Members of the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area’s three conference delegations met together during the event to discuss the implications of adaptive change strategies for their work together. Photo by Patrick Scriven.

A UMNS Report by Heather Hahn

NASHVILLE, TN – Don’t be surprised if you hear church leaders use the phrase “adaptive leadership” multiple times during the next four years.

That phrase served as the recurring theme of the 2013 Quadrennial Training Event, which drew nearly 1,000 United Methodists to the Gaylord Opryland resort in Nashville, Tenn., from Jan. 17 to 20. Put another way, the gathering attracted almost as many people as were delegates at last year’s General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly.

Since 2005, the United Methodist Board of Discipleship has sponsored the event every four years for annual (regional) conference leaders, bishops, agency staff and other church leaders, mostly from the United States. One of the gathering’s main goals is getting denominational leaders on the same page as they head into a new period in the life of the church.

“My hope for the event is to give people a shared language,” the Rev. Susan Beaumont, one of the event’s main speakers, told United Methodist News Service.

She is an ordained Baptist minister and senior consultant with the Alban Institute, which provides resources to develop U.S. congregations and clergy.

“What I have found is when people have a common language to talk about something they’re experiencing and they can articulate it, 90 percent of the time they can move forward,” she said. “Where people get stuck is when they’re experiencing something they don’t know how to give language to.”

Germany Area Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, offered another goal for the gathering. She was speaking to the Connectional Table, which met immediately before the training event and coordinates the denomination’s ministry and resources.

“I hope we can help each other to build trust,” she said. “I think this is one of the most important challenges for us in our denomination that there is so much mistrust.”

She hoped the event would remind the church that “all United Methodists are called by God, and together, we can learn how to be better witnesses of God’s love and God’s grace.”

What is adaptive leadership?

Beaumont defines “adaptive leadership” as the ability to mobilize people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. Adaptive leaders, she told the gathering, build up their organization’s ability “to live in a less predictable, more ambiguous environment and learn to adapt to changing circumstances as a way of life.”

About adaptive leadership

Dr. Ron Heifetz, a physician and founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, developed and popularized the concept of adaptive leadership.

His work has since garnered a following among both business and religious leaders. During the previous four years, many United Methodist bishops studied his work.

“All this adaptive stuff, it so translates to the world of church that denominational structures everywhere are starting to talk a lot about this,” the Rev. Susan Beaumont, senior consultant with the Alban Institute, told United Methodist News Service.

“The United Methodist Church is a bit farther along into the dialogue than other denominations.”

Such leaders, she said, make space for the ideas and initiatives of people who often are at the margins of their organizations, outside the usual lines of authority. They frequently lead, not by taking charge, but, rather, by connecting people.

Raleigh (N.C.) Area Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, another event speaker, offered an example of adaptive leadership from her time as a district superintendent. In 2003, a pastor who had never been to Africa told her he felt God calling him to care for orphans on the continent.

He then asked Ward whether she knew anyone in Africa. Ward at that point knew only one person, a Zimbabwe conference treasurer. But she was able to connect the two men, and the pastor traveled to Zimbabwe. The conversation she facilitated was the beginning of the creation of ZOE Ministry, which helps children and youth orphaned by AIDS and other causes to become self-sufficient.

“Most of the time,” Ward said, “we’re adaptive leaders by mistake.”

United Methodists, Beaumont added, can take a lesson from the spiritual “Wading in the Water,” with its refrain “God’s going to trouble the water.”

“My friends, I’m here to tell you God is already troubling the waters,” she said. “We don’t have to figure out where the adaptive leadership is. It’s there. Our problem is that too many of us are trying to settle the water back down.”

Why leadership matters

Without question, The United Methodist Church faces choppy waters.

Even as the denomination grows in membership overall, most U.S. conferences have seen their membership and church attendance decrease for decades.

That trend affects more than United Methodists. Religious groups across the United States — including the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — have reported declines, the Religion News Service reports.

An October report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that in the last five years, the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated in the United States has grown at a rapid pace — from slightly more than 15 percent to just less than 20 percent of all U.S. adults.

Many United Methodist conferences in the United States also are dealing with reduced budgets and the difficulty of trying to figure out how best to use limited resources.

Such struggles often are part of adaptive leadership. Beaumont told those gathered that adaptive leadership is not primarily about managing change; it is about managing loss.

But, she also stressed, everyone at the gathering had a leadership story to tell, and she encouraged people to share their stories.

Working together and with God

Much of the event included time for conference leaders to gather into small groups and discuss the leadership needs and challenges in their areas.

Los Angeles Area Bishop Minerva Carcaño attended the previous quadrennial training session in 2009 as well as this one.

She said the 2009 event was more about depositing information in those gathered as though they were a bank.

“This was more of a model of bringing forth from each one of us that which we know already rather than feeding us information,” she said. “That’s a significant change, and that’s a good change.”

One recurring theme of the 2013 gathering was the need, not only for more trust among church members, but also for more trust in God. Speakers continually reminded those gathered that they were not facing their troubles alone, and they should be willing to take risks, knowing God is present.

The Rev. Jasmine Smothers, associate director of connectional ministries in the North Georgia Conference, highlighted that idea during the event’s closing worship.

“At the end of the day, no matter what we do, no matter what we say, your God reigns,” she preached, citing Isaiah 52:7. “Go from this place, knowing … who you are and whose you are, and no matter what you do, you can’t muck it up so bad that God can’t fix it.”

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

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