Is Adaptive Change What We Need? Reflections on the UM Leadership Summit

In the world of 24/7/365 social media, I realize I am a dinosaur in the amount of time that has passed since last Wednesday’s UM Leadership Summit. For the five people out there who are not aware of what the summit was, it was a collection of leaders in the United Methodist Church who led the entire denomination in a live web feed discussion concerning the issues and concerns regarding the Methodist church. The primary focus was the Call to Action Report which calls for confession from us all that we have not been as intentional as we should in making disciples. The study also spent $500,000 to define and identify “vitality” in vital congregations. You may decide if the money was worth it or not, that’s not what I want to discuss. I am more intrigued by the primary use of the word “adaptive” which is used significantly and defines the way in which we deal with the challenges. (Call to Action, pg. 22, pp. 25ff)

As a student of systems theory, organizational culture, and learning organizations, I was most fascinated by the leaders’ use of the word “adaptive”. Bishop Gregory Palmer uses it first when he states in the video (at 37:41 and 37:56) what our “adaptive” challenge is: Redirect attention, energy, and resources to increase the number of vital congregations. The actual report itself has an entire section devoted to “Adaptive Challenges” (pp.25ff)
I understand that anyone can define any word to mean anything they want, but I’m not sure what we need is “adaptive learning”. Maybe its what the institutional church and leaders desire, but its not really what true reformation is all about.
Peter Senge, noted systems theorist, learning organization guru and author of The Fifth Discipline, defines a “learning organization” as “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future. For such organizations it is not enough to merely survive. ‘Survival learning’, or what is most often termed ‘adaptive learning’ is important – indeed it is necessary. But for the learning organization, ‘adaptive learning’ must be joined with ‘generative learning’ – learning that enhances our capacity to create.” (The Fifth Discipline, pg. 14).
Adaptive challenges and adaptive learning are all rooted in the struggle to survive. There is nothing created or recreated in adaptive learning. Adaptive learning is kin to the old adage “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” Adaptive learning is reactionary and is motivated from fear of survival. Adaptive learning also usually comes from the top down as the institution or organization meets survival challenges and works diligently to stay alive.
Generative learning, on the other hand, creates something new – or recreates that which once was vital. Generative learning is closely connected to the scriptural word metanoia. Metanoia is in no way connected to adapting. It has always been connected to conversion and recreation. The great central truth of our faith in Christ is that the dead can live again and that mediocre living can be recreated to something abundant! Abundant life (vitality?) is our fundamental need which is why the word “vital” is central in the Call to Action Report. Unfortunately, as with any large initiative coming from the top, it is extremely difficult to step away from the drive to survive. The drive to survive (adaptive) is not the same and the drive to live creatively and abundantly (generative). This, in my opinion, is why the creators of the report feel the urgency to increase reporting and accountability. While rooted in something that seems generative, it is totally adaptive and rooted in the fear of death. “Maybe, if we watch our numbers more closely and measure everything more carefully, we will become more vital.” It’s like watching a pot of water waiting for it to boil but never turning on the heat.
In the Call to Action Report, they write “Adaptive change and leadership are not possible without an authentic purpose and vision; powerful, cohesive, guiding coalition; strong standards, and accountability.” In truth, adaptive change is entirely possible without purpose and vision. Dying churches engage in adaptive learning every day and it hasn’t really changed anything because they are not expanding their capacity to create! The essence of adapting is merely adjusting to the external factors to survive.
Do we merely need to survive? If that is all we are after, then I say the Call to Action Report is just what we need. More reporting, more dashboards, more numbers, and more measurables.
Or do we want to breathe new life into these dry bones? If that is what we are after, it will start in the local church, with local laity, and local pastors who will define vitality rather than live into definitions from Nashville.
So, do we really desire to live and create?

2 Comments

  1. Thanks, John, for putting into words what I have been wrestling with in my mind ever since last Wednesday. Thank you for this fresh perspective!

  2. John,

    I think you've hit on an important point– it may not be clear what is meant by “adaptive” given Peter Senge's taxonomy. My understanding is that CtA was more informed by Gil Rendel's taxonomy, in which “adaptive learning” and “adaptive challenges” would be inclusive of Senge's “generative learning.”

    Different “gurus”– different taxonomies.

    But perhaps it is important, given your observations, that future communication about this be clearer about what is entailed when the CtA (and now IOT, Interim Operations Team) use the term adaptive– and use it, as they do (a la Rendel) as opposed to “technical.”

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