(This reflection is intended to be paired with an opening message. Please watch, “Obstacles”, a short recorded slideshow,  first.)

In the opening message, we explored how obstacles show up in our lives. We thought about how obstacles are sometimes a problem, but also, they are something we add to our lives for fun and sport, like golf courses with water and sand traps, or going through a twisty-turning maze. Same word- sometimes a problem, sometimes fun. People are interesting that way, aren’t we?

We wrangle with obstacles as play to help us build skills we will need to overcome the challenges that come along by surprise in our lives. Playing with obstacles helps us think in new ways, solving physical or mental challenges to complete a task. It is so good for the soul to have fun with the process of trying, failing, trying more, and eventually succeeding! The action of finding a solution to a challenge is so engaging, we often return to the same games, over and over, even when we already know the steps to “win” or complete the task, because we enjoy the feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment that comes with mastery.

As with most things, when “practice obstacles” are done as part of a team, the returns are even more magnified.
Have you ever been on a ropes course or other facilitated team building exercise? Then you know how dynamics change between doing a solo challenge and a multi-person one. Both are interesting, fun, challenging, and satisfying, but team challenges add layers of social problem solving that are super exciting.

I recall once I was part of a group of 8 people, all forming a close circle. The task was to have a hula hoop balanced on our index fingers and lower the hoop to the ground without letting anyone’s fingers leave the hoop. Hilarity ensued while the hoop kept creeping skyward, not down. Everyone was trying so hard not to let their fingers lose contact with the hoop that we failed the task completely. After several tries, we realized we could communicate with each other, talking and giving each other signals and encouragement as we managed to lower the hoop. We agreed to let some people give directions while others would watch the hoop level. We enlisted help from outside the circle to take over a position when the hoop got too low for one team member, who had sore knees, to bend comfortably. Once we worked together, we could do the task quite easily.

It sure would have been simpler to lower that hoop with just one person, but since real life obstacles are rarely faced alone, it is good to practice problem solving as a team. Of course, it is excellent if we have the time, space, and opportunity to do problem solving exercises and trainings as teams in our communities. If resources are plentiful, make playful problem solving a regular part of your community. Quite often though, the obstacles pop up when we haven’t had the chance to practice and prepare.

SO, what can we do to put ourselves in the mindset for tackling the next big obstacle in our community?

What would it look like if we were rooted in JOY, play, problem solving, and collaboration? What if we acted a lot more like an obstacle course relay team?

Let’s leave the mud out of it, and focus on some basic practices:

1. Collective and Collaborative Leadership

In her book, Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, Juana Bordas lays out many aspects of multicultural leadership and the core values behind the practices. She writes how in communities of color, leadership springs from the We orientation. Leaders are rarely one static person who holds power over others on the team, but rather leadership is accountable, collaborative, and sustained by a web of relationships. Leadership is, “rotated, distributed, and shared.” This distribution of power can help the whole team be nimble. When leadership is collaborative, a team can be more responsive to sudden obstacles. Problem solving solutions can come from the group, not only from one leader.

Collective collaboration concentrates on building all people’s capacity. Bordas shows us that leaders grow their communities in the following practices: 1. Encouraging participation and building consensus, 2. Generating a shared vision, 3. Using culturally effective communication, and 4. Weaving partnerships and connections. If you are interested in exploring these practices her book goes into detail on each, or you could check out the Unitarian Universalist Association “Harvest the Power” leadership curriculum which is available for free on the UUA website.

2. Dismiss “Urgency Thinking”

There are very few true emergencies in community life. If you hear that statement and disagree, or shut down, please keep reading and give this practice an open mind. Often in our communities, especially if we are in leadership positions – like the Stewardship Team, or the Building and Grounds Team, or the [Insert Your Overwhelmed Committee Name] Team – it feels like we are running from urgent issue to flaming problem with not enough help or funds to do the things that need to happen. Those feelings are very real, and urgency thinking is part of what created the situation.

Urgency thinking is acting automatically, tackling every new problem as though our very survival depends on finding a solution. We keep adding task upon task, completely overburdening ourselves and our teams and it is completely unsustainable. The pace of life has us stuck in a cycle of reacting, rather than responding, to new problems. We are accustomed to take on each obstacle that arrives without taking time to consider whether that particular obstacle is even ours to solve!

Dismiss urgency thinking. As a new problem is presented to your team…Pause. I know, it is hard to do this! Set up a filter, or a set of criteria for the obstacles you are going to tackle: Is this vital to our mission? Is it really vital, or is it something we are just habituated to think is important? If we didn’t solve this problem would it be a crisis, or simply a disappointment? Will taking on this obstacle increase joy, liberation, and love for our whole community? The benchmark is high because our resources are precious. If we are taking on too many life draining problems, we will not have energy for the deep intentional work that matters.

3. Gifts Aren’t One Size Fits All

The gifts we have to contribute for solving one obstacle might not be needed in a following one. Remember the video clip from Part One? (Here it is if you want to refresh your memory.) Imagine if, after the high wall climb, the next station in the obstacle course race was to solve word scrambles? Or cross a balance beam? Both of these new examples use very different gifts than climbing that steep wall. The team would need to regroup, consider the new challenge, and strategize a new approach based on the gifts of the team’s members.

We all have a role, a place in reaching our shared goal together. It’s important to recognize- and celebrate- how each of the people in our team are part of what we do together. Some people are not going to be in the spotlight – they are happiest and best suited to taking on a supporting role for some obstacles. Personally, I don’t have the upper body strength to get up and over a high wall – but there are many other gifts I bring to the table, to support that sort of obstacle. If a later obstacle is planning a fundraiser to get the team to their next event, I am ready to take on a lead role!

This is true for everyone on our teams, we need to match our gifts with what brings us actual JOY in the offering. We wouldn’t have the same person haul teammates up a wall for one obstacle, then do arm swings, and next complete other bicep straining activities for the following obstacles. Over using our gifts does harm, too. If every solution your team has for solving an obstacle uses the exact same gifts from the same people, it’s a bad solution. Get some creativity, variety, and include more people with a variety of gifts for your solutions!

4. Identify the Minigoals

Take the big, complicated, and overwhelming obstacle and break it into pieces. Strategize how to depend on each other, distribute the effort, and add the minigoals up to success. The Danish Obstacle Course World Championship Team wasn’t born knowing how they would win the race – they broke it up into small goals for each section. Even more they didn’t spontaneously know how to get over that high wall. They went through many preparations well before they came to the foot of the wall. They determined a unified goal and minigoals, prepared their strategy, and identified team roles based on strengths.

Understand your minigoals – make sure each person on the team knows why they are important. Have each team member share, in their own words, how solving this obstacle fits the overall mission. You’d be surprised how often a group might think everyone is working towards the same goal, but because no one checked for common understanding, work can get bogged down, wasting time and energy – and then people get frustrated! Breaking a big goal into smaller sections is great for maintaining momentum and enthusiasm. We all need to feel like we’re getting somewhere, so celebrate each minigoal as they are completed.

To recap: Use collective and collaborative leadership, only work on what is vital to your mission, match gifts with what brings actual JOY, and break big obstacles into minigoals.

Thanks for exploring a new mindset here. We can bring more play into our teams when we see problems as obstacles, and engage obstacles as play. As we considered in the part one message, obstacles are going to pop up, both the fun ones …and the hard ones. That’s just part of life!

The trick to getting through the tough obstacles is know you are part of a team, know what your role is, do it to the best of your ability, and let your teammates do their part, too! When we face obstacles together, we can do things we wouldn’t be able to do alone.

What team practices would you add to this list? Comment and share what has worked for your team!


Both part one: Obstacles, a recorded message for all ages, and  part two: The Joy and Practice of Obstacles, by Faithify Project Manager, Halcyon Westall, CRE  are available as video recording files for use in virtual worship in UUA congregations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *