5 ‘Ocean Buoys’ We Need – Adaptability

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A few months ago, on a team retreat, our Vibrant Faith Team read Australian pastor and culture expert Mark Sayers’ new book A Non-Anxious Presence. Sayers makes the case that we’re no longer navigating on land, with solid ground under our feet. We’re more like sailors getting used to a foundation that dips and pitches and slides under our feet. In this fourth of a five-part series I highlight another guiding buoy on our ocean path…) 

In A Non-Anxious Presence, Mark Sayers critiques the takeover of “Taylorism” in organizational leadership environments—it’s a theory of leadership promoted by engineer Frederick Taylor, who believed “scientific management” was the pathway to success for leaders. The principles of Taylorism will feel very familiar as I list them…

  1. Determine your objective and goal.
  2. Study the most efficient path to reach your goal.
  3. Break that path into tasks, looking for the best practices to accomplish each task with maximum efficiency.
  4. Delegate the task and best practices to specialists.
  5. The specialists are managed by leaders, who supervise them, ensuring their compliance with best practices.
  6. Reach the goal of efficiency and productivity. Rinse and repeat.

Sayers observes: “Planning, programs, prediction, and above all, efficiency became the way to success. Taylorism transformed leaders into managers who delegated tasks and supervise workers underneath them, managing them to achieve the various broken-up tasks in a linear fashion until the tasks are completed.” This approach, says Oxford economics professor and Obliquity author John Kay, is universally embraced but fatally flawed: “The process in which well-defined and prioritized objectives are broken down into specific states and actions whose progress can be monitored and measured is not the reality of how people find fulfillment in their lives, create great art, establish great societies or build good businesses.” In other words, the path that prioritizes efficiency never produces the deep-impact results that prioritizing your passion does. “Well-defined and prioritized objectives” may serve our need to prove our progress, but obsessively proving their progress was the very thing Jesus hated about the Pharisees.

Jesus prioritized relational intimacy with God—the conduit that delivers His greatness into the world, transforming our horizontal relationships with others and fueling impact in everything we do.

When we prioritize relational intimacy with God in our leadership, adaptability is the leadership skill we’ll most-often practice. Adaptability requires trust and dependence and, most important, a playful attitude. Not surprisingly, these are the building blocks of improvisation—the same skills comedians and athletes and authors and musicians use. Our relationships are all based on improv, so leading relationally means leading in an improv way. Put another way, relational ministry depends on our improv skills. The goal of relational ministry is to create a relational environment that invites participation and discovery and input from everyone, not primarily the leader. The way we have often defined relational ministry is flawed—we’re usually referencing an emphasis on our own relational leadership, instead of creating relational environments that are rich soil for transformation to grow. Life-changing relational environments require a leader with improv skills—the ability to lead “Planned but Unscripted” ministry environments instead of “Planned and Scripted” environments.

This is a Spirit-dependent practice. Consider how Planned and Scripted shifts all the control to us and sidelines our dependence on Jesus. When our focus is on determining our objectives and goals, then choosing the most efficient path to that goal, then breaking that goal down into best practices to guarantee maximum efficiency, we have sidelined our Spirit-dependence and elevated self-dependence. It’s easy to see why we do this—depending on the Spirit of Jesus is scary and unpredictable and fraught with uncertainty. And there’s nothing we hate more than uncertainty. We refer to the time we live in (and every time we live in) as “uncertain,” forgetting that all moments in all seasons of our life are uncertain. We need to remember what Jesus said: “Don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Mt. 10:19-20) Okay… but scary.

We can learn a little something about adaptability and Spirit-dependence from the “4 Rules of Improv”…

Rule 1: Say Yes. The first rule of improvisation is AGREE—or to take on a posture of receptivity and openness and intentional risk.

Rule 2: Say Yes AND. The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. This means we invest our own agency by expecting the Spirit to guide us in our leadership, then offering our trusting devotion by acting on that guidance. Our “AND” means we’re more than open to the nudges of God, we’ve determined to act on those nudges when it really matters.

Rule 3: There Are No Mistakes. Safe environments require a relaxed, playful attitude toward our dependent leadership. In a performance environment mistakes can cost us the performance. In a relational environment mistakes lead us to freedom—the freedom to exercise our faith, the one thing we know “pleases God.” And why does faith please God? Because we are risking from a place of safety in our relationship with Him. Mistakes, by the way aren’t such a big deal. Jesus sent out his disciples two-by-two, without him, to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons.” Then he debriefed that experience with them. Of course, they made a lot of mistakes—but Jesus used their mistakes as a launching pad for learning. He improv-ed using their mistakes. We can do the same.

Rule 4: Listen and Pay Attention With Your Whole Self. In a Spirit-dependent posture of leadership, we maximize our ability to be present to God and to others. After working with more than two-dozen churches for three years in our Thriving Congregations Project, our Vibrant Faith team has condensed the essence of thriving into these two practices: 1) Increasing our capacity to be present to God, and 2) Increasing our capacity to be present to others. The key here is “paying attention.” This means we live our life deeply attuned to “the voice of the Shepherd,” while we remain deeply aware of the person(s) in front of us.

When we open ourselves to lead by embracing adaptability, we’re also opening ourselves to a greater level of dependence on the Spirit of Jesus, and practicing a more playful and trusting way of living. This is not only the path to impactful leadership, it’s the way of Jesus…

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In June 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.


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