Leaning Into Adaptive Challenge

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Charles Loflin’s video recording of this sermon.

Good morning.

It is a great pleasure to be back with you this morning and I am grateful to Rev. Ann Marie for the invitation. My name is Rev. Charles Loflin and I serve as the Executive Director for UU FaithAction NJ.

In 2006, the UU congregations in New Jersey collaborated to form an organization committed to advocate for UU values in the public square, and especially in the NJ state legislature, known as the UU Legislative Ministries of New Jersey.

Today, as UU FaithAction we are organized around six task forces, which include Criminal Justice Reform; Environmental Justice; Gun Violence Prevention; Immigration Justice; Reparations; and Reproductive Justice. Additionally, we have a youth-led social justice group known as FAIR, which is an acronym for Faith Action Inclusivity Representatives.

One of the joys of being invited to a lead this service is the opportunity it provides for me to say “thank you.” And I mean that from the bottom of my heart—thank you, thank you, thank you—to this congregation for your support of UU FaithAction New Jersey. I get to see the data analytics from the action alerts we send out, which allows me to see who responded from each congregation. It’s a real comfort for me to know that UUCSH is always well represented in those responses. Additionally, your financial support has made such a difference for us as an organization. We are, again, grateful for all that you’ve done and all that you continue to do. So if you hear nothing else from me today, please hear that.

If you have any specific questions about UU FaithAction, please don’t hesitate to reach out. If you haven’t already, I encourage to visit our website and follow the link at the very top of the page to sign up for email and/or text alerts.

Also, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that today, January 22, marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. All of our task forces do amazing work, but I especially want to recognize our Reproductive Justice Task Force, who have been especially busy since the Dobbs v. Jackson decision on June 24, 2022 that overturned Roe v. Wade. The task force has been working in overdrive.
Reproductive Justice entails far more than abortion access, but UU FaithAction NJ continues to affirm the right of abortion care for all and to affirm the bodily autonomy and agency of all people.

As a UU minister working with an organization committed to confronting systemic injustice and building a more compassionate society, I spend a good deal of my time thinking about the nature of change. Change really is baked into this job. Sometimes that change is really large in scope; for example, advocating for legislation that would impact not only in the state but also in the national discourse. For example, the Reparations Bill currently before our state legislature would establish a commission to
study reparations, and to provide suggestions to the legislature for how to begin to repair the harm that has been done after 400 years of the institution of slavery and the continued racial discrimination that has followed. That would be really big change.

Sometimes the scope of the change is less broad but still communal. For example, because we interact with so many UU congregations across the state, UU FaithAction has the potential for helping to better connect those congregations especially around social justice concerns. Our monthly newsletter reaches at least some congregants in almost every UU congregation. Are there opportunities there to further strengthen communication and cooperation between our congregations?

Of course, sometimes the nature of the change is even more focused on the organization or even parts of the organization. What changes will strengthen our task forces, our congregational liaisons, our staff? What can we do better in this age where folks simply don’t have the capacity to volunteer as perhaps they used to? What do we do?

I imagine you’re considering some of those same kinds of questions. So many congregations understand themselves to be in a moment of great change.

So, I think about change a lot. Now, I like change in the abstract. It’s actually something that draws me to this work. I am fascinated by the study of change as a system. It’s a skill that has served me well across my many career incarnations.

But may I confess something to you this morning? May I confess that the cumulative impact of the last few years has really taken a toll on me? I see some head nodding so I suspect I am not alone.

Stop for just a moment and consider some of the collective trauma we’ve experienced: pandemic and insurrection, hate and gun violence, climate impact and systematic injustice, economic inequality and uncertainty. It’s a lot.

Karen Hering says in her book Trusting Change: Finding Our Way Through Personal
and Global Transformation

The list is long, and the threats and the quaking they cause are real. Do you feel it too? On so many fronts—locally, organizationally, nationally, and globally—we are all living on the threshold of change. Together, we are experiencing great and necessary shifts that can amplify the changes reverberating in our personal lives. Similarly, any personal change we are living through will also increase the impact of the collective turmoil we share.

I want to clearly state that it’s important to recognize how privilege and inequality mean that the impact of this collective trauma is experienced differently. For far too many, the turmoil of the last few years has only been a continuation of deep injustices that are not new but have been an ongoing experience for far too long.

But despite my personal privilege and the relative stability with which I’ve been able to navigate these “thresholds of change” years, part of me wants to say that I just don’t have the bandwidth for any more change.

I think this is a real phenomenon. I think many of our congregations and organizations are experiencing this “change fatigue.” We may feel like the ground beneath us unstable. Perhaps what we thought was so secure has proven to be fragile and temporary. And again, I say this very much aware that many of us who hold privilege may be experiencing this for what feels like the first time in our lives, but for many
others it not a new experience, but perhaps an intensified one.

This is one of the challenges of this particular moment. Even when we desire change, when we believe that change is in our best interest, we can find ourselves resistant. It’s human instinct. We deny it. We try to prevent it or at least avoid it. Even when we want it. And that, of course, is understandable.

But here’s the thing… I’ve come to truly believe that in spite of all the turmoil we’ve experienced, maybe even because of it, there is a tremendous opportunity right now—at this moment—for meaningful change, maybe even for systemic change.

It feels as though the last few years have put everything on the table for consideration. We’ve given ourselves permission to look at everything. We can ask ourselves questions that before were just too scary. And if we have the courage to live into our values—to live into those things that matter—we could answer those questions in a more honest way. We could lean into making a real difference in this world.

I DO believe that now is the time for systemic change, AND as I said earlier, I’m also exhausted. Part of me has doubts about how I’m going to do it. Another part of me knows that at least some of the anxiety I’m feeling is because too often I am trying to do this work alone.

Why am I trying to do it alone? Because the dominant culture in which we swim has taught us—has certainly taught me—how I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to do and what I’m not supposed to do.

And I’m not supposed to say that I need help. I’m not supposed to admit that I can’t do this alone because that would make it clear that the current system is broken.

But it is at these very moments that I am challenged as a Unitarian Universalist to live into my values. Even when I’m tired. Even when I’m uncertain. Even when it’s hard. And the first step is admitting that I need help. I need your help.

Because that’s always the answer, isn’t it? That’s how we get through this—together. That’s the opportunity before us.

What could Unitarian Universalism be like—not only here in this congregation, not only at UU FaithAction, not only across the congregations in New Jersey—what could Unitarian Universalist writ large become if we had the courage, in this moment, to ask ourselves these questions even though we’re scared to death of how we’re going to get through it? What might it mean, if we were willing to say to one another, “I don’t know—but I’m willing to work with you to figure it out.”

What might it mean?

We are at a threshold as a movement; I firmly believe this.

And our future has to be very different from our past. If we have learned nothing these last few years, have we not learned that working in silos is not helping any of us? Have we not learned that we are stronger together as a faith than any of us can be alone?

One of the miracles of the pandemic I saw in New Jersey was the cooperation that occurred among many of our congregations. There were efforts to share services, resources, and support in what felt like a new way. For a little while, we let go of our need for perfection to center our need for connection.

And I hope, as we figure out what a post-pandemic-emergency world looks like, that we know going back and try to do the same things we did before in the same way is a recipe for disaster. We will have missed this golden opportunity for real change.

This is the time; this is the moment. What are our true values? How might we choose to be different?

The future I’m imagining is going to include a lot more collaboration. We need each other. We are stronger together than we are alone. These are not just trite sayings.

One of the things I would posit is that we have an opportunity—if we’re bold enough to accept it—to rethink the nature of what it means to be community. One of the things I would like to see all of us do, especially because of my interest in social justice, is for our congregation adopt more of the practices of community organizing groups. In order to find their power, those groups start by really communicating with each other. They have to get to know each other’s core value. Power is built on relationship. Relationship is the key.

Congregations that thrive do so because they are more than outlets for consumerism. Our late-stage-capitalist culture has tried to make everything about consumption—even religious community. That’s what church has to often become. You show up, you sit in the pew, maybe you like it, maybe you don’t, it’s a buffet, you pick this, you pick that. But where is the relationship?

The people who come back to our congregations come back because they feel a connection. If we do nothing else, could we work on making those connections real—making them tangible? Because if we do that, we will get to know one another, we will get to know our hopes and our aspirations. If we do that, we will embrace a radical religious pluralism that accepts people from many different backgrounds and many different identities and many different walks of life and many different understandings of what the spiritual path is, because it no longer is about trying to find the correct path or the right path, or trying to find the people exactly like you who will walk the path the same way.

Sometimes we bemoan how our congregations are shrinking within Unitarian Universalism—and it’s true that we are we are diminishing in size. But did you know that every religion in this country is undergoing the exact same phenomenon? In fact, for some of them the numerical decline is far more precipitous.

We fear becoming smaller and wondering how we can possibly survive. But this is not unique to us. This is perhaps the inevitable outcome of culture focus on consumerism.

Yet, I remain hopeful for a future faith that boldly embraces and celebrates difference, rather than merely tolerating it. That’s an adaptive change I hope for this faith—that we move beyond tolerance into embracing difference.

We need to be opening our arms to one another in a spirit of humility that allows us to learn from one another.

How exactly would that work? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. We don’t know—yet. It’s a process. But here’s the thing I do know: I would rather spend whatever time I have left on this beautiful earth working towards something that matters; working towards something that makes a difference; working towards making meaning in my life by collaborating with others to make meaning in theirs. That’s the change I would like to see.

One way of categorizing this kind of change is the term “adaptive challenge.”

Ronald Heifitz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsey are the authors of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. They define adaptive leadership as “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” They make a distinction between two broad categories of challenge: technical challenge and adaptive challenge. Technical challenges are clearly defined and implement straightforward solutions. Adaptive challenges however “can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities,
beliefs, habits and loyalties.”

A very simple example the illustrates that the difference might be waking up to find your car has a flat tire. That is a technical change and requires a technical solution. What are you going to do? Well, you’re probably going to either change the tire to use the spare, call AAA, have the flat tire repaired at the shop, or replace the tire with a new one. Technical challenge solved and you’re on your way.

However, a few days later you have another flat tire. You might apply the same technical solution, thinking to yourself, “What are the odds?” You apply the same technical solution and you’re on your way. But if a few days later there is another flat tire, then this becomes a completely different kind of challenge. You could spend the rest of your life applying the same technical solution this problem, and never get
anywhere. The technical solution isn’t bad, but it has proven insufficient. This may be a sign that you have are facing an adaptive challenge.

You need to figure out what’s going on and why you’re getting so many flats. Perhaps you discover that because of construction on your street, there are nails in the roadway. No matter how many times you repair the tire, if you’re driving down the same road with an abundance of nails, you’re problem is likely to exist. The adaptive challenge is to look at the situation and say, “What is really going on here? What really
needs to change?”

Perhaps the adaptive solution in this example is to figure out how to keep the nails out of the roadway, or perhaps a change in behavior like an alternative route to avoid this construction?

Adaptive challenge requires change that is… well, adaptive.

You cannot solve an adaptive problem with a technical solution.

I would suggest that for many Unitarian Universalist congregations and organizations, our collective approach for far too long has been trying to solve adaptive problems with technical solutions.

We think that maybe things will be all okay if we can just find the right minister. If we can just get enough funding to close the gap in this year’s budget, it’ll be okay. If we can only guilt a few more people into volunteering time that they feel they don’t have, then we can keep on running our programs the way we always have.

This is the follow of applying technical solutions to adaptive challenges.

If we believe that this moment in time is a moment of opportunity, a moment to lean into a new kind of change—change that matters—then perhaps it’s time to explore what the adaptive challenge is.

Now, here’s the thing, this is gonna get tricky. You’ve heard the old adage that people always resist change. That’s actually not completely. People often desire change. When people really know that change is necessary, there is often great energy at the beginning of a change-making process.

But when in the hard work of adaptive challenge we discover that the necessary change requires us to potentially lose something— or at the very least, to risk losing something—then we often lose the appetite for change. No longer willing to take a chance, we act against our own self-interest.

The hard truth is, if we want to do more than survive, if we truly want to thrive, then we must walk the path that includes loss. There is no other path. There is no other way. We can and should spend time naming the loss and where appropriate grieving the loss. But if fear of loss prevents us from action, then we will never experience the potential rewards of adaptive change.

As we consider adaptive change, here are four suggestions that adapted from Heifitz and Hering.

1. Don’t do it alone/change is a shared task

In Trusting Change, Karen Hering refers to the “overculture” as the “dominant and oppressive story that explicitly and implicitly tells us how the world is supposed to be, including who we are supposed to be (and not be).” Trying to do it alone is definitely a tactic of the overculture. Instead, for adaptive change we need to look for opportunities for collaboration and power sharing as alternatives to competition or hyperindividualism. Hering says “participating in change is a shared task.”

2. Look for the interconnectedness

Hering says that change at any level—personal, organizational, communal, or global—is interconnected. Actually, she says that “change echoes.” It’s perhaps one reason why we’re susceptible to “change fatigue” as we can become overwhelmed by the effect. Hering encourages us to “make use of change on one level to participate in shaping change occurring on other levels.” Heifitz says we “have to be willing and able
to see opportunities where [we] might have missed them before…. They are present everywhere and every day.”

3. Resist the leap to action

We have been acculturated to think first of technical solutions. In a way this makes sense because if the problem is a technical problem, then the sooner we apply the technical solution, the better. We want to get the thing done and we want to get it done now. But doing so is an attempt to avoid the hard task of living in liminal space. When we jump to action, we will almost always be attempting to apply a technical
solution. Instead, we need to trust the process.

However, beware the trap of the overculture that can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” In the risk-adverse culture in which we swim, we’ve been told that until you’re certain of ultimate success by identifying every step along the way, that we should not act. We can—and must—begin even when we don’t know exactly what the final destination is. It’s a balancing act and its all about what adrienne marie brown would call “moving at the speed of trust.”

4. Discover the joy of making hard choices

We can become so overwhelmed, facing the prospects of making hard decisions—convinced that it’s going to be a terrible process. But in actuality, begin to walk the path of hard decision making often discover that there’s joy in doing that. It can build resilience and even joy. Hering says we have an “innate ability, personally and collectively, to create a future with a different trajectory from that of our past.” And
doing so can bring joy.

Adaptive leadership may mean making different choices from those of the past. It involves intentional decision-making about what to hold on to and what to let go. Heifitz says “successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.” Making the distinction between what is essential to preserve and what is expendable is often not easy, and the key is to “anchor change in the values, competencies, and
strategic orientations that should endure.”

I wonder how the histories will remember this time—this threshold of change. A recent movie title captures the essence of what this time has felt like to me… Everything. Everywhere. All at Once. I suspect that it may ultimately be seen as a moment where long-simmering issues came roiling to the surface. It’s really hard to know when you’re actively living through it. But one possible narrative is that it was a tipping point that led to seismic change. What a wonderful story that could be, when Unitarian Universalism was transformed—the time when we collectively discovered what really mattered. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I can’t guarantee it, but I can strongly suggest that the path to get there is embracing adaptive challenge.

Resources for Further Exploration:
Bridges, William. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes.
brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.
Heifetz, Ronald A., Grashow, Alexander, and Linsky, Marty. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.
Hering, Karen. Trusting Change: Finding Our Way Through Personal and Global Transformation.
Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

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