Paul A. Baxley: A case for Christian leaders to practice integrative thinking

Bigstock / Llyaf

The more our vision and our imaginations are remade by resurrection, the more we should refuse to accept things as they are and insist on seeking new ways waiting to emerge, writes a Baptist pastor.

To be a leader in a church or Christian institution is to be continually confronted with choices that present themselves in stark either-or terms.

Either we fund our missions personnel using a traditional single revenue stream or we have them seek and cultivate their own direct funding relationships.

Either we retain unity in our congregations by holding all our worship and primary formation ministries in a single time slot (Sunday mornings) or we risk unity and community by offering alternative options.

Either we focus our energies on social ministries and academic theological education or we dedicate ourselves to evangelism and a less intellectual approach to faith.

Either we embrace a more progressive position in contemporary disputes about matters of human sexuality or we hold tight to a more traditionalist position.

We regularly confront such tense binaries, many of them with the potential to fracture our congregations and communities. While these either-or scenarios have always existed, I suspect that our highly partisan culture has made them even more intense. Our temptation, then, is to settle for the least damaging choice, which most often means accepting the binary as presented and living within its terms.

Given this context for ministry, Christian leaders should have a keen interest in a practice attributed to the most successful business leaders.

In his book “The Opposable Mind,” business strategist Roger Martin affirms that the most accomplished leaders in business master and demonstrate a practice he describes as integrative thinking -- the ability to stand in the presence of two seemingly contradictory positions and live in the tension between those perspectives until a better way emerges.

Martin further suggests that business leaders who master this practice take a certain stance that enables them to thrive in the presence of opposing models. Integral to this stance are six foundational convictions:

1) Existing models do not represent reality; they are our constructions.

2) Opposing models are to be leveraged, not feared.

3) Existing models are not perfect; better models exist that are not yet seen.

4) I am capable of finding a better model.

5) I can wade into and get through the necessary complexity.

6) I give myself the time to create a better model.

Several years ago, theologian L. Gregory Jones was the one who introduced me and a group of Christian leaders to Martin’s work on integrative thinking and encouraged our reflection on it. In the years since, I have had several opportunities to engage integrative thinking in response to challenges presented at both denominational and congregational levels.

My experience has left me wondering: Why are Christian leaders not accomplished practitioners of integrative thinking? Why do we not intentionally practice this art, cultivate the stance required for it, and pursue it every time we find ourselves in the presence of opposing models and hopeless binaries?

Christian faith in the resurrection offers a uniquely compelling stance from which to look beyond opposing practices, convictions and models to practice integrative thinking. The more our vision and our imaginations are remade by resurrection, the more we should refuse to accept things as they are and insist on seeking new ways that are waiting to emerge.

After all, resurrection faith convicts us that so many things we have been told are “real” or “final” are actually not but rather constructs of our culture. Resurrection makes clear that death is not final, that the divisions of race and ethnicity are not ultimately definitive for human beings, that governments do not hold ultimate power or control in a world where God raises the dead.

Resurrection persuades absolutely that something better exists. Resurrection is the ultimate demonstration of God’s power to open a way where there seemed to be no way. Resurrection is the definitive expression of God’s creative desire to make all things new, the most powerful antidote to fear and hopelessness.

This life-giving power of God most definitively unleashed in Christ’s resurrection was anticipated when God delivered Israel from absolute hopelessness at the Red Sea. We hear the Hebrew prophets intuit this trait of God’s character when they speak the word of the Lord -- “See, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not see it?” (Isaiah 43:19). And the Revelation to John tells us that resurrection is not a one-time event but a continuous remaking of the world until the last day, when God will declare, “See, I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5).

The resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of God’s power to make all things new. Resurrection persuades us that existing models are not reality, that resurrection is reality. Easter makes clear that there is something new and better we have not yet seen, and if we wait for it in expectant faith and seek it in prayerful devotion, we will find it.

Now, to be sure, Christian faith does not bring us to exactly the same stance Martin describes. An explicitly Christian approach to integrative thinking could not believe that any of us have the capacity, in and of ourselves, to find or make a better model.

Instead, we believe that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, that it is “no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). We believe that the living Christ will guide us into all truth. We do not believe that we can, by ourselves, wade through complexity, but we do believe that Christ can go before us and prepare a way, that Christ can surround us, that Christ can illuminate the step we could not see on our own.

We do not give ourselves time believing that time is all we need; rather, we wait patiently, trusting God to reveal the path forward in God’s time. For the faithful Christian leader, integrative thinking is an act of spiritual discernment, not an act of self-initiated intuition.

Christian faith doesn’t offer exactly the same stance Martin observes in his work. But I can’t help but believe that it offers a still more excellent stance from which to seek paths that lead to faithful flourishing in the midst of the opposing models that arise in a radically changing time. When resurrection remakes our imaginations and renews our thinking, we are of all people best equipped to stand in the presence of seemingly impossibly contradictory options and wait patiently for the emergence of something new.

So why aren’t Christian leaders the most proficient practitioners of integrative thinking? Does it amount to what Bonhoeffer once described as a refusal to consider the resurrection? Are our imaginations, and even our spirituality, still trapped in Good Friday? Doesn’t the conviction that Christ is risen give us the confidence to meet seemingly impossible challenges without being afraid? Wouldn’t an explicitly Christian embrace of integrative thinking best position congregations, denominations and our strategic partners to stand in the midst of hopelessly opposed convictions and practices and see ways forward to thriving? Couldn’t a definitively Christian practice of integrative thinking offer a compelling witness to a polarized partisan world?

At least for me, that’s a compelling hope worth pursuing.