Thoughts on Brother Maynard’s Post on “Institutions vs. Collaboration”

SUMMARY. A riff on a portion of Brother Maynard’s post about “Institutions vs. Collaboration,” in which he refers to the five stages (or layers) of grief identified by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I apply this framework to my observations of different types of leaders, especially in conventional/institutional models of church, who are in different frames of being in relation to facing the realities of organizational transition and the grieving that goes with it. I also suggest specific ways to help church leaders move toward acceptance of the death of the Traditional (Builder generation) and Pragmatic (Boomer) paradigms, and the transference of church legacy to those of Holistic (Buster and beyond) paradigms. The final section of the post offers a litmus test question to help leaders consider whether they truly are in acceptance mode about working on transition, or just enamored of the “idea” of transition. It ends with some powerful quotes on risk and relinquishment, from two cultural creative leaders in each of Western and tribal perspectives.


Well, Brother Maynard has gone and done it again … he made me want to write a reeeeeally loooong comment! (I think I succeeded; hope it is as qualitative as it is quantitative.) This time, he posted Institutions vs. Collaboration, which includes a video of a TED Talk by Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody! In the video, Shirky references the five stages of grief identified by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and relates that briefly to the chaos for institutions that has been caused by the dramatic shift toward infrastructures of collaboration (e.g., Flickr, MeetUp, and other online tools for distributing participation without the imperative of an organization). He invited comments, so I guess that qualifies that in the category of “Because Friends Asked.” And, believe it or not, writing this was the funnest thing I’ve done all week, and it’s only Thursday!

Anyway, if you want to get the full impact of my thoughts, first you need to read his entire post and watch the video he posted (run time of 20 minutes 45 seconds). Then, review Bro. Maynard’s two final paragraphs below, take a really big deep breath (don’t forget to exhale), and then there you go, and good luck – my really long comment follows!

I like Shirky’s suggestion that institutions are going through Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Kübler-Ross said that the steps don’t have to come in order or be experienced by everyone, but that a person will experience at least two. Naturally, I began to consider which of these the inherited church might be experiencing. Denial, certainly, but what else? And how might some of us be helped through to the acceptance stage? Or is the notion way off-base?

Does this talk provide inspiration for what the church can accomplish using these forms, or fear that it might not be properly directed? For me, it seems an accurate expression of what the emerging church would hope to be. Further thoughts welcome…

“Death” as a Metaphor for Change in Institutional Churches; Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief as a Framework for Response

Another amazing video from the linkages of Bro. Maynard.

I was already familiar with Dr. Kübler-Ross’ framework for grieving from ministry to people affected by HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s. Since I’ve worked with this model before, Brother Maynard’s thoughts on applying this to contemporary issues of institutional churches were especially provocative. And so, let me try to tackle the subject of Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, and relate it to contemporary angst in Christendom over the probable (inevitable?) death of institutionalism. (Note that I did not say the “death of organizations,” but of institutionalism. For example, emerging culture’s decentralized and organic networks are organizations still!)

Interestingly enough, I was doing some relevant background think-work on my Cultural Curriculum Project proposal just yesterday. Part of that process was considering different responses of leaders in inherited/established/institutional churches to the realities of cultural changes outside their control. For instance, such as: shifts in generational dynamics, shifts to non-Christendom cultures now in ascendancy worldwide, and shifts of Christendom cultures now in decline worldwide.

I think the five aspects of grief from Kübler-Ross does provide an intriguing framework – death and the concern for leaving a legacy are more than just a metaphor for today’s institutions, including churches! I am especially concerned when there is the appearance of accepting change, but it turns out to be less than that … Anyway, here are some implications I see, in response to Brother Maynard’s thoughts and questions.

Denial Rather than mere ignorance of realities, denial involves at least some awareness of what is going on, but a refusal to address the impact of it. For church leaders and congregations in denial of changes (i.e., “We WILL stay the same!”), I suspect that fear is far more often the motivator than are pride and self-righteousness. If leaders choose to move toward changing their institutional structure, they risk losing control, and thus losing the pseudo-security they have worked so hard to produce.

The thing is … no person can guarantee security – only God can, though people can produce relative stability. Refusing security (i.e., “God WILL take care of us!”) so we can enjoy stability and continuity won’t work forever. How long can anybody really deny that extreme changes in global culture have already happened, or that they will continue for some time to come? At some point, churches will feel the crunch, even if it takes some profoundly intense acts of providential intervention to put them in a vise before they may seek advice.

Anger How much lashing out at individuals, churches, and networks who are emerging / missional / neomonastic / renewal is motivated from a place of anger? Are leaders in traditional-pragmatic-institutional churches angry that new questions posed by The Other have “forced” them to think through theological, praxological, and/or methodological issues that they’d just rather leave alone? Are angry leaders mad at those who are attempting to respond as best they can to global changes in paradigms and cultures, as if those who are responding are in fact perpetrators of these changes? Are they experiencing righteous anger, and how could we even tell the difference at this time?

With so much to lose for caretakers and beneficiaries of traditional institutions, could it be that what appears to be a defense of orthodoxy may in fact be nothing more than defending a personal or an institutional perception about orthodoxy, or defense of organizational systems might be just a way to attempt ensuring personal access to power, prestige, and/or funds?

Bargaining While there are many legitimate, biblical forms of faith-based risk-taking, grief-based bargaining is almost sure of yielding deals that go sour sooner or later. Could it be that bargaining was at the root of at least some of the ill-fated church-within-a-church movement that peaked about a decade ago? Were established leaders who recognized that change is inevitable, trying to broker a GenX / postmodern ministry within their church? That would give the appearance of a win-win situation for both established and “emerging” (i.e., “If you’ll just let us start this next-generation ministry, I know our church can survive beyond all this chaos …”).

And yet, most church-within-a-church situations I know of ended with the leaders of the established generation/paradigm retaking control – or never really giving up control from the outset, actually. What looked like a win-win frequently turned out a lose-lose, as the spin-off church never reached viability, and the emerging culture volunteers / participants became disillusioned when they realized they’d been controlled, not truly empowered. Appeals from the establishment like, “We tried ‘postmodern ministry,’ and it just didn’t work for us!” cannot forever hide the reality if it was all a keep-us-in-power pimped implant.

This may all seem quite uncharitable on my part. As I see it, however, all I am doing is asking those in power to examine whether they REALLY released the next wave/paradigm leaders, or whether they tethered them to the past wave/paradigm so they could fly … but not fly freely.

Depression In my opinion, depression among established church leaders is probably far more pervasive than we realize, due to the difficulty of ALL efforts to effect ANY institutional change. It’s just the nature of that beast … Leaders can only “push” toward the future for so long without exhaustion. This is especially true when their own paradigm and culture are not grounded in that future, but the tent poles of their paradigm are pounded into the past.

That’s not meant as judgmental, just a statement of fact. What it means, really, is that these leaders are undergoing extreme culture shock. They’re trying to cope with living in a land they are not native to, using a language and mental frameworks that likewise are not indigenous. They’re trying to stretch, but have gone too far, for too long, and have lost their resiliency. And culture shock is draining to try to overcome, even when we’re sincere. So, I’ve come to wonder whether many leaders intuitively know they are attempting something that demands more than they can (or choose to) give. So, they settle for trying a low-level change (for instance, “tweaking” this or that program or style or presentation mode) and calling it good enough. “And now we’re [missional!] [emerging!] [postmodern-friendly!]!!”

The presence of depression may be an acceptance of the “death” of current models, a recognition that change is needed and perhaps even desired. But the failure to perform may mean we weren’t quite up to the task of the incredibly hard work involved – theologically, theoretically, and organizationally – to pull off a full paradigm shift.

Acceptance I do try to assume that everyone is sincerely doing the best they can to face the world as it is becoming. And I do hear much twittering about changes in theologies, practices, and methodological models, and that sounds promising for paradigm shifting! But those actually are surface-level issues. I don’t seem to find this backed up with long-term, in-depth analysis of their paradigm’s deeper underpinnings in epistemologies, critical values, and systems infrastructures. So … I’m not convinced there is as much going on at the acceptance level as we may think.

I know I don’t run in wide circles of acquaintances these days. However, and quite frankly, I still sense that I rarely find institution-based leaders who show a level of acceptance about demise of their paradigm that motivates them to move forward. Otherwise, I assumed they’d demonstrate persevering actions on the more radical side of shifting things, which could lead to sustainability within a few generations.

Or, could it be that I’m just jaded from a very long series of disappointing encounters with traditionalist church leaders who “say” they’re making a paradigm shift (or want to) when it’s so obviously not the case? Or, maybe it’s just because my own passion is for deep, wide, and long-term analysis, so I’ve become oversensitized to whenever anyone falls short of the mark? Or perhaps, the gifts I have to give are for a generation of leaders that has not yet emerged? If it’s true that with the “calling” of God to a specific task and/or group, He gives the grace to carry it out, then perhaps that’s why I continue to work on my curriculum project, though it seems so few leaders are actually ready for it. (More about this later.)

How Do We Help Institutional Church Leaders Move Toward Acceptance of Paradigm Death and Transference of Legacy?

As I’ve stated before, my sense of things is: “Change is inevitable, transition is volitional.” Transformation does not happen without a series of choices in the right direction. That’s true for us as individuals, and compoundedly so for us as congregations. But knowing we must make choices doesn’t exactly make it easy. Likewise, changes at the level of group infrastructures and institutions are not easy to surf, even when we know we should do it.

As Brother Maynard asks, “How do we help leaders of established churches move toward acceptance of change?” especially when that means accepting the death of their established patterns and comfortable methods? Indeed, that is the zillion dollar question, and I’m not sure my current answers are the most uplifting. The best that I can suggest is as follows. These are things I try to practice, although up until now, I haven’t had a framework to help me sort out what kinds of responses may be the most appropriate for which kinds of leaders. So, perhaps those I’ve worked with in the past on institutional change issues will be kind enough to forgive my lack of wisdom on that account, and for the inevitable damage I inflicted. Hopefully I am using those experiences redemptively to help create a better future …

To those leaders in denial, I’d occasionally say provocative things – but with as much kindness as possible – about the realities of the present and probabilities of the future. And I think I’d ask questions to implant seeds of new ideas, rather than give opinions that would likely be seen as scything off as weeds what plants are already in their fields. For instance: In people groups that represent new migrant cultures to the U.S., their elders often find that the next generation or the one after has substantially assimilated to American life and abandoned the old ways. In 25 or 50 years from now, do you think your grandchildren will find your ways of doing church appealing enough to still be here?

To those leaders in anger, I’d engage in lots of listening, and then ask questions: If anger is an indicator of a blocked goal, what goals do you feel are being blocked here? Are those blocked goals personal or congregational ones? Or is this anger just frustration about something else related to the process of transition in the midst of change?

To those leaders in bargaining, I’d probably get more straightforward and challenging. They’re at a stage where they have more awareness, both of institutional death and the need to do something about transferring their legacy. My questions would be more pointed with this group, but hopefully wouldn’t be taken as personal attack: What if cultural changes inside and outside the church are inevitable? Is it possible that you backing short-term “continuity” when you could be moving toward long-term “continuance”? What do you think might be possible negative outcomes of any short-term or experimental attempts to “shift” your paradigm? What happens if you lose people who could be helping you transfer/ensure this congregation’s legacy? Are you sharing the responsibility and authority, or holding onto your control cards?

To those leaders in depression, my response depends on discerning the situation more closely. It could be the leader has attempted to negotiate a change but has encountered resistance and needs encouragement. It could be that the leader has hit a breaking point from too much culture shock, and needs both a sabbath rest to restore flexibility and also co-workers with whom to share the burden. It could be that the mere prospect of the work ahead seems too daunting – consider the concept of “anticipatory grief,” when we hear that someone we know is terminally ill – and perhaps challenge mixed with comfort and personal presence is needed.

To those leaders in acceptance … well, that’s the group I sense I have the calling to work with. Not just those who want to make radical institutional changes, but also those who might be starting up a Kingdom enterprise or church plant and want to shape it from the outset with a paradigm-building perspective. Since that’s my passion as embodied in the Cultural Curriculum Project, I have far more to say to this group. Let me start a new section and then jump right in …

A “Litmus Test” for Genuine Acceptance of Changes and Grief

To those leaders in acceptance, I would first challenge them directly, in order to confirm whether they are ready to work – really REALLY work – collaboratively, joyfully, and perseveringly. Here’s my “litmus test.” I use it to see if they’re concerned enough for the long-term survival and healthy sustainability of their community, in order to willingly “implode” their own institutional imperatives, and work toward team-based ministry now for the sake of disciples beyond their own lifetime:

Will you commit to investing at least 7 years to develop and begin implementing a 100-year plan? The goal of this plan is to create sustainable human systems that will be biblically grounded for missional, contextual, and counterculture disciple-life – no matter what changes come? And will you commit to increasingly involve everyday disciples in all aspects of the plan, and fully hand over the leadership to a multigenerational team before the end of the second sabbatic cycle (year 14)?

This is a 100-year plan designed for decentralization of control, not to perpetuate institutional control for the next four generations. So, if leaders think this kind of 100-year plan seems just a “really nice / cool / intriguing idea,” then they’re not ready. Really! And if not, they’re probably still in bargaining mode or somewhere else. But when the idea germinates enough to generate a passionate pursuit for a viable church to enter the future – even if the form is far different from today’s model – then they’re probably ready.

I believe this dramatic (and drastic!) kind of plan will require empowering and equipping people for future-friendly skills relevant to paradigm shifting, such as: culture reading, strategic foresight (studies of the future), systems (not systematic) theology, narrative theology and interpretation of a local church’s redemptive history, symbology (with apologies to Robert Langdon), paradigm interpretation, generational dynamics analysis, media interpretation, cross-cultural conflict mediation, and intercultural paradigm integration. These and other relevant concepts are off the radar for most leaders, and yet I believe they are core to setting in motion community-building that is intentional, creative, and sustainable. You may think this plan sounds ludicrous. And if so … well, fine. But what are your suggestions? How would you discern whether leaders are accepting the need for a radical shift – and how would you equip them to undertake it?

From my perspective, the statement of “whatever it takes” has become cliché. However, this idea of developing a 100-year plan with its now-unknown required skill sets and looming worldwide culture changes forces today’s leaders to consider the reality underneath that cliché. Will they do whatever it takes to start and stick with making a paradigm shift?

Also, it requires intentional thinking beyond self, one’s own generation, and one’s own providential time in the flow of history. So, that forces the question of whether the commitment to change is self-serving, or Christlikeness in action. Today’s leaders will not be here to see the fulfillment of a plan they commence. Probably their children will no longer be alive either. But if these leaders are in true acceptance of their own death and the death of their current church paradigm, and are ready to work toward what will take generations to fulfill, then their legacy may indeed included a “double jubilee” that will lead to much celebration.

All this together is what makes a 100-year plan a litmus test of whether leaders want to hold on to the power of now, or to transfer authority to God’s gifted people for the sake of the future. To leaders who live in acceptance, I would want to bequeath four quotations I’ve pondered many times over the past few years. I’ve put them in a curriculum module I’m writing on “How to Create a Legacy that Lasts: Continuity with Flexibility, and Creative Risk-Taking with Wisdom.” Though these quotes come from philosophy, arts, and music, onsider them as poignancy points for healthy release of sustainability and a preferable future for our gatherings of Kingdom disciples …

“To venture causes anxiety, but not to venture is to lose one’s self.” — Soren Kierkegaard

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” — Vincent van Gogh

“From what has been told to me by elders, I’m not here to continue to try to be them, but I’m here to know their story which is the ancient oral tradition, the history of how I came to be here as a person of culture. My responsibility is to define myself based on that knowledge, and to include the experiences that I have in the world now as part of that history.” — R. Carlos Nakai, member of the Ute and Navajo tribes, in the world music CD collection Planet Soup, booklet, page 21

“All music is caught between preservation of the old ways and redefinition in the present. The new musicians recognize this tension – it is the dramatic subtext of global music. They are articulate about it, and for the most part they have come to a consensus: we must honor our sources. The elders don’t want us to be them, they want us to be us, but we must know their story, and remember it, and understand ours as a continuation of theirs.” — W.A. Mathieu, in the world music CD collection Planet Soup, booklet, page 5

Ultimately, advise leaders though I could, I cannot divert disaster or avert all consequences for them or their congregations – whether they engage in developing a sustainability plan or not. My hope is not necessarily in today’s leaders “getting it” about paradigm shifts and collaboration and true health instead of toxicity. My hope is in God and my prayer is for our Father’s providential grace bringing about transformative awakenings over the next several generations. Then, only the Holy Spirit’s leading and wisdom from God’s Word can ultimately grace us with the success of faithfulness as we shift from the current norm of institutionalism to a lifestyle of discipleship community-building that is integrative, holistic, functional, persevering, and sustainable.