Diane Zemke’s Being Smart About Congregational Change is a practical guidebook for congregational leaders who wish to lead change in their congregations. The book offers a curation of leadership and change theories and is packaged into a simple three-part structure. The first section describes the author’s understanding of how congregations function and imagine themselves as a group of people and as individuals within the group. She discusses some of the psychology of congregational systems, and their self-understanding as “family.” The second section curates theories of change, such as “adaptive change,” which was developed by Ronald Heifetz. The third section is concerned with self-care for change agents, fully aware of the efforts of sabotage that comes when one seeks to lead change, and the toll it takes on the leader.
Heifetz has been an organizational change theorist who has been important to me for the past decade or so. In each congregational setting I served, I would pay attention to the behaviors and patterns that I saw as road blocks to the growth process of congregational maturation, and I would seek to identify them as either “technical” or “adaptive” challenges (I did not have the term “hybrid” in mind).
According to Heifetz, technical problems are problems for which a solution is readily available. For example, the children’s director gets a new job. This is a technical problem because the solution is simple: hire a new children’s director to replace the old one.
But what if the problem does not have a simple solution? For example, nobody under the age of 65 attends worship any longer. This is more of an adaptive problem, because there is no clear and certain solution to fix the problem. Zemke writes: “Adaptive problems are the most difficult to address. In adaptive problems, it’s hard to understand exactly what the problem is and it’s also difficult to generate possible solutions” (824).
Conflict is easily generated in congregations when faced with adaptive problems because the temptation is to slap a technical solution onto an adaptive problem. Generally, people in the group will disagree with what the solution might be. Regarding the aging population, one might suggest, “We need a younger pastor.” Another might say, “We need contemporary worship.” Still, another might say, “We need to serve better coffee.” You can see where this might go: precisely nowhere.
The adaptive problems, such as congregational decline or racial homogeneity within a congregation are much deeper and wider and more complex and nuanced than a new hire or a new strategic plan that was crafted at a weekend leaders’ retreat.
Zemke writes: “Heifetz argues that adaptive challenges are based in values and identity and affect the entire system. The foundational issue is that the group’s values and/or identity must adapt to a changing environment if the group is to prosper. For congregations, this changing environment may include social changes, a changing neighborhood, an aging membership, denominational issues, and a host of other pressures” (835).
Zemke goes on to help the reader with some practical steps to navigate adaptive challenges, because they require the right kinds of questions, the patience of a long journey as adaptive challenges take lots and lots of time to solve, and the right kind of environment for people to deal with the loss that comes from the adaptive change process.
In my current context, I am navigating the adaptive challenge of helping my parents to age well and release their wealth to the cause of the foundation they began. Perhaps the most valuable of Zemke’s contributions was the reminder that rigorous self-care is critical to sustaining the kind of work that adaptive change requires. Now that I am 40, I am finally beginning to know (at the heart level) that I cannot muscle my way through change leadership. It must be born out of solitude.