Open leaders have open meetings

When Bishop Warner Brown said at the United Methodist Council of Bishops meeting yesterday that bishops need a “safe place” to discuss issues they are uncertain about, he was raising the dilemma many leaders of public organizations face in this new world of horizontal communications. Public discussion is often beyond our control. And that is unsettling, sometimes leads to inaccurate attribution and puts the speaker on the defensive unfairly.

Bishop Brown pointedly looked at the journalists in the room and said he could not speak tentatively or test new thoughts in their presence, for these very reasons. That’s the dilemma.

He wasn’t helped, however, by the first response of Fred Miller, the consultant who is advising the Interim Operations Team about how to re-organize the general church. Miller was advising the bishops about how to become a “leadership group.”

He outlined a strategy that at times sounded manipulative and concealing. Miller told the bishops to present their most inconsequential and boring material in such an exhaustive way the press would get bored and leave the room, and then the bishops could get to the meaty subjects they really want to discuss. He said this is his advice to boards of public organizations.

In a wide-ranging conversation that included a call to honesty and open leadership, courage and perseverance, this wasn’t the only bad advice Miller gave the bishops. He also told them one way to deal with conflict is to escalate the complexity of the issue so that the opponents get confused and the issue so muddled that the original disagreement gets resolved in the fog.

Not exactly a prescription for open leadership in the 21st century.

Miller did seem to comprehend the dark chasm he had stepped into with regard to journalism and much later expressed support for the fourth estate. He told the bishops the best way to deal with Bishop Brown’s concern was to be transparent and put everything on the web for all to see. Then, he said, it’s possible to assess such things as metrics, by looking at trends and avoid referring to the personal failures of individuals, or discussing opinions. This fact-based approach de-personalizes the discussion and  gives data for discussing disputes, he said.

This is a more healthy way to assess much that we care about in the church. What was not spoken in this discussion is the fact that the Council is allowed to operate under its own rules of procedure with regard to the open meetings provision of Paragraph 271 of the Book of Discipline, the book of church law by which all church entities operate – though it is expected “to live by the spirit” of the paragraph.

The council has the option to go into executive session pretty much at will, and it uses it often. The day following this exchange, for example, the council spent the day in executive session.

Why closed meetings?

Sometimes, it’s not clear why this leadership group chooses to meet behind closed doors. When they launched the very important “In Defense of Creation” study, instead of streaming their discussion on the web as a way of showing why creation care is a crucial faith concern and how they were struggling with it, they went into executive session. They missed an opportunity to share with the whole church how they connect theology and faithful practice to protecting the Creation.

Even as a journalist, I’m sympathetic to the need for leaders to have a way to discuss nettlesome matters they must deal with. We need the ability to think out loud without being locked into positions that we raise in a speculative way. We don’t want to be misquoted or held to some position that we don’t really support merely because we asked a question about it. And that happens.

But it happens whether the journalists are in the room or not. It happens when people gossip. It happens when leaders speak to staff and staff read between the lines and make assumptions. It happens when we make a jocular comment in a hallway conversation that ends up on Twitter as a more definitive statement than we could have imagined. It’s the horizontal communications world we live in.

Leaders in a public organization lead public lives. At United Methodist Communications, we offer training to episcopal leaders and others about dealing with the media. We offer resources for creating social media strategies. We offer crisis communications management training. We offer support for strategic communications planning. Few bishops take us up on these offers.

Changing the climate

The current climate in which we live is a climate that starts with skepticism. We’ve been worked over by institutions that had harmful agendas. We’ve seen 20-plus years of mismanagement of sexual abuse cases by the Roman Catholic Church, and religious figures from many backgrounds fall to the same private practices they publicly condemn. We’ve seen politicians lie, business leaders abuse trust, and our public institutions and corporations abandon the people who depend upon them. Trust is broken.

Sunshine is the best antidote. Honesty is still the best policy. We’re all human. We’re all anxious and afraid. We all need a safe place. A community of trust that allows us to be human will be based on openness, honesty and accountability.

And we desperately want leaders to take us there – leaders with open hearts, open minds and open doors.

11 Responses to “Open leaders have open meetings”

  1. Erik Alsgaard November 3, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    Kudos to Larry Hollon for bringing up some very important issues. I couldn’t help but notice in the recent UMNS story about how long the bishops were in closed session the other day. What are they hiding? I’m inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, but when they have consultants giving then such lousy, unprofessional advice, one begins to wonder. (And how much did we, the church, pay for this bad advice???) When are bishops and other church leaders going to learn that public business needs to be conducted in public? Larry, I only hope the bishops don’t shoot the messenger.

  2. Jeanette Slater-Ham November 3, 2011 at 8:00 pm #

    Thank you for discussing this out in the open and demonstrating open hearts, open minds and open doors. It can be uncomfortable to trust the process, but it is modeling how to continue working at changing the climate, it takes practice.

  3. John November 3, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    One of the institutions that many of us do not trust the media. Many reporters approach a story with a “news” agenda and report the information that fits their meme. The more candid and open you are with these people, the more material that they have to misconstrue. I would be interested in any empirical evidence that you have for the assertion that the more open an organization is the more it is trusted. When working in a government agency in controversial area, I found that the more effort they made to have open dialog with the press, the less they were trusted. Although many say that openness breeds trust, there seems to be little evidence, particularly in controversial areas where the facts do not fit the conventional wisdom that many journalists bring to their stories.

    • (Rev. F. David Wells) November 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

      This speaks to a long-overdue consideration of “The Public Media.” Furthermore, the “radicalization” and “polarization” of the Press-At-Large, and growing more-so, rapidly: raises questions about our own discernment on how to work with the public media. “Wisdom with knowledge, understanding and all kinds of skills…” on this subject has been slow to gain. Perhaps the beginning of wisdom here is to confess that Satan roams the world looking to feed his insatiable appetite? Perhaps, working through what-ever levels need to be released to the world, needs a little more self-discipline in that ministry? If it is true that “more conservative thought” is a better production energy, then should be plenty of room for a confession of maturation as Methodists look to the future!

    • Thomas A. Clemow November 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm #

      Take the risk! The other road leads us only to where we have come, cynicism and secrecy secured! Mistrust and calculating self-interest intact! What cannot stand the light of day, requires it all the more.

  4. Jay Brim November 4, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    To Larry and John: Transparency is an absolute necessity for trust. However, one need not be naive in being transparent. Chapter 15 of the Book of Acts details a momentous discussion by what amounted then to the General Conference of Christianity. There is no indication of whether the discussion described there was closed to the public [elsewhere, in the Gospel according to John, 20:27, the doors were “shut” (NKJV)], but clearly all the competing philosophies of the new Church were present: Pharisees, elders apostles, etc. Each spoke openly of his beliefs, while seeking the will of God for the good of the Church and trusting the others present. Our problems arise out of a lack of trust. We need to communicate openly while trusting in the God we believe in to carry us through the perverse reactions of some out there who act according to their own beliefs and suspicions. Thanks, Larry, for describing in a sophisticated way the need to hold to the right way to manage at the top.

  5. (*The Rev. Ms) Jeanne Audrey Powers November 4, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    I can’t speak for situations of journalists in the room who are listening to the Council of Bishops, but I do know, from many individual interviews I had, that the more information I shared, the more I treated the journalist’s (secular and church)job as a “conversation with a friend,” the better the final story for me. In the process,they came to know what should NOT be in print, and because I shared MORE than I needed to, they understood the “situation” we were talking about–and thus they wrote selectively, “told the truth” and pleased us both. The better the relationship, the better the article on our behalf!

  6. Harriett Olson November 4, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    One of the issues that needs to be addressed is allowing leaders to “not know everything” and ask questions in public. If we expect leaders to be learners, we must support their learning. Educational experts would suggest that this happens best in an atmosphere of trust, so that the prospective learner is helped to take the risk of changing her/his mind about something. The question is: how do we create that climate so that we get the results we need.

    Another issue that must be addressed is the press preference for reporting only matters that involve conflict OR that don’t fit the reporters idea of “normal” for the institution. Secular press do this consistently, without a sense of scale. How can journalists help us to really understand an issue, instead of flocking to the controversial statements that may be made by one extreme or another. It seems to me that it’s comparatively easy for politicians and others to move the reporters away from the real issue by throwing out a controversial sound-bite or two.

    The fourth estate has a responsibility to cover more than the sensational. A religion editor at a major daily explaned this to me with resignation by saying: my pieces still have to satisfy my news editor. Looking for novelty or controversial matters does not yeild an adequate “report” of the work.

    I wish that UMAC and RCC would address some of these issues that are common to their craft. While I didn’t hear the discussion mentions in Larry’s blog, perhpas it could occasion some journalistic self-reflection along the following lines: What have we done, as a part of the system of the UMC, that is producing this result? What could we change in our own work to produce the results we want?

    Thanks for listening.

    Harriett

  7. Holly November 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    I love the term “holy conferencing” from our Wesleyan heritage. I doubt we can recover it unless we fall under conviction by the power of the Holy Spirit, repent of our dishonesty, guile, and tendency to engage in “spin”. That would be a first step in reforming the UMC.

  8. laura harbert allen November 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    John,
    The bottom line is that the public has a right to know about how the leaders they put into place operate.
    Without the media, the Holocaust, Watergate and the Iran-Contra would not have come to light. Power must be spoken to without fear, and that’s the only ‘agenda’ good journalists have. Vilifying all journalists and journalism as a profession is like judging the entire Catholic church, for example, as evil because of the bad behavior of some priests. So, I for one would appreciate not being referred to as “those people”.

    Good leaders value transparency and honesty. The church (and all of us), suffers when secrets, and what is done to keep them, are priorities.

    At the heart of this also, I think, is the fear many of those in power have of the horizontal media world. To quote Alec Ross, who works for Hilary Clinton: “You don’t control the story anymore, and you have to get over it.”

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