by Lowell Bliss
All my leadership training indicates that we work according to “heat.” In frontier missions, when the people groups are hidden away on the other side of the globe: no heat on us. But when we take a fresh look at the heart of God in the scriptures, when the Holy Spirit confronts us with what we believe about the Great Commission: heat, energy to be mobilized ourselves and to mobilize others.
In mobilizing for creation care, you would think that heat wouldn’t be a problem; it’s called “global warming” after all. Yet, here we encounter another difficulty in exercising the leadership skill of “raising the heat” in order to “mobilize others to make progress on daunting challenges” (the definition I use for leadership.) Ten years ago, about the time when An Inconvenient Truth was released, our strategy to raise the heat was built around describing climate change projections: this is what [has a statistically high likelihood] of happening if we don’t act now to reduce our carbon emissions. For some people, this was enough heat to get busy. It certainly was for me when I saw the projections of the heat waves and glacial melt and drought or flooding that would happen to the people and people groups I loved in India. But for most of the public, this was insufficient heat. Projections are too easily dismissed: only "likely" future events based on "questionable" scientific models, we said. All our attention was focused on the global recession instead.
Nowadays our strategy of raising the heat is to report on what is happening RIGHT NOW!!!! Here’s just a sampling of my news feed this morning: Chennai has run out of water; some farmers in the Midwest are still unable to plant their fields due to flooding; a deadly heatwave has descended on Northern Europe; wildfires rage in Alberta; and record single-day ice melt occurs in Greenland. You would think that this daily onslaught of news reports would accomplish what mere projections could not, but no, my impression is that we overestimate the number of people who are even listening any more. It is possible to raise the heat TOO high, in which case even the most well-intentioned of citizens will choose fight (“Credible Threat of Militia Violence Shuts Down Emissions Reduction Vote in Oregon”) or flight (“Stranger Things 3 comes to Netflix in July”) or freeze (“Lowell Bliss sits Blankly in Front of His Computer and has No Clue What to Say.”). That last one may as well be a headline too.
The trick for leaders who choose not to give up is to monitor the dynamics of heat closely and then raise or lower it skillfully so as to keep people in the “productive zone.” Let me explain the theory while giving all due credit to the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and to the work of Ron Heifitz, Marty Linsky, and others at Cambridge Leadership Associates.
In the illustration above, the y-axis is labelled “disequilibrium,” or, the heat or energy to overcome inertia and begin to get some work done. The x-axis represents the passage of time. Many problems we encounter are “technical problems;” they can be quickly solved by just throwing enough expertise or money at them. Like the green line shows, most technical problems (e.g., a broken arm or worn brake pads) start with a high level of pain—“Solve it NOW!”—but then as we locate a doctor or a mechanic, the heat falls pretty quickly and so we need to give no undue thoughts to limbs or brake shoes. Would that frontier missions or climate change were technical problems, that there were quick technological fixes, but instead these challenges are classic examples of what KLC calls “adaptive challenges.” Adaptative challenges have long-time frames which one never really “solves” as much as “makes progress on.” Adaptative challenges require leaders to be learners, to engage multiple stakeholders, and to act experimentally rather than act efficiently. It’s messy. Often adaptive challenges—find the rising and falling blue line in the graph—start out with very little heat. They aren’t on anyone’s radar screen, save perhaps for a missiologist like Ralph Winter or a climatologist like James Hansen. The responsibility of these early leaders is to “raise the heat” on the issue sufficiently above what can be called “the threshold of change.” Think of the saying: “A person will only change when it is too painful not to.”
Crossing the threshold of change puts our people into the productive zone. Below that threshold and we battle “work avoidance.” There’s no motivation or stimulus to do anything. Think of the other idiom of “building a fire under someone” in order to get them to produce. But adaptative challenges unfold over time, and so we encounter changing circumstances and the natural rhythms of human emotion and energies. Sometimes the heat can get too hot and people are pushed above “the limit of tolerance.” It’s not reflected in the illustration, but fight, flight, and freeze, I believe, act like a plummeting elevator which drops people quickly down to work avoidance. In other words, people don’t normally ease themselves back down into the productive zone. (Not that there aren’t techniques for an effective leader to keep his or her people from plunging down through the bottom—but that’s a different part of the KLC training.)
So where would you say that frontier missions is on this chart in relation to, for example, Frontier Ventures’ vision statement “to see movements to Jesus which express the fullness of the kingdom of God among all peoples.” Where is the Great Commission church in relation to the productive zone?
And where would you say that creation care in the North American evangelical church is in relation to the productive zone? We likely need to diversify our answer, so: where would you plot yourself in relation to the task of mobilizing yourself and others to care for God’s creation during a time of ecological crisis? Where are your colleagues? Where is your church, or your pastor? Where are our mission agencies? Where are your traditionally-Republican or conservative voting friends? Where are your more progressive or leaning-Democratic voting friends, especially heading into this week's first primary debates?
Once we can plot ourselves and understand the dynamic of heat, we can, as we will in future blog posts, look at some of the techniques of lowering the heat or raising it. The 8.6 million Hindus, Muslims and other human beings in the Chennai agglomeration badly need us all to plant ourselves solidly in the productive zone.