Friday, October 23, 2009

The Importance of Resiliency

Whenever I led an orientation for college students who were planning to spend ten weeks in mission service, I always added one thing to the list of responsibilities: “Be flexible.” No matter how much planning went into these projects, life often happened. Sometimes it set the stage for disaster, and other times it was an opportunity for the Spirit of God to work in a great way. The way it turned out often depended on the attitudes toward change of those involved.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo presents the concept of flexibility early in the book. He points out that “you might have a dream of what you want to do . . . but unless you constantly refine that dream, constantly update it, your chances for success are limited.” To accomplish your dream, you must be adaptive or flexible and aware of the environment in which you live and work.

This provides the basis for one of his key arguments—planners, policy makers, and leaders of all stripes must not only be flexible and in touch with their environment, but they must find ways to enrich that environment in order to provide more options for action. He calls this “resiliency” and identifies ways that this might be developed in different settings. He notes, “A management approach based on resilience would emphasize the need to keep options open.” In fact, such an approach would seek to develop any number of ways to deal with an issue, often approaching it from the back, side, or underneath rather than head on.

Like most human endeavors, there is a tendency in the church and church organizations to face the perceived problem head on, to go for the “quick fix.” Our natural strategy is to seek quick resolution or closure so that we can move on to the next problem. Let me suggest some ways that we can keep our options open.

First, don’t burn any bridges behind you. When a time of employment, partnership, or a contract comes to an end, we often have to suppress the inclination to “shake the dust off our feet” and declare”good riddance.” When the termination is involuntary, this may provide some emotional release, but wouldn’t it be best to leave it alone and maintain some sense of dignity and charity? There is always the possibility that things will change and provide future opportunities for cooperation.

Second, don’t put all of your eggs in to one basket too soon. When we are floundering and looking for a quick fix, we naturally look for “any port in a storm.” We might be better served to pursue several options at once until we find which is the most workable.

Third, develop networks. Find those who have an interest in the issues, needs, and problems that you encounter. These may be in other denominations, social service organizations, the marketplace, or in academia. Churches need to be open to finding new partners in ministry.

Fourth, listen to people and ask questions. Take the opportunity to get to know people both inside and outside of your or your organization’s area of expertise. Many times, the best insight and the freshest perspective come from outsiders who are unencumbered by preconceived approaches.

Fifth, learn from the past in order to avoid making the same mistakes. We are now in an era when past experience does not necessarily provide the best information about future performance, but we can look at what did not work and avoid doing the same thing again.

Sixth, know your strengths and build on them. Whether we are talking about individuals or organizations, we would do well to know what we are already gifted to do before we launch out to develop new skills and activities. Those strengths are good clues to our next step of ministry.

Seventh, open your eyes to the work of God. We might be surprised by what God has prepared us to do.

Such thinking allows us to move beyond “strategic planning” to “adaptive planning.” In the changing world that Ramo describes, we have a hard time planning for next month much less five years in the future, but we can keep be resilient by keeping our options open. I would venture to say that resilience is part of the church’s DNA, but it must be nourished.

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