I think a lot about empowerment.

How do institutions empower people to feel free to make a genuine contribution in the life of the organization? What is it about certain organizations that often cause people to become passive and inert, or to fall away from any active involvement?

I recently came across a blog by Tony Baldasaro that may shed light on one of the factors that might contribute to creating empowering organizations. http://transleadership.wordpress.com/2009/08/13/desire-paths/

Baldasaro begins by telling a story.

Shortly after Disney World opened in Florida, Walt Disney called a meeting of all senior personnel to get an idea of how the opening of the park was going. All members gave their report, some good news, some bad news, including many challenges that had been anticipated during the planning of the park but could not be affirmed until the park was in full operation. The conversation then moved to maintenance and operations. The senior official in charge was very upset because the public was not always walking on the paved sidewalks, sometimes they would cut across his manicured lawns in an attempt to get to a certain location quicker. After a while and many people taking the same shortcut, a unsightly brown swatch formed like a scar across the deep green, finely cut grass. This particular official asked if chains, fences or signs asking visitors to stay on the designated paths could be erected. Disney response was simple, but brilliant:

No. They’re telling you where to put the paths.

Baldasaro goes on to point out that these publicly created paths have a name. They are called “Desire Paths.”

According to one expert,

The key to the desire path is not just that it’s a path which one person or a group has made but that it’s done against the will of some authority which would have us go another, rather less convenient, way.

Baldasaro goes on to apply these insights to the educational sphere which is his particular area of expertise asking,

Are we following Disney’s lead and adjusting our practices or are we complaining about the “scar” they are leaving on the lawn we call public education?

Finally, he suggests that the key to discerning desire paths is the practice of careful attentive listening.

I wonder what the spiritual desire paths are in our communities today? What paths are people taking to nurture their sense of the numinous? Where do people in our society feel they encounter mystery, wonder, and beauty?

What might we learn if we were to stop complaining about the poverty of spirituality in our culture and instead started paying attention to those places where people are looking for a sense of connection with one another and with the mysterious beauty at the heart of the universe?

If churches can identify the spiritual desire paths along which people in our culture are choosing to make their way, perhaps we can support and nurture people on those paths.

As long as we demand that the familiar paths we have always prescribed are the only valid ways to nurture a spiritual life, we should not be surprised that our religious institutions lose any relevance and find themselves filled with passive consumers and the energy of inertia.