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January 24, 2013

David Lose: The risks and rewards of adaptive change

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series. Read parts one and two.

One of my definitions of good leadership is the ability to take advantage of crises.

What do I mean by that? A good leader is always tending a vision of the future -- using whatever crops up as an opportunity to move beyond where we are now.

The challenge, however, is that as a species we greatly prefer stability to change. That means we are often far more reactive than proactive, changing only when we have to. And that makes advancing a positive vision of the future difficult, as we would often prefer to make do with a less-than-adequate but known present than a promising but unknown (and therefore risky) future.

Which is where crises come in.

A crisis demands immediate action and provides the thoughtful and prepared leader with an excuse to make changes that he or she knew were necessary but seemed too difficult to contemplate previously.

This is what the church needs today: leaders who see the need to change what we are doing and so tend and promote a vision of the future where all of God’s people have responsibility for understanding and sharing the faith. Simultaneously the leaders understand that sometimes it’s not until a crisis that we can muster the will to make the necessary changes.

Fortunately for today’s church leaders, crises abound!

Make no mistake, however, that such leadership takes courage and always exacts a cost. Change is hard. Change is threatening. Change makes people nervous that they aren’t just losing a way of doing church but actually their whole identity as the church.

The following clip from Moneyball offers a vivid picture of this.

Take note that John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox, names that for baseball traditionalists, Billy Beane’s take on the game is “threatening not just a way of doing business but, in their mind, it’s threatening the game.” In this regard, it’s helpful to remember the sage insight attributed to Ron Heifetz: people don’t fear change; they fear loss.

Which helps to explain the resistance to change that adaptive leaders often encounter. It’s not that those who oppose us are unduly stubborn -- though a few may be. Rather, it’s that they are afraid of losing something of great value. And so they are willing to fight to protect something that has provided a great deal of their identity and security for a very long time. Which is why, as Henry says, “The first guy through the wall always gets bloody. Always.”

We need to cultivate not just leaders working faithfully and creatively on their own, but a supportive network of colleagues who are willing to experiment with each other, learn from each other and remind each why we’re doing this in the first place.

We also need to spread the vision, inviting our people into the future we imagine.

In my experience, there are two important moves to make in this invitation. First, honor the tradition. Acknowledge that whatever you’re planning to change -- hymns, style of worship, policies -- has been important to your conversation partner and to you, that it has been a faithful mediator of the faith, that it has, in short, worked. That shouldn’t be hard to do, as most of us are where we are today because of the faithful practices of previous generations.

Having honored the tradition, the second thing to do is to ask what I call the question: “I know this thing has worked for you just as it has worked for me. But does it work for your children and grandchildren? Does it work for your neighbors and friends? Are there people not with us in church who you would love to see here?”

Because here’s the thing: there is a reservoir of grief in our elders as they see that the faith they cherished is not being passed to their children and grandchildren. And we all have friends, neighbors and family members we wish were at church but aren’t. As much as we love “the way we’ve always done it,” we love our children and grandchildren more.

Asking this question moves the conversation from what -- the particular changes we are working at and the larger vision we are advocating -- to why -- our hope and call to draw people we love into our life of faith that they may be transformed by the gospel.

This isn’t easy work to be sure, but it sure is good work. Work worth giving your life to. Thanks for your part in it.

This post originally appeared on David Lose’s blog.

2 Comments

Adaptive shift

Thanks for these insights. Yes, we are fortunate that in the church today crises abound. In my experience I have had to create crises, or at least bring the crises of the congregation front and center over the elephants of denial and discouragement AND at the same time open myself and the community to deepened relationships with each other and God in order to not faint, withdraw or bury our collective heads in the sand. Jim Collins in his pamphlet, "Good to Great for the Social Sector" calls this the Stockdale paradox, named after a Vietnam era prisoner of war: to have unaltered faith that the issue will be resolved while at the same time unblinkingly facing squarely the most brutal facts of one's present reality.

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