Double-Loop Learning

I once visited with the leaders of a struggling church where the congregation was getting noticeably older and attendance was on a sharp decline. They asked me a number of questions about methodology and how to connect with the younger generations. They were looking for programmatic solutions to turn the church around.

Rather than give them answers, I began to question them about the culture of their church. In doing so, I discovered a lack of unity in the board concerning philosophies of leadership. There were also no clear boundaries or expectations for board members. I found a democratic mindset among the congregation. They felt that everything should be voted on and that board members were basically representatives of the people. I also uncovered an inability for many members to discern the difference between issues of taste and truth. To make matters worse, there was also a noticeable lack of trust between staff and board members. In other words, the problems facing this congregation were much deeper than just style and programs. Changing the methods of ministry was not going to do anything lasting because there were much deeper issues beneath the surface. The people involved were nice and appeared sincere, but there were multiple levels of dysfunction, and they didn’t even realize it.

The way many struggling churches function is to look for new programs or more efficient methods to get better results. This is known as single-loop learning. It involves looking at the obvious with the end goal of trying to do something different in order to get better results.

Single-loop learning asks questions like these: “What are we doing, and how can we do it differently to get better results?” Or, “What are we not doing that we need to start doing in order to get better results?” But in churches with an unhealthy culture this rarely works, and the members are often left more frustrated than before. The reason is that they are unaware or unwilling to address the deeper issues.

On the other hand, double-loop learning looks at the surface, then circles back around and asks a completely different set of questions, such as, “Why are we even doing this in the first place? What is driving us to do this, and does it need to be done?” Double-loop learning understands that there are deeper issues that need to be addressed. Therefore, it moves beyond the basic focus of action and results, and it probes into the variables and assumptions that are at work behind the scenes.

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To understand the difference between single-loop and double-loop learning, consider what your church might do if the building was too hot or too cold. Single-loop learning comes up with a predictable solution, such as turning the thermostat up or down and adjusting the temperature setting to get it comfortable. Simple enough, right? But double-loop learning will look for issues beyond the obvious. For example, is the room properly insulated? Do the units need to be serviced for better efficiency? Are the vents and thermostat properly positioned? Should there be a set of expectations communicated for dress at certain times of the year?

Double-loop learning does not just settle for the quickest and easiest answers. It looks at the assumptions behind the issue and seeks to determine if there are other variables at work. Double-loop learning often exposes root problems that superficial solutions will never address.

To understand the culture of your church and the values that drive it, you must think in ways that are consistent with double-loop learning. You need to wrestle with the mindsets and assumptions that are at work behind the scenes. Often what we perceive as long-term solutions are not the best or healthiest ones. We need to go deeper and look for the issues beneath the issues.

--from Chapter 11 of Dirt Matters: The Foundation for a Healthy, Vibrant, and Effective Congregation

Next week, I will offer more insights from Chapter 11, specifically what to do after you have examined the issues through the lens of double-loop learning.