In September, I travelled to Montreal to facilitate a Clergy Conference focused on adaptive leadership. Throughout COVID, the church in many quarters has prided itself on its ability to adapt, and yet, when I look at it, in most cases we have not adapted—we have merely applied technical solutions to adaptive challenges.
A technical solution is one that has a clear answer and can be implemented with authority. Our shift to online church, while not something that many of us were used to, had a simple solution. It could be set up rapidly. There were experts and there was technology that could help us implement a solution rather quickly. There was some learning to be done, but it was not monumental.
An adaptive solution, on the other hand, requires changes in the way things are done. Such a solution requires, not simply that we change what we are doing, but also our mindset and approaches. Solutions to these problems do not come primarily from people in authority, but from the place where the problem is being experienced. Those who are experiencing the impacts of a problem often have vital insight into ways of addressing the issue that is causing them harm.
While in Montreal, I floated the question I asked in my last column for The HighWay: “Is the Church killing clergy?”
The reaction was immediate. When I asked that question, you could feel the energy in the room shift. Yes. Of course. The way things are right now is leading ordained leaders to experience all the typical signs of exhaustion and burnout.
The causes are multiple and multifaceted. They are experienced personally and individually. But the problems aren’t solely about the individual. Therapist and researcher, Dr. Hillary McBride notes that “burnout is felt in the body, mind, relationship, and spirit of the person experiencing it, but it is a result of relational and systemic dysfunction.”
What this says is that for the end results to change, we need to address the systems that are leading in this particular direction.
My work in organization and congregational development has shown me that often in the face of complex adaptive challenges, we vehemently resist acknowledging what is required. By way of analogy, we’d rather build a dike than contend with the reality of sea-level rise. And yet, in many low-lying areas on the Pacific coast, dikes and levees can do little to ward off the oceans rising as a result of climate change and global warming. So it is with clergy health. There’s no out-of-the-box solution to address this challenge, but there is still hope.
So, how might we move forward in the face of current reality?
One place to start is this. In all of our work, we might begin to ask, “How might we be a diocese where clergy thrive?” Alongside the other questions we are asking ourselves—in parishes, regions, and across the diocese— what if a thriving college of clergy were to be made one of the end goals of our ministry, and not just left to happenstance.
How would this shape our ministry? How would this shape our interactions with one another? How would this shape our policies and procedures, let alone our mindsets, approaches, and the systems that govern our work?
Sometimes we need to frame our questions differently. In a time when we can find ourselves somewhat anxious about the future, we often look at the vast sea of change, and find ourselves uncertain as to what to address next. In cases such as these, it can be helpful to frame the question in a way that will help us to address one part of the problem. When we start to address one aspect of the challenge, it will ripple out to other areas as well.
And that is my prayer: That we might be a diocese and a church where clergy thrive: That we might be a diocese and a church where lay people thrive. That we might be a diocese and a church, so filled with God’s self-giving love, that we too might give ourselves for the life of the world.