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

The Key to Thriving is Adaptation

Written by: on May 4, 2019

Zemke earned a PhD in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University, with a focus on enacting congregational change.[1] She also serves as a Project Faculty member for Portland Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry Leadership and Global Perspectives track. Of all our assigned readings, this is the first opportunity where I have met and interacted with the author. I met Zemke the first night all of the LGP cohorts were together at our Hong Kong advance this past September. We were seated at the same table, and she engaged me on my prospective research topic. Since I am interested in developing pastors’ adaptive leadership skills, she remarked I should certainly look into Ronald Heifetz’ work.

Heifetz defines adaptive leadership as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” For Heifetz, thriving comes from evolutionary biology by defining three key characteristics for successful adaptation. First, thriving preserves the DNA necessary for the species ongoing survival. Second, thriving discards or rearranges DNA that no longer serves the current needs of the species. Finally, thriving creates DNA arrangements that provide the species the ability to flourish in different ways within its current challenging environment.[2]

Zemke draws on Heifetz’s work and adapts it to a congregational context. She breaks down problems as technical, hybrid, and adaptive. Congregational technical problems are easy to understand and easy to understand the resolution. These problems are straightforward and cause little conflict within the congregation unless available funds are deficient or the leadership is functioning very poorly. An example of this type of congregational problem is the repair of an air conditioning unit or boiler. Hybrid problems are more complex because the problem can be easily understood, but the solution is much less clear.[3] An example of this type of congregational problem is more staffing for the nursery. While ratios of adults to children are easily understood, how does one resolve the staffing issue? Do we hire more staff? Do we challenge more adult volunteers? Do we reduce available childcare and require parents to supervise their children during public services? Here we are beginning to see how different perspectives may arise as to resolving the issue and inherently the possibility of conflict within the congregation.

Because I am drawn to adaptive leadership issues for my research, we will look at adaptive problems separately. They tend to be the most difficult to address because by their very nature they are the most difficult to precisely understand the nature of the problem. That is, they typically generate perspectives that provide hasty, simplistic statements of the problem along with hasty, simplistic attendant solutions. This scenario can take place within the congregation even with the input of alleged outside experts. Problematically, outside expertise is much less helpful to the congregation as this kind of problem, and its resolution resides completely within the congregation. Zemke emphasizes, “In adaptive problems, you must develop a new identity and learn to live with different constraints.” To Zemke’s point, the development of a new identity for a congregation alone is fraught with a multitude of different perspectives with a multitude of potential internal congregational conflicts. One can see this easily when looking at the classic example of an adaptive challenge for the congregation when it finds itself in decline.[4]

My fascination with the development of adaptive leadership skills is fueled by the complex challenges of pastoring local congregations in general and planting new churches in particular. The Multiply Vineyard resource arm of our movement has determined that the number one reason church plants fail and close is because of the inability of the church plant leadership to adapt and flex to the new realities they were experiencing within their context. Justin Moxley of Stadia Church Planting refers to the certainty of this strategic setback in the timeline of the church plant (initially, typically within 3-6 months of the start of the plant) as the Mike Tyson effect (that is, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”) That is, much time and effort may have been prayed over and poured into goals and models. However, “the rubber meets the road” when reality deviates significantly from what the leadership team anticipated or projected was going to happen.

The loss experienced with the closure of the church plant pales in comparison to the too often loss of the church planters. The real tragedy is when passionate, gifted, entrepreneurial pastoral leadership is needlessly lost are diminished due to the understandable impact of closing a church. There needs to be a focused recovery of this impacted church planter leadership by church planting movements like the Vineyard. However, that is a need that I may seek to address someday in the future. For now, my research mission is to provide robust coaching networks that will help church planters develop adaptive leadership skills. Church planters will then be trained to proactively flex and adapt their fledgling congregation to the demands of their dynamic context.

[1] Zemke, Diane, Being Smart about Congregational Change (Lexington, KY: 2014) back cover.

[2] Heifetz, Ronald, Alexander Grashow, and Mary Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2009) 14.

[3] Zemke, Being Smart about Congregational Change, 49-50.

[4] Zemke, Being Smart about Congregational Change, 51.

About the Author

Harry Fritzenschaft

Harry is the Coordinator of Coaching for Multiply Vineyard (the church planting resource arm for Vineyard USA) and part-time pastor of business administration for the Vineyard Church of Houston. He is a certified coach with the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and is pursuing a DMin in Leadership and Global Perspective with a focus on internal coaching networks. Harry has been married to Gloria for almost forty-two years and has two grown children; Michelle, who is married to Brandon and has two sons (Caleb and Judah), and Mark, who is engaged to Cannus. He loves making new friends (living and dead) from different perspectives, watching college football with Mark, and helping global ministry leaders (especially church planters and pastors) accomplish their goals in fulfilling their call. He especially loves learning about and nurturing internal coaching networks.

6 responses to “The Key to Thriving is Adaptation”

  1. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Hey Harry, a great reflection on the book. Like you, I think adaptive leadership is really important. One of the reasons is that when pastors move to different contexts the contexts are often very different but in subtle ways. What worked in one place doesn’t work elsewhere, and likewise, the person you needed to be one context may be quite different in the next community. This is especially true of church planters. In New Zealand, more church plants fail than succeed by a wide margin, and it’s often non-adaptive leadership that causes the problem. Unfortunately, those leaders are good people who often get unnecessarily burned in the process.
    In terms of transitioning historic churches, one of the things that never seems to get emphasised in these sorts of books is just how dysfunctional many churches are. A few sociopaths on the leadership and a church community unbalanced with mental health issues and the styles of leadership often portrayed in books is nigh impossible. Perhaps the most common dysfunction I’ve come across in church life is what I refer to as “comfortable decay”: churches are often at their happiest in slow decline. These situations require an adaptation of style and personality that most leaders find difficult and consequently resist. It’s an interesting thought that all leaders can learn to lead in their own personality shadow, rather than assuming they have only one way of being. I’m sure your research and thinking will make a big difference in training pastors.

  2. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thanks so much for your insightful reflections. In striving to renew existing churches I was struck by your statement, “A few sociopaths on the leadership and a church community unbalanced with mental health issues and the styles of leadership often portrayed in books is nigh impossible.” Spoken as a wise pastor and practioner. Unfortunately you are so very right, as my two “replant” experiences reflected your observation. I think I am so drawn to adaptive leadership because I see it at both the micro (individual church) and macro (the entire lifespan of one’s ministry) levels. Brene Brown”s “learning to rise” is so crucial for pastors in general and church planters in particular because setbacks, even failures, will come. How can we prepare pastors to respond both on the micro and macro level in life-giving redemptive ways? I appreciate your wisdom and your academic skills. You inspire me to keep learning. Many blessings!

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great write up, really enjoyed the focus on adaptive leadership. At one point in my life I thought I was going to be a church planter and then I smarted up 🙂 kindling, but it is a very hard calling as they all are. One thing as an entrepreneur (speaking of myself) I had to come to learn that failure is part of the process. I wonder when it comes to church planting if we even have this as in option. Not failure as in moral failure but if we know in part then maybe sometimes we missed God and need to learn that sometimes that is ok. I hope this makes sense, thoughts?

  4. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Your entrepreneurial skill set would have helped you immensely as a church planter! I think you are right, setback or failure is not discussed as a stated possibility for church planters. This is why I think Brene Brown’s focus on learning to rise is such an essential upfront skill for ministry entrepreneurs such as yourself!

  5. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Thanks, Harry. Your research and work with The Vineyard is so important. Our supervisors are all wrestling with the same issues. Gratefully we have had a significant increase in church planting success percentages mainly because we have slowed the process down, focused more on the health of the planter and his/her family, and missional contextualization rather than methodology. I also believe some of the shift has to be in the overall motivation for church planting and the emphasis being on making disciples rather than building an organization. Some of us let church planting become a franchising endeavor rather than an organizational outcome out of necessity because of the growth in the number of being people being discipled but that is another topic for consideration.

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    I love your passion for the Foursquare Church and your compassion for pastors and those that supervise them. I applaud you and Foursquare Church leadership for refocusing on church planter(s) health and missional contextualization of the church plant. You inspire me to grow in connection and friendship across this wonderful Church that we all love and are called to serve. Thank you for teaching me and inspiring me to grow and learn more!

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