Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our November recommendation is offered by Mark Miller-McLemore, Dean of the Disciples Divinity House and Associate Professor of the Practice of Ministry.
In some congregations, the Supreme Court’s decision on same sex marriage equality made no difference at all. But in many others, despite what their denominations might have said, the decision last summer forced conversations that have been difficult, threatening, and avoided. Host and perform same-sex marriages, or not?
How can pastors lead in the face of deep divisions, when people try to subvert hard conversations and tough decisions out of fear of splits or threats of people leaving; when congregations’ faithfulness and thriving might seem to be at odds—and, honestly, pastors’ livelihoods might be at stake?
I’m teaching a class called “Prophetic Ministry in Mainline Churches.” My friend and colleague Don Beisswenger asks, tongue in cheek, “Is that possible?” I hope it is. This week we’ve just finished reading Ronald Heifetz’s 1994 classic, Leadership without Easy Answers (Belknap/Harvard University Press). “This is an argument about the strategies of leadership most suitable to a democratic society… and for other institutions that need to inspire intense commitment of members … rather than mere compliance.” (8) Sounds like church to me.
Heifetz draws out the concept of “adaptive challenges.” Like most helpful interpretive concepts, it’s deceptively simple and often misused.
A technical challenge is one someone knows how to manage. We live in a world that values the quick fix and rewards mastery (think: grades, degrees), in which we like to believe that there are answers to everything. So people assume (and leaders often fall for it, too) that if we simply apply a little charismatic leadership mojo or the right programmatic fix, everything will be all right. You can almost hear Donald Trump: “I know how to make America great again.” But in an adaptive challenge, it doesn’t work.
An adaptive challenge is one we don’t know how to address. We don’t even know the right questions to ask. Adaptive challenges are hard to identify. They involve conflicts between internal values important to a community, or between long-held values and a new reality. There must be change; something must be done. And something will need to be left behind in order to move ahead. People must give up something dear in order to retain something else even dearer—and they’d rather not. Disequilibrium begets loss and resistance. Again, sounds like church.
Instead of avoiding or reaching for an off-the-shelf response, effective adaptive leaders keep asking “What’s really going on here?” Instead of trying to bluff or perform their way through, they risk their authority and acknowledge that they don’t have the answers or know how to get people where they need to go—because it’s not just their problem, it belongs to the whole community. Using the idea of the “holding environment,” Heifetz shows how effective leaders refuse to downplay the challenge or mask its complexity or do the work that the community needs to do for itself in facing the differences within. Instead they also help the community use its gifts, find positive ways to stay focused on the challenge at hand, and “play fair” with one another in the face of distress and conflict. They protect voices from the edge, where creative new responses often emerge. They work to keep the community from escapist distractions while not becoming overwhelmed with too much challenge at too fast a pace. Heifetz uses the metaphor of temperature with a pressure cooker: too little temperature and nothing happens; too much, and it explodes.
He draws out engaging cases to show leaders in action, including the dance between Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr., over Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s a good read.
But more, this book offers helpful ways to think about living in and leading communities that are deeply divided over something important. Moving forward has a cost; which is the best cost for this particular community to incur now and in the future, and why? How can we help lead communities where we discern they best need to go? Especially in churches, Heifetz offers “a practical philosophy of leadership—an orienting set of questions and options for confronting the hardest of problems without getting killed, badly wounded, or pushed aside.” (9)
Many leadership and ministry books are trendy, trivial, or time-limited. Not this. If you haven’t read it and you care about helping communities and organizations face into tough choices faithfully, boldly, lovingly, wisely, and well, read this book.