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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4 thoughts on “How Transferability Undermines Transformation”

  1. Yes man, it is in every situation too, I remember thinking that you do not do 150 the way you did 15 and you do not do 350 the way you did 150, so on so many levels this applies.  Then everyone wanted to know how we grew, and the sad part is, once you are afraid to adapt and create because you are holding on to what is tried and true too tightly things tend to stagnate.

  2. Brian,

    Okay I’m finally going to comment on your blog :). I’ve been having lots of conversations about this post. One thing that I’ve noticed in Destino is how we tend to rely on methods and models done before not because they work in our context, but because they give a sense of security and stability when so much of cross-cultural ministry is uncertain and complex. This last week of planning, we spent a lot of time talking about how some things that we thought were transferable actually weren’t working in our movement and that we needed to be imaginative and try new things.  While that might be motivating and exciting to some, for a lot of people that evokes strong emotion.  It is hard to let go of what you’ve always known to work when you feel so out of control in a new culture and setting.  

    I also thought about how when I lived overseas, training students in a different country in the same way I was trained in the states made me feel useful and less lost.  It brought some sense of worth when mostly I felt like a child not knowing the language or the culture of the new part of the world I was in.  I wonder if that is why, even in cross-cultural ministry, we can try to replicate things that don’t work in our context. It makes us feel like we matter and have something to offer. Like you quoted from Steinke’s book, it helps us find relief outside of ourselves.


    1. Thanks for finally commenting! Definitely worth celebrating.  Your 2nd paragraph is on the money.  That’s one of the huge barriers even in our own organization.  The greatest source of resistance I’ve found to contextualizing and getting outside of “transferable” tools is the emotional drive to protect older staff from having to be learners.  One could say that maybe is the same dynamic holding us back with EFM / ethnic ministry overall right now.  Ok, I will say that 🙂   It’s no good when we enable people to be “experts” when expert only might apply in their context of origin.  Experts in one context can be train wrecks in another.

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