How Transferability Undermines Transformation

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This is the fourth in a series of posts from Peter Steinke’s A Door Set OpenThe previous post relates to “Movement.”

Steinke references the work of William Bridges, a consultant, in The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments and has a series of thoughts that could have been ripped right from my personal journal and from the minutes of my team’s staff meetings.  And it involves the concept of transferability.

Bridges is quoted as saying,

“If there is one thing that the way of transition and the path of the life-journey teach, it is that…when we neglect the process and try instead to copy the outcome, we fail completely to get what we were after.  Copying always creates something that is dead, because it simplifies the original and does not arise from the real creativity that is always present when real people are in an actual neutral zone.”

Actually this is a similar insight as is found in Gordon Mackenzie’s “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” who creatively describes the tension as rote versus grope.

But Steinke dives into the insights that my team and I have been pretty passionate about the last few years. He writes,

“Anxious people look outside of themselves for relief. They may hanker for a technique that will bring about results they want to achieve; they want to replicate what has been discovered by someone else: “Give me a copy of the wonderful plans.” Seeing what those plans have done for others, they want the same result–but without going through the process that got the others to that point. The shortcut of imitation certainly bypasses a lot of pain. How churches hunger for precisely this situation! No tumbling.” (102)

He continues,

“Meaningful, lasting outcomes are the result of the journey and the learning that takes place. Maybe a word of caution should be stamped on all programs: “Not transferable.” Transition time, especially the neutral zone experience, is life’s curriculum. Being on the path opens new insight; being on the path, not the steps one takes, is the very condition necessary for learning. Tumbling is disruptive but equally instructive.” (103)

I’m relying on more quotes than I usually do in my posts, but I think he captures the problem so well.  But I’ve had a growing number of experiences related to this tension – of people wanting to copy or take techniques that were birthed in struggle and search and pain, without an effort to understand the process that birthed the final product.  People often want the polished results without experiencing the transformation that comes through the process. They don’t want to tumble. 

One of the things that makes me cringe organizationally is when people hear about something I or someone else has created or done that was a labor of love and birthed from deep personal experience and passion.  And we’re inevitably asked, “Hey, can you send me your stuff?”  Yet even when we share “our stuff”, the percentage of times the questions are asked in return, “Why did you go about this in the way you did?” or “What were your values and the things you really felt were most important in this?” or “How do you see this being used transformationally?” is extremely low. People generally want to use your stuff, but they don’t often want to learn from the process and context that shaped its ultimate form.

People don’t want to reinvent the wheel, and I don’t either, but transferability of resources and programs undermines meaning and transformation when we fail to look at the context of their origins as well as the context of their re-application in different situations.  These are fundamental truths foundational to the concept of “contextualization” which is a vital concept for ministry and in particular cross-cultural ministry.  People frequently want to mass produce results in ministry and those tools, approaches, and programs often are not transferable outside of a particular context or setting. The more cultural diversity or significant difference of any kind that is involved, the less transferable approaches or programs will likely be.

Pragmatism continues to rule the day and Steinke makes the point that one of the main reasons is anxiety. People want easy answers that they don’t have to think hard about, feel deeply, or suffer for.  So we keep cranking out information that sometimes ends up a long ways away from the context that made it powerful, deep, and meaningful in the first place.

Context matters more than transferability. We often get it backwards.

Here’s a final thought from Steinke that connects to the previous post on movement that summarizes the tension between searching for meaning and copying final products,

“The process of thinking, testing, and exploring contains the lessons. Churches need to remember that no handbook is available on freelancing mission. Only by going out, being there, and seeing from a fresh angle will the process lead to learning. Discovering how to respond to shifts and changes is the learning. Self-confidence is a byproduct. But growth is in the struggle, the push, and the journey. Churches in decline need to look beyond the BIG RESULT and become the people of the way–tumble and all.”

 Where do you find transferability falling short? How do you approach developing tools and programs that are anchored in your context and serving your people and community?

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