Rewriting the 21st-Century Ministry Playbook

This time of year my thoughts turn from theology to football as the NFL and college football playoffs pack the January television airwaves. It has been particularly the case this year as my favorite team, the New England Patriots, makes yet another deep playoff run. Viewers and sports commentators alike have noticed that there is something different about this year’s Patriots—the coaching staff has introduced rarely-seen schemes in their offense that have confused and frustrated opposing defenses. Together, the players and their coach Bill Belichick, alternatively praised and reviled, have been willing to defy convention, rewrite their playbook, and innovate to meet challenges posed by their formidable opponents. With each play, they are adapting to—and helping to redefine—the new ways the game is played today. (They may also have crossed some lines, if the Baltimore Colts’ claims that the Pats under-inflated game balls to improve cold-weather grip prove to be true. But, what say we let the dust settle on that moral conundrum before we explore its potential implications.)

During many hours of zombie-like football viewing, it has occurred me how urgently ministry leaders need to revamp their well-worn ministry playbooks, too. Today, many ministry leaders are finding that the old strategies and schemes for engaging people of faith, nurturing spiritual community, and attracting those outside of congregations don’t work as well as they did fifty, thirty, ten, or often even five years ago. Now, it’s easy enough to critique old church models and pastoral playbooks. However, those models were the result of adaptive changes the church made in the post-WWII era—an era of civic religion, where going to church was not only accepted but expected as a powerful social norm. And what was essentially an “if you build it, they will come” model of congregational vitality and growth did incredibly well. Churches, for a time at least, were bursting at the seams. The old playbook worked. Then.

And what was essentially an “if you build it, they will come” model of congregational vitality and growth did incredibly well. Churches, for a time at least, were bursting at the seams. The old playbook worked. Then. Now, it’s another story entirely . . .

Now, it’s another story entirely in most congregations, large and small, across the United States. Programming of all sorts—youth ministries, young adult ministries, Vacation Bible School, and other once tried-and-true approaches to congregational life—don’t seem to resonate as much for people inside or beyond our congregations. Many are trying to squeeze as much value as they can out of the old plays and ways, remaining, as Margaret Wheatley has described it, “mired in the habit of solutions that once worked yet are now totally inappropriate.” But others are tearing out or rewriting vast sections of the ministry playbook to meet the needs of people of faith, seekers, questioners, and the diverse, networked communities in which they all interact in the 21st century.

Meeting Today’s Adaptive Ministry Challenges

How do ministry leaders turn over a new page in the playbook? Enter professors and consultants Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, who just over a decade ago coined the term “adaptive leadership,” which is about leadership in complex, rapidly-changing, unpredictable circumstances. Understanding adaptive leadership requires being able to differentiate between what Heifetz and Linsky call “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges.” Technical problems are problems with known solutions that lie within the current competencies and knowledge of an organization and are implemented by those in authority (old playbook). In contrast, adaptive challenges are problems for which an organization does not possess answers and/or lacks complete mastery of the skills necessary to achieve solutions. Furthermore, the organization may not even be able to identify what specific skill sets are required. (A decade ago, who in the church could have guessed that having the expertise of an ancient haiku writer would be a valuable communication asset in the age of Twitter?)

Today, many churches and congregations face a long list of adaptive challenges, including shifts in family configurations, greater diversity, changes in religious affiliation and practice, and technological innovations. When responding to these sorts of challenges, faith communities must invest in experimentation, innovation, deep listening, and the development of the capacity to change—and then change again (new playbook). Few 21st-century challenges can be competently addressed with the same set of technical fixes laid out in the old playbook.

A decade ago, who in the church could have guessed that having the expertise of an ancient haiku writer would be a valuable communication asset in the age of Twitter?

Networks: Our Challenge and Our Opportunity

So, where do we start to find resources to develop new plays—new approaches to mission and ministry for the 21st century church?

The very fact that you are reading this on a blog—maybe on your desktop computer, perhaps on your tablet or smartphone—points in one important direction: new digital social media networks. Part of the massive change we are experiencing in our culture and the church is the ubiquity of digital social networks, which extend and amplify by orders of magnitude our existing face-to-face community and ecclesial networks. Those networks are part of the disruption and challenge, but also hold the seeds to finding solutions for this new time. Yes, there has been much conversation on the relationship between religion and media in the past several years. But it is critical to understand that the field is changing rapidly even as we play on it.

A recent Pew Research Center report, “Social Media Update for 2014,” provides a snapshot of social media adoption and engagement at the close of 2014. The report shows increasing use and activity on digital social networks, with 71% of online adults (that’s fully 58% of the entire U.S. adult population) on Facebook, 28% on the business networking site LinkedIn, 28% on the visual scrapbooking site Pinterest, 26% on the photo sharing app Instagram, and 23% on Twitter. In addition, Pew reports 52% of online adults use two or more social media sites, up a whopping 10% from 2013. We are ever more networked and more diversified in the ways we connect, relate, and engage with our friends, followers, and neighbors around the globe. And, these ways of engaging are not limited to our online lives. As communication media have done since the first cave drawings, new media practices shape practices of communication and interaction in face-to-face encounters as well.

In its earlier report “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked with Friends,” for instance, Pew traces the ways in which we are relying more on these networks and less on institutions, especially among younger adults. Politically, Millennials differ from older generational cohorts, in that they are more likely to be politically independent. Religiously, they are less likely to be affiliated with a traditional religious institution. When it comes to the institution of marriage, they are less likely to marry before age 32, if they marry at all. That “family friendly” church ad campaign you’ve been working on? Maybe you want to give that a rethink.

Leadership styles, technical fixes, and church growth strategies that worked in the post-World War II era—when birth rates were up and the government itself was promoting religious affiliation as a civic value—are not going to suffice in this new reality. Nonetheless, the very networked shifts in our culture that many people lament can, in fact, help churches out considerably. Heifetz and Linsky write that in the 21st-century’s adaptive environment, “answers cannot come only from on high. The world needs distributed leadership because the solutions to our collective challenges must come from many places, with people developing micro-adaptations to all the different micro-environments of families, neighborhoods and organizations around the globe.” Just when you think maybe the best way to get a grip on it all is to suck some of the air out of new modes of engagement, it turns out that turning a discerning ear to the roar of the digital crowd is more likely to move you down the field.

Adaptive change happens in context with a variety of perspectives and voices. It values experimentation and a constant movement between action and reflection. It calls for courageous leadership and the ability to manage expectations, change, and loss. You run with the ball you’re thrown even when the wind seems cold in your face. That’s the challenge and opportunity of adaptive leadership: to live attentively and flexibly in the world as it is rather than the world as we might wish it still were.

No one is saying that’s going to be easy. Bangor Theological Seminary recognized that the adaptive challenge of theological education in the 21st century could not be met by a series of technical fixes; the situation demanded adaptive leadership and change. The process of changing a nearly two-hundred-year-old playbook has been complex in practical and spiritual terms. But today, The BTS Center is working to reimagine and reshape theological education. It is building new partnerships, networking with diverse leaders in ministry, leveraging digital technology (including this blog), and incubating ministry innovation . . . all in efforts to support ordained clergy and lay ministry leaders alike.

20150123_KA_Beer_and_Hymns_by_Joshua_OtteyCreative, significant ministries—such as a dinner church and co-working space, a “Laundry Love” initiative located in (where else?) a laundromat, a food truck church, theology pubs, and sidewalk anointing stations—are rising up in myriad new locations. As Heidi Shott has written, ministry happens all over the place: in our neighborhoods, in our cities, in our suburbs, and online. It seems that all sorts of people, from bishops to laity, are flipping the old ministry script on its head and rewriting the ministry playbook for the 21st century. They, like Heifetz and Linsky, understand that “Leadership is an experimental art. We are all at the frontier.”

Of course, Jesus had his own first-century advice on adaptive leadership: “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins” (Mark 2:22). You can’t rely on technical fixes when you live in an adaptive environment. You can’t just follow the old playbook when the entire playing field has changed.

Keith Anderson

Keith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church near Philadelphia. He is the author of a new book on ministry leadership in a digital age, The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless Worldand co-author, with Elizabeth Drescher, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible. Connect with Keith at and on Twitter @prkanderson.

Photo credits:

Coach Shows Football Players Diagrams in 1950,” © Getty Images #100078647. Non-commercial use embed.

“Beer and Hymns at MaGerk’s Tavern, Upper Dublin Lutheran Church,” by Joshua Ottey,, used by permission of Upper Dublin Lutheran Church.