Building blocks

In times of adaptive change, leaders must be growers rather than builders, McFayden tells Mid Council Leaders Gathering

October 14, 2017

St. Louis

When Ken McFayden was expecting his first child in the late 1980s, a master craftsman in his congregation suggested that they build a cradle together.

“I had never build anything in my life,” McFayden recalled in his second presentation to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s annual Mid Council Leaders Gathering here October 14. “He insisted that I do the actual building while he watched and offered advice.” After designing, preparing the wood, constructing the cradle – all while making plenty of mistakes – McFayden experienced what he called “the joy of creating something that’s built to last.” He said he hopes that cradle will eventually be used by both his sons for their children. 

In his address – entitled “Building and Growing” – McFayden told a group of some 200 presbytery and synod staff members and stated clerks this his cradle story “reminds me of how we have built the church. We built it to last – in the end we may not have a perfect product, but it is ours and we are deeply attached to it. We are good if imperfect builders.”

The problem in an age of rapid, unprecedented change, McFayden said, is that “we are proud of the things we’ve built, and they’re built to last and have served us well, but may not be fitting now. Some of the patterns we have loved and the things we have built don’t work anymore. We love them so much we try to retrofit them so we can preserve them, because we love them.’

Some things we can fix, McFayden said, “but other changes require adaptive change. We have to learn new things. It’s so easy to slip back into technical responses because we’re more familiar with those tools and structures we know and love,” he said, “but technical competence doesn’t always meet adaptive change.”

McFayden’s prescription for this conundrum: “We need to look at growing, not building.”

Telling about trying to grow bonsai trees – and repeatedly failing until learning whole new methods of nurturing the fragile plants – McFayden said he finally learned an important lesson: “My ability is not to grow the bonsai tree – all I can do is create an environment that will enable the tree to grow of itself.”

Similarly, he said, “We are not called to grow the church, but to cultivate an environment in which God will grow the church. That is the heart of adaptive change work.”

Returning to the theme of trust he raised in his initial presentation the night before, McFayden said that nurturing relationships of trust is key to figuring out ministry in increasingly complex contexts. “We need a group of growers more than we need builders. We cannot build trust like we build a cradle. We can only nurture and cultivate the soil of relationships so that trust can grow.”  

As trust grows, so does vulnerability, buy-in, and appreciation for diversity and difference of opinion, McFayden said. Trust also nurtures the ability, through relationship, to read the cultural context in which ministry must be grounded in order to be effective. 

For instance, he said, “As a southerner, I didn’t understand northern culture until I went to a grocery in the Midwest looking for grits and finally found some on the bottom shelf of the ‘international foods’ section in the store.”

Returning to the growers metaphor, McFayden said, “All soil is important, but all soil must be turned. “Even if, like my cradle-building, we don’t always do good things, God always does good things.”

Our failures are not an excuse, he insisted. When we read the parable of the sower and the seed in Matthew 13, “we always think of ourselves as the sower,” McFayden concluded. “Let’s think about being the soil, that environment in which God produces the growth.”

The Mid Council Leaders Gathering, formerly known as the Fall Polity Conference, includes three concurrent gatherings – the Association of Stated Clerks, the Association of Mid Council Leaders and the Moderators Conference. It concludes October 17.

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