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Asking the Right Questions by Jill Ver Steeg

I sat across the table in the boardroom on Tuesday with executives from Lilly Endowment.  On Thursday evening, I sat in The Centennial Room at Founders Brewing Company in Grand Rapids listening to a presentation from a current Western Theological Seminary student.  Both of these conversations are linked by an important thread that I believe will not only serve the church in this current cultural moment but will set the church on a new trajectory for the future.  Here’s the common thread that linked these two conversations: the most productive communities of learning are those places less inclined to have all the right answers but more inclined to lean into the right questions–questions for which there are no easy answers.

Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains, uses the story of Lewis and Clark to remind leaders that what got us here will not get us there.  Lewis and Clark thought canoes would bring them all the way to where they wanted to go. But then rivers stopped and mountains began and so what were they to do?  Like Lewis and Clark many church leaders today “were trained for rivers and not mountains,” and that what is required is off-the-map leadership–adaptive leadership, leadership that energizes a community of people toward their own transformation in order to accomplish a shared mission in the face of a changing world.  Adaptive work requires engaging questions for which there are no easy answers.

What is one challenge in your church that you just can’t get traction on?  What is one issue that, no matter how hard you work it, keeps coming back? I believe theologian and missiologist Darrell Guder asks such a question, “If Western societies have become post-Christian mission fields, how can traditional churches become then missionary churches?”

Christian communities—congregations or other types of Christian communities—rarely call or hire a pastor to disturb their community or their personal lives. People expect pastors to use their authority to provide them with the right answers—not to confront them with disturbing questions or difficult choices. Discerning God’s mission in the world–and then executing that mission–is adaptive work that requires asking difficult questions and sitting with those questions.

In order to do adaptive work, communities of learning are crucial.  Hebrews 10 is one of my favorite pictures of a learning community that generates the right questions.  The preacher exhorts, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Agitate. Stir. Provoke. As we co-labor with the Holy Spirit to bring God’s kingdom to bear on earth as it is in heaven requires adaptive leadership because it creates risk, conflict, and instability precisely because addressing the issues underlying various adaptive problems may involve questioning deep and entrenched values, strongly protected personal preferences, tightly held treasured traditions, and rooted personal relationships.

What questions are you asking and with whom are you asking them?

Jill Ver Steeg is the Chief Ministry Officer for the Reformed Church in America.  She received her Masters of Divinity from Western Theological Seminary and her Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.  Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with her husband, Shane, and four sons, Sam, Will, Owen, and Wes.

Jill Ver Steeg

Jill Ver Steeg is a minister in the Reformed Church in America, currently serving as the Chief Ministry Officer for the RCA. In this role, Jill leads the ministry staff who steward "Transformed and Transforming," the RCA's 15-year goal. She is curious about adaptive leadership in the workplace and ministry innovation and collaboration. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband Shane and their four sons.


  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Jill, for a thoughtful article that asks how can the church become effective in a post-Christian era? That is essentially what Darrell Guder is asking in the quote you gave by him. You suggest a quote from Hebrews 10, as the possible answer. But realize the author of Hebrews was not addressing a post Christian era. Maybe a relevant question might be to ask why our Western culture is post Christian. And it would seem obvious that to the growing numbers of our culture, Christianity is no longer relevant. So the answer might be to find a relevant message that strikes a chord with our post Christian society, rather than trying to force the same old message down our culture’s throat.

  • Thank you Jill for this relevant writing. Discerning the right questions can be its own challenge.

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