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What if Christian Ministry was really Complex?

Posted: 24/08/17

This article was written by Graham Stanton and first published on the Mathew Hale Public Library website.

That might seem like a fairly obvious question. If complex means “consisting of many different and connected parts” then of course Christian ministry is complex! There’s preaching and evangelism and pastoral care and morning tea rosters and child safety training and small groups and leadership training and community outreach and workplace health and safety and overseas mission support and parish council and on and on and on. Perhaps a better question is what is there about Christian ministry that isn’t complex!

My question is coming from a more technical angle, in terms of the Cynefin Framework [1]. Cynefin, meaning context or habitat, is rapidly becoming the most internationally well-known word from the Welsh language. Pronounced to rhyme with Kevin, but with an additional n at the beginning, the Cynefin Framework is a sense-making framework to identify different contexts in which we make decisions and pursue action.

The Cynefin Framework distinguishes between systems that are simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

In simple systems, cause-and-effect is straightforward and so the right actions will lead to your desired outcomes. To make good decisions you need to get a sense of the situation you face, identify the category of action that you’re dealing with, and pursue the right response: sense, categorise, respond. So, if it’s time for morning tea, you know you need to fill the kettle, turn the kettle on, put the tea-bag in a cup, and pour boiling water over. There may be debate about whether it’s better to use a tea-pot instead of tea-bags, and whether the milk should go in first or not, but besides that, making a cup of tea is a simple affair.

Complicated systems are basically the same as simple systems in that there are stable patterns of cause-and-effect, but they’re just a bit more complicated than making a cup of tea. A flushing toilet is simple, a car is complicated. I don’t know how a car works, but I know that it’s possible to work it out. In a complicated system cause-and-effect is at least knowable, even if not known. Rather than simply identifying which category of action we’re dealing with, complicated systems call for some careful analysis of what’s going on. Leaders sense, analyse, and respond. This is the realm of expert advisors and consultants. Rather than identifying “best practice” (which implies one way of proceeding that ought to be followed by everyone everywhere every time), complicated systems look for “good practice”. Given that analysis will always be an interpretation and open to alternative explanations, there’s likely to be various strategies that can reach the desired outcome.

Simple and complicated systems are alike because there are generally stable relationships that exist between cause and effect. Complex and chaotic systems are ones where there’s no such stability.

In chaos cause-and-effect breaks down entirely. Things are so chaotic that there is no way of predicting what might happen next and no discernable pattern in the events that have unfolded. In times of chaos, such as the days following the 9/11 attacks on New York, effective leadership needs decisive action in the hope of restoring some semblance of order. In chaos, leaders act first, then try to make sense of what’s happening, then respond.

Complex systems are like chaotic ones in that the effect of various causes cannot be predicted. Complex systems have so many inputs, and so many possible causal links between inputs and combinations of inputs, that the result of any one change is too difficult to know in advance. A Ferrari is complicated; the Amazon rainforest is complex. Furthermore, in complex systems, because the environment within which the situation exists is changing so frequently, what happened once before cannot be guaranteed to have the same effect again. Playing chess is complicated; a six-year-old birthday party is complex.

But unlike chaotic systems, even though cause-and-effect cannot be predicted, there’s enough stability in a complex system that patterns of cause-and-effect can still be discerned, if only in hindsight. Complexity therefore calls for widespread consultation and experimentation in order to discern “emergent practice”. It’s not a case of “anything goes” since experimenters need some clear boundaries to open a space to explore. With a clear objective or outcome for the mission, five or ten or more experiments might fail, but the mission and objective remains valid. As Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Complexity needs multiple safe-to-fail experiments rather than one fail-safe strategy. Leaders in complex systems probe, sense, and respond. Those experiments that move us toward our desired goal are repeated and amplified; those that don’t are dampened or deleted.

The Cynefin framework has been widely applied in areas such as business strategy, software design, and political action.  I’ve found it helpful also for thinking about Christian ministry.

Some aspects of Christian ministry are simple in the sense of being able to identify best practice methods to learn and implement. How to chair a parish council meeting efficiently, how to organise a volunteer roster and contact database, what to do if a child reports an experience of abuse: these are all ‘simple’ systems where, once you’ve identified what sort of situation you’re facing, there are clear steps to follow.

Other aspects of Christian ministry are more complicated, such as, how to build an evangelistic culture in a church. There’s no simple lever to pull that will guarantee an increase in enthusiasm for outreach. Part of the complication will be properly understanding the existing obstacles to outreach: how committed are congregation members to their own faith? How confident are congregation members that nothing embarrassing will happen at church the morning they bring their friends? What are the social needs of the surrounding community and where might there be openings for sharing the good news of Jesus? Some expert advice and analysis, such as the results of the National Church Life Survey, can be helpful with these kinds of questions.

There may also be times when Christian ministry is in chaos, such as times of sudden change, or major pastoral crises. Chaotic times will call for a firm hand to be able to steady the ship. We have such a firm hand in our sovereign God. Ministry in chaotic times will echo the psalmists and prophets who draw our attention back to the enduring faithfulness of God. “Though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas… The LORD of Armies is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold” (Psalm 46) [2]; “I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. You will not be scorched when you walk through the fire, and the flame will not burn you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, and your Saviour” (Isaiah 43:2-3). In chaos it’s time to come together and pray. In chaos we cling to the Word, “as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).

My hunch is that churches and church leaders are reasonably clear about how to operate within simple, complicated, and chaotic systems. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy. Even simple situations such as mandatory reporting aren’t easy. But the difficulty of those situations lies more in doing what we know to be right, rather than in working out what the right thing to do might be.

But what if Christian ministry was really complex? It strikes me that churches are facing lots of complex questions today where working out the right thing to do leaves us floundering.

How might we reach our ever-shifting culture with the unchanging gospel of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus? There are numerous inputs. Each congregation member comes with individual gifts and needs, all with personal and collective histories, all with interconnecting relationships among one-another and in the surrounding community. The people we are called to love and serve in the name of Christ are numerous and varied, shaped in all manner of ways by the surrounding culture. And that culture, that not only shapes the world but impinges on the church as well, is made up of many elements and influences, where even the pace of change is changing apace. The task of living as the people of God in this present age is complex.

But rather than being intimidated or terrified by the challenges of our context, recognising the complexity of the system can be an exciting invitation to lean into the gifts of God that are ours in Christ by the Spirit.

Where complex systems call for widespread consultation, the church is a multi-generational and multi-cultural community united in the Spirit. The question, “how might we reach our community with the gospel of Christ” is addressed to the priesthood of all believers, where we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28); “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all given one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Ministry in a complex age calls for creating spaces for conversations, discussions, brainstorming, and daydreaming so that all the members of the church can think about how we might fulfil our shared calling.

Where complex systems call for safe-to-fail experiments, the church is equipped with the safety-net of a merciful, gracious, and sovereign God. We know we won’t always get everything right, but if our identity is secure in Christ rather than dependent on the success of our ministry, then we’ll be free to try. We know that our efforts are often feeble and uncertain, but when we know “it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12), then we’ll be released to “work out our own salvation” even without a detailed set of instructions to follow. And even if we try ten things and ten of them fail, we know Jesus’ promise that he “will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it (Matthew 16:18), so perhaps the eleventh experiment will see some fruit.

Finally, where complex systems call for a clear objective and outcome for the mission, the church is guided by the gospel of Christ and the means of grace. Perhaps here is the particular calling of the pastor teacher—to tell the wondrous story of the Christ who died for us all. In preaching the gospel, Christian ministers keep drawing the focus of the church to the boundary conditions on our experimentation: All we do is for the glory of God; the tools of our trade are the word of God and prayer; we are not here to be served but to serve; we are better together. As we engage in the task of discovering how we might fulfil our calling to be the new humanity in Christ, we must “let the word of Christ dwell richly among us, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in our hearts” (Colossians 3:16).

There’s a lot of Christian ministry today that is really complex. Thank God that we’ve haven’t been given “a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgement” (1 Timothy 1:7). So we pray, “Send us out in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory”.

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[1] Snowden, David J., and Mary E. Boone. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”  Harvard Business Review, no. November (2007). https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making.; Kurtz, C. F., and David J. Snowden. “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World.” IBM Systems Journal 42, no. 3 (2003): 462-83; For a brief introduction to the framework from originator, David Snowden, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7oz366X0-8

[2] All Scripture quotations are from the Christian Standard Bible, Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.

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