Changing the culture of mainline worship

Mainline Protestant churches live in a time when the modes of church life that succeeded during the post-World War II years no longer work. As I reflect upon this fact, especially in reference to worship assemblies, it is clear that the basic culture of what we do on Sundays has to be transformed.

But how can this be done. For me, part of the answer comes from a book I read more than a decade ago, Ronald Heiftz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers.

The author’s purpose is to provide “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.”

Leadership is an activity, namely mobilizing people to do adaptive work, by which Heifetz means “the learning required to address conflicts in the values people hold, or to diminish the gap between the values people stand for and the reality they face” (22). Adaptive work “requires a change in values, beliefs, or behavior. The exposure and orchestration of conflict–internal contradictions–within individuals and constituencies provide the leverage for mobilizing people to learn new ways” (p. 22).

Tackling tough problems, Heifetz declares, is the purpose of leadership; getting work done is its essence.

When situations change, churches (and other organizations) lose their equilibrium. Something has to be done, and three responses are possible. 1) The church’s normal processes can generate a course of action that restores equilibrium and solves the problem. 2) This response may temporarily restore equilibrium but fail to solve the problem. 3) The attempted response doesn’t work, and the organization mobilizes “to produce a new adaptation sufficient to meet the challenge” (adapted from p. 36).

For this third response to take place—for the adaptive challenge to be met—the deeper issues have to be brought to the surface and new solutions developed. Most important, the dissonance between traditional values and the new cultural reality has to be resolved. Then a period of new strength and effectiveness can arise.

There are four tasks: 1) Identify the adaptive challenge. 2) Regulate the level of distress by pacing the rate of encounter with the challenge and providing structure for dealing with it. 3) Focus attention upon the relevant issues and keep the organization from avoiding the work that has to be done to solve the problems. 4) Shift responsibility to the major stakeholders of the organization (99, 100; see also 138-144).

An especially interesting aspect of these tasks of leadership is “the ripening of the issues.” Heifetz states that skilled leaders keep their constituents focused upon what really is important until such time as the questions or challenges are ready to be addressed. Then it is possible to solve them in ways that have the chance of being permanent.

Adaptive leadership, Heifetz acknowledges, is lonely because the leaders—whether pastors, musicians, or laity—have to “take responsibility for the holding environment of the enterprise. They themselves are not expected to be held.”  “Shouldering the pains and uncertainties of an institution particularly in times of distress comes with the job of authority. It can only be avoided at the institution’s peril” (250-251). Heifetz offers these suggestions for meeting the challenge.

1) Get on the balcony, which means giving sufficient attention to the reflective side of leadership. Leaders must participate and observe, and by that observation see and interpret the patterns that are developing among the other participants.

2) Distinguish self from role. Heifetz believes that most of the responses that come to leaders come to the role rather than the person; yet many people respond by taking things personally. The resulting actions increase the stress of the leader and lessen the possibilities of solving the problems.

3) Externalize the conflict by keeping the discussion focused on the issues rather than on the self.

4) Find partners. Some will be confidants, people with whom one can cry and complain, who thus “provide a holding environment for someone who is busy holding everybody else” (269).

5) Listen and watch one’s own actions and responses; and gain help from others in monitoring and correcting one’s participation in the enterprise.

6) Find a sanctuary. Leadership demands both “a strategy of mobilizing people” and “of deploying and restoring one’s own spiritual resources” (274).

7) Preserve a sense of purpose, “the capacity to find the values that make risk-taking meaningful” (274). This capacity enables a leader and the people of the organization to develop the specific purposes that their organization needs.

In future columns I plan to describe the adaptive challenge concerning worship that mainline Protestant churches face and to suggest how leaders can assist their congregations to respond creatively and effectively.

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3 Responses to Changing the culture of mainline worship

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Thanks Keith — leadership in changing times is indeed difficult. Most especially this is true in regards to keeping one’s self separate from the issues at hand. This I know from personal experience.

    I’m looking forward to seeing where you take this!

    • Bob, I too am interested in seeing how this line of thought develops. My intention is to describe the adaptive challenge that faces us as we think about worship. Yesterday I shared in the eucharist in two downtown churches that practically stare each other in the face–one of them Lutheran and the other Disciples. In most respects, these liturgical events contrasted sharply. Both churches have long histories in their current locations and can remember days of great strength. Both churches are now in a period of diminished vitality, a condition which leads to the conclusion that the time has come for adaptive change so that the life and work of these congregation are effective in the cultural setting that surrounds them. Although my discussion will be more broadly focused, the particular setting that I know best will be in the back of my mind. Your thoughts will be appreciated.

  2. […] key to vitality and growth. Three books that I have reviewed in recent columns support this thesis: Leadership Without Easy Answers; God Is Back; Finding a Spiritual […]

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