The Monolith in the Middle of the Room

May 16th, 2014

In this day of multi-platform media habits with iPhones, tablets and other hand-helds making stationary tech (PCs, TVs, you name it) obsolete, it is inevitable that we find ourselves gravitating to the ones we are most comfortable with or at least find the most convenient. This past year, we have not had "cable TV", staying with HD-TV signal compliant "rabbit ears" (still an option if living in a metro area where broadcast signals are strongest) and subscribing to streaming services, which are dependent on internet service, preferably DSL strength.

Thus, we have joined the growing number of persons who do not necessarily watch TV "live" anymore, time shifting our viewing habits to meet our lives and work schedules. Netflix and Hulu are the current streaming services d'jour, though anytime now, I imagine Amazon's Prime service will start gaining market share. (They've even drafted loopy old Gary Busey to advertise for them. Is the commercial comforting to older consumers, assuring them that if Busey can figure it out, it's a pretty user friendly interface? But I digress....)

Earlier this week, my wife and I enjoyed the latest episode of Mad Men, now in its final season regaling us with the characters employed (or formerly employed) by a Madison Avenue advertising firm navigating their way through the changing times of the 1960s. Or, as the series continually points out, the characters find themselves tossed into the weirdness and upending nature of the turbulent '60s.

These past two episodes have highlighted the changes thrown at the characters. An ad executive's daughter takes leave of her husband and child and is found in the midst of a free love upstate NY commune. (The show is not remiss in the irony of how the daughter is very much her father's child, given his philandering and flirtation with hedonism.) A secretary finds herself caught up in the inner-office politics, going from a fairly good secretarial position to a senior partner to a low-functionary job at the front entrance (and quickly removed by the eldest partner, who is not quite ready to have his firm so visibly integrated) and then ends her day as the head of personnel, the highest ranking position within the administrative support staff. And the series' lead character Don Draper finds his professional career and partnership in the firm hanging by a thread, agreeing to a host of stipulations that could end in his immediate termination if he blows what is really his second and only chance with continuing to work for the firm.

In this past Sunday's episode, eagle-eyed viewers noted a number of choices made in the dialogue and filming techniques calling back to iconic moments and themes of the Kubrick film "2001: A Space Odyssey". Mad Men takes especial zeal in making the best of the viewer's retrospective knowledge of the time period, weaving in major events and cultural watershed moments into the scripts. For example, a few seasons ago when the initial newsflash of the Kennedy assassination plays out in the background, two ad men talk during a lunch break, initially unaware of the tragedy happening unexpectedly that would capture the nation's attention for years to come.

One immediate callback to Kubrick's film is the decision and disruption caused around the office by the firm's partners opting to purchase a computer. In this film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2001, the arrival of alien technology, called the Monolith, unnerves yet accelerates the primitive origins of humanity, inspiring fear as well as progress. Likewise, in the episode's title "The Monolith", the office is abuzz with the worry and the elation of what this computer's presence will mean for the Sterling Cooper & Partners firm.

In the late 1960s, the computer's installation meant a significant footprint of office space would be taken up to accommodate the large equipment. Suddenly, the junior creative staff find their work room is suddenly sacrificed for the new computer system to be installed. What is a "business decision" to prospect for more business with the benefit of harnessing data about consumers becomes an unnerving moment for the staff members. Will this enhance their firm or cause great disruption to the lives of those who may suddenly or eventually be made redundant?

For many religious institutions (local church and denomination alike), we are caught up in the same time of transition. Living reactively is far more familiar than being reflexive in our approach to the dizzying pace of change and sorting out what transition strategies are really worth the time and effort. A sort of change fatigue can set in with some leaders and organizations, which is just as counter-productive and reactionary.

In my judicatory work, I routinely remind churches that "change" happens to us all. When a congregation worries about the implications of going to a part-time pastoral ministry configuration, I find it very helpful to share with the congregational leaders that they are not alone with such worries. Further, I advise them in ways to breathe before they start thinking their way through the necessary "tangled knots" of right sizing their ministerial job description. Some churches find that resolving what a decrease in pastoral duties means for them is an increase in lay led initiative (or in some cases to decide what the overall church needs to let go as the changes within ministry mean the reordering of priorities, aka "letting some things go").

How do we react when the proverbial "Monolith" shows up in our midst? For good reason, neuroscience tells us that we react with the most basic parts of our brain, unless we have trained ourselves to overcome the anxiety or "flight or fight" impulse. If we learn how to navigate change, we are able to ride the waves of change, whether they be smooth or tumultuous. The biggest challenge is coming to the knowledge individually, congregationally and even denominationally that a good deal of choice is in our hands, even as we feel like the rug's being pulled out from underneath us in just about every other way.

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