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

Hitting the Wall: Turn Back or Run Through

Written by: on June 6, 2015

In a recent advertisement produced by a major drug company, the narrative depicts a rodeo scene with a bull-rider aboard what, at first, appears to be a typical furious, incensed bull determined to unseat the rider and cause considerable harm. A wider view of the situation reveals the energetic, arms waving rider is aboard a carnival ride similar to the playground child’s ride designed to make sure no one gets hurt.  The drug producer’s message is aimed at the diabetic attempting to control the A1C “ride” which is fueled by the daily spikes in daily blood sugar levels. The message is?  “Maintaining stability is the objective.” A diabetic understands that riding the high spikes of blood glucose levels leads to being thrown off the A1C ride. It intrigued me that the drug advertisement focused on a technical response (the answer – medication) rather than seeking adaptive solutions (changing life style – diet, eating patterns, and exercise) to the personal problem of being diabetic.

The challenge for the church today is to be courageous in the face of change. Like many pastors, I serve in a local congregation that has not changed significantly over the past three decades. The congregation has remained “stable,” however, they have done so while ignoring the demographic and cultural changes taking place all around them and the fact the message of church is no longer relevant in the changing postmodern world and nobody in the community is really listening. Len Hjalmarson in chapter one of his book Broken Futures characterizes the dilemma for congregations caught in the model of ministry stability maintenance. He notes:

The resulting problem is thus twofold: 1) we are not producing disciples, but rather consumers. Any attempt to switch focus results (as it should!) in a crisis; 2) the system we have produced is self-referenced and largely a closed loop, out of touch with the surrounding culture.[1]

Hjalmarson states that “Today’s church is in serious trouble.”  In his article “Leadership in the Chaordic Age,”[2] Hjalmarson details how rapid change and complexity results in uncertainty and chaos. We know, however, that the problem no longer responds to the known and proven answers of an earlier era. The old ways no longer work in our diverse and multicultural community. Chaordic leadership, a newly coined concept, when confronted with complexity is able to blend chaos and order. I have discovered this is a difficult task. Where do we stand between chaos and order? Between traditional and emergent? Liminal, by definition, is “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.”[3] Churches (meaning local congregations) are truly “caught in the middle”[4] and pastors and lay leaders must lead through this time of transition.

The question for pastors of congregations stuck in old responses, confused by the complexity in a rapidly changing environment and unable to navigate the fluid currents of contemporary society as stated by Hjalmarson is “How do we walk with God into a new future – an unknown place?[5] In response he suggests four consistent principles in dealing with complexity: 1) In complexity and chaos, there is constant change, or discontinuous change.”[6] Seeking equilibrium or stability is a “precursor to death;” 2) Unstable conditions, chaos, evokes innovation and fresh solution; 3) The emergence of “new forms and possibilities” is the natural outcome of living systems; 4) The path to the future is not linear but desired outcomes can be obtained. Hjalmarson suggests further that to achieve leadership complexity, we must become navigators. The old road maps are no longer accurate and those who would walk in faith with God into the future must have the skills and courage to navigate through complex terrains where there are no fixed points, past experiences, or artifacts that point the way.

Mark Branson and Jaun Martinez articulate a similar question in their book, Churches, Culture, and Leadership, “…   what kind of leadership is needed to help shape churches in the midst of significant cultural changes and ethnic diversity?”[7]They characterize the process necessary to adapt to change and transition as four succinct requirements:

  1. The church will be required to move toward a future it cannot see.
  2. The church must become something different.
  3. The requirement to learn things it does not know and
  4. There must be innovation beyond the current imagination.[8]

The authors offer guidance to congregations as they suggest three essential spheres of leadership: interpretative, relational and implemental.

Interpretive leadership shapes a leadership team and a whole congregation to pay attention to and interpret texts and contexts, all in service of attending to and being responsive to God’s initiatives. Relational leadership focuses on human connections and synergism toward an embodiment of gospel reconciliation and love. Implemental leadership guides, reforms and initiates activities and structures so that the church embodies the gospel.[9]

An essential aspect of change leadership is to understand the concepts of technical and adaptive change and the leadership traits for each. Although our readings touched on technical and adaptive leadership, a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this reflection paper. One of my favorite authors on the subject is Ronald A. Heifetz.[10] An introduction to Heifetz can be found on The Harvard Kennedy School of Government faculty profile page:  “Heifetz developed the groundbreaking model of leadership called Adaptive Leadership.  His research focuses on the challenge of building the adaptive capacity of organizations and societies” (see website). A very substantive and succinct presentation can be found at website and an excellent presentation on complexity and adaptability at website.

Hjalmarson refers to our response when we “hit the wall?” I recall an occasion when our son was running a regional crops-country race. All the hard work of training and the local meets were on the line; there was a specific, clear line for those who would proceed to the next level of competition. Cross-county is a unique sport where the participants might disappear over the hill or into the forest and the fans might only catch a glimpse of the runners along the way. I knew how important this particular race was in leading up to the regionals and the chance to advance to state completion. As I awaited his appearance at the finish, I knew he was not doing as well as anticipated. Late into the night, I slipped into his bedroom just thinking to silently pray; he was awake. Surprised, I mumbled something about the race and his failure to make his goal. After a couple moments of silence, he responded, “Dad, I didn’t lose the race today. Out in the middle of the course, I came up against a wall and I ran through it. I won today.”

[1] Len Hjalmarson, “Broken Futures – Adaptive Challenge and the Church in Transition” (George Fox Evangelical Seminary), accessed June 1, 2015, available at this web-link.

[2] Len Hjalmarson, “Leadership in the Chaordic Age”, 2013. Accessed June 1, 2015. http://nextreformation.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Leadership_in_Chaordic_Age.pdf

[3] Mirriam-Webster Multi-Reference Dictionary.

[4] See for example, Rolland Daniels, Church in the Middle: Stepping Outside the Building to Reach the World of Tomorrow (Anderson, IN: Warner Press, 2014).

[5] Hjalmarson, Broken Futures, 6, emphasis original.

[6] For definition on discontinuous change see Alan Roxburgh, The Sky Is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition (Eagle, ID: ACI Publishing, 2005), 29; also on the “five stages of change,” see 53-77.

[7] Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez, Churches, Cultures and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities Kindle ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 2249.

[8] Ibid., 2371-2372.

[9] Ibid., 2265-2267, emphases mine.

[10] See for example:  Leadership Without Easy Answers; Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (co-author Marty Linsky); The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World (co-authors, Linsky and Alexander Grashow); and “The Work of Leadership” Harvard Business Review December, 2009, 131-140.

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4 responses to “Hitting the Wall: Turn Back or Run Through”

  1. John Woodward says:

    Ron, you have again written an insightful and interesting post. I appreciate so much your passion for leadership and your application of leadership to the church. It is amazing that we are only coming into this concept of adaptive and charordic leadership, as one would think that leaders have needed these skills sense the beginning of time. Maybe it is the quickly changing times we face that this form of leadership is needed more than ever. Your church sounds like churches I’ve been in. I have to wonder, do you see such smaller and entrenched kind of churches being able at some point to move into uncertainty, adaptability, and begin to be aware of their context? Or, must such church ultimately die a slow death? (Too many I’ve seen have slowly sunk without any survivors!) Is there any hope for these older churches? Curious to know your thoughts!

    Thanks Ron!

  2. Ron,
    When I read your posts I think (each and every time) that you are one who embodies what you write. When many seek to remain stable or desire to forge a higher wall, you seem to be one that is venturing into new learning on behalf of others. We read about “presence” this week and you bring that in your learning and to those you are learning “for.”

    Your son realized what the real victory was, perhaps that is something for the church to realize as well. Can we look at how we face the obstacles rather than the final destination as something that will honor God?

    Thank you Ron for your good work!

  3. Ashley says:

    Ron! I loved how you concluded your blog. “I hit the wall and I ran through it!” Amen! I can’t tell you how often in ministry I felt I have hit the wall… And as I read through these articles I really began to understand… When we try to do everything ourselves, when we fail to seek the assistance of others, or worse yet, when we fail to teach and train others how to do what we do, we, ourselves, are destined to fail. If we have others to rely upon, others who are seeking the same goal, when we come upon the wall, we can hurdle over it as a team. My biggest fear coming into my current ministry position was … what if I fall off a curb? Will the partnerships we have begun to create all over the globe cease to exist? These people in these places are so important to me and have quickly become my family. Will they continue even if I am gone? Once I asked myself that question, I knew how important it would be to have many others involved. And because of that buy-in, I believe interest and excitement to go and experience God in new ways has grown quickly! It’s overcoming these walls that is so hard. Much like teaching old dogs new tricks. But it can be done, right?

    I love how you are living out your learning, Ron. I am learning so much from you!

  4. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Ron, Thanks for sharing your insights! I appreciate how you related the reading to your church’s life. I agree with you, “the challenge for the church today is to be courageous in the face of change.” When the church fails to embrace change they message become irrelevant. I admire you for recognizing your church’s challenge and willingness to walk by faith into a new future.

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