Adapt or Die

By Ken Howard, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Vestries: Listen to God’s Call (January 2014)

At a recent conference I was asked to speculate about what our parishes would look like a decade from now. My answer was brief: “One thing I can say with certainty is this: The only way our churches will look like they do now is if they have been stuffed and mounted and displayed in a museum of natural church history.”

The context in which our congregations exist is shifting so dramatically that mere tweaking of method and message can no longer return us to health, let alone vitality. We are facing radical change – radical as in going to the root – requiring of us both radical recognition and radical response.

As congregational leaders, we must confront the fact that our churches are dying. While we may wish they were timeless and eternal, at the core our churches are living human organisms, and dying is what all living organisms eventually do. But first they are born, live, adapt, create new life, and pass on their DNA to the next generation. We cannot insulate our churches from death without isolating them from the very process that would empower the next generation, not just to survive but also to thrive.

To guide our churches into a vital future, vestries and other church leaders must help our congregations to embrace their organic nature – to see death not as the ultimate failure but as the door to greater life. We need to help our congregations learn how to die in a way that plants the seeds of their resurrection. But how? How can we as congregational leaders learn this radical response and walk this counterintuitive, paradoxical path? How do we help our congregations live into a more incarnational Christianity that values organism over organization?

Changing the Paradigm

If we as leaders are to help our congregations change their ways of doing Church, we first have to recognize that our old and familiar paradigm of Church is fading away, and that a new and unfamiliar paradigm of Church is emerging. And because the new paradigm is not yet fully present, we have to help our congregations learn to explore its pathways and boundaries.

Leading congregations in a time of paradigm shift is no easy task. Be wary of any who call themselves experts in times like these; when a paradigm shifts, everyone goes to zero. There are no experts, only fellow learners. While I do not claim to be an expert in the emerging paradigm of Church, I do have some experience in helping my own congregation – as well as a few other congregations and dioceses – to explore it. And I am willing to share some of what my congregation and I have learned since it was born in 1995.

My congregation began its journey into the emerging paradigm with an exploration of the Apostle Paul’s image of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12):

There are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (NRSV)

We began to ask ourselves what our congregation would be like if we took this passage seriously. If in this passage Paul is expressing his deeply organic understanding of the nature of Christian community, then how is God calling our own Christian community to live? As we engaged this question with imagination and prayer, our image of Church began to shift. We began to think of Christian community less as an organizational structure in which people occupy various fixed and static roles, and more as a living organism that grows, adapts to its environment, reproduces, thinks, and moves – one which has a vision and a calling implanted in its DNA by the Spirit of God.

As our paradigm of Church began to shift, our behaviors as leaders and as a congregation began to shift as well. We began asking ourselves additional “so what” questions. If we were to answer the call to become an organic, incarnational Christian community, how would we need to change:

  • The way we think of congregational unity?
  • The way we develop and articulate our congregational vision?
  • The way we think about the lifecycle of our congregation?
  • The way we organize to get things done?
  • The way we develop our leaders, followers, and various working groups.

What this Means

Wrestling with questions like these have led to profound shifts in how we think, what we do, and how we do it – shifts which are summarized in the following outline.

  1. Unity: Moving from boundary-set unity to centered-set unityWhen we think of church as an organization, unity is achieved by clearly defining boundaries. Leadership asks, “What characteristics (e.g., doctrines, practices, etc.) separate THOSE WHO ARE A PART OF US from THOSE WHO ARE APART FROM US?”When we think of church as an organism, unity is achieved by clearly defining focus. Leadership asks, “WHO is the center of our community?” (The answer was/is “Jesus”) and “HOW do we clarify our focus (on Jesus) and invite others to share with us in it?”The implication of this shift is that we avoid making others into copies of ourselves and instead allow all of us together to be transformed into God’s image.
  2. Vision: Moving from vision-setting to vision-birthingWhen we think of church as an organization, leadership creates and propagates an organizational vision. Leadership asks, “What is God calling this congregation to be and to do?”When we think of church as an organism, leadership facilitates the emergence of a shared vision from the congregation. Leadership asks, “How can we help our congregation discern what God is calling us to be and to do?” Leadership does this by paying attention to the gifts and callings of those participating in the life of the community and those God is calling into it.The implication of this shift is that we remind ourselves to remain attentive to the Spirit’s movement in our congregation and in the world around us.
  3. Moving from organizational permanence to congregational vitality

    When we think of church as an organization, leadership assumes current structures and processes are there for a good reason. Leadership asks, “HOW can we do WHAT we’re already doing more effectively?”When we think of church as an organism, leadership assumes nothing. Leadership first asks, “WHY do we exist?” then, “HOW do we organize and behave to fulfill that calling?“ then, “WHAT specific activities is God calling us to carry out?” Leadership also asks, “What does the congregation do that is so unique and valuable that it would be missed if the congregation ceased to exist?” and, “If our church were to die today, what would the community around us write as our epitaph?” Leadership pays attention to what feeds and energizes the congregation (and the leadership) and finds ways to do those more of those kinds of things, while letting those things that do not promote congregational vitality die.The implication of this shift is that we continuously rediscover and reconnect with our spiritual DNA, and allow ourselves to be watered and pruned by God’s Spirit.
  4. Moving from hierarchical structure to organic networksWhen we think of church as an organization, leadership (and followership) is organized and structured via power, position, and turf. Leadership asks, “What COMMITTEES should a healthy church have?” and “Who can we get to lead and staff them?”When we think of church as an organism, all congregational structures and processes are functional and provisional. Work is accomplished through small-group, co-led teams, which can expand and contract, as needed. Leadership asks, “What needs to be done?” then, “Who is called to be on a TEAM to do it?” then, “Which of its members are called to lead the team?”The implication of this shift is that we assure that our structures and processes are nimble and flexible, capable of growing and adapting to our context.
  5. Moving from individual perfection to interconnected completenessWhen we think of church as an organization, leadership strives to help every individual person and part of the organization become as self-sufficiently effective as possible. Leadership asks, “What does this person/committee need to be the best, most well-rounded person/committee possible?”When we think of church as an organism, leadership strives to help every person and part of the organization become more complete through interconnectedness with others. Leadership asks, “What connections can we forge between persons/teams that make them more complete in their interconnectedness?The implication of this shift is that we allow each person to give their best gifts and strengthen our organic interdependence as the body of Christ.

An Invitation to Exploration

What I have offered above is not intended to be a quick fix or a step-by-step guide. It cannot be that because the new paradigm is still emerging. Think of it rather as an example of the kinds of questions your vestry will have to ask yourselves and your congregations if you commit yourselves to this journey.

One thing I can promise is this: Embracing the organic and incarnational nature of Christian community can both make your congregations more vital in the present and enable them to face the “changes and chances” of the future with adaptability and resilience. And it will make your job as leaders more exciting and creative, and perhaps even fun.

Ken Howard is the author of Paradoxy: Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them(Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press, 2010), the founder and director of The Paradoxy Center for Incarnational Christianity at St. Nicholas Church, and the rector of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland. St. Nicholas Church was the first successful church plant in its diocese in nearly forty years. Growing steadily since its start in 1995, it is in the top third of diocesan congregations in size and the top 5% in per capita giving. Ken’s blog, Paradoxical Thoughts may be found at