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

Not Going Meta Today…Maybe Tomorrow!

Written by: on February 15, 2024

“Every wicked problem is a discrepancy between a present state, and a future, more desirable state.”[1]

So Wicked

This week’s reading could not have been more timely for me. I faced the most wicked problem that I could have imagined. In my role as Interim CEO, I have been tasked with making leadership decisions that impact the organization, the staff, and the community. I felt the weight of the position in a tremendous way this week. Yesterday I faced a difficult decision. I had to execute a plan that was gut-wrenching, and I had no other reasonable choice but to move forward. I had to inform a staff that has been with the organization for less than a year that the program that they work under was being immediately terminated. The decision was completely out of my control, and I knew that it would negatively impact the lives of these ladies and their families. There was no error, no failure to meet deliverables, no conflict that preempted this decision. The sole private donor made the decision, and it needed to be done immediately as funding was cut off and the remaining funds were to be returned. In my 30 years of leadership in the non-profit sector, this was not something that I had ever encountered. I looked across the table at 11 women and delivered life altering news and I felt awful. It was difficult to digest that the words coming out of my mouth would potentially negatively affect their households in the immediate future. If I am being completely transparent, I am still really emotional about it as I type this blog. I did not want to be the messenger of unpleasant news, but it was my job. It is the job of a leader to do the hard, difficult things. It is the job of a leader to work through wicked problems. And perhaps laying off staff is seen as a function of business. Although unpleasant, it is not unheard of that leaders in the non-profit and for-profit landscape face the decision to potentially reduce the workforce at some point in their careers. It is the circumstances that differ from organization to organization. In this instance, I could not have anticipated a more perfect storm of events. I am serving in an Interim role, the staff were employed for less than a year, the donor changed his mind, the organization expanded before my tenure to accommodate this program, a really important program will end, the organization in its 4th search for a CEO and fundraising must continue at an escalated pace. All of these realities were weighing on me.  I balanced all of these realities as I entered the room with the eleven ladies, and I attempted to hold the tension of knowing that it needed to be done and not wanting to do it. There are two statements that resonated with me as I prepared for my meeting:

  1. “Every wicked problem is one that has never been seen before, so the value of previous knowledge or experience is limited- there is little generalizing from previous efforts on other problems.”[2], and
  2. “Every wicked problem should be considered a symptom of another problem. One wicked problem inevitably leads to or us implicated in at least one equally wicked problem.”[3]

The biggest “ah ha” moment for me was that wicked problems have no real solutions; they are meant to be worked through but not completely solved. This was a hard realization for me as I determined that I am in the midst of a wicked problem that I will not be able to solve, nor should I expect to solve. As an admitted Problem Solver, this is a foreign concept for me. It was also obvious that the layoffs were not a solution to any problem but a temporary step towards identifying the next steps in the process. I am truly in the throws of a wicked problem. As Bentley and Toth state, “Thus, wicked problems present us with real predicaments. They are confusing, dynamic, ill-structured, and ambiguous; they are complex, many-faceted, intricate, and bewildering. They have no solutions, only temporary arrangements.”[4] I feel like I am in the midst of a real predicament, one that is both complex and multi-faceted. I am grasping for a way forward that honors the work that has been done and also points towards a less rocky path forward.


Going Meta

Do I have the ability to “Go Meta”? I ask myself after an absolutely mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting week, can I actually do it? The thought of going meta is exciting and maybe even a little inspiring, but in this season is it realistic. “Going meta means getting better at thinking, talking, and reasoning, and at almost any other activity: making decisions, persuading others, leading a meeting, praising colleagues, disciplining children, giving feedback, composing an essay, or writing a report.”[5] The thought of improving at any aspect of my work seems unattainable today. Yet this has to be the goal. To improve, grow, expand, and lead with compassion must be the goal. Tomorrow…perhaps, I can do better! Please keep me in your prayers, Loved Ones.

[1] Joseph Bentley and Michael Toth, Exploring Wicked Problems: What They Are and Why They Are Important (Bloomington, IN, Illinois: Archway Publishing, 2020), 22.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 41.

About the Author


Jonita Fair-Payton

12 responses to “Not Going Meta Today…Maybe Tomorrow!”

  1. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Jonita,
    Yesterday was quite a day for you as a leader. Having to do a hard and necessary thing with such compassion is a heavy burden and you are wise to take some time for yourself. There was little mention in the book about how to take care of ourselves when tackling wicked problems. I would have welcomed a chapter on self-care. The authors did briefly mention Martin Seligman and his flourishing model PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment as aspects of flourishing. (pp. 165-166) What do you think leaders need to move through challenging days in terms of self-care and finding a place of flourishing? You are in my prayers, my friend!

    • mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:


      I think that self-care can be deceptive at times. I have found that my normal self-care routine failed me this week. There was simply not time for me to take a moment and listen to what my body needed. The closest that I came to taking a moment to focus, was praying in the car before the lay-offs. My prayers were for me to have a compassionate, clear communications but a great deal of my time praying was focused on the 11 ladies. I asked God to bring them comfort and provide a clear path to what is next for them. I prayed for provision and comfort.

      I am still struggling to find the care that I need in the wake of the week that I have had. I think that it will take time.

  2. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Jonita,
    My brain has been in a fog lately and after reading your blog I begin to see the light dawning.

    Wicked problems.

    I suddenly realized that I have been stymied by a “wicked problem” in Ukraine. It has drawn my focus away from school.

    Prayers for your team.


    • mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:


      Understanding “Wicked Problems” was truly eye opening for me. Thank you for your prayers.

    • mm Russell Chun says:

      I suppose the idea of “Unsolvable wicked problems” takes the pressure off of us to come up with immediate solutions. While some of us are willing to throw up our hands and walk away. The vast majority of our cohort will undoubtedly put their continue to push on to solutions that will expand the kingdom.

      Still it is nice to give us some breathing space.


  3. Travis Vaughn says:

    Thank you for providing a present and extremely difficult (and unfortunately painful) problem — one that you are having to tread through right now — in your current context. This is quite the illustration of a wicked problem. I’m sorry, Jonita. And yes, I will indeed pray for you right now, and tomorrow during morning prayer. I have a couple of questions — As you think about your role and the competencies that you are stewarding right now as interim CEO, how would you frame the piece of the problem that you can best address? Second, at some point (doesn’t have to be now), I’d love to learn more about what you have learned as a leader in this experience and how you would encourage another leader to plan for a problem like this.

    • mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:


      I think that a piece of the problem that I can best address is making sure that the commitments that we made to the 11 former staff members are honored. I also believe that I have to make sure that the remaining staff feel supported and feel secure as we select a permanent CEO. Lastly, I intend to hand over an organization that is as healthy financially and culturally as it can be. I want to new CEO to have to opportunity to start from a solid place.

      I’d love to talk more about this with you at some point. I believe that there are a lot of parallels to our work.

  4. Kally Elliott says:

    Jonita, I am so sorry you had to be the bearer of this terrible news to these women. I know that took a huge toll on you. Our church has also had to lay off some staff that have been loyal to our congregation for many years. I saw the toll it took on our lead pastor to do this – and I’ve witnessed and experienced the toll it took on our staff. It is so hard. Even if you think you aren’t going “meta” right now – simply processing your way through this awful wicked problem, is going to make you stronger, more empathetic, wiser, all the things. You are a wonderful leader Jonita, wise, kind, compassionate, strong. Praying for you through this.

    • mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:


      Thank you for your kind comments. Lay-off’s are so hard…on everyone. I so appreciate your perspective on seeing my processing as going meta. You have a brilliant mind and a caring heart…I am grateful for you.

  5. Oohhh, my Jana! Ohhh! I am sooooo sorry you had the week you had. After reading your post I paused to pray for you, your organization, and those 11 former workers. My two questions are:
    1. How much sleep are you getting?
    2. How are you doing emotionally?

    • mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:

      Thank you for praying for the ladies and for me. I wish that I could reach out to them, but we are advised not to do it.

      1) I am not sleeping well
      2) I am emotionally spent

      My heart is heavy, and I am physically tired…not a good combination.

  6. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Oh Jonita! What a rough interim position you are having! Sometimes, it’s the interim who can really speak into an organization and get a trajectory going for the next person. May this season have many gifts for you, even if they can’t be seen right now, hopefully one day you’ll see them!

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