How Church is Like a Learning Organization

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In 1990, Peter Senge first published The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, a book that would quickly become one of the bestselling business titles of all time. In it, Senge argues that the contemporary world is changing too fast, and that it is not enough for an organization to be merely reactive. As I have been writing a book on reading as a socially transformative practice for churches, I have been enthralled by Senge’s work and the significance it holds for churches.

What is a Learning Organization?

A learning organization is one that is attentive to its environment and its resources and is regularly in the process of refining its mission and action in anticipation of coming changes. Senge was writing primarily for businesses, but it is not difficult to apply his work to churches. He writes, “It is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organization, a Ford or a Sloan or a Watson or a Gates. . . . The organizations that will truly succeed in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels of an organization.” Similarly for the church, it is no longer sufficient for our churches to rely solely on the learning of our pastor or even a small group of leaders. We must all be learning, attentive to unique perspectives and how they cohere in our local church community.

The primary mission of a business–making profit–will never change, but a particular business may regularly be shifting its vision and action as it seeks to follow its primary mission. Consider, for instance, how Microsoft has broadened its scope over the last 40 years, namely from creating operating systems, to producing all kinds of software, to most recently creating their own smartphones. Similarly, our churches have a single, scriptural mission: to embody Christ in ways that bear witness to God’s reconciliation of all things. However, if we are attentive, we will regularly adapt to reflect the resources God has provided in our congregation, our neighborhood, and the ever-changing environments of local and global culture.

The Church as a Learning Organization

A learning organization, as Peter Senge has described it, reflects the nature of our creation as human beings. First, we have been created to learn, as inquisitive beings who long to know and be known. Senge observes, “Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. . . . Through learning, we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.”

Secondly, we have been created to live and work in community. All too often, when we see ourselves primarily as individuals, we risk working at cross-purposes with the organizations to which we belong. A learning organization, according to Peter Senge, is one that fosters team learning. “Team learning,” he says, “is the process of aligning and developing the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire.” This sort of learning requires not only the development of a shared vision in which the team members submit and interweave their personal hopes and dreams into a cohesive vision for the organization, it also requires a high degree of what Senge calls “personal mastery”–or, in more theological language, a desire to excel at our personal vocations within the shared vision of the local church community.

The Importance of Dialogue

At the heart of Senge’s concept of team learning is a practice I have emphasized is vital to churches: conversation. Quoting quantum physicist David Bohm, Senge notes that dialogue “helps us to see the representative and participative nature of thought [and] . . . to become more sensitive to and make it safe to acknowledge incoherence in our thought.” Essential to healthy dialogue, Senge writes, are members willing to suspend their assumptions and to see one another as colleagues. Suspending our assumptions is a practice of transparency that asks that we be “aware of our assumptions and [hold] them up for examination.” “This cannot be done,” Senge continues, “if we are defending our opinions. Nor can it be done if we are unaware of our assumptions, or unaware that our views are based on assumptions, rather than incontrovertible fact.”

Seeing one another as colleagues–or, in language familiar to us in the church, as sisters and brothers–is the recognition that anyone in the conversation can make vital contributions to it. In this way, dialogue cuts against the grain of hierarchical organization. “If one person is used to having his view prevail because he is the most senior person,” Senge writes, “then that privilege must be surrendered in dialogue. If one person is used to withholding his views because he is more junior, then that security of nondisclosure must also be surrendered.” It is in dialogue that we craft a shared vision, that our personal dreams and vocations are interwoven into a single vision that will drive the work of our church community. It is also in dialogue that we are attentive to changes in the local and global environments and discern how our vision and action must change in order for us to remain faithful to our primary mission of embodying Christ.

To imagine a church as a learning organization will require some dramatic shifts in our understanding of the nature of church. Church can no longer simply be an experience that is passively consumed. Rather, we are called into the participatory life of a community. Additionally, although we may retain some hierarchical structures, our congregations cannot continue to function solely by hierarchy. We must find ways not only to help each member of our body find and excel at their vocation, we must also find ways in which the vocations of all our members can cohere in our shared work of embodying Christ together in our local neighborhood. We must also gradually learn to become transparent, sharing the assumptions and mental models that give shape to our personal imaginations. This allows our brothers and sisters to engage with and refine them as we all work together to craft a shared vision for our church community.

A Learning Organization as an Active Organization

Peter Senge’s concept of a learning organization is especially compelling because it recognizes the significance of both action and contemplation. In the business world, an organization will necessarily be active, as inactive businesses will sooner or later cease to exist. Senge advocates for a learning (or contemplative) way of acting that is ever-attentive to the other actors and forces in the context in which the action unfolds. Similarly, as churches we are called to be active in bearing witness to the compassionate way of Jesus and ever aware of the context in which we act.

God desires the common good, the health, and the flourishing of the whole creation. Furthermore, God is actively working toward this desired end. We have been called as disciples–as learners who follow in the compassionate way of Jesus and whose communal life bears witness to God’s love and reconciliation. Through practices of learning that include reading and discussing scripture, and by reading works that illuminate scripture for us in our particular places, we are baptized into the new creation. We are immersed into a new way of living and being, through which we are transformed–and not just us, indeed our neighbors, all humanity, and all creation!

“Learn more at The Praxis Gathering!”

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Chris Smith
C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books and co-author of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus.  He has just submitted the manuscript for his next book, Reading for the Common Good: Toward the Flourishing of our Churches, our Neighborhoods and the World (IVP Books, Spring 2016).
Chris Smith

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