By John Pierce
“Remarkable.” That’s what came to mind when I walked out of the “God Box” on New York’s upper west side on a cold day late in 2001, following a conversation with Bob Edgar.
Edgar, who died of a heart attack yesterday at age 69, was general secretary of the National Council of Churches from 2000-2007. His associate, Pat Pattillo, a communications professional of high order and good Baptist whom I was visiting, arranged the conversation.
The National Council of Churches was going through a time of reevaluation as most organizations do following serious decline. But I heard something from Edgar that rarely comes out of the mouth of one who heads an organization.
“This may well put me out of a job,” he said casually and comfortably of the process. “Something new and different might come out of this.”
Edgar explained that the starting questions included: “Do we need to exist?” “Could somebody or something else do this better?”
It was not the first time I’d heard a leader say, “Everything is on the table.” But it was the first time I believed it. He spoke at depth about whether he and the NCC were needed and, if so, in what capacity.
Most often, organization introspection and re-visioning bring out self-preservation. Leaders are most concerned about protecting their positions, funding and influence. Behind-the-scenes as well as overt politicking kicks into high gear.
Those appointed to lead the process suddenly have new best friends — seeking assurance that no ax falls their way. Turf is fortified and protected.
An honest look at the organization’s structure and effectiveness gets clouded by those who advocate for one person or one cause at the expense of all others.
But I heard none of that from Edgar, the former congressman who later led Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog group. He talked so openly and freely about how the organization might drastically change or cease to exist if another approach is deemed better.
There was no fear, just a wide openness to what might emerge. Only such an honest and risky exploration can open all of the possibilities the future might hold.
That was my one conversation with Bob Edgar. But it made quite an impression on me.
He comes to mind each time I think strategically about the non-profit organization entrusted to my daily leadership. And his words resurface whenever I hear an organizational leader say that “everything is on the table,” when in reality everything is done under the table in an effort of self-preservation.
Thanks for that needed perspective, Bob Edgar. Rest in peace.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.