Scott Benhase: No more passive resignation, please
How learned helplessness infects our churches and what we can do about it.
Ron Ashkenas, whose latest book, “Simply Effective,” says that many organizations over time develop what he calls “learned helplessness.” This occurs when leaders in the organization slowly create a list of excuses and explanations for why the organization can’t change or improve as it seeks to accomplish its mission. Ashkenas says that rather than finding ways to make things better or generating ideas for how things might be different, leaders instead gradually accept the status quo and blame external forces to explain and then to excuse the “stuckness” of the organization.
Learned helplessness can become viral in any organization and the church is no exception.
In local congregations, I hear regularly how what happens at the national church level inhibits local mission. This is no doubt true to some extent, which is why we need to radically restructure organizational life to focus on the mission of making disciples.
But it’s also an excuse for congregational leaders to do little to proclaim the gospel in their communities by treating themselves as victims of the larger church’s actions or inactions, as the case may be. This is learned helplessness in its most clear form.
Ashkenas offers two ways to get beyond learned helplessness that are applicable to the challenges Christians face. He says that organizations should first name clearly what is going on. He suggests making a list of initiatives people say they want, but have not done. Then put together a list of the ten most common excuses for why there has been inaction. Creating dialogue helps everyone become aware of their complicity in learned helplessness.
So, in the church, we hear things like: “We don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough resources. We don’t have enough time. We tried something new before and it didn’t work.” These are all the words of people infected with learned helplessness.
A way to get the organization “unstuck” from the virus of learned helplessness is to find one initiative that, as Ashkenas says, can show even in a small way that the organization can accomplish something. I know this to be true. In a congregation where people have adopted the passive resignation of learned helplessness, too often church leaders try large, bold initiatives. This has the tendency to scare people and make them even less likely to become unstuck.
What works is to find one simple thing that the church can do together, that’s likely achievable, and then to do it. Once it’s achieved, celebrate the success. I remember in one of my former parishes where we wanted to grow the Sunday School. We had one child and when we got a second, we celebrated that Sunday School attendance had doubled in just one week!
It is time to give up our excuses for not engaging in God’s mission to make disciples, and, by doing so, to make a difference in our communities.
If your congregation has become stuck with the virus of learned helplessness, then call it what is and then find one first thing you can do together for God’s mission. Take that first small step to become unstuck and then celebrate your way to the next.
No more passive resignation, please.
Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.