Who is Contextual Intelligence For? (Part 3)

This post concludes a mini-series of three reflections on why contextual intelligence is important at every level of church life. (Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here)

Each of these stories has one thing in common: a failure of contextual intelligence. We believe that if these leaders knew Issachar’s secret—the ancient secret to frontline mission—a totally different future may have been possible. Len Sweet and I wrote Contextual Intelligence: Unlocking the Ancient Secret to Mission on the Front Lines so faithful Jesus followers can avoid mistakes like this and grow in CQ: contextual intelligence. Consider how a little CQ can go a long way towards missional faithfulness and fruitfulness!

Story 3 – A Global Denomination

A once-thriving global denomination has been in decline for several decades. Most of its churches have plateaued or are on the brink of closure. Many have had no baptisms and no reception of new disciples in years. Even those that are growing seem to be taking advantage of migrations of churched Christians to new areas. On top of the decline, several divisive issues now threaten to tear the denomination apart.

A small working party consisting of bishops, clergy, and laypersons is chosen to create a series of plans for how the denomination can move forward without schism. Their work is focused primarily on a handful of specific issues and how to organize appropriate responses. At the global gathering, the plans are presented, followed by utter chaos breaking loose. The denomination is now on the brink of serious schism or even death.

The denomination failed to understand the makeup of its own constituency and the institutional voids between local congregations and communities. They focused on a handful of symptomatic problems while leaving the underlying causes of decline untreated. They defaulted to institutional strategies based on increasingly false assumptions. As if caught in a time capsule of irrelevancy, they are embroiled in a battle from which society has largely moved on.

Many corporations cling to what Peter Senge calls mental models that blind them to contextual variation. They are committed to “deeply held internal images of how the world works,” often learned in school and just as often unconscious, “images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.”[i]

The denomination held to familiar ways of thinking and acting that blinded them to changing macro contextual realities. The denominational structures are stuck in a regulatory mode and find it hard (and threatening) to transition from regulation to resource.

A failure of CQ can occur at any level of organization and have far-reaching consequences. Click To Tweet

Indeed, a failure of CQ can occur at any level of organization and have far-reaching consequences. The once-thriving global denomination now on the verge of schism failed to develop contextual maps and provided no framework to harvest learning at every level of the organization. Information seemed to only flow downward, from the top of a pyramidal structure, far removed from the daily challenges of local churches.

This played into unfortunate existing stereotypes about an institutional elite who themselves risk no personal exposure but exert tremendous control—the leaders at the center of a power hub who have become entirely out of touch with local realities while still making decisions for them. They defaulted to an intervention strategy that included a small group of episcopal leaders (the formal power) who handpicked a working party to make decisions for the entire organization—heroes of the hierarchy who would roll out the perfect “save the denomination” plan, if you will. They underestimated the disposition of the people they were charged to care for: the local congregations (the informal power). They failed to understand the nature of grassroots alliances with very deep and opposing theological convictions.

Because they operated in a rigid hierarchy, which saw their role as regulatory in nature, they failed to understand the need to resource congregations to faithfully adapt to their multitude of diverse contexts. Had they been flexible and created ways for situation-specific learning to enter at every level of the organization, they may have countered these powerful institutional attitudes. Rather, they diverted to a linear power model, the vestige of a Constantinian iteration of the church. This was an inappropriate means of influence in an anti-institutional, post-hierarchical, network, and polycentric societal context.

Because they operated in a rigid hierarchy, which saw their role as regulatory in nature, they failed to understand the need to resource congregations to faithfully adapt to their multitude of diverse contexts. Click To Tweet

They defaulted to a technical problem/solution scenario rather than preparing for an adaptive challenge. They merely addressed presenting symptoms and not the underlying causes and conditions of decline. They avoided treating the real factors that stunted vitality, including professionalization of the clergy, loss of the small-group system, the diminishment of equipping laity for mission, and the institutional voids between franchise-like local congregations and the rapidly changing communities that cradle their life.

            Want to learn more about these critical concepts and avoid a failure of CQ? Grab copies of Contextual Intelligence, and dive in with your team!


[i] MIT’s Peter M. Senge is famous for his five disciplines of a learning organization, one of which is mental models, which he defines as “deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting.” Senge also asserts, “We are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.” The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (2006).

Michael Beck

Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *