Zemke earned a PhD in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University, with a focus on enacting congregational change. 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.
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. 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.
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.
 Zemke, Diane, Being Smart about Congregational Change (Lexington, KY: 2014) back cover.
 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.
 Zemke, Being Smart about Congregational Change, 49-50.
 Zemke, Being Smart about Congregational Change, 51.