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Adapters and innovators

Robert W. Atwood, Ph.D.

Copyright 1991 Robert W. Atwood, Ph.D.

CHRISTIANS tend to think of the church primarily as a spiritual phenomenon, and we recognize that the spiritual dimension of the church is the most important. That should not blind us, however, to the church’s dimension as a community of persons. Situations are common to every organization, including; the local church. When some situations arise we tend to assign them a spiritual color which we wouldn’t think of assigning to the same situation in a secular context. Understanding organizations leads to better understanding of our churches.

For example, every organization faces change. Contemporary evangelical churches give high priority to growth, and growth generally brings change.

Considerable attention has been given to change and innovation in organizations. One significant aspect in organizational change is the nature of the individuals involved (or not involved).

M.J. Kirton has argued that people in organizations are either adapters or innovators, not two distinct classes of individuals so much as they represent two ends of a spectrum of individual behavior.

Perhaps some leaders wish they had more innovators in their churches, but as we come to understand the behavior of innovators it may turn out that we sometimes act as though we wish they went to church somewhere else.

Most people are characteristically adapters-reliable, efficient, and prudent. Their behavior conforms to group norms, and they seldom challenge authority. They are sensitive to others’ feelings and value group cohesion. When they solve problems they seek solutions in terms of incremental improvement and greater efficiency. When criticized, they alter their behavior to conform to group standards. Sensitive to social pressure, they do not like to rock the boat.

Adapters in general are very pleasant people to have in the church. They can be creative, hardworking team players. For all their good attributes, however, they present several problems.

First, they tend to confuse means and ends. Activities in which they are involved may become more important than the goals those activities are supposedly directed toward. Adapters get deeply entrenched in their roles and sometimes have to be dug out. Second, they seem incapable of responding adequately to crisis situations which require true innovation and not just incremental change.

Innovators are troublemakers–not merely content to solve the problems at hand but often discover new ones. They sometimes refuse to respect a group consensus and can become abrasive and critical. To the adapters they appear as undisciplined and impractical. Innovators tend to be goal-oriented and are quite prepared to discard present means in favor of new ones. The adapter’s plea, "But we’ve always done it this way," may only elicit a sneer from the innovator.

Innovators are capable of routine work, but they seem to work only in short bursts and attempt to delegate their routine tasks to any nearby adapter. Innovators exhibit little self-doubt when generating new ideas and are prepared to advance those ideas against the majority–even common sense if necessary. Perceived as insensitive, they are quite willing to threaten group cohesion in pursuit of goals they believe are important.

On the positive side, innovators can excel in unstructured situations, be a strong resource in an unexpected crisis, and often help the organization avoid catastrophe in times of radical change–if they can be kept under control. They possess the insight and drive to help the organization adapt to and prosper in the changing world-risk-takers who are at home in uncertain situations which can sometimes reduce the adapters to impotence.

Both innovators and adapters are in churches, varying in balance from church to church. Some leaders tend to perceive innovators as troublemakers and to make it dear that their input for running the church is not welcome. When a pastor or church drives innovators away, however, the church becomes a congregation of adapters and a very stable church organization. Growth in such churches will be slow and incremental and may reach a place of comfortable stasis until overwhelmed by unanticipated circumstances.

Small new churches often attract innovators because they present a lot of room for them to do their own thing. Such congregations may grow rapidly and be very dynamic in ministry and worship. Rapid growth and dynamism are difficult to maintain, and as the congregation grows the balance of power usually shifts in favor of the adapters. Innovators may then seek greener pastures elsewhere if not carefully managed (pastored).

As the Old Testament community needed both priests and prophets, so the New Testament community needs both adapters and innovators to remain healthy. The central problem for the pastor is recognizing adaptive and innovative behavior and managing it appropriately. Innovators may require more pastoral attention than adapters. This is especially true when the church is involved in business as usual. Their innovative spirit tends to be disruptive if not properly focused. On the other hand, in times of uncertainty and rapid change adapters require more pastoral care.

It is a questionable practice to import secular wisdom into the sphere of the church. Nor is the suggested distinction between innovator and adapter necessarily a scriptural one. In light of the current interest among many leaders in developing innovative church programs, it is important to have some understanding of how change comes about in an organization and how people respond to it.

Calls for innovative changes are often couched in phrases such as "catching the vision" and supported by biblical texts such as Proverbs 29:18, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." It is unquestionably important for congregations to follow innovative paths when they are being led down those paths by the Holy Spirit. It must also be remembered that not everything which pops into a Christian’s mind is the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Life Together, paints a picture of what can happen when an innovative Christian advances his own vision of what a Christian community should be (all very scriptural, of course). Such a person fashions his own vision of the ideal community and then demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. These demands can become a basis for judging the community to be a failure when the individual’s vision is not realized. In the end, such individuals may become accusers of their brothers and sisters, of God, and of themselves. Recognizing the nature of this potential problem gives a leader an important advantage in dealing with it.

Adaptation and innovation in themselves are neither good nor bad. Both are required in a healthy community of believers. Not every suggestion of an innovator will be worthwhile, nor should a community of believers allow innovation to run rampant merely for innovation’s sake. A leader should make a concerted effort to retain innovators and keep them occupied if not always happy; otherwise he may end up with a stagnant ministry resistive to change or growth. Adapters are also valuable community members who bring stability and cohesiveness to a ministry. A good leader will be careful not to underestimate the value of their contribution or slight them in favor of innovators.

Article: Copyright 1991 Robert W. Atwood, Ph.D.