Reflection by Dale L. Cockrum, Inland District Superintendent

Rev. Dale L. Cockrum
Rev. Dale L. Cockrum

At a recent Cabinet session, Bishop Hagiya shared with us some reading he’s doing, looking to find ways to address the challenges facing many of our churches. He notes that pastors often feel like jugglers spinning multiple plates, each plate representing an urgent problem needing immediate attention: budget challenges, personnel decisions, staff conflicts, difficult parishioners, deferred maintenance, outdated communication strategies, etc. In each case, pastors and church leaders often rush forward to problem solving before they’ve really even described the problem.

Jennifer Riel makes a case for the importance of problem description and points to a critical distinction between two types of problems—“hard” and “wicked” ones. Hard problems may take multiple attempts to solve, but with enough thought and effort, they can be surmounted. Wicked problems, on the other hand, bewilder us because they frustrate every attempt to grab hold of them. Not only do they lack clear starting and ending points; they cross social and conceptual boundaries, and their dimensions often change the more deeply we explore possible solutions.

Riel explores the financial challenges facing seminaries and other institutions, even churches. We might also think of the recent mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School, just one of 156 such horrific sprees that have been perpetrated in the last five years killing 774 people, including at least 161 children ages 12 or younger. Wherever you start looking for solutions—gun control, improvements in mental health or school security—help seems to elude the political will to do anything.

At every turn, investigations into wicked problems trigger new questions and issues, many of which lack clear answers themselves. When a crisis presents itself, it’s tempting to roll up our sleeves and try harder, but creative leadership steps back to gauge the true dimensions of the problem and looks for better, deeper ways to frame it in its complexity.

Our bishop notes that to find creative solutions, we not only have to let go of what we know doesn’t work, but also of what we know works (it may have once worked, but not so much anymore).

And we have to give up our cynicism, suspicion and fear—each one a mark of wicked problems. I’m grateful for the season of Advent, with its emphasis on hope that moves us beyond cynicism, peace that eases suspicion, and love that overcomes fear. Isn’t that why Christ comes, to challenge the wickedness that has always been in our world?

Riel urges us to live with the questions, sharpening and refining them until they are broad and deep enough for people to think about from a variety of angles. Rather than working harder, we can devote more attention to how we describe and define the problems in the first place. We will spend more time on hard questions, probing deeply, listening to different stakeholders implicated both in the description of the problem and in developing generative solutions. She believes that such creative collaboration can yield fruitful, dynamic results, strengthen our churches and other community institutions, and offer new signs of hope.

May you and yours find in the Christmas message the hope, peace, love and joy to help you face the hard, and wicked, challenges that come your way.

Photo “Up in Arms” by Flickr User jACK TWO.

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