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

Déjà vu for You and Your Wicked Problems

Written by: on February 12, 2024

The dream of the 90’s is alive in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

In 1993, Bill Murray starred in the fantasy comedy Groundhog Day. It became one of the highest grossing films of 1993, and went on to be considered one of the greatest films of the 1990’s and one of the greatest comedy movies ever.

I personal try to watch Groundhog Day every year, on, well, Groundhog Day (duh!), and each time I watch it I experience an extreme case of déjà vu.

Déjà vu: (from French, meaning “already dreamed”) is the feeling of having already dreamed something that is currently being experienced.

Unfortunately, life isn’t a Hollywood movie, nor a sleepy dream. It’s real. Real Life. And in real life, there are real problems. And many problems simply cannot be solved, simply. They can only be worked on. Joseph Bentley and Michael Toth, in Exploring Wicked Problems, says “the essence of life, in fact, can be concisely summarized as the experience of continually dealing with problems” (from The Introduction, xiii). They go onto to broadly categorize problems as tame or wicked. These are such helpful categorizations for me as a leader. I SO understand these categories, especially that of “wicked.” The wicked problems are complex, messy and unpredictable. These are the ones that most often make it to my desk and inbox.

I got one of them early this morning. I stared at it for quite a long time. I let it sit in my inbox unanswered for a couple hours, then looked at it again. I began a response, deleted it, rewrote it differently, only to delete it again. After a couple of hours I was able to send a reply that the original sender will NOT find to his liking, but I know it’s right. It was the right response to that particular wicked problem. Oh, and I can also tell you that the response will NOT fix the problem. I wish it could, but it’s, well, wicked.

That brings to mind a lengthy and difficult email I received years ago. While sitting in a local coffee shop I read the email completely, and as it went on I found myself getting more and more angry. I quickly hit reply and started to fire off a missive of white hot venom. In all CAPS I wrote the recipient’s name then proceeded to angrily peck out:  I RECEIVED YOUR EMAIL…when, unbeknownst to me, a friend snuck up behind and startled me, causing my thumb to brush across my laptop trackpad, hitting SEND on the email. I heard the Apple Mail “swoosh” sound, and I let out an audible yelp, as my terse reply flew into cyberspace. I still giggle to myself thinking about that long, misguided email being responded to with a simple: I RECEIVED YOUR EMAIL. I didn’t take long for me to realize that I had perhaps, unknowingly, given the most appropriate reply. I should answer more email that way, knowing that I will most likely wake up the following morning with another one like it in my inbox.

Groundhog Day. Déjà vu. Wicked problems can only be solved over and over again. Or as Russell Ackoff puts it, “people do not solve problems; they manage messes” (Bentley and Toth, 75).

In modern leadership circles (like most of life), there are so many messes to manage and problems to continually fix. This is the case in most, if not all, industries, businesses and fields of work, including that of The Church. The Church, like other organizations, is experiencing constant and volatile change, and the wicked problems of our time are massively complex, messy, and unpredictable. The acronym “VUCA” has surfaced in the modern zeitgeist. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Someone should write a book entitled “VUCA Church.” Perhaps I will.

Sure…I’ll start working on it tomorrow. So, when my alarm clock goes off at 6:00 AM, and the song “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher wakes me up yet again, I’ll work on it then. Yah, I start it then.

But until then, I’ve got 99 wicked problems, and writing a book about the VUCA Church ain’t one of them. And when all those wicked problems keep coming at me (and they are coming at YOU too), we can find comfort in remembering what Jesus said to us in John 16:33 “In this world you will have trouble (ie: wicked problems, swamps and pythons). But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

In other words, Jesus wants us to know:  I got you babe.

I got you yesterday.

I got you today.

I got you tomorrow.

That’s the Jesus-version of déjà vu.

About the Author


John Fehlen

John Fehlen is currently the Lead Pastor of West Salem Foursquare Church. Prior to that he served at churches in Washington and California. A graduate of Life Pacific University in San Dimas, CA in Pastoral Ministry, and Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA with a Masters in Leadership and Spirituality. He and his wife Denise have four grown children and four grandchildren. John is the author of “Intentional Impressions," a book for fathers and their sons, "Don't Give Up: Encouragement for Weary Souls in Challenging Times," a book for pastoral leaders, and "The Way I See You," a children's book. You can connect with John on Instagram (@johnfehlen) as well as on his blog (johnfehlen.com).

5 responses to “Déjà vu for You and Your Wicked Problems”

  1. mm Tim Clark says:

    “I RECEIVED YOUR EMAIL” I’m adding THAT to my response templates. If only that were the end of those kind of interactions!

    Great post, John. We can’t solve wicked problems, only manage them. And we do a lot of managing. I’m encouraged by the way you end…regardless of the trouble we find ourselves in, Jesus (the only One who CAN solve the wicked problems) has us in His hands.

    And I’ll never watch Groundhog Day (or hear the epic Sonny and Cher song) the same way, again.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Some days all I can do is take a few moments and whisper a prayer of acknowledgement of and dependency upon Jesus as I approach challenging problems. That’s not a “throw my hands up” point of resignation (Ala, “Jesus Take the Wheel), but rather a source of strength when facing wicked problems that are over my head,

  2. Jennifer Vernam says:

    A couple of thoughts came to mind as I read your post, John. First, you mentioned that you know your response to the email from this morning will not be well- received. And the I READ YOUR EMAIL response was also a less- than desired exchange…. do you think that wicked problems usually emote anger? Not a huge lightbulb, perhaps, but with the pervasiveness of wicked problems in society, I wonder if we can point to that as a contributing factor to the angry-ness of society?

    Also, your call out of not having the answers made me recall a principle of Catholic social teaching: Solidarity- or as I think of it: just walking alongside someone in their journey. Maybe that is a way we are called to be with others in the midst of their Wicked Problems; not solving, just being alongside them?

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      OK Jenn…I initially didn’t give much credence to your connection to wicked problems and anger, however, I just finished reading one of our required readings called “Sway” and I now can comment…


      I do think there is a connection. Let me explain. The entire time I read “Sway” I found myself getting frustrated, angry and even a bit depressed. It’s a well written and researched work, so it’s not that, rather, it’s 400 pages of wicked problems, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve moved the needle much on any of them: unconscious bias, racism, sexism, ageism, gender disparity, inequality, etc, etc. etc. Honestly, she unpacked so many deep problems and I just don’t see a way forward in solving them (which is gonna be the focus of my blog post on that particular book).

      So, yes, I do think one can make a connection to anger.

  3. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Why don’t we just send responses that way? I accidentally end up ghosting people a lot with texts. No one likes to call anymore, and the text is always so “intrusive” in the day. I get one, know I want to give a meaningful response so wait until later and guess what, it scrolls down the screen never to be responded to. I should just find a way to say I GOT YOUR TEXT, but most likely should say, I got your text, if you don’t get a better response in a day or two, text me again! Well that is not as effective, but it is a way to solve my wicked problem.

    How has God “got you” today. Where did God show up for you today?

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