Victoria Atkinson White: Avoid an 'orthodoxy of nostalgia' by changing your organization's language

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Transforming "We can’t because …" into "We can if …" offers space for creative problem solving, conversation and abundance, writes the managing director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

I recently heard the Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the senior minister of The Riverside Church in the City of New York, talk about the dangers of the church's adherence to an "orthodoxy of nostalgia." This orthodoxy, she says, is believing that the dreams of the past are always better than the dreams of the future.

Theologian L. Gregory Jones issues a similar warning when he talks about "going back to Egypt," the habit of focusing on an organization's golden era -- which, with every passing year, leadership transition or conflict, seems to become that much more gilded.

The Israelites "went back to Egypt" when they were trying to convince themselves that generational starvation, slavery and maltreatment (the known) were preferable to relying on God for their daily bread in the wilderness and following Moses to the promised land (the unknown).

I have witnessed a fair number of churches entrenched in this way of thinking. Christian institutions, nonprofits, schools, committees and almost any other gathering have a naturally ingrained orthodoxy of nostalgia. In the face of impending change, the familiar past can feel more secure -- even more faithful -- than the unfamiliar future, so that someone is bound to say, "We've never done it this way before."

Statements like this can shut down conversations and kill the positivity in a room. And positivity, according to "A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It's Everyone's Business," correlates strongly with resilience and openness, characteristics that are important for "exploring and testing inventive new approaches from unusual sources."

Exploring and testing inventive approaches from unusual sources is an excellent way to work through the orthodoxy of nostalgia. One particularly helpful practice, described in "A Beautiful Constraint," is the use of can-if language.

To change the nature of a conversation, try making the words "We can't because …" off-limits. Instead, challenge people who oppose an idea to say, "We can if …" and offer a possible solution. One leader I know posted a sign in a conference room: "This is a CAN-IF zone. Can't because need not enter."

Imagine how this practice might transform a conversation. In a meeting about professional development opportunities for staff, we might hear, "We can't afford to invest more money into training because the budget is already overstretched." This statement focuses on scarcity.

A can-if approach might be, "We can provide additional training if we incorporate it into employees' onboarding and on-the-job resourcing" or "We can provide additional training if we secure other income sources to support it." Both offer possible solutions and productively move the discussion forward.

The authors of "A Beautiful Constraint," Adam Morgan and Mark Barden, unpack why a can-if statement can be so powerful in moving a conversation forward:

  • It keeps the conversation on the right question. Language stays focused on how something might be done rather than whether or not it is possible.
  • It keeps the oxygen of optimism continually in the process. Processes full of curiosity, inquisitiveness and positive momentum will retain the attention and dedication of the team.
  • It forces everyone involved in the conversation to take responsibility for finding answers, rather than identifying barriers. When challenges or roadblocks are identified, they are immediately paired with possible solutions, maintaining the flow of conversation.
  • The story it tells us about ourselves is that we are people who look for solutions, rather than a group of people who find problems and obstacles. This reaffirms that we are people of faith, hope, possibilities and new beginnings -- people who are not paralyzed by the past.
  • It is a method that maintains a mindset. If the first can-if possibility does not bring about resolution, the process will continue to generate others.

Staying invested in solving a problem rather than getting bogged down in a particular solution can help any committee, team, church or organization move a conversation forward instead of remaining stuck in the past.

One of the key tasks of Christian leaders is to cast a vision of a compelling future, one that bears witness to God's reign in brave and bold ways, being mindful of Egypt but not nostalgic about it. We can do this if we remember we serve a God who desires to be in relationship with us in our journeys, constantly making all things new.