Adaptive Leadership

“We are entering a new day, new terrain and a new adventure.
The next steps are going to be demanding. We need to find
the courage and develop the capacity for a new day.”

At the 2021 Stewardship Kaleidoscope a couple of weeks in Cincinnati, Ohio, I had the opportunity to attend two plenaries led by The Rev. Dr. Tod Bolsinger, professor of leadership formation and senior fellow for the De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. Many of you may know Tod’s book, Canoeing the Mountains published in 2015 where he challenges us as leaders to learn to lead all over again. He begins the book with the quote above.

What we know is that Tod had no idea when he wrote that book, that we would find ourselves in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, economic instability, and racial unrest that would indeed demand a tremendous amount of courage and take us into the most uncharted territory we can imagine. Tod’s next book, Tempered Resilience was published in 2020 during the pandemic when we we were being challenged to embrace adaptive leadership in a way we had never imagined.

What is adaptive leadership?

As developed by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, adaptive leadership is an approach to organizational problem-solving that starts with diagnosis: Is this problem something that an expert can solve or not? Is this something that requires us to apply a solution that already exists, or does it fall outside of our current knowledge and expertise and therefore will require learning (and may result in loss)?”

Tod suggests that “groups are hardwired to believe that survival usually means reinforcing the way things have always been. So, when an organization feels stress, the default behavior of most organizational leaders is to solve the problems for our organization (our congregations) rather than change our organizations for meeting the needs of the world.” The result is that instead of undergoing transformation to be more effective in our mission to serve the world, our congregations unconsciously reinforce the very status quo that is not working.”

Our solution to the problem of low attendance and less giving is to keep offering the programs people have always loved and try to fill the facilities that our congregations have invested in building. Tod took us to Exodus 13 where we see the people of God wrestle with the losses and learning required of them, and we see Moses struggling to keep the people of God focused on securing the very freedom they have been promised. And you know the story of God’s people never seeming to be able to fully trust that God is in control, and God will lead them to the promised land.

Tempered Resilience

Andrew Zolli defines resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.” Resilience requires both strength and flexibility; both toughness and adaptability to endure and to bring transformation. Resilience comes through tempering. As congregational leaders, we are called to become leaders who can hew hope out of the despair that arises when the circumstances outside and the struggle inside conspire to keep us from surviving and thriving.

Over the past year and a half, we have been challenged with many things, and most of our congregations have remained resilient. When I think about how and why, even our smallest congregations, have been able to stay together through all that we have endured, I know it is because they are resilient. They are congregations who…

  • Know what it means to face challenges
  • Are grounded in their identity and their mission
  • Have the capacity to learn and adapt
  • Are tenacious and spirited
  • Have the safety of strong, supportive relationships
  • Have pastoral and congregational leaders who listen

A Compelling Vision

One of the best attributes for being a resilient congregation is the ability to communicate a compelling vision. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverb 29:18). While this passage is a reference to divine vision, the saying is also true of our ministries together. If we are unable to communicate a compelling vision for our congregations to be able to serve faithfully, give generously, love unconditionally, and lead boldly, then we will not be resilient in the face of all that the surrounds us and challenges us.

What is your congregation’s vision for the future? Is it compelling and something that people can get excited about? Does it challenge your congregation to make a commitment that will sustain your ministries? If you are unsure about the answer to any of these questions, I invite you to step back and reflect on who you are as a congregation and what your identity and mission is for the future.

As the people of God, we have what it takes to be resilient no matter what challenges come our way if we can remain grounded and focused on the mission that God has begun in us and through us. May it be so for you and your congregation!

Deborah Rexrode
POJ Associate for Stewardship