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Saying Yes to a New Kind of Collaboration

Kay Lindahl and Kathe Schaaf

Reaching Beyond No

                                             When order crumbles, mystery arises.
                                              John Shea in Stories of God (2007)

We are living in a remarkable time for humanity. The old order is indeed crumbling around us. We are being faced daily with new and alarming consequences of our degradation of the Earth, a greed-based value system that undermines human dignity, and a culture of fear that fuels violence and hatred of the ‘other.’

The news is not all bad; we are also catching more frequent glimpses of exciting new ways to live and learn together on this planet with compassion, peace, justice, and sustainability. We know what kind of future we want to create – we just don’t know yet how to create it.

In every aspect of our lives and our work, we are being asked to live with more questions than answers. It will take all of us and our collective wisdom to live into those answers.

The Future of Interfaith Collaboration

In this moment in the evolution of the interfaith movement, we too are facing big questions: 

Alchemy Mandala (2011) and Alchemy 2 (2013), below, were each created by more than 100 women working together with Charlotte Backman, the artist who designed the process and anchored both creations.

  • How does ‘interfaith’ remain relevant and vital in the face of the shifting landscape of religion, the closing of churches, the rising numbers of the ‘unaffiliated,’ the emergence of the interspirituality movement? 
  • How can the interfaith movement move beyond ‘nice talk’ to bring strategic leadership in the face of the urgent challenges facing our global family?
  • How do we actually begin working together across the boundaries of our many different organizations and networks to become an effective force for social change?

Feeling vulnerable and adrift among so many big questions, the two of us recently discovered a potential lifeline in this bit of wisdom posted on social media: “The answer to ‘how’ is YES.”

As we sat with those words and opened to allow the layers of meaning to sink in, we could feel the potential of a new way of being growing from that yes. And we glimpsed that much of the dysfunction of our current world grows from a pattern of leadership and decision-making that is deeply rooted in a culture of no.

For centuries, most of our world has been organized around a ‘dominator’ model of leadership. A handful of people at the top of an organizational chart control the bulk of the power and resources. It seems inevitable that those leaders become territorial about their power. When that happens, the organization (or government or university or corporation) can become driven primarily by a sense of pervasive fear. A culture of scarcity develops, and there seems never enough to go around.

Outsiders cannot be trusted. Innovation is blocked. People who show up with new ideas, resources, or creativity are viewed with suspicion. Are they trying to take over? There is no transparency or permeability. Secrets must be kept closely guarded among the ‘insiders,’ meaning that partnerships with ‘outsiders’ feel vulnerable and dangerous. In dictatorial structures the whole dynamic results in a narrow funnel through which ideas, energy, and creativity must flow. A dysfunctional organization actually deflects grace when a default to no gets built in, and the result is ineffectiveness and stagnation. 

Getting to Yes

Happily, an alternative is beginning to flower in our midst. Considerable research has been done in recent years about the qualities of a different kind of healthy, thriving organization. They focus on collaboration, shared leadership, innovation, space for reflection, flexibility, work/life balance, validation, and transparency. Creativity is valued and cultivated. A conscious goal is fostered to allow space for new ideas to take root and grow. 

In pursuing this kind of healthy growth in our organizations, we need to begin to say yes. 

Say yes to questions and allow yourself to get comfortable with the vulnerability of not knowing the answers. This is both a deeply personal ‘inside job’ and can become a valued aspect of your organizational culture.

Say yes to the wisdom that lives in every member of your community, team, or staff. Create opportunities to hear all the voices. You will get better tangible results and your organization will grow stronger through the feelings of ownership and belonging.

Say yes to shared leadership that goes way beyond consensus or compromise. We know from experience that it is possible to create a web of connection and collaboration that totally redefines and magnifies the concept of ‘working together.’

Say yes to deep listening – to your own inner voice, to one another, and to Spirit. This means weaving silence, meditation and prayer into your daily routines so that you create a sacred center for your organization and invite divine inspiration.

Say yes to the power of authentic relationships and radical trust. Allow yourself to fall in love with your co-workers and your colleagues across the spectrum of the interfaith community.

Say yes to what is emerging organically. Pay attension to the ideas and offerings that flow in unexpectedly, to potential partnerships that grow from a conversation. These are clues about what wants to happen naturally.

Say yes to ease and laughter and joy. While our interfaith work can be challenging, there is no reason for it to become a burden. 

Say yes to grace. You’ll know it when you see it. 

This culture of yes grows from a foundation of feminine principles that were abandoned and devalued long ago, replaced by a model of masculine reason. The result has been nothing less than a world out of balance. Mother Earth and the evening news are both telling us it is time to weave those feminine principles back into our world.

Making a shift to a new way of leading is not easy. One of our colleagues recently observed “The trap for me these days is saying ‘yes’ to the familiar.” These patterns of hierarchy and ‘top down’ leadership are so deeply ingrained in all of us that they have become almost automatic. We are seeing a wave of new women's groups organized to promote feminine principles, but many are still structured using the old model – a few people are leading from the front and the rest are followers.

So can we make this shift in time to provide leadership to a world in crisis? We won’t know until we try. The interfaith community has a long history of valuing cooperation and collaboration. This is your opportunity to push the edges of that rich tradition, to experiment with new behaviors, to risk leaving the familiar behind. If not now … when?