“Perhaps the most serious mistake leaders can make is to throw technical solutions at an adaptive challenge.”
Ron Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers
Okay, great, but how do you tell the difference? Basically, a technical problem is one we know how to fix and where to find the answer. We know the expert to call, the steps to take, the plan to put into action. And even if the problem is new to us, others have been there and done that – we can find the answers from them. Adaptive challenges, however, are when we haven’t got a clue. We are steeped in the unknown – the old fixes have been tried and failed. It’s not that we need to do differently, we need to think differently. A popular analogy is that while breaking an ankle requires technical changes, losing a leg is an adaptive challenge. It requires learning a whole different way of living.
Albany Presbytery is partnering with PneuMatrix launching a 9-month adventure to take on Adaptive Change challenges facing our congregations. Specifically, six congregations will work with six Adaptive Change Apprentices, all guided by The Rev. Deborah Wright of PneuMatrix to identify the critical ways the churches can discern a faithful way forward in a time when old models are breaking down. This will be ‘roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-down-to-business’ work. Although we are starting with only 6 congregations, after our 9 months together these 6 Adaptive Change Apprentices will be ready to guide a new set of Albany Presbytery congregations on their own similar journeys.
Think about the state of the Church in America right now. We are smack in the middle of a deep post-Christendom decline. At the congregational level, the default to technical solutions is so strong, it’s hard to switch off. A better preacher, a youth leader with charisma, a slick fundraising plan, big overhead screens and modern music. Technical responses that may work briefly in some contexts, but none of them are warding off the pervasive trend of decline. A church consultant friend has said, “You know, if the 1950s come back again, boy are we ready!” We know how to do that version of church! If we tweak it, they will come. We act as if we believe that. We go into spin cycle trying every reliable old tool in our ministry boxes, too often to no avail. People aren’t church shopping much anymore. The children we raised in the church are no longer part of church, and often they’re raising our grandchildren without the church. Fewer and fewer each year are looking to affiliate with a religious institution of any kind.
We Presbyterians have the historic tag line that may be the worst suited descriptive for such a time as this: “Decently and in Order”. A hallmark of Adaptive Leadership is chaos, commonly called ‘Creative Disruption’. We in the PCUSA can rename, restructure, redesign better than most. It’s in our DNA. Technical changes, all. What is far scarier is the free-wheeling work of the Spirit, that third partner of the Trinity that is traditionally non-linear, messy, unpredictable, and essentially ADAPTIVE! It requires dwelling in the pit of the unknown – the darkest hours of Holy Saturday – and having faith that serving God and the people with ‘energy, intelligence, imagination and love’ will get us where we need to be.
As six of our Albany Presbytery congregations covenant together to begin this hard, often messy and chaotic journey of the Spirit, we ask for your supportive prayers. Churches, Apprentices and consultants all, will be on an adaptive pilgrimage that’s bound to bring out our natural love-hate relationship with change. May the Spirit be with us!
The Rev. Deborah London Wright, a principal with PneuMatrix, has returned to working directly with presbyteries and congregations after 25 years as a Corporate Chaplain, bringing Adaptive Change rooted in spiritual formation to clients including LucasFilm, Kaiser Permanente, and Google.
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