by Natalie Briscoe, Congregational Life Field Staff for the Southern Region of the UUA
When we talk about change issues in congregational systems, we often mention two distinct types. First, we have technical change. Technical Change Issues are those challenges that have a clear solution which can be implemented rather quickly and directly. Technical Change issues can often be addressed with few decision makers who have appropriate authority, such as the board of trustees or the program managers. Technical Change issues also have clear boundaries within the congregation and require change in just one or two areas. Technical change issues might include revising the time of the Sunday worship service, installing a sprinkler system to comply with insurance requirements, and adding an elevator to a multi-level building.
Adaptive Change Issues, in contrast, are usually more difficult to identify. They are often so difficult to identify that they become very easy to deny, ignore, or mistake for a set of technical issues. Adaptive change issues often require changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships, pedagogy, working styles, or underlying philosophy of organization. They require change in numerous areas of the congregation which crosses internal program and departmental boundaries (involve ministry, religious education, pastoral care, justice making, etc). Adaptive change issues require visioning, experimentation, and discovery to work through. There may not even be any clear solutions, and change takes a very long time to both implement and measure. In essence, when we talk about Adaptive Change issues, we are talking about issues of meaning, purpose, and culture.
Some change issues in your congregation may have both adaptive and technical aspects. They can be intertwined, making the adaptive issues even more difficult to identify. For example, your congregation may have a meeting space that is only accessible via stairs. The adaptive issue is the congregation’s commitment to being welcoming and the technical issue is installing a ramp or lift.
Not surprisingly, most individuals and congregations as a whole are generally receptive to and on board with technical change. Technical solutions are usually concrete, measurable, and relatively simple. Technical change requires some sacrifice, possibly financially or of convenience, but will not require any individual to adjust to long-term change or discomfort. Adaptive work, on the other hand, can be frustrating and slow. It may require the congregation to be uncomfortable for long periods of time, which is something that we usually don’t tolerate well in congregational life. These uncomfortable feelings are why visioning and defining a congregation’s core values are so important to the process of adaptive change. If a congregation can keep its values and vision in mind, then it can weather the storms that come with adaptive changes.
You may have heard your Congregational Life Field Staff encouraging the leaders of congregations to lean in to adaptive changes, even though they may be difficult, murky, or uncomfortable. Adaptive change is the real work of transformation, and we recognize that the feelings it causes may make some people want to move away from those issues. In situations where the adaptive issues have risen to the surface, focusing on technical change can make a congregation feel good and productive, but it can also be a distraction from the real issues at hand. It can be the band aid over a much larger chasm of issues.
In all of this work, though, technical change issues tend to get a bad reputation. In our efforts to focus on the difficult adaptive change issues, we tend to think, “Oh, that is just a technical solution! That’s not the adaptive issue!” It’s very wise and healthy to be able to identify the difference between technical and adaptive change issues, and even wiser to see which solution you are looking for at any given time. It is wonderful when a group of leaders can see that they are focusing on technical change issues to avoid the adaptive ones.
Some issues, though, do require technical solutions. Making a huge adaptive issue out of the fact that the dishwasher is broken is really just another form of work-avoidance. Avoiding the real issues at hand can go both ways, because, after all, there are just so many reasons not to do anything new ever.
Technical change issues can also be steps toward adaptive change. For example, if you’d like to practice whole church community and your shared core values are leading you toward multigenerational worship, fellowship, service, and learning, it would probably be disastrous to declare that all worships are now multigenerational starting with the new church year. Surprise! It might be easier to chart a course of smaller technical changes that give congregants an opportunity to experiment and explore a multigenerational community in digestible doses. You may start with a multigenerational justice project once a year, an all-church dance or pot-luck a few times per year, an eight-week multigenerational religious education offering, an all-ages camp, or a weeknight offering where people of all ages get to form meaningful relationships. By gradually increasing these offerings and building on your successes, you can, in a matter of years, achieve the whole family church that you are yearning for! The technical change issues help to build you toward the adaptive issues that you long to see.
In conclusion, as always, I invite you to contact your Primary Contact Field Staff member if you would like a partner in discerning the technical and adaptive change issues in your congregation, or if you would like help in determining what your next steps as a community of faith could be. There is literally nothing we can’t begin together! Finishing it, well, that depends on the adaptive issue!