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

Three Conversations, One Wicked Problem

Written by: on February 12, 2024

In the course of four weeks, I had three conversations with three pastor-types that revolved around a common issue, yet with three different perspectives. The issue involves a crisis of leadership (e.g., pastoral and church planting leadership). It’s a wicked problem – “complex, messy, and unpredictable.”[1] It’s a problem that involves “ill-defined, ambiguous, complicated, interconnected situations packed with potential conflict.”[2] The leadership challenges our denomination – heck, maybe every denomination and non-denominational denomination – faces feels more wicked than tame, especially considering the tame-wicked examples highlighted in Exploring Wicked Problems, written by Joseph Bentley and Michael Toth (quoting Keith Grint):

“A Tame problem is ‘winning’ the war in Iraq; a Wicked problem is securing a just and lasting peace in Iraq. A Tame problem is heart surgery; a Wicked problem is providing unlimited health services to all who need them on the basis of limited resources.”[3]

Our tribe is grappling with some big challenges – challenges that include pastoral development, education, church planters, resiliency, healthy communication, trust, unstated allegiances, burnout, and more. Seems wicked. Not tame.

I’ll start with the most recent conversation first and work my way backwards…

January 12

I’m writing this post on January 20, so this particular conversation is quite fresh. The conversation, conducted via Zoom, was with a denominational representative in my particular tribe. We discussed several things on the call, but the main thing we talked about revolved around leadership. The current perceived reality, at least in our small piece of the Evangelical pie, is that we are dealing with a major leadership shortage. Our church planting pipelines are not what they once were, everyone is pursuing the same candidates, and recruiting has stalled. Anecdotally speaking, seminaries are not churning out pastors (or planters) like they once did. Instead, seminarians are electing to pursue alternatives to the traditional “I’m-pursuing-the-MDiv-in-preparation-to-become-an-eventual-senior-pastor” track. We discussed a challenge that seems, at least today, insurmountable and demands a longer discussion. If this were a tame problem, it would mean merely closing the gaps with our recruiting efforts, landing and placing the right candidate in the right church or right community. Problem solved. With tame problems, “there are answers and solutions to be discovered.”[4] But this isn’t a tame problem.

January 4

In the first week of 2024, I had breakfast with a dear friend and lead pastor. That conversation was different from the January 12 meeting (in fact, we talked a bit about Yascha Mounk’s book The Identity Trap), but the problems we chatted about were similar to the conversation I was about to have the following week. Leadership issues. Some in our circles believe that we could face a brain drain in our tribe for our failure to address some of the things that seem to be staring us in the face. How we address these issues (alas, how we already have and have NOT addressed some of these issues), collectively and in the various “camps” embedded in our denomination, may affect a potentially factious future. At present, the cracks are showing. Without quoting statistics or digging into research in a way that would make Chivers and Chivers[5] proud, we deferred to anecdotes and (likely) our own biases in trying to frame the problem. However, we did not offer many (any?) solutions. Well, I’ll take that back. Now that I think of it, my friend DID offer a solution, but that solution could, at best, like any wicked problem, “be considered a symptom of another problem.”[6]

December 13

Before the conversation on January 4th, I had already agreed (on Dec. 13) to be the February  13 speaker for an interdenominational 501c3 organization in Atlanta. I referenced this in a prior post.[7] By the time this blog post drops, unless there are unforeseen obstacles ahead, I will have given my talk. Based on conversations I had with the executive director (E.D.) in the fall, I knew my topic would address a leadership issue or two, but I wasn’t sure which angle to take. Eventually, I developed my presentation based on the answer the E.D. gave me when I asked him about the current challenges that the pastors, church planters, and ministry leaders face in the room. Like the first and second conversations I referenced above, the E.D.’s answer came down to leadership issues. More specifically, the issues were around resiliency and an unwillingness to lead and make hard decisions. The title of my presentation is “Tribalism, Weak Ties, and The Leaders We Need Now.” I know, the content I synthesized will not likely move the needle. After all, no solution ultimately solves a wicked problem, once and for all time.[8] Though I’m making a recommendation or two to the group, wicked problems tend to eat solutions for lunch, including mine. Bentley and Toth write, “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 final solutions, only temporary arrangements. Yet most of the important problems we face in our lives are wicked rather than tame. As parents, leaders, managers, colleagues, spouses, and friends, we have no real choice except to face up to them and do our best.”[9]  However, I do hope to leave the attendees with a couple of questions they can wrestle with. And now with the help of Bentley and Toth, these questions could include the following:

“1. What manageable part of this chaotic and confusing situation do I really care about? 2. Based on what I have to offer, can I define it in a way that enables me to make it better.”[10]

The problem of leadership is wicked. There’s no silver bullet, and anyone offering one is pushing snake oil. The authors believe such problems “define the human condition.”[11]

Which reminds me of the timeless wisdom shared by Westley, aka the “Dread Pirate Roberts” in The Princess Bride:

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”[12]



[1] Joseph Bentley and Michael Toth, Exploring Wicked Problems: What They Are and Why They Are Important. Bloomington, IN: Archway Publishing, 2020, Kindle version, page 9 of 206.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid., 20. Bentley and Toth quote Keith Grint, Leadership: Limits and Possibilities. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2005, 9.

[4] Bentley and Toth, 174.

[5] Chivers, David, and Chivers, Tom. How to Read Numbers. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2021.

[6] Ibid., 32. .

[7] See https://blogs.georgefox.edu/dlgp/theoretical-leadersmiths-differentiated-practitioners-and-eco-steward-leaders/

[8] Bentley and Toth, 32.

[9] Ibid., 34.

[10] Ibid., 186.

[11] Bentley and Toth, 9.

[12] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS_f6O8mWsk.

About the Author

Travis Vaughn

11 responses to “Three Conversations, One Wicked Problem”

  1. mm Tim Clark says:

    Travis, great stuff. You could have been writing about my denomination (and I’m assuming many more). This problem of leadership pipeline and fracture is not limited to some of us but all of us, so I imagine that the problem really is “wicked” and is cultural and systemic along with tribal.

    These are things that keep me up at night concerning our church family, so I loved the questions you pose at the end:

    “1. What manageable part of this chaotic and confusing situation do I really care about? 2. Based on what I have to offer, can I define it in a way that enables me to make it better.”

    This is helpful for me to frame how I will choose to get involved rather than just complain about the solution or simply tilt at windmills.

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Tim, I agree that this is a problem beyond a single denomination. The piece that I continue to wrestle with is the part of advancing a solution that I can own, or at least address with the help of others. I want to keep reframing this problem, which leads to a question — With the leadership challenges we are talking about, and with your role/office as a pastor in your particular tribe, and given your background and expertise, “based on what (you) have to offer, (how would you) define it in a way that enables (you) to make it better”?

  2. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Really nice application of this content into your current role. I was interested to read your post because I have heard you reference the book a few times in other discussions.

    I like your questions because they ask the listener to own a part of the issue. Sometimes, that small bit can feel insignificant, but can be the beginning of a significant shift. I am curious if, after they have identified their piece of the puzzle, you considered also asking them about who they can partner with to move the needle?

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Jen, I wish that I would have read your response to my post before I presented on Tuesday. Had I read your response, I would have added your question (“who they can partner with to move the needle”) to my conclusion. After all, the wicked problem(s) attached to current leadership challenges require a collaborative response.

      I did bring up the book, Exploring Wicked Problems, to the group of pastors and ministry leaders on Tuesday and asked them to discuss a wicked problem that their particular church or denominational tribe is trying to address. The book certainly helped provide some language to integrate into the talk, and I would imagine I’ll refer to it again, soon.

  3. mm John Fehlen says:

    I’m with Tim Clark in my reply (because we are both a part of the same denominational family)…you could have literally ripped a page out of our current situation…and it’s been our situation for quite a long time.

    At 52 years old now, and having been a Foursquare pastor since the age of 21, I have now seen multiple variations of the same problems. I can recall sitting in denominational rooms in my late 20’s/early 30’s working on a “wicked problem” only to do so again in my late 40’s/early 50’s. Same problems, most of which have been kicked down the curb, or, as I now know, just never went away (ie: fixed) but instead were managed for the time being.

    Jenn asked me if this causes “anger” – and after some deeper thought, I had to admit that YES, it does. I find myself getting angry, because I don’t see an end to it. I don’t see many of these problems getting solved.

    So, as I wrote in my post, I just keep trying to lean into Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

    Jesus help us!

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      John, what part of this / these problem(s) do you believe you are better positioned or able to own (or maybe WANT to own?), perhaps age 52 – 62 rather than 32 – 42? I, too, am now 52, and narrowing in on that piece is what I wrestle with regularly, as I do want to be a part of advancing a partial solution forward, and so this is what I am processing more and more, especially now and especially during this doctoral program.

  4. Jenny Dooley says:

    I just want to say how much I appreciate that you are having these conversations with pastors. The wicked problem you are describing in terms of pastoral leadership and church-planting are pertinent in my context as well. What are you hearing in terms of burdens and needs for the individual pastor who may feel he or she is standing alone and the burdens of leadership and church-planting are too great?

    • Travis Vaughn says:

      Thanks, Jenny, and great question. I think one of the bigger needs, based on conversations like the ones I have had recently, is help with making difficult decisions and leading or pastoring through tough situations. Resiliency continues to be a huge issue, and some of the ways of approaching the need in the past aren’t working at present. I think loneliness has always been an issue in pastoral ministry, and I also think this is a wicked problem that doesn’t have a simple one-size-fits-all strategy, even though one can address potential underlying causes.

      • Jenny Dooley says:

        Hi Travis, Thank you for this response. You highlighted for me four important needs to track with the pastors I work with as I continue to form my NPO project:
        1. Support for making difficult decisions
        2. Support when shepherding under challenging situations
        3. Developing resilience
        4. Addressing loneliness
        All of these concerns came out in one form or another during my workshops. Your observations here are very confirming. I am also really enjoying our next book, Rare Leadership, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on it next week!

  5. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I can’t decide if reading about wicked problems (both the book and all my cohorts’ blog posts) is reassuring or depressing; ultimately I suppose it’s a little bit of both. Your post reminded me again that these problems are not really solvable but we can hope to move the needle, as you said. I certainly feel that deeply as I’m spending more and more time on my NPO and developing a new ministry to parents. I think I’ll steal your approach and plan to give my audience with a couple of questions to wrestle with:
    “1. What manageable part of this chaotic and confusing situation do I really care about?
    2. Based on what I have to offer, can I define it in a way that enables me to make it better?”
    And Jen’s “who can I partner with?” is really valuable as well!
    And finally, nicely done working the Princess Bride into your post.

  6. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Nice, Princess Bride, my favorite! It’s almost like trying to fix wicked problems is climbing the Cliffs of Insanity!

    What part, for you, in these 3 conversations do you really care about? How do you find grounding in the midst of chaos?

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