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September 19, 2011
The Church: Accountable to the Transformation it Promises (1 of 2)
A Lesson from AA
In his book, Breathing Under Water, the Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer Richard Rohr deems Alcoholics Anonymous, “America’s most significant and authentic contribution to the history of spirituality.” Rohr’s assessment offers confirmation from a far more experienced observer of something that has been gnawing at me, especially of late: the church has something essential, even vitally necessary, to learn from AA.
Looking at AA, and a number of other twelve-step or focused self-help programs, what strikes me is how clearly and unambiguously they make a promise of transformation. The transformation involved might be overcoming an addiction. It might be becoming a more organized person. It might be “finding one’s voice” and developing into an effective leader, as in Marshall Ganz’s public narrative and organizing training programs. (Ganz’s programs have begun to make an impact within the church and well beyond it. ) Consistently across all of these programs or paths, there is a promise of recognizable transformation. What’s more, it is usually stated and always understood, that the kind of transformation promised begets a deeper transformation and growth of the person. Among those whom I know who have either gone through Alcoholics Anonymous, or intensively trained in Marshall Ganz’s leadership arts curriculum, few would say that they emerged from the experience the same people who entered.
My own experience speaks handily to this. I first encountered Marshall Ganz’s leadership development work two years ago, when I joined Life Together , the Episcopal Service Corps program in Boston. In my second week of orientation, sitting in the cavernous basement of Trinity Church in Copley Square (where Phillips Brooks once held the pulpit), I was introduced to Ganz’s “five leadership arts.” In the midst of this training we, as program interns, were informed that we would each be held accountable for learning them, practicing them, and using them to organize a successful faith-based economic justice campaign over the next eleven months. These skills would transform me into a leader and enable me to succeed in the task, but only if I committed myself completely to the practices and “dived in” again and again.
Further, I learned, the whole process began with learning to tell my own story of why I was called to act for justice in a way that could inspire others. At the time, I didn’t even know I had a story worth telling, and I was terrified of speaking in public. Yet by the end of the second intensive day of training, I had gotten up and delivered my first “public narrative” to eighty people. Over the designated three minutes, my voice, quavering with fear and excitement at the beginning, gradually found an unaccustomed firmness.
That was just the beginning of the steep yet liberating learning curve I faced that following year. My nerdish introverted self, always eager to think about but never to engage in action, then learned to reach out and meet with strangers, form and train “leadership teams,” manage meetings, plan events and campaign strategies, all the while trying to stay grounded in my own voice, call, and story. The promised transformation started to happen; I began to turn into a leader.
Yet the change in me went deeper than all of that. I found I could only maintain my motivation through challenging, discomforting work—and repeated failure—by learning to break out of the prison of self-consciousness and cling instead to the part of my purpose that was larger than me. So long as it was all about me, the anxiety and embarrassment of risking failure were too overwhelming. What allowed me to persist was a focus on the change in the world that needed to happen, the people I cared about, and ultimately, God’s purpose in all of the work. I believe that for the first time in my life, I stopped living only for myself, because I had to. That was where my transformation became truly personal.
When a community or organization makes a promise of specific transformation it takes on an inescapable accountability. So, reciprocally, does the individual who takes them up on that promise by committing to their practices. In almost all cases, transformation is never smooth, never easy, never fully evident, and never fully predictable—unlike the promises made by countless bad self-help books. Yet always, there is a point at which it can be asked, “are there results?” and the answer is a clear yes or no. If there weren’t, AA wouldn’t still be around. If there weren’t, I wouldn’t be writing this—and I likely wouldn’t still be in the church. Transformation does happen.
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