By Mike Queen
Consultant with The Center for Healthy Churches
Every organization, including our churches, has deeply held beliefs about ‘how things are done around here’. Larry Keeley of the Doblin division of Deloitte Consulting calls these deeply held beliefs ‘orthodoxies’. He defines an orthodoxy as “a set of pervasive beliefs that often go unstated and unchallenged…They shape strategy and create blind spots…They are the rules, tools, techniques and behaviors we accept or agree to…They are ingrained ways of thinking and acting- from habit or from previous successes…They are commonly held across the organization.”
Orthodoxies are not always bad. Some orthodoxies are essential to define identity and purpose. But knowing when an orthodoxy has devolved from being inspirational and helpful to being a detriment is never easy. We tend to get attached to our orthodoxies, particularly those that have served us well.
In the churched world of most of the twentieth century there were some generally accepted orthodoxies in most churches. Things like: worship takes place at 11am on Sunday morning, worship services last no more than one hour, clergy all have a seminary degree, Vacation Bible School will be held for one week each summer, and the name on the church sign serves as a helpful identifier. All around us, in both new churches and in re-imagined existing churches, these kinds of orthodoxies have been flipped.
This is a much easier process when a church is being planted or is in its earliest years. In older established churches, it requires someone with the courage to question the prevailing orthodoxies.
In an article titled ‘Flipping Orthodoxies: Overcoming Insidious Obstacles to Innovation’ (Rotman Magazine, Fall 2011, pp.60-65), Bansi Nagji and Helen Walters contend that absent a plan, orthodoxies will continually block innovation in any organization. They said, “Overcoming orthodoxies rarely happens in isolation or as a one-off exercise. They are generally far too pervasive and deeply rooted to overturn by decree or exhortation. Rather, you have to design initiatives in such a way that you can identify, discuss and challenge key orthodoxies.”
To that end, they offered five steps toward the goal of flipping unhealthy orthodoxies. Here they are adapted for the church.
1. Be ruthless about finding them. The very process of naming orthodoxies in your church can be quite threatening. Even the most open-minded person will hold some of them dearly. A good way to identify them is to engage younger people in the congregation or those who are new to the congregation. They will not be as blinded by tradition or habit. Remember, some orthodoxies need to be cherished, but those that that no longer serve the greater mission and vision of the church must be identified and held up to honest, truthful scrutiny. They must be named.
2. Ask ‘why not?’ on a regular basis. As the authors have noted, “Asking ‘why not?’ isn’t simply the prerogative of whiny children, it’s a useful exercise to insure you’re not slipping into bad habits or missing important opportunities.” When my former colleague, Jeannie Troutman, announced to me that she wanted to replace our traditional VBS with something else, I said, “You can’t do that.” She said ‘why not?’ VBS had become an orthodoxy at our church. In three years she transitioned us from a ‘free’ VBS with 75 to 80 children to ‘fee-based’ Camp Jonah and Camp Creation with over 400 kids learning about God and God’s love for them. Ask ‘why not?’
3. Widen your field of vision. You can learn a lot from others. As a pastor, I quit going to big conferences. Instead, I began to visit other churches that were doing innovative mission and ministry. Those visits inspired me to see church and congregational life in new and innovative ways. What I learned from others reshaped the trajectory of my entire ministry.
4. Be a credible heretic. People who challenge ‘the way things have always been done’ are often seen as heretics. To be credible, says Jeff Semenchuk, “You have to acknowledge the orthodoxy and the good reason it existed in the first place, and then you have to be willing-in an open, positive, sometimes playful way-to challenge that.”
5. Recognize those who dare. This tends to be easier in business than in the world of the church. We need to learn to celebrate those people who launch new ministries; even those that fail. This one strategy will encourage others to dare and to take risks.
The authors concluded, (paraphrased for the church) ‘Leaders everywhere need to dare to imagine a different future that encompasses more than just business as usual. If the process of overturning orthodoxies is not deliberately adopted by the church leadership, old patterns are certain to re-emerge.
None of this is easy. There is a fine line between a winning formula and hardwired assumptions that constrain a church. But through careful assessment and conscious choices, you can discern between self-imposed limitations and the true cornerstones of your church and its mission.’
A native of West Virginia, Mike Queen, has served churches in North Carolina the last 36 years. Recently retired after twenty-five years as pastor at First Baptist Church in Wilmington, NC, Mike, along with his colleague Jayne Davis, has founded a ministry of encouragement called Hopeful Imagination to work with traditional churches dedicated to finding God’s way in a changing world. Mike and Bobbie, his wife of 45 years, live in Wilmington and they have continued their ministry by serving as interim pastor in other NC churches.