Technical Problems and Adaptive Challenges - Pt 2

Posted by Tim Ling on 5th April 2017

In his previous guest blog What are we learning? Headlines from three important reports Nick Shepherd provided some high level reflections on three recent reports on the challenge of passing on faith to future generations.

Church familyHere he reflects on this challenge in terms of whether it represents a technical or adaptive change. He writes:

Like many of the challenges facing the church the ‘urgent need’ to focus on children and young people requires a mixture of technical and adaptive change to our culture and practices.

The difference between technical and adaptive change is well established in management and leadership literature and is embedded in much leadership development work with clergy. The grid below captures the premise of this model (see also the video of Ronald Heifetz). 

Adaptive change

Ruminating around this model and the three reports leads me to suggest three things about our urgent action in this area:

1) We’re on the way to identifying our technical and adaptive challenges.

Each of the action points underscored that when it comes to the urgent work needed with young people were way beyond technical change. Some (in authority positions) have become to grasp this, others are still on that journey.  There are some bold adaptive changes that Rooted in the Church in particular proposes and the journey that may begin to see these fulfilled is complex.  How we capture the learning from the Dioceses embarking on ‘Growing Younger’ or churches embracing becoming an ‘intergenerational church’ seem key. I am not sure we are doing this well enough. Mapping the practical impact is one task, articulating the theological is the other.  

2) Adaptive change rests on empowering leadership – all the way through the church

The stakeholders in work with ‘children, young people and parents’ are yes – ‘children, young people and parents’. Our mode of engagement in ministry then needs to shift to seeing how we can empower the leadership to tackle faith formation to emanate from and between these groups.  This is different form much of the approach we have taken thus far. Most of our work has been to develop authority-based models – where the ‘technical’ support is provided. Be this in providing bible-knowledge, catechesis for children and young people or parenting skills and all age liturgies for families.  Where are the models of work you know that strike a different pattern to these and what can we learn from them?

3) Theological learning is at the heart of adaptive change

The main weakness in each of the reports above is that they skirt away from some of the hard learning we need to do.  Some of this learning is about the cultural and social aspects of faith in a secular age. The most important learning is about the growth and depth in our appreciation of how God is active and understood by children and young people or to put this another way how we understand God to be mediated and disclosed in faith formation. There is an increased amount of work in this area, but not enough. Without this learning we will not adapt to the key challenges to practice (such as communion before confirmation) in Rooted, the key challenge of relevance (talking about the right things) indicated in Loosing Heart, and the new conditions for formation highlighted by Passing On.

Those of us tasked with responsibilities for learning and development in dioceses whether for clergy or laity, ministerial or discipleship development each have a role to play in helping to address these questions.

  • Cultivate the landscape

We all know too well that once an ‘urgent need’ is identified there are two C of E responses – lets go! or no go!. Focusing on technical and adaptive change gives a balanced model. It addresses the problem we are tackling by adapting our own response. We’re dealing with complex systems that take time to shift. In some contexts this needs people to argue that ‘technical fixes’ are not enough.  In other contexts it needs people to ask ‘what are we trying to do here’ or ‘what do we need to learn’. Be that person.  

  • Connect the leaders

The locus of work in adaptive change are the stakeholders in the issue at hand. The real work in adaptive change is stakeholder engagement – both in enabling stakeholders to be the main actors and in helping to keep communication going between people with different stakes. Our work puts us in ideal places to foster this culture. Who we invite/broker/cajole to the table matters. Bridge these people.

  • Curate the learning

In adaptive change understanding ‘the problem’ and ‘the solution’ requires learning and learning is our business. Sometimes this will involve listening and sharing the learning that is being generated by the actions and reflections of stakeholders. Who is capturing this, who is getting it? Sometimes this will involve interrogating the action being taken. Do we really understand what’s going on, is this approach helping move us on or is it telling us more about the problem? Discussing, doubting and defining our understanding and actions is the way to capture our learning. Building such a learning community isn’t just a valuable add on, it’s essential.  So it’s a good thing in my view that we are those people.

So who wants to chip in to build our learning in these three areas?


Nick Shepherd is Assistant Director of Discipleship and Ministry in the Diocese of Southwark.  Nick’s latest book Faith Generation: Retaining Young People and Growing the Church published by SPCK is out now. Nick is a trustee of The International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry.

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