January 7, 2020

Victoria Atkinson White: Organizations can benefit from a new start in the new year

By Victoria Atkinson White

Director of Grants, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

iStock / Nikada

Resolutions aren’t just for individuals. How might your community grow if it learns from what used to be and leans into what might be?

As the countdown to midnight closes out one year and ushers in another, a number of time-honored traditions and expectations will stir to life. Some people will kiss, and others will light fireworks. African American churches may have Watch Night services, remembering the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Other communities will host parties with rituals of gratitude and toasts to 2020. In my Southern upbringing, food plays a central role. We eat greens, black-eyed peas, cornbread and ham with the hopes that they will bring us health, money, gold and luck, respectively.

And then there are the resolutions. Getting healthy might mean losing weight, giving up carbs, working out or curbing alcohol intake. Getting smarter about money might mean refraining from impulse purchases or being intentional about investing.

We make resolutions because we know that something needs to change. We want to be or do better.

Yet New Year’s resolutions are often spoken of tongue-in-cheek, because we also know that change is hard. It’s hard to stop doing something that has given us pleasure or in some way has worked or been comfortable for us. It’s even harder to start doing something that is new or unfamiliar and may require an investment of time or energy or even pain.

Still, we make resolutions because we want to chart a new course and live differently in the world and in relationship with others. We have hope that we can change, and we know that our lives will be improved with the revisions our resolutions entail. New Year’s is a great time for individuals to make a fresh start.

And what about communities?

What might happen if communities and organizations took the time to reflect on the past and assess what changes or even fresh starts might be made? Certainly, policy changes and corporate restructuring can happen at any time during a year, but what if we took seriously a period of reflection for — in the language of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky — “getting on the balcony” to assess how the organization is functioning and then talking openly about what needs to stop, start and/or change.

The timing seems right. Giving to nonprofits and religious organizations peaks at the end of the calendar year, as does attendance in church services on Christmas Eve. Organizations and communities are reminded of what their spaces look and feel like full of people and are riding the high of budget pressures eased by end-of-year giving.

As the holiday greens come down from sanctuary walls, those who have been faithful church attenders throughout their lives will undoubtedly wonder again why the folks who attend on Christmas Eve don’t come back. Their programs used to work. An attractive children’s ministry used to be enough. Church used to be the place where we lived and learned about friendship, family and faithfulness to God. The nostalgia for what used to be in the golden age of the church’s role in the public square is strong. It is easy to think that if we just try harder, the things that used to work will work again.

But they won’t. Something has to change.

This is where the words to the traditional New Year’s song “Auld Lang Syne” can be helpful. We tend to know the first stanza, which asks, “Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?” The song asks whether auld lang syne — the good old days — should be forgotten, wondering how and when we should move forward. Then the chorus rings with, “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Consider that imagery. We’ll take a cup of kindness for the old days. The song subtly acknowledges the difficulty of change and leaving behind that which has served us well. It offers us kindness as we remember and move forward, much like the theme of traditioned innovation.

According to L. Gregory Jones, traditioned innovation is a way of thinking and being that holds in tension “the life-giving character of the tradition” and the future. “Rooted in tradition and the preservation of wisdom, [it] cultivates the adaptive work that is crucial to the ongoing vitality and growth of any organism, Christian institutions included.”

What if we looked at our organizations and congregations in this way? What if we looked with kindness at the past and what used to work and leaned into hope and the future with a willingness to let go of some things and take up others? What if institutions challenged each other to get on the balcony and reflect on their missions, vision, values and programs and then create resolutions for being more community-centric and responsive to how the community is today, rather than how it used to be?

The new year comes for individuals and institutions alike. The reflection that precedes resolutions helps us all do and be better than we were last year. So pour yourself a cup of kindness, and consider how you and your organization will move into the hope of this new year.

By Victoria Atkinson White

Director of Grants, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

Victoria Atkinson White is the director of grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. In this role, she encourages traditioned innovation among Christian institutions and their leaders. For eight years, Victoria was a chaplain at the 900-resident Westminster Canterbury Community in Richmond, Virginia. Before that, she worked as minister to alumni at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Victoria is a graduate of Duke Divinity School, Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and Rhodes College. She is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.