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Experimentation and Learning

Acting our way into a new way of being

"Recall, once again, a crossroads in your own life. When you faced your own crossroads, recall how you needed to act your way into a new way of being without having all answers ahead of time and without controlling every step of the process. Recall the perseverance and sheer will it required for you to push on, the courage it took to risk potential failure and the learnings it took to become new again. Remember how your community, facing one of its crossroads, had to make room to reinvent itself by letting go of old buildings and ministries, as well as old ways of doing things and outdated worldviews. Remember the courage it took for your community to risk experimenting with new relationships, new ministries, new approaches to life, and all of it with no guarantees of success. 


Your founders and foundresses did not launch communities with a strategic plan. They had no roadmaps, insurance policies or fully funded retirement plans. They had only a passionate belief in what they were doing and the courage make their dreams a reality. They faced setbacks, hardships, resistance from others and odds that were stacked against them. They experimented with different approaches, succeeded with some, failed with others, and learned from all of these experiences as their dreams unfolded. They had the audacity to act upon their dreams, where most people might have dreamt, but never acted at all.


By and large communities these days are far more risk-averse than their ancestors. The older we get, the more we value security over adventure. Our financial advisors, doctors, lawyers and insurance agents all reinforce this: “Don’t risk it. At your age, you won’t have the time, wealth, health, or stamina to recover.” We are afraid to fall because we might break a hip. We are afraid to chance new investments because we want to hold onto the security we’ve gained. We get set in our ways and entropy sets in.


When facing the crossroads, most communities will succumb to fear, rather than muster the courage to risk any unguaranteed pursuits. Those who transform have the courage to experiment and become learners again. How much time has your community spent in the last five years creating new ministries, acquiring new skills, or developing new partners? What radical letting go, bold new experiments and innovative steps have you taken? Patricia Wittberg, asserts: “It is unlikely that a community that fails to innovate when returning to a purely traditional model will be able to meet the needs of a society which has radically diverged from the situation which had given birth to that model.”[i] Gerald Arbuckle agreed: “Innovation is at the heart of survival and growth. Without innovation in response to rapidly changing conditions, human groups stagnate and die.”[ii]


The fourth dynamic element of transformation is learning and experimentation. Communities that transform themselves are learning communities.  They are open to experimentation, willing to fumble in faith as they take on new ventures. Learning communities innovate new processes, practices, ministries and mind-sets, and refuse to cling to the “way we’ve always done things.” They are not paralyzed by needing guarantees or having all the answers beforehand. They see the value of mistakes as a source of learning, not a cause for blame or justification for leaving well enough alone.


In this chapter, we will explore what it means to become a learning community and act your way into a new way of being. We will look at how communities can better harness the power of creativity and imagination. And we will explore ways that you might gather greater courage to risk, experiment and take bold new actions. We will look at what it means to enlarge your soul by becoming lifelong learners with an insatiable will to live."

An excerpt from Dr. Ted Dunn's, Graced Crossroads: Pathways to deep change and transformation.


[i] Patricia Wittberg, Creating a future for religious life: a sociological perspective (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), p.35.

[ii] Gerald A. Arbuckle, Strategies for growth in religious life (New York: Alba House, 1987), p.42.

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