Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Spirit and Three Dimensions

I was with a group of ten congregations this weekend from the Pacific Northwest who are working together toward missional innovation using a three year process, Partnership for Missional Church. This work is particularly satisfying to me for several reasons. It gets the word missional out of the textbook and into the real lives of congregations. It allows me to engage the concrete challenges faced by these congregations. And it takes me back to the Pacific Northwest, the epicenter of my life's geography--spiritual and otherwise.

(I just feel better when I can smell a fir tree).

These congregations have been working together for a year now, and this parituclar gathering allowed time for each congregation to tell stories from the past year. I was listening to one congregational storyteller tell how the various groups of new leadership required to complete the process was causing the congregation to rethink its understanding of the role of women in leadership. Their new experience of women in a leadership role was the occasion for a reassesment of how they were reading particular texts to support particular habits. I'm interested here, not at what they eventually conclude about the role of women in leadership within their congregation, but how change actually occurs.

This past semester I did some reading in the literature on sensemaking, a fairly recent school of thought in the area of organizational theory. For the sensemaking folk, all human organizations are ultimately in the business of making meaning. To work or live together, we require shared accounts of what makes our association meaningful. This requires a shared narrative, or a shared set of authoritative texts, that allow us to make sense of our life together. Succesful organizations are those that continue to make sense of their life in light of new experiences, unsolved problems, or anamolies that simply refuse to go away.

Sensemakers refer to these anamolies as cues. A cue is something that calls into question our primary frame of reference, like the experience of women leading in ways not typical of a church's understanding of the public role of women in the church.

Often, the frame of reference in a church, or organization, is stronger than the cue and simply absorbs it or figures out a way to ignore it. When this happens, the organization has quite possibly fused its own understanding of the world with the world itself. There is no critical distance between perception and reality, and when this distance is closed an organization loses its capacity to learn.

The distance created by a cue allows for the possibility of newness. There is more than just the organization and its frame of reference. With a cue, there is a third dimension that creates the space necessary for transformation.

I've come to the conclusion that this kind of space is necessary for the movement of the Holy Spirit among God's people. Apart from cues, we are left only with the option of idolatry where we confuse reality with our own frame of reference. This is idolatrous even if that frame of reference comes from Scripture, Christian history, Fox news, or some other unimpeachable authority.

This does not mean that every cue, or every new experience, should be allowed to have its way with our previous frame of reference. But it does mean that apart from a third dimension, there is no opportunity to test the spirits to see if they are from God. There is simply no room for anything transcendent when the group and the frame are totally fused. There is no room for the Holy Spirit.

This means that categories of "otherness" are important for the church's spiritual vitality. The other may be a prophetic voice within the congregation, an experience of a member that doesn't coincide with the party line, a stranger who has no connection to the congregation at all, or the condition of our neighborhood or planet. This list could be multiplied. Churches led by the Spirit learn to attend to these cues, hoping to make greater sense of the Holy One in our midst. They learn the power possible with a three dimensional perspective.


Mark said...

great post! its true that any organization is essentially about making meaning for itself and its constituents, and it seems that as time rolls on, that organizations meaning becomes more and more entrenched in its frame of reference - i'm thinking about the the roman catholic church on birth control. now, 40 years later, was it right of them to hold to their frame of reference, or should they have taken their cues from science/ culture/ etc.

I like the picture of the three coordinates (organization, frame of reference, and anomalies/cues) as a means of remaining open to the Holy Spirit. I hope you'll draw more on how this functions in a congregation in future posts!

glad to find your blog!

Mark Love said...


Good to hear from you! I miss seeing you guys. I am glad for the opportunity to keep learning from you.