I spent years in congregational ministry thinking of the church as a series of problems to be solved. I didn't consciously decide to approach ministry that way. I think its the way we approach most things in life. We are constantly isolating things, measuring them for deficiency, diagnosing the deficiency, and coming up with plans to fix things. It's a very satisfying way to think about maintaining control over our environment.
And in many ways, a problem solving mindset makes the world a better place. I want my mechanic to be able to adequately diagnose the brake problems on my car, and to be able with some certainty to know that the fix will keep me from driving off of a cliff. And for that matter, I think good ministry requires a certain amount of strategic wisdom, an ability to intuit the effects of certain actions and initiatives.
TO BE CLEAR. PROBLEM SOLVING IS NOT BAD.
Still, like every tool, it has its limitations. You know the old saying that if all you have in your toolkit is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Its the same way with problem solving. Its corollary in organizational life is strategic planning. I've worked for the past seven years in a strategic planning environment. The only way to get your piece of the budget was to write a compelling five year plan that demonstrated your long term budget requirements as essential to the institution's mission. I did enough five year plans to know this: they're horrible predictors. They prove our overall lack of ability to gauge cause and effect in a complex environment.
It wasn't long ago that ads in a church publication I read featured "purpose driven church looking for a purpose driven minister." Those ads have dried up, largely, I think, because congregations are massively complex cultures that resist the logic of strategic planning, which begins with a mission statement and ends with a list of strategic goals. Yet, in my experience, this is often the only leadership tool respected by both church leaders and members. Everything has become a nail.
The problems here are various and run in many directions. I simply want to make one distinction at this point. Trust and formation as a leadership strategy for transformation beats the stuffing out of direction and control.
I am with church leaders all the time who are dealing with death anxiety. Their congregation is declining. They've tried everything in their bag of tricks and nothing has helped. In many ways, they've never done church better. The preaching is good. The worship is dynamic. The facilities are great. The programs well run. And the decline is steady. They're doing everything they've known to do better than they've ever done it before, and nothing changes. And everyone is anxious.
Our response typically in these situation is direction and control. Let's set a clear direction and and steer the ship. It seems strong. And members cry out for it. (Though this is usually a noose they tie for their leaders. We want leadership! As long as it's what makes me happy). We think the next plan will be better, bolder, more decisive, than the last one. Or we fire the leaders, hoping that the next bunch will be stronger.
Put in spiritual terms, this is a strategy of human mastery, and typically doesn't produce much transformation, or in organizational theory terms, it doesn't produce a learning organization, one that can adapt to new circumstances in dynamic ways.
The spiritual response to anxiety is not measures of control, but measures of trust. Strong, transformative leadership responds to anxiety with patterns of trust and formation. How are we learning to trust God for our future? How is this forming us in new ways for our new situation? How will we become different? This is a bigger question than, what new strategies can we try to address our old set of problems.
This requires real strength in leadership. It requires patience. It requires the capacity to project the confidence of faith that goes with the answer, "we don't know yet." It requires less speaking and more listening. It requires all those things that leave enough room for the Spirit of God to work. And sometimes that looks like weak leadership to people who have to solve problems to feel like they're accomplishing anything. I like to remind people that nowhere does it say that the fruit of the Spirit is urgency.
Most churches are encountering at some level the anxiety that comes with the need for adaptive, cultural change. This environment is too unstable for cause and effect, direction and control measures to be the only ones in a leader's toolkit. Trust and formation. Trust and formation.