David L. Odom: History without a reason

SIgn announcing times of Sunday Services at The Church of St. Mabena

Many times institutions have traditions -- such as the Sunday service time -- that are preserved without a reason for doing so.
Wikimedia Commons/Theroadislong

Leaders must be able to articulate why an institution does what it does. Is it a matter of history, or is there a reason? writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Early in my new boss’s tenure, I asked her for help.

“Is this one of those situations that has a history but not a reason?” she asked.

The question stopped me cold.

She told me that in her two-week tenure, several people had sought her advice. In each case, she had asked, “Why are we doing this?” In response, the person would launch into a story that never included a reason for the project.

Since hearing the phrase from my boss -- Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, who is serving as interim dean of Duke Divinity School -- I have repeated it to several leaders whose faces lit up. They can see in their contexts the projects that have a history without a reason.

Learning the history of an issue is critical. It reveals stakeholders whose views might remain important and can give hints about the circumstances that first gave rise to the issue. Those who claim to know the history often care about a situation’s outcome, and giving them a chance to tell the story helps bring them on board.

I have met several leaders who believed that the relevant history started with their own arrival at an institution. My boss was pointing to a different challenge.

During good times, an organization can coast on autopilot. The reasons for an initiative can get lost, though it can still seem to be productive. When times are tough -- economic challenges, leadership changes, neighborhood changes, stakeholder investment shifts -- it is critical to be able to articulate why the organization does what it does.

The starting point is to ask, “Why?”

But be careful. Asking why can make people nervous and cause them to wonder about your motivations -- are you simply trying to control of the situation? Assure them that you’re trying to understand the situation, and listen carefully. If their story doesn’t conclude with a reason, ask the question again.

In my case, Dean Davis asked the question to understand the dilemma and empower me to solve it. I had wanted her to make a decision, but she wanted to offer me some guidelines for solving it myself. The decision had high stakes, and we had not worked together before. Her question enabled us to share information and gain each other’s trust.

When I was a young pastor, I was the one asking questions.

I was troubled that my congregation had its Easter Sunday worship service at 9 a.m. Every other Sunday of the year, we worshipped at 11 a.m.

When I asked why, people said that 9 a.m. was more convenient for Easter, but no one had any evidence that it was. I was worried about the people who came to church only once a year and might assume that we held our service two hours later.

When I pressed the question, I learned that the church had historically held a sunrise service followed by a breakfast. Because of the long delay between the end of breakfast and the beginning of the 11 a.m. service, the second service had been moved back to 9. It had been more than 10 years since the last sunrise service and breakfast. The 9 a.m. service had a history -- but no longer a reason.

I was worried that newcomers in our community would show up at 11 a.m. thinking we would have a service and then feel left out when we didn’t. On my first Easter Sunday there, I decided to hang out in the parking lot after the 9 a.m. service to see whether anyone showed up at 11. Five carloads of newcomers pulled into the empty parking lot about 10:50.

If there is something significant at stake, it is unwise to frame the issue as simply “history or reason.” As a leader, approach the situation with a both-and mindset: How might you preserve the history and make space for something new?

My colleague Greg Jones refers to this mindset as “traditioned innovation.” In our case, church leaders didn’t want to change the time, but they did agree to invest in signs and other media to announce the “special time on a special day” for Easter. We worked hard to reach newcomers in the community who would find the 9 a.m. service appealing.

With the phrase “history without a reason” stuck in my mind, I listen carefully to the stories people tell me about why something is done a certain way. Does the story imply a reason? Does the person hear what the story implies? Does the reason make sense in the current context? Can the history and the reason be brought together?