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Getting to the Heart of the Matter

By Kristine Blaess

As we are taking stock after the pandemic, I notice in myself and in my congregation an increased clarity about who we are and what we are about. We are disciples of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. We are forming people into the body of Christ. We are connecting with our neighbors, trusting that some nights we are entertaining angels unawares in our overnight shelter or as we share meals. At the same time, this is a season of perplexity. So much is new. People are connecting to the church differently. There are fresh opportunities, but also growth pangs, leadership transitions, conflict, and grief over inevitable endings.

One of my favorite tools for prayerfully engaging perplexity is Peter Senge’s set of systems archetypes. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Senge offers eight archetypes, or “Nature’s Templates” that help identify patterns in emotional systems. These archetypes help with discerning repeating patterns of cause and effect. They can reveal potential leverage points for change.

I use most often Senge’s “Shifting the Burden” archetype. This archetype is particularly useful for intractable problems. For instance, we may wonder why a problem is gradually getting worse, even though it has moments of improvement? Or, why is the system gradually getting less healthy despite our best efforts? Or, what is it that is making people in the church feel helpless? Sometimes our members start with a new solution, feeling euphoric because we think we have solved the problem, but end up feeling like victims.

The insight undergirding the “Shifting the Burden” archetype is that some problems are either too difficult to see clearly or too costly and difficult to address. We feel uncomfortable and helpless in the face of these problems. These foundational problems, unaddressed, cause other problems that are symptoms of the original problem. “Shifting the Burden” happens when, instead of dealing with the foundational problem, we shift the burden to address the symptom. This alternate solution may temporarily relieve the symptoms, but over time reinforces the symptomatic side effects as it weakens our ability to address the foundational problem.

Addressing the symptom appeals to us because symptomatic solutions do often ease the system’s stress for a time. They seem easier, and they give the illusion that the problem is resolved. However, if the symptomatic solution is continued, over time it can make the foundational problem worse and cause atrophy in our ability to address it.

For instance, nasal spray effectively treats the symptom of congestion that accompanies a cold. However, the spray does not treat the foundational problem: the cold. We feel better for a while when we use nasal spray, but over time it can make the stuffiness worse, reinforcing the nasal inflammation by interrupting our body’s natural ability to manage swelling in nasal membranes.

If we want lasting health, we need a foundational solution that addresses the real problem. Instead of relying on nasal spray to treat a cold, we might take steps that allow our bodies to heal: rest, hydrate, eat nutritious food. We might also make lifestyle changes which would reduce our vulnerability to illness: build our immune systems by managing stress and exercising regularly, or limit exposure to viruses by washing hands often and avoiding close contact with people who are ill.

If churches want lasting spiritual health and growth, we need to get to the heart of the matter. We need foundational solutions that address our real problems. We sometimes shy away from these foundational problems and solutions because they can be both difficult to see clearly and difficult and costly to address. But we are in good company as we attempt to get to the root of problems. Parishes and dioceses all around our church are working on their foundational problems and experiencing transformation as they do.

Several years ago, a judicatory with whom I worked became concerned about the seemingly intractable problem of supporting its small churches. Like many judicatories, a substantial portion of its limited budget was dedicated to grants that subsidized the ministries of its small churches. These grants kept the churches open, but none of the churches were thriving.

Judicatory leaders wondered how to support these churches so they might do more than just exist, and perhaps even flourish. We gathered a task force made up of the judicatory’s board of trustees, Committee on Resources and Strategies, and small church representatives to clarify the vision for the grant that was subsidizing the ministries. To tease out the foundational problem, symptomatic solutions, and reinforcing side effects, we created a “Shifting the Burden” story using the Shifting the Burden archetype.

I anticipated we might identify the foundational problem inhibiting the flourishing of our small churches as lack of funding. But the group chose to get to the heart of the matter, finally naming lack of Christian identity as the foundational problem. They generated a foundational response consisting of Christian identity formation through discipleship and leadership formation. They listed symptomatic solutions that had been used in the past — grants, staffing reconfiguration, stewardship drives. They noted the reinforcing side effects caused by the symptomatic solutions — atrophy of leadership ability, difficulty recruiting leadership talent, emphasizing membership and financial numbers over engaging in the community, and loss of courage to engage in mission.

The group was encouraged by what they had discovered as they got to the heart of the matter and went on to reconfigure the grant process to focus on discipleship and leadership formation. They charged the Committee on Resources and Strategies to help equip congregational leaders to form their congregations in discipleship and mission. This foundational solution will take a number of years to bear fruit, as investment in well-discipled leaders who are growing into the maturity of Christ takes time. But over time, this investment will strengthen the parishes as their leaders grow in their Christian identity.

One of the gifts of the pandemic is space — spiritual, emotional, and social space — created by the disruption in all of our lives and communities. This newly opened space allows us, if we choose, to get to the heart of the matter in our own lives. It gives us room to consider anew the foundational problems that perplex us. None of our lives, families, or ministry contexts are the same as they were three years ago.

Although the pandemic kept us scrambling to treat the “symptoms” of a scattered, isolated, and frightened populace, it also gave us a greater gift. It stripped away layers of habit and assumption and revealed more clearly the foundational problems. We are members of a humanity frightened and scattered as powers and principalities separate us from God and one another. But the good news is, we are part of a creation that even now is being redeemed through Jesus Christ. I will be praying for God’s grace for all of us, that his Holy Spirit will pour forth anew on the Church as we take fresh courage to get to the heart of the matter and attend to the foundational problems.

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