What is Our Work? Thinking about Adaptive Challenges in the Age of the Technical Fix

On Tuesday, July 11th at 7pm, and then again on Sunday, July 16th, Saint Julian’s will participate in a formal “Listening Session”. The primary question behind these sessions is to start to explore the question, “What is our Work (as a parish)?” Put differently, “What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work?”

Bishop Robert C. Wright through Ron Heifetz  divides work into two categories: Technical and Adaptive.

Technical Work: is work not involving shifts in values, norms, loyalties and world views. This work has a clear diagnosis and clear solution. This work is accomplished by logic and authority. There is already considerable expertise in the system to complete this work.

An Example of Technical Work is as follows: Mr. Jones has a heart attack. Mr. Jones goes to his doctor. His doctor determines that bypass surgery is needed. Mr. Jones undergoes bypass surgery and the heart starts to function at full capacity again.

Adaptive Work (on the other hand): is work that intends on shifting norms, world views, loyalties and values. Diagnosis is complicated and solutions are not easily found because there are no clear solutions. Part of Adaptive work consists of identifying the gaps between the Current Reality and the stated Aspirations of an institution, community or family. Adaptive work is often misdiagnosed as Technical work. Adaptive work requires the unique resource of leadership behavior.

Remembering our above example of Mr. Jones – After the heart attack and surgery, Mr. Jones examines his lifestyle choices (i.e. eating, drinking, and exercise habits). He realizes he is eating too many fatty foods, drinking alcohol in excess, and not exercising with regularity. Mr. Jones makes a decision to eat healthier foods, curb the alcohol usage, and make exercise a part of his regular routine. This adaptive work, combined with the technical know-how of his doctor’s expertise changes the reality of Mr. Jones in new, healthy ways.

One more: What’s an example of an adaptive challenge that is misdiagnosed as Technical work?

Let’s look to the life of an imaginary parish from the 1990’s: The aging church congregation looks around and sees there are no young people and young families attending the church. Traditional work and financial giving is at an all-time low. This is the problem diagnosed; however, the congregation chooses to apply a technical fix to what is really an adaptive challenge. They say things like, “Young people want a more contemporary style of worship. Let’s get a few guitars and a screen and put it up. While we’re at it, let’s ask the pastor to throw on some skinny jeans. They’ll start coming then.” Instead of actually getting out there and speaking to young families in (mostly) informal ways –  listening to what their dreams, hopes, and challenges are as well as what they desire in a church community, the congregation thinks in stereotypical ways and purchases a few of those guitars, a screen, and the jeans. And guess what? Nobody shows up. Why? They’re trying harder, but they’re trying harder and their energy is contained in an echo chamber instead of going outside their doors and listening, watching, and discerning.

Adapting to the way and work of Jesus asks us to be open to letting the work of Christ form and shape us into who God already knows us to be (as individuals AND the Body of Christ). For certain there are technical challenges (i.e. a light bulb is out, the yard needs mowing, the toilet needs fixing), but if we can all agree that the life of a disciple of Jesus is ongoing, adaptive work (on God’s part and ours), we can all support one another in our individual journeys as well as with the parish as a whole.

What I’ll personally be looking for on Tuesday and next Sunday are reoccurring themes as well as distinguishing between technical and adaptive work. After the listening sessions, I will take all that I have heard, and the Vestry and I will be separating our work as a parish into those two categories (Technical/Adaptive). It will then be the Vestry’s continued work to focus on the adaptive challenges facing us, and in their teams/subcommittees calling on each and every one of you to step into the work that is needed. A lot of the work will be technical, but some of it will require us to “shift our norms, world views, loyalties and values.” This is exciting work for the Vestry because so much of our time in monthly meetings these past three years have been discussing technical work (i.e. changing out light bulbs, repairing this and that). This will no longer be the work of the Vestry, and I’m proud of them for being open to these past few months at adapting to a new form of behavior – that is – the work of the Vestry and other leaders of various ministries here at St. Julian’s will be to diagnose adaptive challenges. It will be the role of the subcommittees and teams associated with the Vesty and other ministerial leaders to do the technical work.

What is our Work (as a parish)? What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work? Come Tuesday night, or Sunday afternoon and let’s discern these questions together (and with God’s help).

~Fr. Brandon

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