DLGP

Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Building a Kingdom Not Our Own

Written by: on February 12, 2024

“Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.[1]

Sometimes, when I meet people from other countries and they learn that I am an American, working in Change Management in the Healthcare Industry, I think I notice subtle nonverbal cues, like wry, knowing smiles or maybe a friendly “good luck with that,” muttered under their breath. In an industry as troubled as American Healthcare, attempting to bring about change can feel almost like a fool’s errand.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. [2]

I do not think I am surprising anyone when I say that healthcare has a series of wicked problems as defined by Joseph Bentley and Michael Toth in Wicked Problems[3]. Challenges in mental health, high pharmaceutical costs, inequalities in access, administrative complexities, and a fragmented system, to name a few. In addition to these, my colleagues and I frequently inventory a host of other wicked problems that are not unique to healthcare including employee burnout and unsustainable overhead costs. Some of us tend to dismiss the value of working on these issues, because we doubt we can really make a difference.

“We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. [4]

One of the methods I have used for solving problems is one that the authors of Wicked Problems referred to in chapter 17: Work Out. Having led many work outs, I believe it is an accessible way to help people identify and solve problems. In fact, I would say that learning this method launched me into my career in Change Management. As a novice supervisor at the time, learning this methodology proved to be a threshold concept for me and so I teach courses in it across my organization whenever I am asked to try to spread the concepts as far as possible. As a systematic approach for narrowing down to a defined problem you want to solve and then brainstorming to identify a few solutions that can be solved in roughly 1-2 months, it lends itself well to breaking down complex problems into manageable efforts.

A few years ago, though, I discovered that I was getting requests to lead work outs to solve problems we had already addressed. It was not that we had not implemented good solutions the first time, but the problem or the context had taken on a new shape and needed to be readdressed. So, when I read in Wicked Problems that there is a whole category of problems that can never be completely solved, a light bulb switched on in my head. These problems we were solving were destined to resurface.[5] How reassuring and discouraging at the same time!

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. [6]

It is easy to get discouraged when trying to solve big hairy problems and you know deep down you cannot solve them. Because of Bentley and Toth’s work, I am beginning to think about them differently. I now see a freedom in acknowledging we may not be solving a problem, but we will work to relieve some of the burden.

A year ago, we all read The Hero with a Thousand Faces[7] and at the time, I wrote a blog where I was pulling a thread from the stories we tell ourselves and the Greater story that we are in as part of God’s creation.[8] At the time, I asked: “What if the stories that we tell as a human race are, in fact, reflections of the story that God has designed?” Now, I want to add a new question: What if the problems that we are trying to solve as a human race are, in fact, reflections of the story that God has designed? Romans tells us:

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.  Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. Romans 8:19-21

Perhaps these wicked problems reflect creation’s waiting (or some translations say “groaning”) for God’s ultimate solution.

“It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. [9]

I am beginning to think that working on wicked problems has benefits entirely outside of solving the problem on which we were focused. Bentley and Toth point out that working on wicked problems brings new meaning to our work.[10] In my own experience, I have found working on these types of issues builds my own character and strengthens relationships with the people on my team. Also, when we can offer a removed, outsider lens,[11] we can help others see the problem more clearly.[12] Finally, wicked problems require us to think beyond being “right and wrong.”[13] With echoes of our delving into our inability to see our own wrongness from last year[14] this feature of dealing with Wicked Problems outside of one right solution serves as a strength.

So, perhaps we keep working on the impossible problems.  Not necessarily with the expectation of solving the problem, but because the work itself is redemptive.

“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.[15]

___________________________

[1] I will be referencing lines from a favorite poem for the headers of this blog. For the entire poem: “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own | USCCB,” accessed February 11, 2024, https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.

[2] “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”

[3] Joseph Bentley PhD and Michael Toth PhD, Exploring Wicked Problems: What They Are and Why They Are Important (Archway Publishing, 2020), 32.

[4] “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”

[5] PhD and PhD, Exploring Wicked Problems, 37.

[6] “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”

[7] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2020).

[8] “A Secret Rescue Plan,” accessed April 22, 2023, https://blogs.georgefox.edu/dlgp/a-secret-rescue-plan/.

[9] “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”

[10] Bentley and Toth, 54.

[11] Bentley and Toth, 49.

[12] Bentley and Toth, 101.

[13]  Bentley and Toth, 84.

[14] Bobby Duffy, “Why We’re Wrong about Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding” (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2019).

[15] “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own”

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

8 responses to “Building a Kingdom Not Our Own”

  1. mm Tim Clark says:

    You write “I now see a freedom in acknowledging we may not be solving a problem, but we will work to relieve some of the burden” YES!

    I’m a consummate problem solver and when I can’t solve it or I have solved it and it becomes “unsolved” it drives me crazy. I’m going to try to lean into experiencing the freedom that comes from this new knowledge!!!

    Also, “So, perhaps we keep working on the impossible problems. Not necessarily with the expectation of solving the problem, but because the work itself is redemptive.”

    This is what will give me the willpower to lean into this reality, knowing the “wicked” work itself is redemptive… That God is using our sufferings to produce perseverance and perseverance to produce character and character to produce hope (Rom 5:3-5)

  2. mm Pam Lau says:

    Jen, As I read your post, a couple thoughts came to mind:

    1) You rephrased your question: What if the problems that we are trying to solve as a human race are, in fact, reflections of the story that God has designed? Immediately I thought of the verse in Ephesians where Paul tells us that our callings were created for us before time began. I find great comfort in the fact that the problems we are solving –or resolving come from God’s Hand –not necessarily the evil in the world –rather the good to explore the solution.

    2) I love the poem throughout! You are nurturing my literary side.

  3. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I agree with you that there’s a certain freedom in acknowledging we will never be free from these wicked problems, but it is still important to work towards a solution or at least to be going in the right direction. Your thoughts actually remind me of Petrusek’s hope model. He allowed for the existence of an ideal (we could say a solution to a wicked problem) and the possibility of moving toward that ideal. Movement or progress seems to be a key theme.

  4. mm John Fehlen says:

    I promise I am gonna go back and read your entire post, however, I am stuck on your opening paragraph, and will reply to it without reading the whole post (and again, promise to do so immediately).

    “Sometimes, when I meet people from other countries and they learn that I am an American, working in Change Management in the Healthcare Industry, I think I notice subtle nonverbal cues, like wry, knowing smiles or maybe a friendly “good luck with that,” muttered under their breath. In an industry as troubled as American Healthcare, attempting to bring about change can feel almost like a fool’s errand.”

    When I read you title “Change Management” I giggled out loud. Ha! How in the world do we even manage all the change that is coming at us?!?

    How????

    I’m with the others you mentioned: “Good luck with that!”

    The bigger reason I giggled is because I could interchange “American Healthcare” for “The Church.” It too feels like a fools errand.

    Having said all that, I will now return to reading your blog and pray to God in Heaven that you have solutions – come on JENNIFER, give me/us solutions to these wicked problems!! Ha!!!!

    🙂

  5. mm John Fehlen says:

    There it is!!!

    “So, perhaps we keep working on the impossible problems. Not necessarily with the expectation of solving the problem, but because the work itself is redemptive.”

    When I read that paragraph I took a deep breath – a hopeful breath – knowing that “our work is not in vain.” Like a farmer that works a field year after year, pulling pesky weeds, only have to have more of them surface, but knowing that there is a harvest in the END – it’s that kind of hope I breathed in as I finished reading your post.

    Thank you Jenn!

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