“In UniteBoston, the collaboration of Christian identities exists not only between one church and another, but also between one neighbor and another, and one friend to another, on a much broader scale. Moreover, this growing and adaptive community engagement arguably aligns with the original mission of the church: to engage the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.“Peter Seremetis
This week, Peter Seremetis is the guest blogger on UniteBoston. Peter is a second year student at the Boston University School of Theology. Coming from a Greek Orthodox background, he interviewed leaders in UniteBoston for his “Practicing Faith: Leadership in Ministry” course. Peter is a native of New Jersey who received his BA in Journalism from American University in Washington DC. Prior to coming to Boston, Peter had interned at the Washington National Cathedral and the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. In his blog below, he describes how UniteBoston is incorporating “adaptive leadership” in its programming and foundation as they align Christians of all backgrounds on God’s mission together.
When I first heard about UniteBoston, I was deeply inspired by its mission to unite Christians. Embedded in the organization’s foundation is the concept of “adaptive work” articulated in Ronald A. Heifetz’ book “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” A leader or organization that exercises adaptive work, according to Heifetz, examines the reality of a situation, and assesses what values, beliefs, or behaviors need to be changed in order to properly address the challenges of that situation (Heifetz, 22).
One of the primary challenges that UniteBoston faces as an organization, according to Kelly Fassett, UniteBoston’s co-founder and Executive Director, lies in its very mission of “nurturing Christian unity through relational connections” between different churches and Christian denominations in the Boston area. As Kelly pointed out, the maintenance of differences can become deeply embedded in a congregation’s sense of identity. “People think that in order to be a church, you need to have a tight understanding of who you are, and your identity as a Christian,” Kelly said. “Because of this, often denominations or local congregations see their identity as against the ‘other’. People think, ‘I’m Catholic; I’m not a Protestant,’ or, ‘I’m conservative, not like those liberals over there.’” Following Heifetz’ logic, to address this challenge would require a deep analysis of the values and beliefs that lead to this kind of identity formation, as well as the subtle changes that need to take place in order to, as Kelly put it, “help people see that the people on the other side are actually, potentially, a part of the same Christian family.”
UniteBoston’s emphasis on the inclusion of different denominational representations within every layer of its organization–through its Board of Directors, dinner coordinators, volunteers, and musicians, functions as a primary tool for addressing this challenge in an adaptive way. This can be seen in an anecdote cited by Chloe Gaydos, UniteBoston’s Event Coordinator and Band Manager, in which a group of volunteer musicians were putting together the music for the organization’s upcoming annual Summer Worship Night. In this circumstance, disagreements in music style and theological beliefs surfaced, including practices and beliefs in receiving communion, styles of worship, and prayer. Chloe explained that while these disagreements occurred, maintaining openness and “providing opportunities to create something together” enabled the members to see each other as “more than theological beliefs.” Over time, they began to ask each other questions about those differences. Chloe described, “You don’t really know and have a well-rounded perspective of what you believe until you have to share with somebody who believes otherwise.”
Taken at an individual level, leaders within UniteBoston each apply their own spiritual practices to help themselves, and the organization, address this challenge up front–inadvertently following Heifetz’ principle of “mobilizing members and attendees to face, rather than avoid, the realities and challenges” between church communities (Heifetz, 23). For Kelly Fassett, for instance, it is a practice of “taking it back to prayer” by dedicating “quiet time” every day to “stay centered in Christ,” which helps her to make sure that her decisions as a leader, as well as UniteBoston’s decisions as a whole organization, are in line with the most important aspects of their underlying mission. For Rev. David Wright, one of the members of UniteBoston’s Board of Directors, it is a practice of communicating that the differences between church communities are something to “honor,” while remaining focused on the bigger picture that as Christians, “we are one.” To illustrate this, Rev. Wright gave the example of how he utilizes a devotional practice at the beginning of each Board meeting, in which a different board member offers a devotion from his or her tradition, so that all members can appreciate and understand the perspectives and and gifts within each tradition. He described, “We have our differences: let’s honor those, let’s support those, let’s celebrate those, but in the greater thing–which is we are all in the service of Jesus Christ, let’s focus on that.”
What adds to the efficacy of UniteBoston’s “adaptive work” is the fact that UniteBoston brings this cross-cultural community engagement to people. By hosting its Neighborhood Dinners in hosts’ homes within the neighborhoods of Boston, in having its Worship Night in public spaces like the Boston Common, and even having its Annual Fundraiser in a different church each year, such as Bethel AME Church and Congregation Lion of Judah, UniteBoston brings the questions about what it means to be united in Christ into people’s immediate vicinities. This approach gives its mission the feel of addressing an immediate issue—not one that exists outside of one’s life or one that a person has to travel far to in order to experience. In UniteBoston, the collaboration of Christian identities, one could then see, exists not only between one church and another, but also between one neighbor and another, and one friend to another, on a much broader scale. Moreover, this growing and adaptive community engagement arguably aligns with the original mission of the church: to engage the world with the good news of Jesus Christ. After further reflection on UniteBoston’s mission, I came to see UniteBoston not just as an organization bringing together various church congregations, but rather, as an organization that is about people existing as the embodiment of the church together.