This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Adaptive Change in the Church.

            There is no “balcony”.
            Ronald Heifetz, in his seminal books on adaptive leadership, makes a crucial mistake at the very center of his system.  He assumes there is a place he calls a “balcony” from which an entire system may be viewed objectively by the leader.
            There is no such thing as objectivity.  The leader will, simply by virtue of being a human, have an agenda, background, prejudices, desires, needs, history, and so forth.  Depending on the leader’s personality and level of health, he/she will be determined by these factors to some degree.  And the unfortunate employees will have to suffer the consequences of the leader’s blindness, compounded by the self-righteousness that comes from imagining he/she has that superior, unique, and objective view from the balcony. 
            No one exists outside of systems.  I once discussed this with a teacher of these matters, who said the leader’s objectivity could be gained by having a cadre of advisors from outside the system.  However, that just becomes a new system, embedded in or connected to the larger system.  It is impossible for any person to be outside of a system.  Even if I were airdropped into a tribe in central New Guinea, I could still not observe that tribe objectively or without my own biases.  Even if I were a rigorous scientist deftly applying all the tools of science – peer reviews, control groups, and so on – that would only be applying a different set of biases and prejudices.
            Heifetz’ system, while it may help corporations relate to changes in their environment within the overarching system of Capitalism, is not immediately transferrable to the church because the church does not exist under the overarching system of Capitalism, but lives within the Kingdom of God, a reality diametrically opposed to everything Capitalism is about.  While a corporation may have to adapt to a new economic environment, what the church adapts to is not this environment so much as the Kingdom of God.  What we have to adapt to are the teachings of Jesus as we receive and live them in a particular time and place.  We don’t adapt his teachings, mind you; we find ourselves being adapted to the new reality Christ embodies.
            This whole difference between a church and a corporation is exemplified by the lack in the church of any kind of Leader Principle.  Heifetz assumes this.  Leadership is exclusively from the top, down.  Corporations, like the military and for the same reason, depend on this concept of top-down, centralized, command-and-control “leadership.”  It depends on this structure because it is inherently coercive; it has to force humans to do inhuman things as a matter of its main mission.  Ultimately, this can only be done by violence.  But usually various systems of threats and rewards suffice.  Often these rewards and threats are delivered, fittingly enough, by the Leader barking down from the balcony.      
            The church, however, is different.  The one and only Head of the Church is Jesus Christ, not any earthly leader.  (The Book of Order sees leadership as exercised in councils, not individuals.  It doesn’t even list “leader” among the tasks of a pastor.  The idea of an executive as leader is utterly foreign to it.)  Any church leader that is not directing us to Jesus Christ is not a legitimate authority in the church.  I do not mean tacking a Scripture reading or a prayer on to what the leader’s agenda is.  I mean that leadership in the church is always and exclusively focused on the Word of God.
            Real adaptive change in the church therefore is not a matter of reacting to the changed economic environment.  It is the process of continual growth into the mind of Christ and the practices of discipleship of the Messiah Jesus.  It is not becoming something different to face the new time, it is discovering and morphing into what the church truly is. 
            The image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly is instructive.  Inside the chrysalis (I am told) the caterpillar does not simply undertake the technical adjustments that would reshape it into a butterfly, like sprouting wings.  Neither does it embark upon the adaptive changes suited to life inside the new environment, which is a chrysalis.  No.  The animal “knows” in its own being that the cocoon is a transitional stage, and that it needs to “do” nothing but become what it is created to be.  Inside the chrysalis it will be thoroughly deconstructed and disintegrated until it is a dissociated mush, and then it will reorganize itself according to the new form.  It is led from within by the coding in its own DNA.
            Our DNA as the gathered people of God is the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and the tradition and Scriptures that bear the unique and authoritative witness to him.  That is our deepest identity that we have to get in touch with.  It is by continual reflection on this Word that the Spirit reshapes the church.  That is how the whole people of God gets on the “balcony”.  By looking at the world through the lens of the Word of God, through whom the world was created, we get to see things from the perspective of the ultimate “balcony”.  Because there is no “balcony” except the one within and among us (Luke 17:21).
            It is not a viewpoint reserved for just the privileged few, the executives, the bishops, the theologians, even the pastors.  It is a perspective to which all who trust in the Messiah Jesus have access.  In the gathered community of disciples leadership comes from Jesus Christ who emerges within and among the people by the power of the Holy Spirit. 


Karen said...

For Heifetz,in order to affect any sort of change you need to return to the dance floor. He's not suggesting perfect objectivity is attainable with the balcony metaphor (it is, after all, a metaphor), but learning to take a different perspective (ala Dead Poets Society) is helpful to understanding what needs to occur. For me, the balcony is akin to wilderness time - time set apart to look at the world from a different perspective (and to perhaps look at my own actions from that place as well). I've found his work integrates well with that of Greenleaf... and my own faith.

Paul F. Rack said...

Thanks, Karen. I actually do think Heifetz has a lot of good ideas. I think I am complaining more about the way I am seeing his work interpreted and used. I like your image of balcony as wilderness time. And I do realize that he talks a lot about coming down from the balcony and interacting in the life of the organization. Blessings

Karen said...

Got it.

So it's not Heifetz 'crucial mistake' but how his theory is used.

I get that. And you are spot on that it's impossible to truly be objective - however, I think there's much to be said from stepping back from a situation and viewing it from as many points as possible. Certainly, the lens of our faith should be the primary perspective (but it's generally not the one we operate out of).

What I do appreciate is the need to be both action-oriented and reflective. There's a balance that needs to be juggled there - and those who are motivated by economics need a bit more work in the area of reflection (hence, the balcony). There have been times in our denomination, however, when I think we've needed to move from a reflective stance to one of action.

Good leadership is able to suss out what is needful when.