Commentary: Two paths to church renewal that just won’t mix

By Dan Dick, Special Contributor…

A day of new beginnings often produces mixed results—hopefulness and skepticism, promise and problems, anticipation and anxiety. In the United Methodist Church we are poised—some say on the threshold of a new day, others say on the brink of utter annihilation (most feel we are somewhere in between, but are not sure just where).

Dan Dick

Dan Dick

Unfortunately, when there is an absence of visionary leadership, we unintentionally compound the problem by adopting contradictory and incompatible tools and processes to attempt to make something happen. We have done it before, and we are doing it now. Case in point? Vital Congregations and Adaptive Leadership.

To the uninitiated into either or both, they each sound interesting, fraught with potential, promising great results and a chance to become something special. Indeed, each has such potential—just not in combination. You see, as with so many popular panacea du jour, they don’t work well in combination, especially when they are founded upon irreconcilable principles. So, what does our denomination do? It makes two incompatible, mutually exclusive leadership initiatives into a convoluted mishmash and tells us this is the answer we are looking for.

This is nothing new. We promote in tandem contradictory programs and processes all the time—Natural Church Development and Incubator, Deep Dive and Good to Great, Managing Transitions and Deep Change—we latch onto whatever is popular without taking the time to truly understand it, then we wonder why we consistently produce such mediocre results. The answer is simple—when you tell people the answer to their problems is to go east and to go west at the same time, it is pretty obvious why they don’t get very far!

Our Vital Congregations focus is based on copying best practices in prescriptive ways to produce quantitative increase that will strengthen the institutional church and allow it to grow to have more and do more with and for more people. A sound, workable plan.

Adaptive Leadership focuses on the unique nature of context and chemistry in each setting and states quite clearly that no one else has your solution. Leadership cannot be defined as copying what others have already done in hopes of duplicating their results. Best practices be damned! Furthermore, it is a generative process that strategically adjusts responsively to constantly changing conditions with the expectation of producing qualitative improvement that will enhance the impact it can make on a functional need.

A faithful application of Adaptive Leadership leads one far afield from a highly prescriptive and formulaic best practices scenario. And anyone who says, “well, we can do both,” or “we can use Adaptive Leadership to help us be more effective at Vital Congregations,” is simply showing how little they understand either approach. Vital Congregations is like a classical chamber orchestra and Adaptive Leadership is like improvisational jazz. Or using a different analogy, Vital Congregations is basketball and Adaptive Leadership is tennis—one based in a set of fundamentals, drills and execution, the other dependent on flexibility, adaptation and split-second adjustment. And if you want to become expert at both, you don’t do it by playing basketball on a tennis court. Inevitably, you merely fail at both and you struggle even to reach mediocrity.

A third metaphor is the boat and the dock. We are currently straddling a widening patch of water as the anchored dock of Vital Congregations (institutional preservation and survival) is losing connection with the sailing boat of Adaptive Leadership (a spiritual engagement paradigm with its gravitational center in the world). We can do one or the other well, but not both together or even at the same time.

Years ago I had a conversation with Peter Drucker, who noted in the early 1990s that United Methodist leadership seemed enamored with the latest and greatest business leadership fads, but that we lacked the discernment to understand how they were different. He also noted that we tended to favor the more formal, structured, formulaic approaches, even though they consistently proved to be less effective or appropriate. The quick-fix, “we did it, you can do it too” mentality leans us toward the best practices approach—generally to our detriment.

Terrence Deal, in a seminar at Vanderbilt University about a decade ago, made the claim that American mainline churches used to be in the business of raising children—that we understood the church as an organic entity that took time and nurture to mature. He made the analogy that if we want to raise a teenager, we have to wait 13 years—and you can’t speed up the process with gimmicks and techniques. However, with the fixation on church growth, mainline Christianity abandoned child-rearing for cloning—replicating the same church over and over, each copy expected to produce the same results of the model it copies. And what takes years in the world only takes months in the lab, so we don’t have to wait to produce the results we want. Vital Congregations = cloning; Adaptive Leadership = child-rearing. One is not the other.

Either Vital Congregations or Adaptive Leadership has the potential to produce good results. Opinion is divided on which offers the best promise—and in fact, there are some conferences in the denomination where Vital Congregations is more appropriate than Adaptive Leadership, and there are some conferences where the vice is versa. The point that is so critical at this juncture is that VC and AL are not compatible, and attempts to force them together will produce results that we do not want and probably cannot survive. My hope and prayer is that our bishops, boards, agencies, caucuses, seminaries, and prominent leaders will get together and choose just one path before we sub-optimize the church and make it impossible for either approach to succeed.

The Rev. Dick is director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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Thank you Dan. The observations you offer are simply not available anywhere else in our church. In the absence of general church leadership, one can only hope that someone(s) in each annual conference will read widely and be able to intelligently discern the way forward for them.

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