Like many at the start of this pandemic lockdown I went all Marie Kondo on my home. In the process I came across handwritten notes from a talk Ron Heifetz (Godfather of Adaptive Change) gave several years ago.  An audience member posed a question to Heifetz after his speech that went something like this: I get how to approach Adaptive Change when you have the luxury of climbing on the balcony and studying the patterns.  But what if you’re faced with a crisis? How might Adaptive Change inform the best response?

As I enter week 10 of SIP (Sheltering in Place) those notes come to mind: Stages of response matter. Our default switch as eager problem-solvers is to rush in and fix. It’s a natural reflex, and one we frequently fall into the trap Heifetz describes as slapping technical fixes on adaptive challenges.  Based on Heifetz’ sense of Staged Response, I discerned four distinct serial stages our churches must go through.

1.  TRIAGE – Assessing the immediate damage and danger. For the church in the middle of Lent this became, “How to get everybody through Easter!”  or, as we joke, suddenly every pastor we know became a Televangelist!  Suddenly after years of patiently coaxing often reluctant church teams into using Zoom as a tool for distance coaching, one thing I know for sure:  I’ll never have to teach a congregation how to use Zoom again! They all became masters overnight. (Adaptive note: Necessity is the Mother of Innovation!)

2.  FRAGILITY – Where are the cracks? I live in earthquakes country.  Immediately after initial triage, they start looking for cracks in the bridges, the overpasses, the buildings, power grids, systems, etc.  In the church, our job is checking for the financial, mental, physical and spiritual ‘cracks’. This is the stage we are in now. Helping our churches, preschools, food ministries, etc. apply for SBA/PPP loans, and other denomination-based funds and services.  Our pastors are checking in on their flocks – how are they coping during SIP?  Maybe have some zoom coffee hours, zoom prayer groups and Bible studies.  Especially check in on our non-wifi and shut-in folks.  Deacon phone trees, grocery shopping, meal deliveries, etc.  And we need to be checking on our pastors- most of whom are exhausted, over-functioning, and feeling isolated.  For most, virtual worship is at least twice as taxing as ‘regular’ worship. Clergy zoom gatherings can offer a safe space, if we are sensitive to the very real issue of Zoom Fatigue!

3.  NEW NORMAL – Normal is our nemesis at this stage!  As we approach this third stage it’s all about re-entry, gathering again for in-person worship, etc. How will we do things differently?  Notice I said ‘regular’ worship earlier. There may be no such thing as ‘regular’ again. When a church burns down, the power to go back to what was ‘normal’ is dominant– to rebuild the sanctuary exactly as it was, even though there were flaws in that design.  This finding the “New Normal” phase will have technical and adaptive issues .Technically, how do we do worship together safely – the offering plate, communion, baptism, passing the peace, a printed bulletin, seating, sanitizing, singing, coffee hour, online giving, etc. The main point is that some old Normal needs to fall away – bless it and bury it!  Acknowledge with our folks that we may miss it.  This is decidedly NOT about RESTORATION! The temple may be in rubble- let’s not necessarily rebuild it as it was!

4.  SORTING – A time of deep discernment.  Think of Phyllis Tickle‘s notion of the Rummage Sale that Christianity holds every 500 years. What is essential and what is fleeting? This stage is all about asking the WHO, the WHAT and the WHY – but not the HOW. Not yet! The HOW gets us stuck in technical fixes for adaptive problems. This is a time to experiment and fail – try new things, see what from our SIP time we may keep, like continuing with certain committee meetings on zoom, like a noontime zoom lunch with prayer, bible study or just fellowship.  This can be a time of pulling out some real lay talent that has been dormant.  

Just as I will never have to teach how to zoom, I will never again have to encourage a congregation to imagine WHO and WHAT they are without a church building!  That used to be a tough exercise.  No more. Hopefully we can deeply discern the WHO, WHAT, and WHY of Church with experiential imagination now, and we will be the stronger for it!  

As Churchill said, Never let a good crisis go to waste!  Experiment, celebrate successes and failures, and discern the voice of the Holy Spirit!  This is KAIROS TIME!

Rev. Deborah London Wright is a PCUSA minister and Principal in PneuMatrix, an Adaptive Change Consulting Group based in Northern California