Stop building bridges

This weekend I took part in the Quadrennial Leadership Training that the General Board of Discipleship puts on at the start of each new four-year cycle.  I’d guess about 1000 United Methodists gathered from around the connection for training and networking.  All in all, it was successful for me on both these fronts.

First, an observation.  We were treated to some very good presenters, as well as some very tired themes.  The overall point was on Adaptive Leadership (which I’ll get to in a minute), but it seemed obvious that a few needed to have a say whether it fit the theme or not.  So, as my fellow UMC’ers might expect, we were treated to the party line about vital congregations and calls to action.

Nothing new there, let’s move one.

One more observation.  Though the tenor of these things is often one of thinly veiled panic about the ever-looming crisis of members and dollars our denomination is facing, it was hard to really hear it while we were engulfed in the vertigo inducing opulence of the Grand Old Opry Hotel.  I reflected on this mostly as I cut through my inch thick pork chop at the closing banquet.  But I digress…

So what I really want to talk about is this: Adaptive verses Technical.  This was the theme for the weekend, something I thought I understood before, but I now understand a whole lot better.


Some definitions, then something far more interesting.  (These are my definitions, by the way)

Technical challenge/solution: A technical challenge is something that is clearly defined and has a clear solution.  Building a bridge over a river for a freeway is a great example of a technical challenge with a technical solution.

Adaptive challenge/solution: An adaptive challenge is something that is far less clear and usually lies behind a technical one.  Our nation’s highway system is a testimony to technical solutions, but what about the larger question of the American lifestyle that demands cheap products from foreign countries, which in turn must be driven in large trucks from port cities over that highway system? Or, what about the adaptive challenge of sustaining church communities in urban centers as the highways suddenly allowed people to move out of the urban core into suburbs?

As a group we tend to focus most of our energy on technical challenges and solutions while ignoring the larger, sticky, adaptive ones.  And the temptation is understandable.  After all, technical things are easily defined and measured.  I know when I’m successful and when I’m done.  Bridge built?  Check! Adaptive things by (my) definition are a whole lot more fuzzy and, thus, hard to measure and hard to know when you’re done.

So, Adaptive challenges aren’t the most attractive things to work on.  However, we really do need to work on them.  Without doing so, we will have an amazing super bridge to China to bring back all the goods we can consume, while wondering as a people why we are all unemployed and drowning in debt.  Sometime you do need to build the bridge, other times you need to take a step back and ask, “What’s going on that we need this thing in the first place?”

As a person who learns best by example, I offer you up this to help explore the differences in a congregational setting.

Due to many unforeseen reasons, it was six months into my time at my current church before I could get my hands on some good data about our church finances.  I love good data.

It was also about this time when we figured out that some rental property the church owned really wasn’t up to snuff as far as renting goes, and we voted to discontinue having tenants in it until we could come up with another plan.

So, with fresh data in hand and the knowledge that we are about to lose the rental income, I dived into the numbers and soon came away with a sense of true panic.  Keep you up at night panic.  So much panic that I called my District Superintendent and my assigned mentor and asked for a meeting panic.

A couple days later, we met, and I had prepared charts, graphs, and projections that pointed to a very bad place.  Understanding that this was my first full time appointment, I had high hope that these two with their decades of experience would have some insights for me.  They did.  Sorta.

When it was all said and done, they agreed that there was real reason for concern and I left with some information on how to run a good stewardship campaign.  A good technical solution to the technical challenge of not enough money.

I never ran the campaign.

For a couple of years now, I couldn’t tell you why I didn’t do it, but, while recently talking with a friend, I think I figured out why.  At that point the church had problems.  Lovely people, trying their best, but still some very unhealthy things happening.  So for now, I’ll call it integrity that stopped me.  I just couldn’t see standing up there asking people to give even more to save a place that even I, Mr. Optimist, was struggling with.  How are you supposed to do that?

That doesn’t mean, though, that we didn’t do anything.

Instead, and rather coincidentally, we started a nine month sermon series on the book of Acts. It was something I had wanted to do for a while, for my own education if nothing else.  Starting with Acts 1, where I hit hard on Jesus’ final message to the disciples telling them to be witnesses to the ends of the Earth, through Pentecost, the conversion of Saul, and a really good mother’s day message about pornography (not kidding), we walked month after month with those first brave followers of Christ.

They needed to be reminded what church was really about.  So did I.

At the end of the nine months we had started a handful of new ministries, mostly missions in the community, tried several things that didn’t work, and killed off a number of legacy things that nobody really had energy for any more.  We also, importantly, had enough money in the bank.

I can’t tell you exactly where the money came from, other than the offering plate.  I never talked about giving to the church or directly encouraged people to give more.  We talked about the church, why it was important, and why our congregation was important to the community.

Frankly, I credit the Holy Spirit.

Looking back I see the adaptive challenge we were facing, “How do we be part of God’s kingdom on our corner at a time of decreasing attendance and giving?”  The technical challenge of money was masking the true issue of a congregation that had lost its way a bit.  Sure we needed more cash, but what we really needed was a purpose for being.  Once we understood that better, people on their own connected the dots between wallet and God’s work.

Since then we have, of course, talked about money.  I’ve asked people directly for help and encouraged people to give more and my integrity hasn’t bothered me once.  Why?  Because I know better our role in the community and I can point to things and say, look, over there, the kingdom is breaking through and we are part of it!

All this leads to my final learning from the week spent in Nashville.  While the Adaptive challenges might be the harder, fuzzy, stickier, less glamorous challenges, it feels really good when you make progress on them.  I’m not sure you ever really complete them, but I’ve learned that just getting a little bit better makes the world of difference.

Of course making Adaptive progress will require many technical solutions, which is good because I love a good technical solution.  But when we get so distracted by things like “How do we fill the pews?” or “Where can we find more younger people?” we forget to ask the fundamental questions about who we are and what role God has for us.  Technical solutions are a matter of math and physics.  If I do X then Y will happen.  Adaptive solutions are a matter of faith.  Even though I can’t quantify how, if we do what God needs from us somehow what we need will be provided.

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4 Responses to Stop building bridges

  1. Great summary of the event. For the record, my pork chop had to be at least 1.5 inches thick.

  2. Bob says:

    Thanks for this……I hope you don’t mind, I will use it as devotions for our Church Council.

  3. Barbara says:

    Amen. And thank you.