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David Kinnaman

Where there are problems related to leading a church effectively, faith research organization the Barna Group has found these are often a failure to recognize to the difference between technical solutions and adaptive leadership.

Technical solutions are well and good if returning to the status quo is the ultimate goal. A cast and sling, for example, are technical solutions designed to return a broken arm to its former condition. Upon completion of the healing process, everything is “as good as new.” A lot of church leaders try to solve problems using this mindset: “How can we get back to where things used to be?”

But an adaptive problem is a level up. Its very nature is complex. Amputation of a limb, for instance, requires adapting to a new reality; there’s no returning to the status quo. Adaptive leadership recognizes there is no going back to simpler times. Complexity is now reality.

I’m reminded of God’s word to the prophet Isaiah: “For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?” (Isa. 43:19, NLT). If we are constantly looking to recreate a glorious past, we hesitate to adapt to what God is doing now. We try to fix adaptive problems with technical solutions. As an example, we might think raising up church leaders among the next generation is merely a matter of finding that one “perfect” young leader—but ministry succession is not a technical problem.

One of the most significant features of an adaptive problem is that we must change in order to face the challenge effectively. Pouring into the lives of younger leaders changes a pastor. So do casting and living in an expansive vision of what pastoring is and can be. Expanding the leadership team to include gifted young people—and expanding your vision of ministry calling to include the networks where people live and work—will certainly require a senior leader to change.

Another one of these necessary adaptations is learning to lead in the context of teams. Now, more so than ever, churches need to embody a team approach to ministry. Researcher George Barna’s work has long highlighted the need for different types of leaders to come alongside one another to build healthy churches. His book A Fish Out of Water describes four distinct aspects of leadership: directing leaders, strategic leaders, operational leaders and team-building leaders. Healthy churches have all four, and since no one person can embody all these qualities, a team is the best option.

In your context this might mean connecting young and old, paid ministry staff and lay leaders, singles and marrieds, and so on. For many churches it will mean creating more deeply spiritual partnerships—highly focused on prayer, for example—between pastors and elders. Taking nothing away from the importance of God’s intention for faithful individual leaders, churches need better approaches to solving problems, building disciples and serving our communities as teams, not as lone wolves. It’s Acts-like work: deploying groups of people into the world for the sake of Jesus.

Prayer Points

  • Ask the Lord how your team can focus on Jesus as the heart of your devotion and the purpose of all you do.
  • Examine whether you and your team are more concerned with preserving your present reality and traditional approach, rather than adapting together to a complex future.
  • Ponder how the pastoral staff and elder team could become better at problem solving together. Ask for Holy Spirit guidance through prayer to distinguish between technical and adaptive problems.

Share your thoughts. See comments below, and add your own.

is the president of Barna Group, a research company located in Ventura, Calif., that focuses on faith and culture. He also is the author of three books: Good Faith, You Lost Me and unChristian.

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