That’s what it is.

How long will it take to fully implement? Well, from one perspective, it’s already begun. One of your previous Senior Ministers, the Rev. Wayne Arneson, saw the need to support better coordination among our various Justice Task Forces, and that led to the creation of what has since become known as the Justice Council. As I understand it, its structure and function is significantly different from the sort of Program Council that is being suggested here, but still, the need for better coordination was seen maybe 20 years ago. 

And then there’s our InReach group, which began functioning maybe five years ago, and that group’s work has, in some ways, anticipated the role of the Central Coordinating Team. 

West Shore is already moving in the direction that the Organizational Development Committee of the Board wants to go, but now is the time to move in a more strategic, fully-developed and holistic way that touches on all our groups and impacts everything. 

But that question of how long it will take to fully implement is actually quite tricky, since now we happen to be in the middle of a pandemic. Here we are, smack dab in it, as we all know. And it’s challenging. Change requires trust and change requires communication. So, it’s just to say, it may take the entirety of this year to fully implement the changes. We will proceed sensitively. 

We are entering into a traffic construction zone which, when complete, will magnify the number of cars that can drive through by 10. But until we get there, please be patient with all the orange cones everywhere….

There’s this old story about a time near the turn of the 19th century, into the 20th. At that time there were only two automobiles in the entire state of Kansas. Only two. 

They collided.

As for West Shore today, we are hundreds of people, filled with joy and a desire to serve. 

Let’s avoid unnecessary collisions. Let’s do what it takes to build up our congregational system of traffic signs and traffic lights, with all of us driving on shared roads in greater harmony.