From Jonathan New – Executive Director

Rethinking the “Upsetting the Applecart” Approach

It’s 1977, and my 12-year-old self sits with my family for Sunday dinner pot roast (put in the oven just before leaving for church). We settle in to eat after grace and my mother remarks to my pastor father, “Well, you really gave it to them this Sunday.” My father’s wry smile appears, he looks around the table ruefully, and replies, “Just doing my job: Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable!”

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” As a kid, I frequently heard my father say this was his job. Caring for people was certainly part of his calling. But he regularly reminded me that afflicting the comfortable is also part of a faith leader’s vocation, in part because God calls us to righteousness.

I’ve carried this two-part call into ministry.  And I’ve struggled, at times, to discern when and where comforting or afflicting was most appropriate for the situation at hand.  I believed that neither a steady mode for me as a pastor nor an unvarying diet for the congregation of one or the other was healthy or right for either of us.

The need for this balance came up for me recently while attending a gathering of intentional interim ministers. One participant confided that, sometimes, when the congregation is stuck in the process of transition, they don’t know what to do. Among the responses to this from veteran interims were calls to “upset the apple cart” or “shake things up” and “be a thorn in their side.” We laughed. We had all faced moments when we knew no one is going to thank us for it but turning up the pressure was the only way to provoke a breakthrough.

And yet, there is danger here – with practical and ethical dimensions – if “afflicting the comfortable” becomes our default mode as transitional leaders.

As a student of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, I’ve come to believe that leadership for adaptive change involves, in part, disappointing, even disturbing people at a rate that they can tolerate or absorb.[1] This is because where adaptive change (rather than a technical fix) is needed trying to satisfy people by giving them what they want (e.g. easy answers) is counterproductive.  Instead, to get them to do the work they must do themselves so that adaptive change can emerge, we have to help people adjust their expectations of us as leaders and what we can deliver for them. In this process, we’re counteracting their dependency on us and promoting their own resourcefulness.[2] This means disappointing them on some level but also keeping them in a place of discomfort.

So, where adaptive change is needed, leaders have to be willing to disappoint and disturb people. This gives some credence to the “upsetting the apple cart” approach. Unless, of course, we forget that important clause “…at a rate they can tolerate or absorb.” Because, where leadership is concerned, those we serve have limits to their capacity for living in a zone of discomfort.

My point is that there’s something out of whack if the transitional leader sees their job as primarily “afflicting the comfortable.” This approach disregards the fact that, as leaders, we’re dealing in the realm of feelings and emotions – that is, with people. There is a limit to the constructive quality of sitting with discomfort to provoke adaptive change.

Unfortunately, this approach can be taken even further. I have, at times, heard intentional interims say their job is to “kick butt and take no prisoners” and to “make them dislike me so they will love the one who follows me.” What we’re talking about in this case is the transitional leader who approaches the work with an adversarial stance. The justification is that regularly challenging the congregation, its leaders, and the faith community’s status quo is the only way to get them all unstuck and moving on to something better.

As a practical matter, beyond what was said above about the limits of people’s capacity for living in discomfort, there are several issues with this conflict-oriented leadership posture:

  • Heightening or introducing conflict. This severely diminishes your ability to manage conflict in the system – a key to transitional leadership.
  • Sending the message, “I know better than you.” This will be experienced by at least some as judgmental, causing them to dig in their heels. Overall, it disaffirms and disempowers the congregation in its self-determination.
  • Failing to appreciate the fact that with change comes feelings of loss. Any significant moment of change – especially at the rate and magnitude with which we’ve had to contend with them in the past few years – elicits feelings of loss, with their attendant feelings of grief and anger. These can’t be tended either as feelings or as obstacles to good transitions from an adversarial stance.
  • Losing your “insider” status.[3] The reason “Joining the System” is the first leader Process Task is because the power of the transitional leader is increased by them being simultaneously an insider and an outsider. When we stress only our “outsider” position we lose the point of emotional contact where relationships can grow and appropriate leverage can be applied within the system.

A primarily conflictual style doesn’t lend itself to the work of managing change. We may rationalize that it’s what’s needed to “get people into gear.” Yet, aside from the damage it can cause, it’s the generation of persistent heightened urgency that goes nowhere, giving up on the hard work involved in transitional leadership – increasing collective understanding, building consensus, gaining buy-in, and everything else that’s crucial to making adaptive change stick.  

The confrontational, kick butt, make them dislike me approach also raises ethical questions.[4] For example, we may think that being a “hard ass” is going to make the people dislike us and, therefore, love the one who follow us. In fact, this blocks the trust that can otherwise be freely given by congregants to new leaders and makes it much harder for those leaders to earn it as well. This is, no doubt, unhelpful to our successor. But, to the degree that it impedes the ability of our successor to do their job, it’s also unethical. As the IMN Standards for the Practice of Transitional Leadership reads: “Transitional clergy will not impose their agenda on the faith community in ways which will be problematic for their successor, or divisive within the faith community.”[5]

I would add that, overall, the conflictual posture is an aggressive approach that is arguably a misuse of personal and corporate power. In times of change, congregations – and those who inhabit them – are particularly vulnerable. To afflict without comforting, to confront without showing lovingkindness, to shake things up without appreciating that there may already been the equivalent of an earthquake experienced in congregational life is unhelpful and wrong. It’s also inconsistent with the commitments, values, ethical standards, and teaching of IMN.

At some time or other, most of us as transitional leaders will find ourselves leaning more heavily into the upsetting the apple cart, provocative, confrontational approach. No doubt, there’s a time and a place for it. Yet part of the art of transitional leadership is finding a way to occupy insider/outsider status, comforting and afflicting, helping people see their potential and then discerning together what is good, right, and faithful in this time. And striking that balance will always mean remaining self-differentiated – knowing the difference between our agenda and theirs; managing those moments when we’re feeling impatient with their slowness, dismayed by their failure to see what they should be doing, or exasperated that they just keep making same mistakes; and regularly asking ourselves whether how we’re behaving as leaders is about them or  mostly about us.

[1] Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line – Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, 20.[2] Ibid., 15.[3] David R. Sawyer, “The Process Tasks of the Interim Leader,” HSD Consultants.[4] I’m indebted to Char Burch for some of the ideas in this and the following paragraphs which she wrote about in the article, “Ethical Issues for the Intentional Interim Minister”. [5] “Standards for the Practice of Transitional Ministry,” Developed by the Interim Ministry Network, adopted 2020.

Published August 11, 2023 – IMN E-Letter – www.imnedu.org. Request for permission to reprint send to IMN, 1001 Frederick Road, Catonsville, Maryland 21228 or Crystal@imnedu.org. 

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