In my consulting work with congregations, I’ve learned a few things about the capacity of a congregation to make significant changes. I am of the mind that a hopeful future for most congregations will require deep, adaptive change. All congregations can make an adjustment here or there, typically of a “technical” nature. They can change or add programs, in other words. But when they’re done, they’re still fundamentally the same. The moment we occupy, however, as congregations in a world of discontinuous change, requires more. It requires “adaptive” change–not just that we do something different, but that we become something new.
I am convinced that not all congregations can negotiate adaptive change. Even those who might be able to will decide not to, leaving the number who will adapt even smaller. This may sound pessimistic, but I think it’s a part of the moment we’re in. Any good therapist will tell you that people will change when they’re ready. Eventually, the situation we’re in will be clear enough that more congregations will be able to take up this work.
Still, it would be nice to know going in if a congregation has the capacity for this kind of work. I look for three things: 1. Is there a high degree of trust between the congregation and it’s leaders? 2. Do they have a tolerance for conflict? 3. Are there things they can identify that they would be willing to trade for?
A few weeks ago I quoted Heifetz and Linski who suggest, “Generally people do not authorize people to make them face what they do not want to face…” (Leadership on the Line, p 20). They also point out that beliefs and practices come from somewhere and to give them up seems like disloyalty. So, adaptive work cannot be done apart from resistance and conflict, making all three of my criteria extremely important.
Leaders have no more important resource than trust. It is the currency of adaptive change. Most congregations I am invited to consult with lack enough trust to take up adaptive work. And there are some typical reasons why. Trust is diminished when leaders exceed their authority. Too often, becoming part of a congregation’s leadership is seen as “being in charge.” I don’t care what the org chart says, in a voluntary organization like a congregation, leaders are “never in charge,” and whatever authority they have is relational. You can’t fire your members. Never mind that Jesus says it’s wrong to lord it over others in the kingdom of God.
More common, however, is poor communication. Most congregations lack reliable feedback loops, which means what feedback leaders do receive is in the form of complaints, which in turn leads to defensiveness on the part of leaders, which is the quickest way to appear weak and diminish trust. This also means that communication is primarily one way–from the leaders to the congregation. I have to remind leaders all the time that just because they’ve said it doesn’t mean they’ve communicated.
The overall result of lack of communication is that members feel like someone other than themselves knows whats going on. Plans are being made behind the scene. The leaders know what they want, and are trying to manipulate the congregation into going along. This may or may not be true. But perception is everything, if not reality. And its hard to dig out of that hole if the congregation thinks the fix is in.
Other reasons for squandering trust exist, obviously. The point is that losses like these related to trust diminish the leadership’s ability to lead through conflict. You may get the changes you want, but you’ll likely be accompanied by a different congregation, probably smaller.
Since, conflict is a part of the deal in adaptive work, I’m very interested in congregational stories of recent conflict. If the congregation reports that they don’t have conflict (and the majority do), there are three ways to interpret that: 1. They’re lying. 2. Conflict is done in secret, fostering a passive aggressive culture. Or 3. They’re telling the truth, which means they don’t care enough to fight. All three are bad. The congregation needs to know that they’ve endured conflict and come out on the other side alright. They’ll need this collective muscle memory to take up adaptive work.
Finally, they need to be able to identify things they’d be willing to trade for. Some congregations are content to leave things just the way they are and hope they can find more people just like them. Many congregations want things, but can’t identify things they’d be willing to leave behind to get them. They want a more diverse congregation, but are unwilling to trade aspects of their denominational or congregational identity to get it. You get the idea. And the thing is, adaptive work requires you become something new. Your identity will have to be fluid and malleable.
This list is not exhaustive, but in my experience pretty predictive. Clearly, there are corresponding leadership abilities that match these congregational capacities. And they’re often the difference in whether or not a congregation that can do adaptive work will actually do it. More on that next post.