Adaptive Church: A Practical Theology of Adaptive Work in the Pacific Northwest

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Benac, Dustin

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This dissertation explores the conceptual frameworks, social structures, and practices that organize communities of faith during periods of adaptive change. Combining methods and theories from qualitative research, practical theology, and organizational theory, it undertakes an extended study of two cases in the Pacific Northwest that are responding to adaptive challenges through collaborative approaches to religious organization, education, and leadership. Three interrelated questions organize a descriptive and normative inquiry: (1) What are the challenges confronting communities of faith in a context marked by religious entrepreneurship and a marginal social position for religious organizations? (2) What patterns of actual communal life, organizational structure, and leadership practice (both theoretical and empirical) best support individuals’ and communities’ engagement with the challenges they face? And (3) What implications follow for the practice of leadership and the study of religious organization amid periods of institutional change? An in-depth analysis of the two cases, which are identified as ‘hubs,’ extrapolates a response to the latter two questions, noting the challenges, social structure, practical wisdom, and practices of leadership that organize each site. This dissertation argues ecclesial imagination and Christian practical wisdom order and nurture the conditions, collaborations, and forms of leadership that enable each hub’s adaptive response, thereby enabling communities to live in light of the reality and promises of God.

Four parts encompassing seven chapters advance this argument. Part I is a case description of each hub, introducing the histories, missions, partnerships, and social structures that organize them. Part II continues an in-depth analysis by presenting the challenges and organizational structure that organize their collaborative work. As developed in conversation with Ronald Heifetz’s account of ‘adaptive work,’ seven primary challenges confront these hubs: relational engagement; leadership development; Boundary Zone work; post-Christendom; financial stability; loneliness and isolation; and connection to place. Further, organizational theory provides interpretive insights to describe these hubs as a novel organizational form within a broader organizational ecology.

Part III is a critical and constructive theological account of adaptive work that draws on field-driven concepts in conversation with Craig Dykstra and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In response to each hub’s stated aim to “reimagine church,” Dykstra’s work directs attention to the diverse “places” (e.g., congregations, higher education institutions, and theological educational institutions) that support adaptive change and how a broader ecclesial ecology serves as a “prism,” refracting leaders’ and communities’ engagement. Further, as explored in conversation with Bonhoeffer’s work, a Christo-ecclesial understanding of communities and organizations provides a basis for the organizational and ecclesial transformation each hub pursues.

Part IV builds a theoretical structure to understand the Christian practical wisdom that sustains conditions for each hub’s adaptive work. Specifically, six modes of leadership offer complementary ways of being with communities, organizations, and neighborhoods: a Caretaker, a Catalyst, a Champion, a Connector-Convener, a Surveyor, and a Guide. The project concludes by drawing out the implications of this analytical and theoretical work for these hubs, for a broader ecclesial ecology, and for the changing landscape of religious life beyond the Pacific Northwest.




Theology, Organization theory, Religious education, Ecclesiology, Leadership, Pacific Northwest, Practical Theology, Practical wisdom, Qualitative research



Benac, Dustin (2020). Adaptive Church: A Practical Theology of Adaptive Work in the Pacific Northwest. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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