The Lemhi Pass for Faith
What Lewis and Clark's shift might teach us
When Lewis and Clark were dispatched by President Jefferson to find a water route that connected the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, they reached the Lemhi Pass anticipating that when they crested this point, they would see the Colorado River and flow gently down it until they reached the Pacific Ocean. Much to their surprise was the sight that greeted them: the ominous peaks of the Rocky Mountains stretching into the horizon for miles. This was the real beginning of their discovery for what they had anticipated and planned for was not at all what laid in front of them.
A few weeks ago, Gallup released a poll that illustrated that for the first time in eight decades, membership in houses of worship fell below 50%. If you have been following the data for the past couple of years, you should not be shocked by this. After all, the number of “nones”, the group of people that do not affiliate religiously (within religious organizations), has risen rapidly, with numbers now above the 20% mark.
We in this work now have our “Lemhi Pass” moment. What got us to this point will not meet us on the other side. We can lament and wonder “what have we done?!” Or we can choose to recalibrate. In the Jewish community, ⅕ of Jews are “nones.” Of that group, ⅓ are part of the millennial generation. 94 % of that group are proud to be Jewish but only 31 % attend synagogue. When I see that, it shows me that 63 % of people who love being Jewish and are searching for something that’s not the usual.
For all of us who are interested in Jewish continuity, this is our challenge. The first thing to understand is that we need to be approaching this as an adaptive challenge and less as a technical challenge. Technical challenges are ones in which the solutions are potentially available within our already existing cadre of leaders and their toolkits. Think the usual way we approach challenges: words of Torah/scripture, pastoral care, administration and budget, etc. All vital of course but not necessarily how we fully can crack this nut.
Adaptive challenges, a concept discussed in-depth by leadership expert Ron Heifetz, are problem that cannot be solved with our existing knowledge. It takes a shift in values, expectations, and habits. As Dr. Tod Bolsinger writes in “Canoeing The Mountains,”
They are challenges that require people to learn and to change, that require leaders to experience and navigate profound loss.
In my eyes, that is where we find ourselves. When the world around you is changing rapidly and the usual approach won’t fly, then you’re in adaptive challenge territory. When you expect a lazy river and see the Rocky Mountains, that is an adaptive challenge. So what can we do?
I first want to admit that I am a novice in this field. That being said, I do have a few potential steps we might chart:
Be bold and brave in our organizational and communal thinking. We can understand and expect that what we try will fail and in that failure, we can glean so much. Failure is good. Say it with me! (that is, if you’re learning from it).
Prepare to adjust and sometimes throw away our assumptions of how it is that people connect and gather. It may have worked for the world that was, but now we’re in the world that is and that will be, and that is going to be different than what we’re used to.
Teach ourselves new skills, learn new languages, and speak to experts in other fields. We’re not the first area to deal with this type of seismic shift. There is knowledge out there to be utilized.
Instead of asking “what can we do to get people here,” we should be asking, “why would someone want to come here? Actually talk to those people. Or ask, “what is keeping people away from this space?” If we can lovingly critique ourselves, poking holes in our efforts with an eye toward improvement, it will give us the insights we need to be flexible and adaptive.
This is certainly not exhaustive and really is just the beginning. We are standing at the precipice of an exciting opportunity. As always, we have a choice. We can choose the default option and kick the can down the road. Or, we can go into the uncharted territory with a spirit of adventure. As Bolsinger writes, we have been river rafters that can now learn to be mountaineers. I, for one, am ready to climb.
Shabbat Shalom/Have a restful weekend/Happy Friday