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Making way for a new creation: Adaptive leadership, Jesus and the Canaanite woman show us the way

Remember those Zoom meetings early in the pandemic when “you’re on mute” became our communal refrain? At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, learning to gather and worship online posed a novel challenge for the church. We needed new skills for technologies that suddenly became as vital as our bulletins and hymnals: Zoom, iMovie, even radio transmitters. I often felt like I was living at the edge of my learning capacity. Thankfully, there were experts to whom I could turn, and the ultimate manual: Google.

We have had to stretch beyond our comfort zones to build new containers to hold our community together. And yet, now that the dust from all this construction has settled, our existential concerns remain. Our pivot to online church will not address declining membership. The projectors in our sanctuaries will not upend our silence toward systems of racism and oppression. Our YouTube videos will not wrench us free from our consumeristic relationship to faith formation or our complicity with capitalistic practices.

Switching our delivery mode for content was a technical challenge, not an adaptive one, per adaptive leadership theory, because technical challenges are those for which a roadmap exists. We may not be familiar with all the landmarks, but somewhere out there someone knows the route. They have traveled ahead and returned to share their knowledge. Adaptive challenges are those for which there is no roadmap, no communal well of expertise from which to draw. These are the challenges we avoid because they require a shift in the status quo and in our hearts. If we want to make progress on an adaptive challenge, we must discard some piece of our personal and collective DNA – a habit, value, belief or priority – so that more people can get what they need and so that more people can thrive.

The founders of adaptive leadership theory say that people don’t fear change, they fear loss. Who among us would say no to inheriting a fortune, despite the many ways our life would be altered by such a windfall? We resist change because we fear the loss we believe we will find on the other side of change. Those losses are hard to define, but they trend toward our sense of competence, our status or the way we navigate through this world. When faced with an adaptive challenge our first instinct is to preserve and conserve – to remain intact – rather than make room for the new creation begging to be born into this world.

But sometimes resistance to change is blessedly futile. Sometimes the forces of change are so intense, so inevitable, that we have no choice but to roll with the tide even though we have no idea where the wave will take us. As a society, and as people who follow Jesus, we are in such a moment.

I don’t know if Christians are more resistant to change or less resistant. I suspect we are like any other group that forms around a set of ideas, principles and values. We are deeply invested in preserving our sense of who God is, who we are and the work we are here to do. Thus, we are quick to oppose anything we perceive as a threat to our beliefs, our practices and our institutions.

From a theological perspective, I find this resistance to change perplexing. Scripture is full of stories where people are asked to change their minds. Sometimes even God changes God’s mind (Exodus 32:14; Jonah 3:10). If our goal is to become a new creation – If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come (2 Corinthians 5:17) – then any time we can absorb a new perspective or expand our borders of understanding we take a step in the right direction.

Adaptive leadership offers a framework for moving beyond personal and systemic resistance to change. This practice is not for the faint of heart. It requires spending more time in diagnosis and intervening in new ways. Perhaps most important, to work adaptively we need to understand the difference between the role of authority and the work/activity/acts of leadership.

Adaptive leadership theory, as explained by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow in “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” defines authority as “power entrusted for service … . [Authority] is granted by one or more people on the assumption that you will then do what they want you to do … [and] provide solutions within the terms that they understand the situation.” Authority is typically granted through an office, title or role that carries the unspoken expectation of maintaining and protecting the status quo. Pastors, ruling elders and committee members are often operating from a role of authority — providing protection, direction and order to fulfill the goals and protect the legacy practices of the community. Clarity around the expectations that come with authority is important because adaptive challenges require a disruption of the protection, direction and order that authority is generally expected to provide.

Adaptive leadership theory provocatively defines “leadership” not as the noun we know and love, but as a verb. It’s considered a status-quo-disrupting action to mobilize people on behalf of a greater purpose. The goal of leadership is to bring people into a productive zone of disequilibrium so a new adaptation can emerge. This is tricky work. If a system gets too hot, it will shut down; if it gets too cold, the system won’t move. The work of leadership centers on building a resilient community that can tolerate more heat, more disequilibrium, to bridge the gap between where a community is and where it needs to go.

An act of leadership can come from anyone in the room and anywhere in an organization. Often those least constrained by the role of authority are best positioned to engage in acts of leadership because, remember, authority is granted in exchange for maintaining protection, direction and order. Thus, we come to the biggest challenge: an act of leadership is one for which we have not been authorized. It involves defying norms, challenging priorities and renegotiating values. Even when the work is anchored in service of a greater good, we do not like to be disturbed. To engage in acts of leadership is to be willing to disappoint expectations, and to learn how to disappoint expectations at a rate people can handle.

Many are familiar with the idea that certain challenges require technical solutions and others require an adaptive approach, but are less familiar with the distinction between leadership and authority. This makes sense. Distinguishing the technical from adaptive components in a challenge is head work that asks little of us. Engaging in an act of leadership is heart-thumping-beyond-our-comfort-zone work. Anyone who values feeling competent will find this work counterintuitive — even dangerous. Because it is. So is maintaining the status quo.

Jesus was a master practitioner of adaptive leadership. With no authorization from the state or religious institutions, he challenged the priorities, beliefs, habits, values and loyalties that marginalized vulnerable populations. He provided cover for the weak and turned up the heat on the powerful so they could see their misalignment with God’s priorities and drop their stones. We might assume that as God incarnate Jesus had a greater capacity to do this. Thus, I’m especially grateful for the Canaanite woman’s disruptive act of leadership in Matthew 15:21-18.

The Canaanite woman faced an adaptive challenge for which there was no technical solution. The exorcism her daughter needed wasn’t available to her; she was outside Jesus’ healing circle. She was beyond his sense of divinely ordained duty of care. The disciples made that clear when they told Jesus to send her away. Jesus underscored this reality, saying he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Whether he meant these words or whether he said them to invite her pushback is debatable, but Matthew doesn’t invite such speculation. Their exchange is a serious theological argument and a life and death matter for a mother, her daughter and their entire community. Will Jesus withhold healing based on religious identity? Are Israel’s ancient enemies undeserving of God’s mercy and grace?

Repeatedly shrieking (the intensity of this verb is lost in translation) for Jesus’ attention, this woman took the first step toward crossing the cultural and religious boundaries that separated Jew from Gentile. Then, in dog-like fashion, she refused to let go of the lifeline that could save her daughter and her people, turning up the heat on everyone in the system. By countering Jesus’ dismissal and insult with remarkable steadiness to reframe the argument – even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table – she brought others into a productive zone of disequilibrium. And a new possibility emerged.

Exactly why her interventions worked we cannot know. Perhaps Jesus was struck by her courage. Perhaps her actions reminded him of God’s dogged love for God’s children. Perhaps her faith in a single crumb from God’s table reminded him of the thousands he had just fed with 12 basketfuls to spare (Matthew 14:20). Or perhaps he simply remembered that God’s covenant with Israel was always for the sake of the whole world (Isaiah 42:6). Either way, her numerous interventions – shouting for attention, kneeling in worship and offering a broader, more generous interpretation – led both communities into new territory of healing and hope. And the edges of God’s kin-dom unfurled.

None of this healing and unfurling would have happened if Jesus had not changed his mind. Though we may be more familiar with Jesus’ challenges toward those in authority, in this account he was the authority. His willingness to listen, to absorb the woman’s challenge and to change his mind was his act of leadership. If we are to make progress on adaptive challenges, if we are to steward the new creation being born into this world, we must cultivate the capacity to listen to those asking us to renegotiate our priorities, our habits, our values, our beliefs and our loyalties.

Our existential challenges will not be solved with technical solutions. There is no roadmap, no expertise, no tried-and-true formula that will fill up our sanctuaries, keep us on the right side of justice or ensure transformative ministry. These challenges must be met with acts of leadership or our systems will not budge. Acts of leadership can come from anywhere and anyone. They can be requests, questions and arguments that challenge the status quo, like the three interventions from the Canaanite woman. They can be attempts to amplify the voices of those who are marginalized (the opposite of what the disciples did in this story). They can be moments when those in authority renegotiate their community’s priorities to provide more protection, more cover for those in need, like Jesus did.

I don’t know if Christians are more resistant or less resistant to change. When faced with a rapidly changing environment, I suspect we are like everyone else — we fear the loss we expect on the other side of change. But Jesus and the Canaanite woman have gone before us to show us we need not fear change; rather: the growth of God’s kin-dom depends on it.

Jen Brothers is a Presbyterian pastor and a licensed professional counselor in Roanoke, Virginia. She is a co-founder of House of Bread, a nonprofit providing job skills training, mentoring and friendship to formerly incarcerated women through baking and selling bread.