If I could open up a window into our church’s leadership meetings you would find that much of what we discuss, wrestle with, and act upon is about who we are, where we’re going, and how we get there. Without diving too deeply into our weeds, we’ve found ourselves continually having to rediscover our identity, clarify our mission, and unpack our willingness to act upon it.
I compare the status of our church to an anonymous quote: “The safest place for ships is in the harbor but that’s not why ships were built.” As leaders we’ve found that we were at the helm of a ship that had spent much of its time in the proverbial harbor—an occasional jaunt along the coastline of “mission,” but nothing too risky. It’s as though we had become stuck in the harbor (perhaps too strongly stated); we’re a risk-averse community. Edwin Friedman may be speaking to one of the fundamental reasons we’re often stuck when he writes: “Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking process must happen first.”
“Stuck,” “Risk-averse,” “imaginatively grid-locked,”—some of the words Friedman uses describe well where our church and the majority of evangelical churches find themselves. “Plateaued” is a word often used for such churches, and crude because its focus is on numeric growth. But in reality, it’s a holistic issue, an issue that must include numeric growth but also emotional processes, spiritual health, and especially leadership. The problem with leadership (and yes I’m pointing at myself) is that we’re in the thick of it. Friedman rightly argues, “In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.” So to lead our church we have to “separate ourselves from the emotional processes”—easier said than done. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. When the church is hurting, I’m hurting; I feel the ups and downs deeply which negatively impacts my leadership. Thankfully, I don’t lead alone.
For example, inspired by our recent read of “Good to great,” I decided to ask some brutally honest questions of my fellow Elders. In the last couple years we’d seen the loss of several community groups but a corresponding rise of “equipping” classes. I wanted to know why the community groups died off. Why are equipping opportunities more popular? Some reasons were obvious: popular equipping classes met felt needs, didn’t require long term commitments (from the participants or the leaders), provided an easy measure of fellowship, and were generally flexible in venue and timing. As we went deeper into the issue, I began to feel unsettled. I recognized my part in emphasizing various spiritual formation classes/seminars corresponded with the decline of community groups—community is something I had always been passionate about—so what happened? Some of this may be related to our passions and gifts as leaders!
During this past year or so we’ve also been wrestling with our approach to outreach; at my encouragement we’re preparing to offer Alpha groups as a program of the church. As I was asking “why have the community groups died off?” one of our Elders said the question needed to be reframed. He intuitively knew what Friedman points out: “In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response.” As the Elder kindly probed further, I recognized the issue wasn’t the relative strength and/or weakness of our community groups or equipping classes—a better question would have been “Why have my passions and vision shifted from traditional shepherding and teaching in favor of evangelism and movement of our people as ministers of the gospel?”
Friedman says “Innovations are new answers to old questions; paradigm shifts reframe the question.” I appreciate my Elders who helped me reframe the question. It’s not about community groups vs. equipping classes. It’s about having the courage and taking the risk to sail this ship out of the harbor. It’s not the either/or thinking of “community” vs. “equipping” vs. “outreach.” It’s about the either/and thinking: it’s the faith that allows me to admit my personal limitations and simultaneously trust God who can transcend our limitations. He can show us how we do all three.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: SEABURY BOOKS, 2007), 29.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 31.
 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap–and Others Don’t (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001), 80-87.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: SEABURY BOOKS, 2007), 37.