Our chief obstacle is what we have become

 on September 1, 2021

There is an old joke, “How many Anglicans does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“Change!? My grandmother donated that lightbulb!”

This joke illustrates the difference between “technical” and “adaptive” problems.    


Technical problems can be anything from a leaking roof to landing a plane. Technical problems can be solved by applying existing knowledge and processes.

Adaptive problems are defined as problems that don’t necessarily have a known solution or process, and the solution will require individuals to alter their ways.

You would think that changing a lightbulb is a “technical” problem, but as the joke illustrates, sometimes in the church what seems like a technical problem can belie an adaptive challenge.

Human nature is such that we prefer technical challenges. We’d prefer the solution to be outside of ourselves and not require change or adaptation on our part.

Let’s take climate change as an example. We’d all like climate change to be a technical problem with a technical solution.  If there was a large vacuum that could suck all the carbon out of the atmosphere, that would be great! However, as I think we are all starting to understand, climate change is an adaptive problem. It is not going to be solved without each of us, individually and collectively, changing our ways.

Most of the church’s challenges are adaptive challenges. Yes, every once in a while, there is a technical problem with a website that Catherine Pate can magically fix for us, but most of the time there is no simple solution, or there are many possible solutions with no clear choice.  How do we better connect with our neighbourhoods?  How do we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

Ron Heifetz, in his work and book on adaptive leadership, suggests three steps for dealing with adaptive challenges:

  1. Observation — collectively step back from the immediate and look around to see what is happening. Get “on the balcony”and see the big picture.
  2. Interpretation — work together to make sense of what you are seeing. Look for patterns and possible pathways.
  3. Intervention — undertake small customized experiments that focus on the human element of the challenge.

The challenge of how to be church in the turbulent 2020s is clearly an adaptive challenge.  There is no instruction manual, there are no best practices, and there is no “solution” that is not going to involve all of us being open to change and adaptation.  We need to take a realistic look at ourselves and our surroundings, look for patterns and pathways and then undertake small experiments that may or may not work. We’re going to have to get used to trying something new, learning, and then trying again. We might even need — gasp, to change our ways!

But of course, we are not alone in this work and we are not the first people in history to do this work. For our God is a God of transformation and of adaptation. Repentance, renewal, redemption, resurrection, these are all adaptive changes. God never gives us “technical” fixes but rather calls us to and works in us for transformative change. As children of God, as co-creators with God, we are always and everywhere called to ourselves to be changed, to ourselves be renewed and yes, ourselves to adapt.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!

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