What's Tony Thinking

A Spiritual Challenge


(Parenthetical Note: You may have noticed, I’ve been posting more during the CV crisis. Perhaps it’s a way I’m managing my own anxiety? But I also hope that my posts are proving helpful to you, my readers, during this strange, hard time. If, for you, I’m “over-posting,” forgive me. I trust you know how to punch the delete button if that’s the case. That said, I’m grateful to have nearly 4,000 subscribers. I think of you, at least to some extent, as “my congregation,” and seek to offer support, provocation, consolation and encouragement all the time, but especially now.)

So, in my ministry and in my teaching and consulting, I’ve utilized a really important distinction drawn from the work of Ron Heifetz (Kennedy School at Harvard). Heifetz distinguishes between “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges.” In real-life, these mostly come bundled, that is, there are technical aspects to challenges before us, but also adaptive elements. Heifetz’s claim is that leaders fail when they ignore the adaptive elements of what we face and treat everything as only a technical problem.

A quick definition of terms. When you are dealing with a technical problem, the problem itself is clear and known. The solution is the application of an existing technique. And the job usually falls to experts. So, for me a technical challenge has been sinus infections. It’s something that’s relatively common, that is to say “known.” The solution is available, antibiotics. An expert, a doctor or PA, matches problem to solution. All I have to do is take the pills.

Adaptive challenges are different. They usher us into unknown, uncharted territory. We don’t quite know what we’re up against. To even name the challenge we face accurately requires learning and changed ways of thinking. The needed responses also requires learning and some element of risk (trying things we haven’t tried before). And the work is done not by experts but by us, by those who face the challenge. We don’t get to off-load responsibility.

In my work with congregations I noted that we often described the challenge we faced as a “technical problem.” We said, “We need more members. We need more younger people.” Solution, membership growth techniques and an expert, a pastor/preacher who will fix it for us. But mostly we (mainline Protestant churches) have faced something deeper and bigger, and frankly, more interesting. An adaptive challenge: the culture of American Christendom, with its explicit and implicit supports for the church, is over. Huge adaptive challenge. How to be church in a new time, in a changed culture. Figuring out what’s going on requires learning. Responding entails more learning and risk. The the work is done not by a single expert with a silver bullet, by the people facing the challenge — congregations — supported and guided by leaders.

So we’re now facing a huge adaptive challenge as a nation and a world. We have a name for it, COVID-19, but that’s not really adequate because there’s so much we don’t know. We’re facing something new, a global pandemic whose trajectory and consequences are hidden. Some of the solutions are known practices, e.g. washing hands. But some are more complex and require more learning and adaptation on our part. We’re all, for example, in the process of learning what “social distancing” means. It is counter-intuitive. What people instinctively do in a crisis is come together, not isolate or distance. While some of the work before us will be done by experts, public health officials and health care workers, a lot of what’s going on now is that all of us are trying to figure out our role and what it means for our lives. We’re doing huge adaptive work. So, if you’re perplexed/ fatigued/ overwhelmed, it’s not without reason!

I particularly liked this distinction and found it helpful because I viewed what Heifetz called “adaptive challenges” as “spiritual challenges.” They involved loss (all sorts of losses facing each of us now), risk (trying things that we don’t already know how to do, getting out of our comfort zone), and requires change of hearts and mind. Doing adaptive work is transformative. It doesn’t mean taking a pill, but changing our lives.

We are being, and will be transformed, by this crisis in ways we do not now know. Whether those will, on balance, be positive or negative depends on whether we take on the adaptive work before us at this strange time, rising to its challenge — or insist that some expert fix it all for us. From where I sit, I would say our national leadership has not done a great job to date. But people (looking at you!) are rising to the occasion, adapting with courage and creativity. There’s adaptive work being done by employers and employees, by parents and children, by public officials and private citizens. Some of it involves technical elements: e.g. ZOOM for worship, FaceTime for interaction with grandchildren. But the really important stuff, living with huge uncertainty, grieving losses, managing fears, figuring out what we can do and what we can’t, changing routines and finding new ones, that’s facing us all.

This pandemic isn’t just a technical problem to be solved by the right expert or drug (although we hope a vaccine is identified). It is an adaptive challenge, a spiritual challenge, for each of us, for our nation and world. How to live now? How to understand our responsibility now?

An example of a creative adaptive response, one that came to my attention today, was an effort underway in San Francisco to help restaurants survive and to get health workers on the front lines supported. The idea: a donor puts up $1000 for a meal for fifty health care workers. The restaurants prepare it. The restaurants are given business, important business. Health care workers are fed and supported. Change of hearts and minds all around.

This is already a long post, so I’ll conclude for now. Main point, suddenly, without planning or choice, we are all facing a huge adaptive challenge — a huge spiritual challenge — which involves loss, risk and requires change of hearts and minds. It is likely more pain lies ahead. But I believe that we may emerge stronger and better for facing this challenge with hope and courage. Bless you all!

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