I have heard it said over and over, from conservatives and liberals (theological and political): “The system is broken and we must fix it!” Or, “The government is broken so we should fix it.” From pastors and lay leaders I hear: “The church is broken so we surely should fix it.” Or parents and children: “Our family is broken so how do we fix it?” On and on this goes. I recently read this exceptional and insightful quotation from the book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. It made me wonder about this common complaint and what we really mean when we invoke it as frequently and broadly we do.
There is a myth that drives many change initiatives into the ground: that the organization needs to change because it is broken. The reality is that any social system (including an organization or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way. In that sense, on the whole, on balance, the system is working fine, even though it may appear to be "dysfunctional" in some respects to some members and outside observers, and even though it faces danger just over the horizon. As our colleague Jeff Lawrence poignantly says, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets” (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky. Harvard Business Press, 2009).
On the Amazon book site the following description of the leadership approach of these authors can be found: “We live in a time of danger and opportunity. Individuals, organizations, communities and countries must continuously adapt to new realities to simply survive. Wanting more, wanting to thrive even under constantly shifting and often perilous conditions, people in all sectors are called upon to lead with the courage and skill to challenge the status quo, deploy themselves with agility, and mobilize others to step into the unknown.” I so deeply concur with this statement. As a leader my goal is reject the myths about organizations and apply what is true, good and just.
These three authors seem to believe that what we really need is a practical set of stories, techniques and activities that will help us to actually assess and address the toughest challenges that lie ahead. I have not yet read their book but I resonate with this idea.
If no organization is, in itself, dysfunctional then none of us does a bit of good by complaining or blaming the church as the church. The problem is in us. If I am a leader then I must do something to bring about change and not simply blame the system. If I am not a leader I should interact with those who are and pray for them. I love the church, with all its flaws and problems. Why? Because it belongs to Christ. I believe that if you love the church you will not continually attack it but rather respond to it in deep love.
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I agree to a point John, but the fact is that many systems are indeed flawed because the people within them simple don’t know how to make them work. In other cases it is a power struggle that keeps the status quo.
I think that quite often the answer is to acknowledge that a system cannot or simply will not provide what it ought and then just bypass it, at least in the areas necessary to fill the void that the system does not.
“If I am a leader then I must do something to bring about change and not simply blame the system. If I am not a leader I should interact with those who are and pray for them. I love the church, with all its flaws and problems. Why? Because it belongs to Christ. I believe that if you love the church you will not continually attack it but rather respond to it in deep love.” Thank you for your prayerful article. As the bride of Jesus, the church needs to grow to be holy, blameless in spite of many problems and weaknesses.
The basic observation is, I think, correct. Every organization is doing what the members and leaders currently want it to do. If it is not fulfilling its stated goals, it is probably because the true goals are something other than what has been stated. In the case of a church, if the church is not growing, the bottom-line reason may be that the members don’t really want it to grow, because they want to preserve the status quo. If the church could grow purely on the members’ and leaders’ own terms, then, yes, they would like it to grow. But it never happens that way. Bringing in new members always changes the character of the community, and change is uncomfortable; it requires us to yield control to God.
If a church is truly missional, if it exists to serve those who are not presently in the organization, then a fundamental shift in thinking is required to bring renewal to the organization. Blaming the system is very easy; doing something about it is risky and uncomfortable. I believe that the Holy Spirit wants to renew organizations, and that true renewal always begins with individuals being fundamentally changed.