Duke Divinity Call & Response Blog

Read. Discuss. Imagine.

  • Print
March 19, 2013

Flipping the system

What would happen if traffic signals were in the car and a web of computers and sensors indicated when to stop, go or slow down?

Instead of traffic engineers guessing about how many vehicles need to go in which direction, the conditions on the road at any given hour of the day would determine who stops, says Ozan Tonguz of Carnegie Mellon University. Similar to GPS now, the best route based on conditions would be available to every driver.

In my experience, electronic systems are only as good as the least effective piece of equipment in the network. A virtual traffic system would depend on many, many parts, including a device in every vehicle. Imagine what the weakest link might be.

Such a system would be the end to watching for a state trooper. Every move of every vehicle would be tracked. Not only would traffic flow be automated, so would enforcement.

A virtual traffic system flips the driving experience, requiring that we reexamine every assumption we have about being on the road. Teachers have this experience in a flipped classroom, where the material is presented before class and students engage the material and ask questions in the classroom. The teacher is no longer the keeper of all of the information, but serves as a guide to help students use what they are learning.

What do you think is being flipped in the church?

I recently spent two days with colleagues from Notre Dame who operate non-degree programs that resource the church. The aim of their work is very similar to many efforts at Duke Divinity. The major differences include our predominately Catholic and Protestant constituents and the character of our respective universities.

At the end of the first day, the visitors observed that every group they met on campus talked about new efforts to engage laypeople. They asked, “Why is a Protestant divinity school that trains pastors thinking about laypeople?”

The short answer is that the challenges facing many congregations and related institutions will likely require an integration of the wisdom traditionally pursued in seminary by clergy and that is gained through experience for laypeople.

For example, many congregations don’t have plans for how to maintain buildings as the structures age. As a result, the operating costs continue to rise. In the meantime, the cash gifts in offering plates are not likely to grow as fast as the deferred maintenance.

What happens if you flip the building issue and explore the value of the building as an asset?

Business people are experienced in reading a balance sheet, indicating assets and liabilities. Clergy think of the budget as an income statement that lists revenue and expenses. What new possibilities might that open for access to ministry and witness in the community if a “balance sheet” point of view was applied to building issues? What would have to change to operationalize such a way of thinking?

What about a more pressing concern like eliminating childhood hunger? What sort of theologically wise, socially entrepreneurial work is required? What new partnerships would be required? What traditional ways of thinking need to be flipped?

Christian institutions can sometimes fall into thinking of laypeople as donors. What if you think of laypeople as committed partners in the cause who have wisdom, skills, time and money to bring into any given project?

Flipping the traffic system, classroom, congregation or Christian institution is about reversing the work flow and thinking processes. Such flipping is not about changing the purpose or goals of the system. Rather, it is considering a radical shift in the hope of improving the outcome in the midst of changing conditions and new opportunities.


Well, leaders often want the

Well, leaders often want the congregation more involved, but many have bought into the notion that the work of the ministry, whether the spiritual side or the business side, should be handled by the pastor and a few select leaders. Maybe leaders need to do a better job of helping the congregation to see that they are needed and valuable and help them to see that it takes all of us and not just a select few to make a ministry run well. I suspect it will be a uphill battle in some churches depending on how strong their belief is in the professional paid clergy.

how to get practical?

I don't know too many churches that object to this kind of thinking in theory, but they don't know how to do it.

For example, I'm thinking of a pastor in our community who is a good man, a thoughtful theologian. He and I get along very well, but his training doesn't teach him how to run an organization. It teaches him how to interpret Scripture and think about educational curriculum.

Everything in this pastor's seminary experience encourages him to act like a pitcher filled with knowledge, pouring inspiration into the cups of people in the pews (like the teacher in Dickens' Hard Times). This pastor is smarter than that and works against the model, but it is still the model he has inherited.

Lay leadership

The biggest problem facing real lay leadership is the question of whether the clergy would be really willing to give up their power. It seems that no matter how open the pastor or engaged the laity, when it comes to the final decision the clergy get the final say.
In order to avoid a rubber stamping by the laity, serious teaching and formation must happen and then the clergy must respect the input of their lay leaders and encourage them to think beyond the pastor and his/her training. Many lay people are skilled already; it just needs to find application in a church setting.

What are the conditions to cultivate?

In a flipped classroom, the teacher understands her role as setting up really interesting questions with which the students can wrestle. These teachers tell me that it takes a lot of work to get those questions well framed. One of the things pastors could do is to ask the congregation questions. Would that be enough to create the conditions for a "flip"? Would it be a good first step?

Post new comment

Comment Policy

* required field