In dealing with adaptive challenges (e.g. changing demographics or attitudes toward religious institutions) congregational leaders can learn some wisdom from the old folktale about the 7 Blind Men and the Elephant. Each of the men could feel a part of the creature, and each came up with his own interpretation of what he was experiencing: The man touching the tail thought it was a rope, the man touching the ear thought it was a large leaf, the man touching the leg thought it was a tree, and so on.
There is a term in Adaptive Leadership called “getting on the balcony.” It’s a metaphor for the practice of shifting your point of view from the “dance floor” where you can only see what is happening close to you, to a point of view that looks at the whole “dance floor.” In our case, it’s the practice of looking at a congregational system as a whole.
Like the men in the folk tale, congregational leaders need each other to get on the balcony and to help see the big picture and clarify their own thinking. In other words, each member of a leadership team has a line of sight into the congregation and their own personal history that colors their perception. When leaders trust one another, they can ask one another to help check their own biases that might be influencing their perception of an issue.
One useful tool is this simple exercise that will assist you in taking an adaptive challenge and sort out what are your observations, your interpretations and your judgments. On a sheet of paper or newsprint, create 3 columns, one for each kind of thinking.
These are items of observable fact. This list may include data that you’ve gathered or compiled, or anecdotal information from surveys, interviews, etc.
In the example I’ve listed some facts related to a church that is declining in membership.
These are different ways to interpret the observations. This is where it is helpful to have a diversity of ages, cultures and other experiences in leadership. If you have only one interpretation or “story” implied by the interpretations, it may be time to bring some new and different kinds of people into leadership.
In the example I list a couple of different interpretations of what might be happening. In a group, I would hope to have many more.
These include the opinions of how you feel or judge the situation. This will help you to sort out your feelings and biases about different interpretations. How are you judging those involved? Do you see them as good or bad, right or wrong? Does a different interpretation lead to a different judgment?
When faced by an adaptive challenge, it’s often tempting to blame a group of the people involved. It’s important to name what our judgments are (and all of us have judgments!) so that we can focus on the interpretations and use them to help design “interventions” to address the adaptive challenge.
-Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, Congregational Life Staff
- The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and Your World by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky
- Workshop 12 of Harvest the Power, a free Tapestry of Faith Curriculum
- Adaptive Leadership free, on-demand webinar
- Leading Adaptively hybrid/in-person/online course offered in CERG and MidAmerica (audit option is also available)