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Tinkering our way into oblivion? Theory U

Tinkering our way into oblivion? Theory U

By Linda Grenz

The trend lines for attendance, membership and finances in the Episcopal Church continue to show declines. Some of the changes are simply due to demographics – our attendance trends largely follow the rise (Baby Boomers) and fall (Busters) of the Anglo US population. One place we have failed to keep pace is in serving people of color – the fastest growing portion of the US population – which is the primary reason why our percentage share of the population is falling.

Many of the changes we are discussing in the church now are a natural result of those population shifts. In the 1950-60’s we built churches, education wings, programs and services to meet the needs of all those families with young children. That growth rippled through the system: dioceses and the church-wide organization expanded along with parishes. But when the population boom ended, we failed to adjust our systems. The end result is that the current members have to work harder and give more to maintain a church life that no longer fits their situation and fails to attract newcomers. Programs to “fix” the problem demand even more time and money – and many fail to produce the hoped for results. Eventually some people give up and leave. Others stay but are exhausted and dispirited – poignantly expressed in the comment: “Church feels like just another job.” Dedicated clergy and laity fail to find the depth of spiritual life or the engagement in God’s mission that they desire.

Organizational systems theory says that a system is designed to produce what it is producing. If you like what the system is producing but want to “improve it,” tinkering with the system enables you to produce a better result . . . faster, better, cheaper. But if you don’t like what the system is producing, you have to change the system.

A crisis generally is what motivates us to change. But the question is: Will we change the system or tinker with it? Others may have a different answer, but I’m not satisfied with producing more of what we are now producing (exhausted, dispirited members, declining numbers and spiritual vitality). . .even if we can do it faster, better, and cheaper! Restructuring will get us efficiencies, but it won’t get us a different end result.

Most organizations react to a crisis – what Otto Scharmer in Theory U calls a Level 1 response. The “voice of judgment” rises during this stage. The second level he identifies is redesigning – changing the underlying structure and process (that’s what is now being discussed on the HoD/B listserv). The “voice of cynicism” is the dominant blocking factor at this stage. And this is where most organizations stop – they re-organize or they re-structure and about 70% of them fail to transform their organization. If we stop at reorganizing and restructuring, it will simply enable us to continue producing the same thing faster, better, cheaper.

If we want to get a different result (and I, at least, do), we need to go deeper. Reframing is the third level. This level changes our thinking, not just our organizational structure or processes. It requires letting go of our habitual ways of seeing and thinking and reframing – this is where the “voice of fear” becomes loudest. Fear because, if we do that, we need to look seriously at questions like:

• Where is God at work in the world around us and, if we had no structures or ways of being the church already in mind, what would we create to align ourselves with and participate in doing God’s mission?

• Who are we, who do we say Jesus is and how does that shape how we live and “are church?”

• Is a legislative convention the way we must or should make decisions? Or might there be a whole other way of building a collaborative decision-making process?

• Are dioceses an essential organizational structure for us to be the church? Or might there be another way to organize ourselves to do mission?

• Are bishops or a Presiding Bishop or priests, or paid staff, etc. essential for us to be the church?

• Are church buildings, as we currently envision them, essential or the best way for us to create sacred space for people to worship and…?

One exercise I suggest to churches is to write down everything you do, look at each item and ask: If we stopped doing this, would we still be the church?

After “letting go” of our assumptions, our notions, our understanding of how to be church, we get to the bottom of the U, where we need to re-generate – go to the place of core purpose and ask: Where does our commitment come from? What is the ground/source of our existence? In the faith community, that means we stop, retreat, reflect and reconnect with God. Scharmer calls that place “presencing” – shifting our perception from what was in the past to the Source of a future possibility that is emerging. This is what we call, “discerning God’s will for us.”

Then, and only then, can we begin to live into that emerging future: co-creating new thinking and principles, co-creating new core activities and process and finally co-creating new structures and practices. Scharmer calls this process Theory U because the first three steps take us down through a process of shedding old ways of thinking and being to a focus on our core purpose and establishing a common commitment and then back up through three parallel steps of re-creating.

This process is designed to transform secular organizations – but it is really the faith community’s process, translated into business language. Over two decades of research in the field of organizational systems theory affirms what we, in the church, have always known: that when we are willing to follow Moses out of Egypt (that which oppresses us) and go through the wilderness where we learn to discern and follow God’s leading, we will get to the Promised Land. We know that on a personal level – and spiritual directors help us go through that process. We know it on a communal level and we repeatedly tell that story of letting go, dying, relying on God, following The Way and discovering new life.

Practioners of organizational systems theory (like Scharmer in Theory U) might have fancy names for it, but I think it is simply telling our story and using our DNA to transform organizations. We would do well to follow in this way rather than just looking at restructuring or, worse yet, spending our energy on giving voice to judgment, cynicism and fear.

This is a pivotal moment in the life of the Episcopal Church. We have the power to choose life. God did not allow the Israelites to blame others for their captivity in Babylon. God’s Word to them is also God’s Word to us: “get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.” (Exekiel 18:31b-32)

The Rev. Linda L. Grenz is publisher and CEO of LeaderResources. Her DMin project on using organizational systems theory and spiritual practices to transform church systems includes an online course to help congregations and groups implement a process that integrates systems theory and traditional spiritual practices.


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Thank you for your kind words, Kurt! I think that Linda Grenz offers new ways of doing church which sound promising.

Gary Paul Gilbert


It was precisely the ousting of the homeless shelter for youth, Murdoch, I had in mind in my description of the parish’s current attitude. I have occasionally attended St. Mary’s for over 40 years, and I think that the eviction of the shelter program was just disgraceful! I remember the youth pleading with parishioners not to kick them out.

The Episcopal Church in general, and Anglo Catholicism in particular, should be welcoming to gays, women, and the economically and socially oppressed. I share your anger when Christians do not live up to the ideals we all claim we believe in. Hopefully, with the exit of the ACNA con evos and right-wing Catholics, we will have an opportunity to renew the Social Gospel in TEC.

Don’t give up on TEC, Murdoch and Gary! I can see from your responses you also take the heart of the Gospel seriously. Keep up the good work, and may God bless!

Kurt Hill

Brooklyn, NY

Murdoch Matthew

Kurt, you evidently weren’t acquainted with the ministry of Edgar Wells at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. He lost many Anglo-Catholic friends when he accepted women in the clergy. He changed his teaching partly in reaction to the rigidity and lack of charity he observed among his erstwhile colleagues. While we were there, we heard preachers like Victor Stock, Kenneth Leach, Richard Holloway, and Robin Eames, not to mention the chaplain of the Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Baily Circus. Our last act there was trying to save the shelter for homeless youth that was housed in the former convent. (It was ousted by the new rector, as poor kids of many colors and sexualities didn’t fit into plans for the quickly gentrifying 46th Street.) Frozen, inward looking? Not in our experience.

I spent the 1960s working to further the sort of church you celebrate — Eucharist centered, socially progressive, catholic in rite and practice. The cause espoused by the Episcopal Book Club and Anglican Digest, where I lived and worked, pretty much succeeded. But just as it was enshrined in the 1979 Prayer Book, it was fractured by reactions to the ordination of women and gay liberation, and the beginnings of the right-wing assault on the social gospel. You want to update the tradition for gays; Gary and I would like to update it for people who live in the world of evidence and history. Mythos is powerful, but it must acknowledge fact.

Jesus began a movement in his street clothes; it spread around the Mediterranean in people’s homes. True, it became more grand and impressive when it moved into basilicas and cathedrals and raided the Emperors’ wardrobe. The resulting riches allowed the church to do much good — and also to exploit the poor and bless the sorts of empire that Jesus rebelled against. I don’t see myself as “low church.” More of a high-church a-theist.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is important — it’s forced the establishment to talk about income inequality and the plight of ordinary citizens. I’m not clear on how it’s going to change the power structure, which is fabulously wealthy and entrenched. Gary and I have been focusing on electing progressive candidates locally. We support a group of progressive legislators in Queens, voices in the crowd. The higher you go in politics, the more money corrupts. Good work with the OWS; helps keep our guys honest.

I apologize to Linda Grenz for diverting discussion of her useful call for change. Her questions still are apt, traditionalists and heresy-hunters notwithstanding.


I totally disagree with you, Gary. The fact that you attended perhaps the most frozen, inward-looking and politically disconnected High Church parish in NYC does not in any way lend credibility to your argument against the generally politically progressive character of Anglo Catholicism (particularly in its “slum work”). Miters can stand for inclusion as well as bigotry. It all depends upon who is wearing them. In NY Bishop Sisk is a disaster; here on Long Island things are different with Bishop Provenzano. Your liturgical critique does not move progressives like me at all. Thanks, but no thanks.

Kurt Hill

Brooklyn, NY


Kurt, the minute one qualifies catholicism, as in Roman or Anglo-Catholic, one has lost it, if one ever had or could have it. Murdoch and I used to go to Saint Mary the Virgin, so we are familiar with Anglo-Catholicism in the United States and its tendency to stress liturgy over political action. No less than Kenneth Leech himself has argued that when the Oxford Movement came to America it overemphasized liturgy. Richard Holloway was also one of the founders of Affirming Catholicism but his experience at Lambeth ’98 of seeing the mitres stand for bigotry was a catalyst for him to veer toward liberal theology.

We are familiar with the product but remain skeptical, perhaps even faithful in our unwillingness to accept sectarian hype.

Different traditions try to do the best they can with the tools they have accumulated over the centuries.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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