The Hegemony of How

find_xResponses to Polymorphous Pedagogic Perversity provide a fascinating illustration of the difficulties we face employing adaptive leadership process.  Adaptive leadership, by definition, recognizes that our penchant for problem-solving pushes us to seek answers before we truly understand the complexity of the challenge before us.  In other words, when faced with a complex situation, we race to ask “how” — how do we do it, how do we fix it, how do we change it.  Adaptive leadership moves us into the muck and mire of messy reality and challenges us to observe, reflect, assess, explore and ponder before we try to figure out the simplest response or solution.  So, I lay out what I believe to be the basis of an adaptive challenge for the church, and the immediate response of some was — “how do we do this?”

There is no single prescriptive “how” adequate to the immensity and complexity of our current situation.  That said, there are some simple and straightforward things anyone/everyone can do.  Both by modeling and encouraging those in authority, we can begin changing the way we talk about our current reality and our future:

  1. what might happen were we to treat the church as an energy field filled with possibility and potential instead of a problem to be solved?  There is a simple truth at work: people find what they are looking for.  If all we see are problems, then the only response that makes sense is problem solving.  If we acknowledge that there are indeed problems, but that they do not define us, we are free to channel our energy in positive directions that are more creative, productive and visionary.
  2. what would happen were we to talk about “thriving” instead of “surviving?”  Survival thinking sets the floor as our goal — just getting back to zero.  Where is the faith in that?  Where is the vision?  Mediating mediocrity is never going fire people up.  I have long said that our current message is self-defeating:  “we’re declining, we’re decaying, we’re dying, the ship is sinking… Come join us!!”  Is it any wonder people aren’t flocking in our doors?
  3. what would happen were we to provide a witness and example of life-transforming relationships with God and each other instead of treating our faith as a product or service to market and sell?  The whole “branding” mania displaces identity with image; substance with ‘sizzle,’ and sacrifices depth for breadth (we are a mile wide, but only an inch deep…)
  4. what fundamental difference might it make if we adopted a “glass-half-full” outlook instead of a perpetual “glass-half-empty” (or glass cracked and ready to throw away…) point of view?  Too many people are confusing pessimism for realism and are acting as though optimism belongs solely to Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Jesus.
  5. what would happen if we raised the bar on our definition of authentic discipleship instead of dumbing it down to merely “showing up”?  True, if we get serious about discipleship we will initially lose numbers, but in the long run we will become so much stronger.  Is it our fear that chaff so outweighs wheat that we don’t want to shake too hard for fear there will be nothing left?  In my experience of truly vital communities of faith, higher standards, expectations and accountability does indeed eliminate the chaff, but after the chaff is removed, only wheat is attracted to wheat.  Discipleship breeds discipleship.  Constantly lowering the standards to make discipleship cheap is short-sighted and destructive.
  6. what might result from focusing our energy and time on the more highly engaged instead of allowing ourselves to be defined by our lowest common denominator (i.e., those who want to be served, but not to serve; those who attend when it suits them, but make little effort when it’s not convenient)?  We are guilty of infantilizing our church, doing everything in our power to keep people comfortable and happy, and scrambling like mad to calm the anxieties and displeasure of those least interested in discipleship.  We are attempting to build a strong church on the weakest materials.
  7. what might change were we to explore and understand the gifts, skills, knowledge, talents, experience, passions and expertise of our laity and clergy throughout the denomination instead of constantly looking outside the church for someone else to solve our problems, have the answers to our questions, of shoulder the blame for our shortcomings?  What if we trusted that God is working within and through us, providing us with everything we need to be a light to the world?
  8. what happens if we slog into the really difficult situations and relationships in the church openly admitting that folks will get hurt, there will be winners and losers, and that there is no way to make everyone happy?  We are doing ourselves a disservice thinking that there is a win-win solution to every problem.  The world doesn’t work that way.  Things of value often carry significant costs.  Adaptive leadership offers an insight into the reality that a key function of leadership is to deal with loss.  Anyone who thinks he can maintain optimal health and fitness without restricting diet, committing to exercise, and making lifestyle changes is deluding himself.  We will not become a vital church without pain.

Okay, I could do this all day (I have sixteen more “what ifs on my list — hey! look at me.  I’m Rethinking Church!) but you get the drift.  We don’t need ANSWERS, we need deeper rapport and understanding.  Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey wrote a book called How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work (an awkward title that reminds us that words matter…) and in it there are a couple toss-off statements that I think about all the time.  The first (and forgive me that I don’t have page numbers, but I am doing these from memory) is the best definition of hospitality I have ever found.  It basically says hospitality is not a smile and a handshake but “the ability to create a meaningful shared space in which our attentions and intentions are aligned.”  Think about this for a minute.  What are beautiful, expansive definition.  Not about being nice or tolerant or friendly, but about an equal playing field defined by a willingness to listen and respect and be heard.  This is what we DON’T have at the moment.  Dissident voices are not viewed as valid and helpful, but as problems to solve or noise to ignore.  Long before we fully understand, we jump to solutions.

The other Kegan/Lahey concept I find helpful and appropriate is the simple truth that having different opinions or definitions or understandings isn’t a problem.  We make these things problems, and we do it by insisting that our opinion or definition or  understanding is the superior one without ever analyzing its validity.  This gets exacerbated when a group collectively agrees that something is right or true or valid and they form an in-group around their thinking; creating an out-group of everyone who disagrees.  For most truly complex issues, there is rarely one simple “right” answer.  There are multiple, good, helpful, appropriate, workable answers — many mutually compatible and beneficial.  The default position of either/or is not serving us well.

So, we foster conversation.  We welcome controversy.  We refuse to settle for either/or thinking.  We make rapport and understanding governing values.  We shift from answers to questions, solutions to possibilities, limitations to potential, and from being right to making a valuable contribution.  We get it all out on the table, we slosh around in it awhile, we seek third/fourth/fifth options, and we unleash Spirit-driven creative energy.  This is maybe not the “how” answer people are looking for, but it’s the best I can do off the top of my head.

8 replies

  1. Your list and the Kegan/Lahey book sound of a piece with Peter Block’s book Community. I’ve been reading it lately (inspired by your Best Books list, so I’m not surprised by the congruence) and it’s been giving me a renewed energy and perspective as a church committee chair. It helps that it makes a lot of sense in light of my good and bad experiences with other organizations. Though the inevitable inefficiency and frustrations of this approach might test our faith, the results often go beyond our best expectations due to the “gifts, generosity and accountability” a community is capable of.

  2. In his blog, a retired UMC pastor dealt with why things have gone awry in a very concise manner that, for me, nailed it on the head. He ended with the following and I found it so refreshing because it casts a vision:

    “So let us who follow Jesus cultivate and express our discipleship as fully and faithfully as possible. Historically, that’s the course Christians in the minority have typically followed. More often than not, we’ve had an impact far beyond our numbers. Let’s be the most authentic, devoted Christ-followers and Body of Christ we can be in this diverse new world—and leave the rest to our God who is bigger than any idea or ideology.”

    What a novel way to end a discourse on “what is wrong”–cast a vision of what needs to happen and remind us who our God is. I’ve been waiting for someone in a significant leadership position to cast such a vision and issue such a reminder.

    What would it be like if that statement was the starting point for every discussion on “how to fix The UMC”. What would it be like if the focus of the discussion was on helping the person in the pew to become the most authentic and devoted Christ-follower he/she can be 24/7? A little simplistic? I am a person in the pew that has spent a long time in the UMC being a “good Methodist” and have never learned what it means to be a follower of Christ. I finally gave up and delved into Wesley. What a surprise to learn that The UMC exists/came into being because it was John Wesley’s desire for every person to become the most authentic follower of Christ he/she could become. He also very much knew who his God was. I learned the most amazing thing reading about Wesley: it absolutely is about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit!!! and they each have a function in my redemption!!!! Wow!!!!

    Excuse my sarcasm; I am just a little frustrated.

  3. What you call Adaptive Leadership sounds a lot like Appreciative Inquiry, championed by Diana Whitney and Amanda Trosten-Bloom, among others. If you’re familiar with Appreciative Inquiry do you agree?

    • Oh, definitely, at the heart of adaptive leadership is appreciative inquiry and the essence of asset mapping, systems thinking and complexity theory. All these pieces fit together to offer a very different way of engaging our challenges.

  4. My 3/4 full glass says this response is not the best you can do off the top of your head 🙂 and then I remember I may not be aligned with your attention and intention. Thanks for these 8 responses. I look forward to your 24th that will come in its own time.

    Regarding the lectionary gospel for this coming week, 8 days previous to Jesus’ transfiguration (baptism vision 2.0) folks were trying to save themselves (and their religious heritage) by focusing on how to do so. Even with a new vision on a mountain top the disciples got into the “how” of building right then and there. The how seems to only get worked out back down the mountain, in the midst of a chaotic situation beyond the disciples applying techniques of the past and trying to avoid the reality of limits and death. Eventually Jesus places potential (points 1-8 above) in the form of a child before folks to point to pre-emptive welcoming — prepared to welcome even before we know their opinions, definitions, or other orientations.

    Keep at us. Enough individuals may eventually be willing to dive in the deep end and become the needed critical mass to shift institutional resistance to a spirit beyond privilege and power.

  5. I like this approach. When do you make a decision on course of action? Try the top three?
    Also, of the list of Adaptive Leadership books you recommended in a previous post, which one is the first read?

  6. I don’t recall who said it, but I recall a statement that the best leaders don’t have the best answers, they have the best questions. Question on!

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