Problem solving is a valuable tool. I’ve found, however, that it can be overused, much to the detriment of group morale. Alternatives are available—ones I believe to be consistent with the affirmations of Scripture—that can be used to build vitality in a faith community.

Early in my business career in training and development, I was sought out to consult with problem-solving teams. The tools of logical problem solving have been widely used in the business world. They are also appropriate for many purposes in the church—for example, addressing high utility bills or assigning priorities to strategies.

Later, leading organizational development work within my corporation, with nonprofit boards, and with church groups in conflict, I added other effective tools to the kit—envisioning, team building, and the management of conflict and change. Still, I sensed that something was missing as my clients and I took on more challenging tasks. Too often we felt bone-weary, as though we were carrying the weight of the world. Sometimes resistance overwhelmed us as we sought to put our solutions into practice.

What had gone wrong? I had overused my problem-solving skills and had begun viewing nearly all situations as problems to be solved. I do not suggest that we banish problem solving from faith communities. I do, however, suggest that the secular world has so reinforced and overused this approach that we must exercise caution not to overuse it in our work. When the roof leaks, it’s time for problem solving. When the congregation seeks to discern the Lord’s call to action, other options are probably more appropriate.

Finding New Methods 

We commonly employ a set of assumptions, what Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline calls “mental models” in our day-to-day work. Mental models, or assumptions, that have worked for us in the past represent a kind of shorthand for deciding what to do in our complex and conflicted world. Senge suggests that our ability to use mental models is a core discipline.

Danger emerges when we see the world as though our mental models were reality rather than one way of viewing reality. I knew that. After all, organizational development consultants are paid to help others examine the assumptions and core beliefs behind their actions.

Yet I was regularly overusing the mental model of problem solving, even as a starting point for viewing situations. I was approaching the variety of tools I had learned as nothing more than ways to solve problems. That’s like having a complete set of surgeons’ tools, a professional woodworking shop, and an automotive diagnostic center at my fingertips, but using them only to change watch batteries! I was stuck.

Discomfort can be the beginning of wisdom. I was humbled, forced to acknowledge my lack of effectiveness. Then I began to listen more to others, to examine my assumptions, and to read others’ views. I needed new mental models for my work. Scripture spoke. For building a faith community and identifying with God’s plans for our lives, I found perspectives other than problem solving. I found inspiration, a sense of new possibilities, indeed of new life. Three of my favorite scriptures speak to this reality: 1 Corinthians 12 points to the value of differences and their strength in a common purpose like the church; Joel 2:28-29 describes a vision for members of a faith community; and Eph. 2:10 tells of the good things already planned for us to do.

To use the guidance of Scripture is not to ignore the reality of sin and brokenness, nor to assume that productive change comes without conflict. It is rather a perspective on the rightful response to God’s gift of grace. As I relearned these lessons of faith, I knew that I needed to regard conflict, chaos, and mystery in congregational life as something other than problems. I needed to understand them as possibilities for building community and vitality.

In my own search over the past few years, I’ve found two useful approaches: appreciative inquiry and polarity management. After a brief overview of each, I will offer suggestions on how to help congregations develop their own vitality while keeping problem solving in its rightful place. Examples include updating strategic plans, dealing with conflict, and developing a vision.

Appreciative Inquiry 

Appreciative inquiry draws out people’s passion for the organization and builds dreams for the future. It includes designing a plan for establishing that future, and making it happen without problem solving. Imagine the passion members of your organization might express in response to these questions and suggestions of “appreciative inquiry”:

  • Tell about a high point in your life as a member of this congregation, when you felt most effective and engaged.
  • Describe how you felt and what made the situation possible.
    What do you value most about being a member of this congregation? Why?
  • Describe three of your concrete wishes for the future of this congregation.

The concept of appreciative inquiry emerged from social science research into healthy community-based organizations in the late 1970s; now it shows up in seminary courses across the nation. It has gained renown as a way to involve large numbers of people in large-scale change, often in a matter of days or weeks.

The chart on this page shows how appreciative inquiry differs from problem solving. While I am not an appreciative inquiry purist, some say that if this tool is to work, one must keep the problem solving mentality at bay. In my view, many group exercises and activities can work as either appreciative inquiry or problem solving. The difference is in the mental model—problem solving is fixing something that’s wrong; appreciative inquiry is stepping into something very right.

Polarity Management 

Polarity management is an approach to the dynamics, often viewed as problems, that never disappear in organizations. In Polarity Management, Barry Johnson refers to these unsolvable problems as polarities. In such situations two sides of an issue are always present, and the viewpoints are interdependent. The process of breathing is not a problem to be solved, as in “Which should I do—inhale or exhale?” This polarity must be managed for health, with an ebb and flow between the two processes.

Polarities in faith communities are often approached as problems to be solved rather than polarities to be managed:

  • conservative vs. liberal points of view,
  • safety/security vs. personal freedom, and
  • tradition vs. innovation in worship.

Barry Johnson’s model permits groups with widely differing viewpoints to communicate the upside and downside of each perspective, and to determine together how best to manage the polarity to address the needs of the organization.

An excellent resource on the use of this process in a church setting is Joseph Phelps’s More Light, Less Heat. He suggests that entering into dialogue on a polarity expecting a solution is not reasonable. While commitment to action is often an outcome of productive dialogue, it is not a precondition. In polarity management in faith communities, mystery and possibility transcend the problem/solution model.

Working for Long-term Vitality 

Here are four recommendations for building or recapturing vitality:

1. If problem solving does not lead to lasting solutions, explore and use other ways to view the situation. Here are two examples, one with appreciative inquiry and the other with polarity management as an alternative.

In planning a 10-day process to update a vision and strategic plan for a group of Methodist churches in St. Vincent, West Indies, the Rev. Cuthber
t Edwards, then superintendent minister of the Kingstown-Chateaubelair Circuit, and I shared our common disappointment with previous efforts to update existing plans in our careers. Edwards was concerned that the sessions he was sponsoring could descend into bickering and could focus on what had not been accomplished in light of the envisioning and planning for 2002. He also wanted to create a wider sense of ownership for the new vision and plan for 2007, hoping to involve many more laity than were included in the planning for 2002. We chose from the start to focus on the process from an appreciative inquiry mindset.

Edwards set the stage in his kickoff to the program: “We need to celebrate our accomplishments, acknowledge the past, and step with excitement into the future.” While we had copies of the 2002 documents available, we spent more time exploring with the participants their celebrations of the past. With purpose, we avoided expending time and energy on trying to solve the problem of what had not been accomplished in Vision 2002. That stance helped clergy and laity alike to appreciate their accomplishments in the Lord’s name and to take ownership of what they discerned as God’s will for their churches over the next five years.

Using polarity management, I’ve been able to help congregations in conflict over the pastor’s leadership style—directive or responsive. This disagreement is often articulated in question like this one: “Who is in charge—the pastor or the lay leadership?” Battle lines are drawn, with some congregants hoping to replace the current pastor with one who will do what they desire. Many a congregation has repeated the predictable cycle (firing, hiring, firing) over a decade or more, with several short-term pastoral tenures.

From the frame of polarity management, this behavior is not a problem of choosing a pastor who will be either directive or responsive. It’s rather a polarity to be managed with an understanding that the pastor may at times be directive or responsive, depending on the needs of the congregation. I’ve helped design discussions that explore the strengths and weaknesses of the directive/responsive pastoral leadership polarity, and I have seen congregations begin to break the unhealthy cycle.

2. In envisioning the future, start from what works now, and build on it. Some congregations begin their envisioning already depressed. Having read books on best practices and critical success factors, they feel overwhelmed. Using a mental model of problem solving, they start with a “less-than” mind-set. And they are not at all excited about “getting fixed.”

Beginning the process with the group firmly grounded in an appreciation of the present and past helps minimize the “we’ll never make it” syndrome. This approach represents a choice of appreciative inquiry over problem solving. Focusing on which aspects of the present can be used to move ahead helps create the realistic optimism necessary for progress. Some of the most creative organizational innovations have come from those who are aware of but not bridled by “best practices” or a list of success factors. These organizations either ignore the standards they “should” be following, or choose to establish a new approach to excellence which hasn’t yet been measured.

A favorite example suggests how “best practices” might be misapplied: Picture a small country church—average attendance, 40; average age, 70. Imagine how dismayed the members would be if they felt obliged to develop youth programs, media campaigns, and diversity and social-justice programs identified as “best practices” by a national church publication. The bondage of someone else’s best practices might have blinded them to the possibilities within—knitting caps for crack babies, developing a senior instrumental ensemble, or organizing a large-print reading program of spiritual classics for their peers in the community.

3. Leave room for spiritual discernment and emotional connection with the possibilities of the future. Problem solving can work effectively in resolving issues about task accomplishment or use of resources, but on people issues it may sap a congregation of vitality. Make space for prayerful requests, for discernment and pursuit of one’s passion in exploring the congregation’s future. Allow time for prayer and Scripture study. Ask members to take their concerns to the Lord, and to work to ensure that Jesus himself would feel welcome in your meetings. Don’t let problem solving secularize and thereby drain the spirit from your organization.

Early in my work with faith communities in conflict, I was reluctant to use spiritual language. There are, of course, risks involved, especially if those in conflict see conflict as a problem in which God takes sides. But as I’ve become more comfortable with the mystery and power of the Holy Spirit working in groups, I’ve invited people to dream the Lord’s dream for them. When a problem is tabled in favor of dreaming and asking God’s guidance, the issue sometimes becomes irrelevant in light of new possibilities.

Creating visual representations of the future and discussing consistent themes that emerge from those drawings have helped groups become emotionally involved. Creating these “vivid descriptions” is not only a joyful event; it also helps individuals see themselves as instruments of God, actually “being” the future. In the envisioning and planning work on St. Vincent, we created vivid descriptions twice—once for the group of churches exploring their influence across the island, and once for each congregation. These drawings were posted at the churches and became the jumping-off point for goal planning in alignment with the vision of the entire circuit.

4. Create vitality through collaboration and participation. Consider engaging as many people as possible in the organization’s work, especially as it relates to the future. Take advantage of opportunities from the beginning and not only when a process nears its end. Generally, involvement builds ownership and reduces the all-too-common tendency for those not involved to sit in the problem-solving judgment seat.

Do not assume that the work of a few problem-solving “experts” who went away for a weekend will be embraced. This approach, while efficient, is not always effective. After the weekend retreat, informational meetings and dialogue may be too little, too late.

Rather, involve members of the congregation as the change initiative is identified, discussed, envisioned, and developed. Excitement will tend to grow, and many concerns will be addressed positively. Resistance to a new idea can never be eliminated, but it certainly will be minimized through collaboration and involvement. In many of my conflict interventions, small-group discussions with large numbers of congregation members surfaced consistent themes. Once identified and named, these issues became the foundation for envisioning and building a brighter future. In addition, parishioners who participated in the group sessions developed their own sense of commitment and ownership that could never have been created by a task-force report.

As one who has struggled to put problem solving in its proper perspective, I know the need to keep track of my own mental models and their usefulness. I encourage you to do the same. There are appropriate places for problem solving in faith communities, but they are not nearly as common as I once believed.

If you want to help a congregation build long-term vitality, look for mental models, such as appreciative inquiry or polarity management, that will help you help others. Remember, your effectiveness depends as much on what you assume as on what you do.