Spanning Boundaries, Building Bridges

How do we get about the hard work of crossing over the boundaries that separate us?

Most observers today note the deep divisions within our country. It’s not exactly a courageous thing to point out, as it’s all too evident as our long-time culture wars are heating up. Name the issue: racial reconciliation, gender issues, education issues, and the coming abortion rulings. We are divided. That isn’t news. We divide by red and blue, listening to news from a source that confirms our own opinions. As states make rulings that define those issues on one side or the other, people are even moving to states that are more comfortable. We are moving into silos, isolated from those who don’t agree with our position. This doesn’t look promising for a lively democratic republic that depends on laws and respect.

The pressing question is what are we going to do with such division, with ideological boundaries that seem to be breaking us asunder? It happened years ago around the issue of slavery, driven by economics, resulting in a war that divided our country. The normal messiness of democracy has people talking of a more simple solution of a totalitarian government, led by a strong leader who acts decisively, rather than the complexity of a country that values freedom of expression from a diverse population. How do we get reconnected as a country?

I’ve been thinking about this pressing issue over the past few months. It’s way too big a problem for a broken down old preist to solve. I’m not even sure there is a solution on the horizon. But I am thinking about beginning with myself: what can I do to make things better? And my response, simple as it may be, is to begin with my own damn self. How can I help in this reconnection.

Strangely, my thoughts turned to some work I’ve been doing in the last decade. I got some good lessons in “things that separate us” while working with hospitals, but the lessons apply to other areas of our life in community, and maybe in our country.

An enlightening experience happened for me when I started paying attention to social networks.

My healthcare consulting firm would be called upon to do assessments of hospitals and systems of hospitals. We had variety of tools that we could employ in a deep dive into an organization including the interview of the players to discover what was going on. My favorite tool was taken from some research done by Dr. Rob Cross, at the time out of the University of Virginia. Rob is one of the pioneers in the discipline of assessing social networks.

Rob and his team would go into various organizations and conduct an online survey, asking members of the organization to sift through the list of employees, noting who they felt connected to, who they relied upon for expertise, who they valued. But the fun piece for me, and by now you know that I love fun, was an assessment of where they got energy. The question: does this person give you energy when you interact, or do they take it away from you? The results of this analysis is fascinating, and valuable to leaders of the organization in assessing how information is shared, or not.

We took this methodology into healthcare organizations, conducted an online survey with a large portion of the employees, analyzed the connections, and then gave feedback to the individual employees as well as to the broad organization.

Interestingly, we would identify those members who had strong connections, someone we called a “connector”. These were the people who the data showed had the most extensive ties to people in the organization. This was important information in terms of “seeing” the network within the hospital, where relationship flowed easily, and where they were blocked.

But we were also interested in identifying those who had the ability to “cross boundaries”, that is, they related across the natural boundary lines within the organization such as departments, or hierarchy. We called these particular folks “brokers” as they provided the grease that helped the organization to move nimbly across the natural tendency to silo into individual departments.

Strategically, we would identify those high-performing connectors and brokers at a gathering of employees. We would playfully talk about the value of such connections and how “boundary spanning” contributed to the organization, using it as an opportunity to raise the awareness of the value of networks. We found that it gave positive feedback and value to those members who were making connections and spanning boundaries. And, we would “mine” those star players by asking them how they did what they did, usually in front of the organization gathered. The aim of the meeting was to accentuate the power of networks and gain “buy in” from the members of the organization to pay more attention to connections, particularly across boundaries.

Imagine that you are the leader of an organization, say of a hospital, and that you now have a map of the organization, telling you who has the most connections, as well as who is providing the connective tissue across departments. Is that information that you would want to know? Of course it is.

We were able to give an incoming CEO at a hospital a social network map on the day that she began her tenure. She was able to see how information cascaded down through the organization through both connectors and brokers, as well as where bottlenecks were occurring and siloed departments were out of the loop. She was able to use this information to populate teams for change initiatives even though she was new to the hospital. It provided leverage in learning about how the organization was working well, and where it required attention. She said it was an invaluable piece of information in her entrance into the organic reality known as a hospital.

One other story illustrates the phenomena of network blindness due to prejudice. Working a system of hospitals in Iowa, we ran the social analysis assessment on seven different hospitals in a system. I gathered the CEOs and executive teams at a conjoint meeting in Des Moines. To drive my point home, I asked the CEO of the largest hospital who he thought had the most connections as well as the most cross-departmental connections. He guessed that it would be the Chief Medical Officer. Good guess, but no. Next guess, the Chief Nursing Officer. Again, good guess, but wrong again. I let him guess three more times, and was wrong on all three. I revealed to him that the Head of Building Maintenance had not only the most ties, and cross-connections across boundaries, but he was also assessed as the most energizing person on his team.

The CEO could not believe it. I showed him the data sheets but he would not believe that this leader in building maintenance could possibly be the most connected. What was happening was that he was blinded by a prejudice that thought the more intellectual, “degreed” folks would natively be more connected. He could not see, even when the data proved it, that his particular person could be a great resource to him in the future of this hospital. He was missing a bet, and was not open to observe and own his limiting perspective. He was blind. Other CEOs in the meeting “got” my lesson and couldn’t wait to see the results of their surveys, as they looked for connectors, brokers, and energizers, regardless to where they were located in the org chart.

I have played in my mind about applying this to a church congregation. If one were to do a network analysis of a church, what would you discover? My hunch is that you could quickly see the heartbeat of the group in terms of who is connecting and who is not. Who are the people who are able to broker across generational divides? Who are the connectors who are putting the energy and time in reaching out to members? How are new members finding avenues of connection as they make themselves at home, or not? Imagine how valuable this could be to a new pastor coming in, not knowing where the energy flowed, or where it was blocked.

In my work with congregations, it has been typical for people to have their “group”, be it defined by a Sunday School class, comprised of similar age or situation. That is the place where people find comfort and care, which is a natural way to be connected. The tendency is to “take care of myself” by putting my energy and time into what is familiar, what feels good. This can become problematic in “growing the church” as we become self-satisfied with our own needs, forgetting about the needs of those who may be new, trying to enter into the life of the congregation.

My best lesson in this came from the only cowboy in my Texas parish. Jimmy ran a ranch of cattle and had the folksy feel that I loved about real Texans. He was not the typical “all hat and no cow” poser.

Knowing that I loved horses, he put me on his favorite cutting horse, an animal trained to “cut out” cattle from the herd by moving quickly from side to side, isolating the particular cow for some special attention, generally some sort of veterinary intervention. These horses are amazing, moving with lightning speed. While I had developed a pretty good “seat” in the saddle, I was left hanging in midair, like a cartoon character, as the horse “cut” right out from under me. I still remember Jimmy laughing as I got up out of the Texas dust, and climbed back on.

Jimmy had been a long-time member of my congregation and was on the governing board. I was doing an exercise, asking the board about the changes that had happened in the church after I had arrived. I was dutifully writing down the positive things on a piece of newsprint in green magic marker. The smell of magic marker is unmistakable in my work, different than that of the corral.

After we had filled the newsprint sheet, I put the green marker down, and picked up the red. I moved to the empty sheet of the adjacent easel. Now, I invited them to note the negative aspects of the changes that had occurred since my arrival. The smell of the marker was the same, but the color was no longer that of grass, but of blood.

Being polite, more Southern than Texan, they were reluctant to name the negative, the cost of the changes that I had initiated since arriving. I pushed them to name the friction points but they seemed reluctant.

Finally, Jimmy took the bit. “Well, David, back when I first started coming here, I knew just about everybody in this church. I could sit and watch people come in at the front of the church, or at the back door. I could pretty well name everybody. I could tell you about their family, who their grandmother was, what had been the history of that family. I knew them. Nowadays, half the people in the church, I couldn’t tell you who they are. I don’t know them. I miss knowing everyone and don’t much like having all these strangers invading my church.”

I told you he was a cowboy, and he cut right to the chase. He was expressing a sentiment that was shared by lots of folks who felt the pinch of a change in the composition and demographics of the congregation. Others were too polite to name it, but Jimmy called a spade a bloody hoe.

His comment seemed to hang in the air, a pregnant pause if ever there was one. My response came from beyond me, beyond my ability, beyond my expertise. Perhaps it was from God, or the Spirit, or from a demon. But I said it nonetheless.

“Jimmy, I guess we have to figure out if we want to make sure you are comfortable, or do what Jesus asks us to do in inviting strangers to join us.”

Looking back on it, it was a simple, even simplistic thing to say. He could have gotten angry, upset in my comment. But he didn’t. His face paused, and then broke into a slow smile as he said, rather quietly, “I get it.” And he did.

For me, it was a pivotal moment in the life of this traditional Episcopal church. I trace the change back to this moment in time. This congregation had made a collective decision to be connectors, reaching out across the community to people who needed a spiritual connection. People became brokers to invite folks outside of their familiar circles to join them at a place where they got their spiritual needs met. And Jimmy became one of the leaders in that work. But there was a furniture store owner who provided a friendly smile and handshake to greet visitors who came in our doors. There was a judge, who had not been in a church for years, invite his colleagues to join him in the church school class or in the pews. There were young couples who reached out to neighbors to connect them to our church.

These folks were connectors, brokers, going beyond the comfortable position of staying with their “familiar”. They were spanning the natural boundaries that tend to separate us by socioeconomic lines.

It seems to me that this “connecting” makes good sense in business, in churches, in neighborhoods and communities. Rather than luxuriating in the “comfort zone” of those like you, can we put in the effort to reach out to folks that are not already connected? As people return to churches, post-pandemic, hungry for community and connection, might we make a special effort to reach out to those that might not be exactly like us.

People who study churches that grow tell us that the tendency is to go with what we know. We tend to gather in groups that are homogenous, “like each other”. Today’s political landscape is like that in spades. But is there a more fundamental identity that provides the bridge, the boundary spanning impetus to draw us beyond the knee-jerk political lines that divide. Political operatives and media heads, looking for numbers and revenue, are betting that we can not.

I have always believed that a deep commitment to ultimate values could provide the base for gathering large groups of people, from across boundaries. One of those deep values for me is a faith perspective that views all people as children of God, with intrinsic self worth. That vision of reality unites us all, across the divides that differentiate so-called “in” and “out”. It’s a tall order, but our country, as we head toward July 4th celebrations, was a great experiment in this idea, united in a democratic community, inhabited by free individuals. We have lived the polarity of an emphasis on individual rights while balancing it with a commitment to community in the form of an “union”.

We have done this before, particularly in crisis, in the threat of war, in attack such as post 9/11. I’ve seen it happen, even in by-God Texas. It’s harder. It demands that it be more intentional, more deliberate, but it is doable.

Think about your communities, your neighborhoods, your associations, your congregation. Might you make an effort to reach out, spanning the boundaries that tend to divide us, and connect? Maybe you might transcend your blindness to those that are different than you, and make that connecting move that draws us together as intended.

I confess that we may be beyond redemption. Our divide is bleak, and seems to be worsening. But as I began, I am going to do what I can, where I am, to try to make a boundary spanning connection. How about you?

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