Bishops focus on adaptive leadership

Marty Linsky, an expert on adaptive leadership, told the bishops: it's necessary to "get on the balcony" when looking at challenges. In other words, we need to step back and observe from a distance in order to get perspective and recognize patterns.

November 03, 2015

Day 1

In a time where everything seems to be moving at a bewildering speed, in ways that cause instability, when “the tectonic plates are shifting in deep and profound ways,” the Rev. Dr. Greg Jones says it’s important to focus on the power of the end.

“When you stay focused on the end, all kinds of possibilities open themselves. When you focus on the end, it’s not about us, it’s about God,” said Jones, senior strategist for leadership education at Duke Divinity School.

By “the end,” he’s referring to the Reign of God to which we are called to bear witness.

Jones was addressing the residential bishops of The United Methodist Church, gathered at the Lake Junaluska (N.C.) Conference and Retreat Center in the first of a three-day presentation.

Living in a “multi-nodal” world where the digital revolution is a reality and life grows increasingly more complex, Jones say leaders sometimes get lost because the obstacles seem too great. They stay lost because it’s more comfortable to stay with what’s familiar. 

“It’s when we are focused on the end, we discover new ways of engaging the present and the past,” he said.

“If we’re focused on the end, it radically reshapes the present; but it requires a shift from a mindset of despair to a mindset of hope,” he said. “If you’re rooted in hope, then all kinds of possibilities emerge.”

According to Jones, John Wesley was profoundly a person of hope, but he was no optimist. Hope, he said, must be distinguished from optimism.

“Optimism is a trust in who we are to make things better, but if we place our confidence in ourselves, things will fragment and fracture. Hope is a trust in God.”

Jones suggests that ministry focused on the end, and rooted in hope, will have five characteristics that Greg Dees identifies as the heart of social entrepreneurship: First, adopt a mission. Second, align everything you do in service to that mission. Third, be willing to adapt and renovate as you move forward. Fourth, invest resources beyond what you currently have in hand; be bold and take risks. Last, build a heightened sense of accountability towards the outcomes to be achieved.

A view from the balcony

There’s often an expectation of leaders to manage conflict and confusion, but it’s a necessary part of the process to getting to the other side, says Marty Linsky, co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates and an expert on adaptive leadership, which their website describes as “a practical leadership framework that helps individuals and organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments.”

“You can’t make progress without conflict because it’s the process that allows something new to happen,” he said. He likened it to an orchestra leader who creates synthesis out of confusion. Orchestrating, rather than managing or repressing, conflict and confusion should be the goal.

Linsky encouraged the bishops to think of leadership as less about decisions and more about trying to identify, nurture and protect pockets of leadership that “don’t look like you and the things you know how to do well, but help you to make progress in ways that are literally beyond your imagination” – people who push the conventional boundaries.

Linsky said it's necessary to "get on the balcony" when looking at challenges, in other words, stepping back and observing from a distance in order to get
In Together in Christ this month, Bishop Devadhar writes about “balcony people” 
Read it here
perspective and recognize patterns. Also, recognizing the distinction between exercising leadership and exercising authority is key, as well as recognizing the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges.

“Difficult problems are difficult because they aren't susceptible to pain-free solutions,” said Linsky.

Linsky introduced the bishops to a structured five-step peer consulting protocol, a practice that looks at deeper issues and seeks to understand underlying conflicts rather than focusing solely on a technical fix.

The afternoon session provided an opportunity for bishops to consult with their colleagues on leadership challenges they may be facing, using the protocol as a guide.

Mission moments

Worship is a vital aspect of the leadership retreat. As part of each day’s worship service, pastors of area churches are sharing the ways they are connecting with their communities.

During the opening worship on Sunday, the bishops heard from the Rev. Brian Combs of the Haywood Street Congregation in inner city Asheville, N.C., a creative ministry that has taken wings. Started six years ago in a formerly abandoned United Methodist church, they reach out to the homeless and others living on the margins and create an environment where people come together. A weekly home-cooked dinner attracts a diverse group of diners. The church also offers a respite ministry for people who come out of hospitals and have nowhere to go except the streets, so they can have a place to recover after leaving the hospital.

Monday’s mission moment featured St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Asheville, a church that’s working hard at revitalization. The Rev. Darryl Dayson says his congregation “hit the streets, walking around learning the names of our neighbors,” sharing their joys and troubles and inviting them to connect with God and with one another.”

The church is part of a dynamic partnership they call the Asheville Downtown Cooperative, a group of clergy and parishioners who believe they are better together. They share resources and support one another.

“What has blossomed out of this partnership is a beautiful vision of what God can do in our area,” said Dayson. “We have seen what it looks for us to live out this connection. It takes a long time to turn a big ship, but we know Christ is at the helm of that ship.”

The learning retreat for the residential bishops continues until noon on Thursday, Nov. 5. 

Day 2

If you’ve ever resolved to make the future different, only to slide back into an old familiar pattern, you’re not alone.

“We tend to swing like a pendulum between dwelling in the past and getting stuck repeating it over and over again, or we try to become amnesiacs and forget the past and pretend we can make it all up from scratch,” the Rev. Dr. Greg Jones told an assembly of bishops during the third day of their leadership learning retreat.

Jones quoted author Jaroslav Pelikan, who says, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
The alternative, he says, is traditioned innovation. He advises leaders to think about what they want to preserve, as well as what they want to change.

A coral reef

He shared a story about snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, and being overwhelmed with all the new life emerging out of the reef.

“The Wesleyan movement at its best has been a coral reef, where we’ve had intrinsic partnerships for people throughout life, from pre-K all the way until their dying days,” said Jones. “Partnerships across sectors that have hospitals and schools and camps and seminaries all working together to bring about that kind of new life.” 

The opportunities, he says, are still before us but we need to have a way of moving from scarcity to abundance. “Recognizing a mindset of abundance can lead us in even the most under resourced context to discover there are more assets than we imagined,” said Jones.

As an example, he shared the story of a colleague, Maggy Barankitse of Burundi, which is one of the poorest countries in the world. During the Burundi Civil War, she witnessed many friends being killed yet she survived. She began to gather together children whose freedom she bought, then created a community for them called Maison Shalom, which means House of Peace. From there, it grew. More than 30,000 children have come through the community and she has since started new communities in Rwanda and Eastern Congo, because there are children there who need love.

“She built a whole eco-system, a whole coral reef of new life, of recognizing the intrinsic connection of social institutions that develop over time,” said Jones. “She thinks like a social entrepreneur. She’s shaped by the end ... My prayer is that as we stay focused on the end and as we practice traditioned innovation, moving from despair and fear to hope, moving from scarcity to abundance, we too see how, as Maggy so beautifully describes it, ‘love can make us inventors.’”

Adaptive leadership learning

Marty Linsky of Cambridge Leadership Associates continued his work with the bishops on adaptive leadership and case presentations, exploring the three mindsets of adaptive leadership during the Tuesday morning session.

“The first mindset is to focus on the human dynamics of the issue, not on the merits of the issue. One of the things that distinguishes problems that are primarily adaptive in nature is that the merits may be relevant, but they’re never controlling,” said Linsky.

“The subject of diagnosis, the subject of analysis when you are looking at a problem that is adaptive is nature is the human dynamics. Who’s involved? What do they care about? What’s important to them?”

The second is have the courage to be interpretative. Interpretation is essential in doing adaptive work. Be courageous about making interpretations and be willing to challenge assumptions.

Third, think systemically, not individually. One of the things that characterizes adaptive work is that it is typically not about individuals, but about systems. There may be a tendency to gravitate toward individual interpretations, rather than systemic interpretations, but as you’re doing diagnostic work, try to think systemically.

Linsky also offered some tools to help with this diagnosis. He suggests that a beginning point is to try to identify the relevant factions: factions that have a point of view on the issues; factions that may or may not have a position on the issue, but have disproportionate power in the system; and affinity groups (people who are loyal to one another independent of the issues).

Once you identify those factions, there are three questions to ask about each faction:  What are their values? What are their loyalties? What are their fears of loss?

Linsky says one of the hardest parts of leading change on difficult issues is that it involves delivering losses. "When you are changing the DNA of a human community, you are leaving some DNA behind in order to make room for some new DNA.”

During the afternoon session, Linsky concluded his presentation with three basic ideas about what distinguishes interventions.
  1. Ask. When you ask someone to do something specific, you test his or her commitment. You cannot know where the boundary is until you bump into it.
  2. Customize. Approach different factions in different ways; for example, when you preach to a congregation, you are trying to reach many people in many different places. If you were able to reach out to them individually, you could customize your message to where they are.
  3. Experiment. If you ask people to commit to one or two ideas they have not tried before just as an experiment, you can learn a lot about what is successful and what is not. If you are venturing into an unknown place, best practices can help; but when you are inventing something new, the learning community can benefit from testing out a lot of hypotheses whether they work out or not.

Spiritual leadership

Through the day, there were many references to the importance of spiritual leadership. The day ended with worship and Communion, focusing on prayer as part of spiritual leadership. Bishop Young Jin Cho led an extended time of prayer in which all the bishops lifted their prayers for the world, The United Methodist Church, the General Conference and the Council of Bishops. This was interspersed with the singing of “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.”

Day 3

Bishops explore the topic of leading from the soul

We need to focus on what it means to lead from the soul, the Rev. Dr. Greg Jones told participants of the bishops’ learning forum in the last of a three-part presentation.

“We’re in the business of leading from the soul to nourish other people’s souls and equip people to continue to deepen the reservoirs of what Wesley called ‘holiness of heart and life,’” said Jones. “We’re called to lead from the soul because that’s what is the depth of who we are created to be and our relationship to God.”

Part of the challenge for leaders is that it often depletes the soul to engage in leadership activities.

He quoted Ron Heifetz, author of Leadership Without Easy Answers, who says leadership is like walking along a razor’s edge in that you feel the cuts.
Jones said that it is only out of practices that replenish the reservoir of our souls that we discover and nurture the intimacy with God that enables leaders to remain focused on what it means to help nourish others souls.

Leading from the soul is about the continual replenishing of that reservoir which only happens when one is engaged in patterns of thinking and feeling and perceiving and living.

Learning throughout life

A shift is needed to a model that’s about learning throughout life.

“It is what is at the heart of the Wesleyan standard of what it means to go on to perfection . . . it’s a matter of unlearning all those habits of sin and brokenness that marked our life pre-conversion so that we can learn the patterns of holiness of heart and life,” said Jones.

He added that we have gotten preoccupied with expertise rather than actually exploring what people have already discerned in their wisdom and whether they’re committed to growing and learning wisdom throughout their life.

“All of us ought to be on a journey of learning wisdom from whatever point we come into the church, whether it’s as infants and toddlers, all the way to our dying breath,” he said.

Jones suggests the hunger among the laity for the formation of souls is incredibly strong. “There is a yearning and a desire that we are ill-equipped to deal with."

"When lay people find a congregation that has a robust sense of what it means to form people as Christians and to challenge their imagination, they don’t want to let it go."

He shared a story about a woman who drives 80 minutes each way four times a week because that is what is shaping her life.

Spiritual formation

Bishop Robert Hoshibata and Bishop Sandra Ball worked together to integrate the daily worship themes throughout the learning forum in ways that supported the theological context and helped to empower spiritual leaders through the adaptive challenges they face.

After conversation with the Rev. Dr. Greg Jones about his presentation content, they talked about images that came to mind and Scripture that would support the day’s learnings.

Wednesday’s worship centered around the call to be humble servants.
“Today the image of being humble servants just spoke to us as we strive more and more to bring about changes in our churches and our conferences and the denomination. One of the things we need to remember is to be humble and not think too highly of ourselves,” said Bishop Hoshibata. “The altar was designed to reflect very humble, simple but powerful images; so burlap instead of silk and satin and the rope is all tangled up, kind of like our lives – not perfect but beautiful indeed.”

Participants shared a love feast of cinnamon rolls and apple cider as they reflected together upon these questions: How have you experienced the love of God in Creation? How have you recently experienced the love of Jesus Christ in your life?”

Mission moment

The Rev. Julia Trantham, Minister of Education and Spiritual Development at Cullowhee (N.C.) United Methodist Church, shared with forum participants how a summer outreach project is providing a safe space for more than a dozen sixth- through twelfth-graders.

The Matthew 25 summer camp is a free educational enrichment program staffed by 60+ volunteers that meets twice a week in July. Camp attendees get a meal, learn life skills like swimming and cooking, complete service projects, and have some fun – whether its whitewater rafting or a trip to the mall.

“During the first summer, we wondered if two days a week could really make a difference,” said Trantham.

The answer to that question, she would learn, was a definite ‘yes.’

She and a young camper were laughing and talking after a day spent eating pizza and bowling.

“Suddenly he grew quiet and looked at me,” said Trantham. “He said, ‘If you all hadn’t been my friends this summer, I probably would have tried to kill myself again.’ It was in that moment that I realized the power of Jesus’ love to start healing these kids and transforming their lives.”

The retreat concluded Thursday, Nov. 5, with an evaluation and closing worship.