The Janus Conundrum

A day of new beginnings often produces mixed results — hopefulness & skepticism, promise and problems, anticipation and anxiety.  In The United Methodist Church we are poised — some say on the threshold of a new day, others say on the brink of utter annihilation (most feel we are somewhere in between, but are not sure just where…)  Unfortunately, when there is an absence of visionary leadership, we unintentionally compound the problem by adopting contradictory and incompatible tools and processes to attempt to make something happen.  We have done it before, and we are doing it now.  Case in point?  Vital Congregations and Adaptive Leadership.

To the uninitiated into either or both, they each sound interesting, fraught with potential, promising great results and a chance to become something special.  Indeed, each has such potential — just not in combination.  You see, as with so many popular panacea du jour, they don’t work well in combination, especially when they are founded upon irreconcilable principles.  So, what does our denomination do?  It makes two incompatible, mutually exclusive leadership initiatives into a convoluted mishmash and tells us this is the answer we are looking for.  This is nothing new.  We promote in tandem contradictory programs and processes all the time — Natural Church Development and Incubator, Deep Dive and Good to Great, Managing Transitions and Deep Change — we latch onto whatever is popular without taking the time to truly understand it, then we wonder why we consistently produce such mediocre results.  The answer is simple — when you tell people the answer to their problems is to go east and to go west at the same time, it is pretty obvious why they don’t get very far!

Our Vital Congregations focus is based on copying best practices in prescriptive ways to produce quantitative increase that will strengthen the institutional church and allow it to grow to have more and do more with and for more people.  A sound, workable plan.  Adaptive Leadership focuses on the unique nature of context and chemistry in each setting and states quite clearly that no one else has your solution.  Leadership cannot be defined as copying what others have already done in hopes of duplicating their results.  Best practices be damned!  Furthermore, it is a generative process that strategically adjusts responsively to constantly changing conditions with the expectation of producing qualitative improvement that will enhance the impact it can make on a functional need.  A faithful application of adaptive leadership leads one far afield from a highly prescriptive and formulaic best practices scenario.  And anyone who says, “well, we can do both,” or “we can use adaptive leadership to help us be more effective at vital congregations,” is simply showing how little they understand either approach.  Vital Congregations is like a classical chamber orchestra and Adaptive Leadership is like improvisational jazz.  Or using a different analogy, Vital Congregations is basketball and Adaptive Leadership is tennis — one based in a set of fundamentals, drills and execution, the other dependent on flexibility, adaptation and split second adjustment.  And if you want to become expert at both, you don’t do it by playing basketball on a tennis court.  Inevitably, you merely fail at both and you struggle even to reach mediocrity.

A third metaphor is the boat and the dock.  We are currently straddling a widening patch of water as the anchored dock of Vital Congregations (institutional preservation and survival) is losing connection with the sailing boat of Adaptive Leadership (a spiritual engagement paradigm with its gravitational center in the world).  We can do one or the other well, but not both together or even at the same time.  Years ago I had a conversation with Peter Drucker who noted in the early 1990s that United Methodist leadership seemed enamored with the latest and greatest business leadership fads, but that we lacked the discernment to understand how they were different.  He also noted that we tended to favor the more formal, structured, formulaic approaches, even though they consistently proved to be less effective or appropriate.  The quick-fix, “we did it, you can do it too” mentality leans us toward the best practices approach — generally to our detriment.

Terrence Deal, in a seminar at Vanderbilt University about a decade ago, made the claim that American mainline churches used to be in the business of raising children — that we understood the church as an organic entity that took time and nurture to mature.  He made the analogy that if we want to raise a teenager, we have to wait thirteen years — and you can’t speed up the process with gimmicks and techniques.  However, with the fixation on church growth, mainline Christianity abandoned child-rearing for cloning — replicating the same church over and over, each copy expected to produce the same results of the model it copies.  And what takes years in the world only takes months in the lab, so we don’t have to wait to produce the results we want.  Vital Congregations = cloning; Adaptive Leadership = child-rearing.  One is not the other.

Either Vital Congregations or Adaptive Leadership has the potential to produce good results.  Opinion is divided on which offers the best promise — and in fact, there are some conferences in the denomination where Vital Congregations is more appropriate than Adaptive Leadership, and there are some conferences where the vice is versa.  The point that is so critical at this juncture is that VC and AL are not compatible, and attempts to force them together will produce results that we do not want and probably cannot survive.  My hope and prayer is that our Bishops, Boards, Agencies, Caucuses, Seminaries, and prominent leaders will get together and choose just one path before we suboptimize the church and make it impossible for either approach to succeed.

11 replies

  1. Thanks Dan for some words of sanity.Now would you please send these to every UM in the hierarchy! Just because we excel at adaptive leadership and can’t stomach the theology behind NCD or the mindlessness of Vital Congregations doesn’t make us bad Methodists.. When will the structure realize the institution is flawed not divine – and really can die – and the genius that is United MEthodism (Wesley etal) can thrive.

  2. One manifestation of this is when we hear leaders charging us to be “missional,” while simutaneously thrusting upon us attractional methods and measures. At a basic level it demonstrates how little understanding of the missional movement there is in our midst. (Great lesson in semiotics here – just because someone uses a buzzword doesn’t indicate they understand it to mean the same as others). It is not so much that these are two different ways of understanding what it means to do and to be the church. The simple fact is they are antithetical to each other. We excell at nothing if not equivocation.

  3. Perhaps the solution is to recognize that there is no “one size fits all” solution to our difficulties. In the church I served, we participated in Natural Church Development for the past three years, and saw no real progress. Finally our Congregtaional Development director (who was also our NCD coach), after several conversations with the members of our health team, became convinced that we were not ready to make the changes that NCD requires. When I finally came to accept what he said as a reality, I began working on alternative ways of helping our congregation move forward than just putting “all our eggs in (the) one basket” of NCD

  4. Welcome to post-modernity!… a reality in which we [at least] realize that one size never fits all–as much as we sometimes wish it did.

    i think it was a Lutheran who said, “The trouble with you Methodists is that you’ve forgotten your method!”

    Trying to leave room for any possible ‘context’ or ‘content’ application, i’ve described a vision for ‘vitality’ as:

    …local congregations in which all persons share clarity and ownership regarding the mission [i.e., disciples making disciples] with a focus on participation through commitment and accountability.

    i think you’ve said the same thing many times, Dan, …we must get back to the expectation that everyone be involved in the discipleship process, both for one’s own growth and for aiding the growth of others.

    Not a terribly ‘popular’ notion, i realize.

    Thanks for your blog!

    • At the moment, they are the only two options being offered (and they are both variations on a theme we have debated for the past twenty-five years). As far as trying to blend what is promoted (Bishops/General Council of Finance and Administration/General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits — Vital Congregations; General Board of Discipleship/Higher Education and others — Adaptive Leadership; whole denomination — primary resources of Vital Congregations calling what they do Adaptive Leadership) it is irreconcilable. Go east and go west simultaneously. Play a trumpet and a flute at the same time. Do both well. Open two computers and compose a Word document and a Powerpoint presentation – one with your left hand and one with your right. Either one will produce better results than poorly employing both in tandem. But hear me: you can do both together and you will get the same results the UMC has enjoyed throughout its history. I simply wish we wouldn’t set mediocrity as our standard and goal. (And sadly, many don’t grasp that this is what we have done…)

  5. What, no duality? What is a denomination to do?

    There is an option to forcing oil (VC) and water (AL) together or, with the best of intentions, choosing one over the other – when, as stated, there are times when one will work where the other won’t. This option comes with a clear-eyed evaluation of a situation and giving supported reasons for choosing a particular direction in a specific instance. J.Wesley stole from the best across time and between traditions, no reason to stop now.

    Put another way, where might there be a synthesis between these two theses? Is it in a third thesis or a different process?

    • I agree that a third way might be a great option. But a synthesis of these two? The essential ethos of the two approaches is INCOMPATIBLE. I don’t know how to say that more clearly. This is a case of lowest common denominator. A move toward one is a move away from the other. If you are making a cake or French Toast and you have one egg, you have a choice to make (one or the other or split it between the two and come up with two things of lower quality. The desire to hammer out a compromise is equally admirable and self-defeating. My personal experience has been that the people I talk to about the two approaches have not fully studied either or both, so they promote a palimpsest of what we already know masked as one of the two new approaches. This means we are not even choosing between two very different options, but a multitude of options reframed as something we already know how to do. It makes me wonder if we are even capable of a new third option (or the recovery of a lost third option…)

    • Hmm. John Wesley as both emulsifier and shaker? AL can use VC best practices IF they are not focused on a narrow range and are not exclusive to success. In other words, a catalog of instructive case studies across the spectrum of practice to the the AL how to see pitfalls and opportunities.

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