Elicit the Best from Sun. December 11 by Cathy Pickard

Good morning.

Almost forty years ago, my husband, Bob, and I were at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis, and we saw an ad in the play’s handbill. It read, “The Humanists will get you if you don’t watch out”, with a note in the corner that the ad was sponsored by the Ethical Society of St.Louis. Now it just so happened that we were, at that time, the parents of a pre-schooler and a toddler, and we were looking for a place for our kids to get a non-dogmatic religious education. We were intrigued! And so we visited the Society that weekend and regularly, thereafter, for a full year, before joining. We’ve been here ever since. In that nearly four decades, the Society has had six senior or solo leaders, three associate leaders, and three leader interns, counting James three times, as he served in all three capacities. These leaders have all been very different—or as the kids might say, “every one, important and unique”—with their own insights, interests, backgrounds, strengths, passions, causes, writing and speaking voices and leadership styles. I believe that, as individuals and as a Society, we were, in some way, enriched by every one of them.

As many of you know, I co-chaired this latest Leader Search Task Force. Serving on a leader search team is both a privilege and a responsibility—a privilege in that the “chosen few” who serve on the team have been handed the gift of a significant say in who gets selected; a responsibility in that we bear the heavy burden of satisfying the wants, hopes and dreams of all the members who are not on the team, but are counting on us to represent and serve them well.

Before I say a few words about the period we’re entering, I’d like to express my appreciation. Thank you, first and foremost, to the other members of the search team who put in many, many hours, creating job descriptions and postings, crafting interview questions and evaluation templates, reading resumes and writing samples, listening to speeches, conducting interviews and reference checks and, in the end, coming to consensus on the candidate we would recommend to the Board. I’d like to acknowledge the people on the task force. If you are here, will you please stand and be recognized: Carole Beere, David Brown, Tom Draney, Rachel Jones, Lindsey Nissenbaum, and my co-chair (and partner in nearly everything) Bob Pickard.

I also want to thank the members of the Board of Trustees who extended their already lengthy board meetings on more than one occasion to patiently address our many questions and concerns, considered our recommendations with critical but open minds, and ultimately carried the process across the finish line by conducting the final interview and the contract negotiations.

And I want to thank the many members who went out of their way to express their confidence in us, trusting that we would do our very best to serve the Society in the weighty and consequential process of looking for a new leader.

Much has already been written and spoken about why we chose to search for an interim leader, instead of a settled leader, and I won’t go back over that decision now. What does bear repeating is that this time of transition is an atypical period in the life of the Society and thus calls for a different type of leader with a different set of skills from what we typically think of when imagining an Ethical Society Leader. What we need right now is not someone to tell us who we are and who we serve, how we should act, how we should present ourselves to the world outside our doors, what our mission should be, or what the Ethical Society of the future should look like. Those are questions we must answer for ourselves, collectively, as invested and committed members of this community—we, who have benefitted from the vision of Ethical Society members who preceded us, we, who are now charged with growing and preserving this institution and passing it on to those who come after us. We must engage in this project of discernment, as a community, willingly participating in guided conversation with each other, thoughtfully discussing these critical questions.

I am excited for you to meet our new interim leader, Amy Miller. Amy’s super-powers are likability and emotional intelligence, which allow her to easily connect with people and build relationships. Her training and experience as a social worker, therapist, and life and relationship coach, as well as her natural talent and temperament, make her the ideal person to facilitate our discussions—to help us negotiate differences of opinion respectfully, to teach us how to challenge and be challenged without taking or giving offense, to listen to each other with open minds, ultimately to help us get to win-win outcomes.

That’s a tall order. And Amy does not wave a magic wand. Neither, perhaps you’ve noticed, does she have a background in congregational leadership. So, what does that mean for us during a potentially vulnerable time here at the Society? We all know the answer…it’s written in this exact spot on your program: ”Act so as to elicit the best.” Be patient as Amy gets to know how things work around here, offer your assistance and support to her, be willing to serve on special interim-period teams that spread the workload around and make it possible to conduct some of the extra business we’ll need to do, have the patience and the grace to entertain new ways of doing things, commit to spending the time it will take to discuss, envision and create our future course.

We’re about to begin a new year, with a mostly new staff, and a brand new leader. Without a doubt, many things will be different. Change can be unsettling and uncomfortable, even scary. It can also be energizing and exciting. What we learn, what we achieve in the next two years and how successfully we negotiate this transition is not up to Amy Miller. It is the responsibility and, yes, the privilege, of each and every one of us. This is your opportunity to express your wants, hopes and dreams for the Ethical Society. As we approach 2023, the coming changes, and the inevitable challenges, let’s each resolve to elicit the best by being our best and giving our best!!

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.