Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Resilent Ecology and the Adaptive Church

The problem for many congregations and denominations is that we don't like change and we aren't very adaptive to current realities. We prefer our routine, nostalgia over assessment, what makes me feel good about church versus what works to integrate the next generation deeply in the life of church. We love "our" tradition, the "last chapter" of the life of the church, and may have an unwillingness or inability to respond to change or create a new chapter of life. We probably don't talk about such things, but have a nagging suspicion that the momentum and way of life are slipping away. Or, we resign ourselves to the fact the congregation has come to the end of its life cycle, and as the current membership dies so does our beloved church.

That last statement never has made much sense to me since there are usually people left in the neighborhood even after the last church member is buried.

So, how does a church find a new life cycle as it successfully adds more children of God to the family of faith known as a congregation?

I enjoy gardening and nature, so I often think of the church and community as an ecological system. This is an interesting exercise as you can think about all the elements that create a growing, self sustaining, vibrant system. The seasons, soil, sun, air, water, and interrelationship of these elements, and all the inhabitants of a particular ecology, are connected and create a world within the world. Of course, there are often negative impacts upon an ecosystem. These change factors - they could be caused by nature (i.e. flood or fire) or humans (i.e. deforestation or "development") - can radically intrude upon the system. Or, if there is a significant change in a particular element in the system it can create an imbalance that restructures everything.

An intriguing element of this is resilience and adaptation by an ecological system. Again, I'm thinking about this in terms of the church. Now, if you are an ecologist this Wikipedia snippet may not be satisfying, but for many of us it does make the concept understandable.
Ecologists Brian WalkerC S Holling and others describe four critical aspects of resilience: latituderesistanceprecariousness, and panarchy.
The first three can apply both to a whole system or the sub-systems that make it up.
  1. Latitude: the maximum amount a system can be changed before losing its ability to recover (before crossing a threshold which, if breached, makes recovery difficult or impossible).
  2. Resistance: the ease or difficulty of changing the system; how “resistant” it is to being changed.
  3. Precariousness: how close the current state of the system is to a limit or “threshold.”.[4]
  4. Panarchy: the degree to which a certain hierarchical level of an ecosystem is influenced by other levels. For example, organisms living in communities that are in isolation from one another may be organized differently from the same type of organism living in a large continuous population, thus the community-level structure is influenced by population-level interactions.   
Consider the ecology of a congregation, a district or conference, an agency, or an entire denomination. Think about the possibilities in the garden as opportunities given all the dynamic factors rather than a stable, closed system that has a set trajectory and is destined to play out "as is."

How resilient is your congregation? Have you crossed a threshold, or are nearing a crucial point for the church, from which there is no return? How aware is the congregation of the threshold, or is this an intuitive issue which no one has assessed or spoken about formally? If you were to rate your precariousness on a scale of 1-10, with 10 meaning you are at a tipping point, how is your church? How resistant to change is the congregation? Are you resistant to God? one another? your neighborhood? other factors? Panarchy deals with the complexity of interactions and relationship within a system, with the appropriate tension and balance between stability and change, and the ways that is managed. It's not about single equilibrium, but multiple equilibria. Is your church overwhelmed and totally out of balance? How might you adapt to the change/s and find equilibrium that allows for stability and change?

Recall what Jesus said in John 15:1-2, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." Yet, while this should be expected for an individual and a church it is still challenging when it is a subjective reality and someone is asking you to be objective in the face of change. Yet, it is a reality of life and faith. Perhaps resilient ecology can be a help to the adaptive Christian and Church.

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