Reading Diane Zemke’s text, Being SMART about Congregational Change has me in knots. Part of me wishes I would have read this a year ago, and part of me feels its timeliness in the present. The idea of change is something that is at the same time exciting and anxiety producing. As Zemke says multiple times in her text, change will take much emotional energy and time. When I think of the systems in both my local church, the denomination, and larger tradition of which I am a part, I recognize the need for deep change and change agents. But, more than all of this is a need for strategy. Change that will last and do more good than harm requires an intelligent and purposeful process.
When beginning to peruse Being SMART about Congregational Change, the reader will find the text is well laid out, building from one topic to the next, with review and reflective application at the end of each chapter. Starting with the wider congregation, then honing in on change itself, and finally narrowing to those who are enacting change, the book covers multiple layers toward producing healthy change in a congregation or denomination. In addition, Zemke’s guide book gets straight to the issues so practitioners can assess their situation, pick up the tools for the task, and begin applying. One limitation is that of a narrative or case study throughout the text. Though many examples of possible contextual possibilities are cited, a more in-depth look at addressing change in one of the three primary contexts is not presented.
While several aspects of the book could be highlighted, I will focus on three that had particular relevance: bridge building, adaptive problems, and self-care.
I have been using the phrase “historical future” lately. My thought has been that we in the Wesleyan Tradition need to move into our historical future with regard to equity in the church for women and people of color. When I read Zemke’s conclusion I realized she was naming a metaphor that captures the idea of a historical future. Zemke concludes her text on what it means to be smart using the imagery of bridge building within congregations. She states, “One side of this bridge is anchored in the future you are trying to reach. The other side of the bridge is anchored in the past. In the present, people are walking on the bridge as you build it.” One side of the bridge in the Wesleyan tradition is a history of inclusivity through being forerunners in the abolitionist movement. The other side is the future, where we actually look like the diverse group that we are theologically prepared to be. Today, in the middle, we are discovering the reasons why we are not actively living into our historical and prophetic voice and working toward change as our culture around us increasingly shifts and adapts to an ever-diversifying world.
When thinking about the bridge being built and the needed change in the Wesleyan Tradition, Zemke’s variety of change types come to mind. While some of our changes are indeed technical and others are hybrid problems, the major focus of lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Wesleyan Tradition centers around adaptive problems. “In adaptive problems it’s hard to understand exactly what the problem is and it’s also difficult to generate possible solutions.” Adaptive problems center around identity and values, affecting the entire system or organization. When considering the theology and practice of the Wesleyan Tradition, our identity and values do not match our action, particularly when it comes to diversifying our systems.
Zemke’s five steps toward addressing adaptive change are necessary to consider toward transforming the present into our historical future, so we may cross the bridge to a diverse and equitable reality. For reference toward working on the problem further, they are:
- Reflect on the nature of the problem. Many questions are addressed here, such as “What values are involved? Will solutions affect the entire congregation in significant ways? Who will experience a loss of power, status, and/or relationships?”
- Map the problem. Take care of technical problems but continue to dig into the bigger, more pressing challenge.
- Create emotional space for working on the problem. Continue to press into the urgency of the issue so others take ownership. This is the most difficult and needed part of addressing adaptive problems.
- Remain focused on adaptive problem, reassessing values and identity rather than defaulting to more technical solutions.
- Don’t attack the leaders. Laity and staff must work together.
When considering the scale of change needing to happen in the Wesleyan Tradition to become the diverse people we say we are historically and theologically, it is a daunting task requiring all levels of leadership, compliance, and programming to change. This monumental adaptive change will take an incredible amount of emotional energy, and self-care is the bedrock for survival and continued transformation. As a woman and a tempered radical, I see the need for sustaining community who walk with me both within and beyond my calling in the Wesleyan Tradition. In addition, an even deeper life with the Spirit is calling me to remember Zemke’s final words in the change journey: “Yet no matter how challenging the times are, God is present. At times it can be hard to see what God is doing and how God is building the Church, especially when many congregations are in decline or struggling in other ways. It’s good to remember that before the new can spring forth, the old must die. God is active in the living, the dying, and the rebuilding of the Church. God is always faithful.”
 Zemke PhD, Diane. Being SMART about Congregational Change . Kindle Edition. Location 1941
 Zemke, location 821.
 Ibid., 837.
 Ibid., 904.
 Ibid., 1993.