I. Discovering the Muddle

Fifty years ago I graduated from Yale Divinity School and set out on a career as a parish pastor.

I did so not as innocently or naïvely as some church members I was soon to serve may have thought me to be; although, to be sure, I had a lot of learning ahead of me within the practice of ministry which would be at least as valuable to me as my seminary preparation. 

Yet by then in 1961 I did have a good deal of practical experience behind me.  At Yale I had studied intellectually the workings of congregational life in a well-taught course in “The Care of the Parish.”  But perhaps more practically, I had already served a congregation full-time in a seminary-sponsored internship year—one of the first to do that from YDS—in a small parish in Minnesota.

And yet I did not understand then, except in a subconscious, subliminal way, the process that churches and their ministers and lay leaders use to make day-to-day decisions and larger life-changing decisions in regard to the church.  If I had been asked about this, I probably would have answered that people gather relevant facts, make lists of possible directions to move forward to achieve positive outcomes, look at them dispassionately and weigh them each as to what seems to promise the greater good for the greatest number of people, and choose the apparent winner.

This open, rational, and far-reaching approach is what I tried to follow with my first congregation, even once to a extent of following  denominationally-prepared procedures for congregational self-study to plan and redirect our shared ministry.

This process became even more deliberate in my second call to a congregation in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to perform what was called at the time a “street ministry,” to work with other religious and secular community leaders to improve human relations and reduce a dangerous level of inter-racial tensions in the community.  With an existing Great Society anti-poverty program already up and active in the city, I spent a lot of my time with several of its projects.  But I also worked with a mostly-white neighborhood organization that had had its impetus from the local Roman Catholic church, and a recreation program for mostly black youth based in my white congregation’s building but staffed equally with adults from my church and the local African Methodist Episcopal church.

It was during these years in Benton Harbor that I first began to realize that the planning and decision-making process I had long depended upon was not as “open, rational and far-reaching” as I had thought.  There were a lot more facts and varying strategies to consider than anybody could possibly pursue thoroughly.

The process of writing proposals was an eye-opening experience for me.  In the churches I served almost any idea that looked pretty good was given a shot and a few of them turned out fine and the rest were quickly forgotten.  But in the secular competition for funding and staffing we had to be a lot more discriminating, or at least to make it seem so.  We had to gather statistics and look at a lot more possible strategies and consider all sorts of unintended consequences that might follow from any of them.  But this sort of sophistication had a definite limitation.  Sooner or later the volume of information became over-burdening.  Workers got tired of piling up more and more data and began it get sloppy at it. Leaders got impatient for completing the proposal and finally would say, “Well, that’s enough.  Let’s just wrap this thing up.  It looks good enough.”  I was myself often in the position of determining when “enough is enough,” knowing we might have done a lot more.

After a few years in this exciting ministry I had developed some casually thought-through anxieties about what I was doing.  I was always being stretched to the limits of my skills in planning and persuading.  This was probably all fine and good for me personally; but there was a persistent discomfort that what we were doing was not nearly as rational and scientific as we were claiming as we tried to justify our various plans and strategies.

At any rate, without saying anything to my colleagues, I applied to my old seminary to do further study for the degree of Master of Sacred Theology in the field of Biblical ethics and social planning.  And to assist my living during an anticipated one-year of study, I applied for a fellowship from the Fund for Theological Education under the Rockefeller Foundation.  Happily, both applications were accepted.

II. Coming to Terms With the Muddle

Returning to Yale just nine years after leaving was not supposed to be a major culture shock for me.  But YDS had changed!  Many of the great names of Yale’s distinguished faculty had retired or died.  Only Roland Bainton remained around the quadrangle, and he as emeritus.  Niebuhr, Calhoun, Minear—all gone.  The new guy in Old Testament when I was finishing my BD, Brevard Childs, had established a world reputation by now along with George Lindbeck and their “Yale theology.”  I wished I had Paul Minear still to inspire me in my New Testament studies, but a new scholar on the quad, Rowan Greer, was highly spoken of, and I was to get to know him very well and highly respect him.  Two old friends, Gaylord Noyce and Jim Dittes, were still around and were to become, again, my closest faculty advisors, and, as it happens, they became my employers later on.

Over the previous summer I had secured a consulting position, under contract with the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, with an inner-city UCC congregation that was embroiled in a struggle with their aging, liberal but tired (and soon to be retired) pastor.  A small, struggling congregation in a hundred-year-old building of New England plainness but of enormous size, the pastor had convinced the few leaders to rent out their sanctuary on Sunday afternoons to a local African-American community organization for programs of a semi-religious nature to be broadcast on a local black radio station.

Negotiations for congregational approval of this relationship had been moving along with only minimal resistance until the sudden appearance of an extremely incendiary “open letter” to members of the church mailed out by a proponent of the proposal.  It accused anyone who opposed it of various racist attitudes.  This served only to motivate the opposition and to raise questions about the ultimate aims of those who had been pushing it, namely, the black community organization and denominational officers, who were accused of trying to “destroy our church.”

My assignment was to lead a self-study and long-range planning project with the congregation to help it discover a way of surviving in a changing neighborhood and to reduce the prevailing conflict by working and talking together on something they all had an interest in.  The project was reasonably successful both to reduce the level of bad feeling and to chart a course for continuing a Christian ministry in their existing location—and, significantly, in cooperation with the black organization, and several of its members actually joined the church.

These positive results, however, were accompanied with my recurring anxieties that I remembered from my Benton Harbor days.  The resolve of this church to move ahead more at peace with itself and with some enthusiasm for their future was supported, I felt, by only a glimmering of real understanding of the facts about what was happening in the world around them and how they would cope with the future changes in the community.

But, then, churches have always muddled through somehow, and I did have confidence that, when they were hit by that new reality, this congregation would respond again to make something useful and creative of it.

III. Working Through the Muddle

            Meanwhile, what was going on for me on the YDS quadrangle?

My studies focused me in seemingly two very different directions: the ethical orientation in the Gospel of John and the planning and decision-making processes of administrative science.  My task was to let my Christian faith lead me through a labyrinth of less-than-thorough strategizing for real social ministries in the revolutionary times of the early1970’s.  My master’s thesis in putting it all together is entitled, “Gospel and Strategy.”

In the course of these studies I was steered to a recent publication by two Yale professors, one in social psychology and the other in philosophy, who seemed to discover that they were both homing in on a similar theory but from very different disciplines.  David Braybrooke and Charles E. Lindblom have since become well recognized for their theory of “disjointed incrementalism,” to describe their discovery of how decision-makers in business, politics, social planning and personal affairs often—they would argue, most often—arrive at their firm resolve and move ahead.  The title of their book is A Strategy of Decison: Policy Evaluation as a Social Process.  Their colleagues—some admiring, some critical—refer to it now as “the science of muddling through.”

What led to this theory was some embarrassment one of the authors experienced back in the 1950’s trying to satisfy the claim of a skeptical Swiss economist that American policy makers have no firm ground on which to build a case for American-style anti-trust legislation.  As he explains in the forward to the book, “Coming from a country whose policies toward monopoly are strikingly different from ours, the Swiss economist could find no more substantial rationale for American policy that mere agreement—the concurrence of the highly subjective judgments of many economists.”[1]  The fact that nearly all American economists said so  seemed a pretty weak argument for the theory of pure competition over against the Swiss system of cartel management.

So, who says that free enterprise is the best economic system?!  What’s the evidence?!

To meet this challenge the American wanted some explanation of the prevailing American consensus that would be more convincing than just saying, “This is our considered judgment.”  The best he could come up with from the professional literature was the concept, heretofore not very well developed, of “incrementalism.”  To begin with, he said:

It seemed plausible to suggest that what economists… and decision-makers generally do in the face of a complex problem, even when they try to be rational, does not at all approximate rational decision-making as it is conventionally described in the literature of decision-making.  The clue to how they normally do achieve defensible analyses of their policy problems seemed to lie in further development of the incremental concept—leading to an account of analytic practices that focus on alternatives differing only incrementally, in a political system that normally offers only that range of alternatives.[2]

Moreover, he discovered that in actual practice these incremental changes succeed! whereas conventional, rational, deductive, synoptic decision-making—the method of socialist and communist planned economies—often does not.  Taking into consideration the cost in time and energy and other resources, as well as the impossibility of bringing complete analysis to an end, he concluded that the actual practice of decision makers follow “an interlocked set of adaptations to these and other difficulties,” that are referred to in their book as “disjointed incrementalism.”

In an extended description the authors uncover the futility that planners typically face when trying “synoptic analysis” of a problem only to give up and revert to an incremental approach.[3]   The adaptation facilitates quick and easily observed change, and in the accumulation of many small increments quite remarkably creative new climate can be accomplished in a short amount of time.  In computer language, there’s a process sometimes referred to as “TOTE,” which stands for “test, operate, test, exit,” except in actual practice in rapid-fire computer operations it is “test-operate-test-operate-test-operate…” and so on for tens, or hundreds, or even thousands of cycles, until finally the compute tests and observes that success has been reached in the long sequence of approximations, and then it quietly “exits.”  All this, of course, in a computer takes a quarter of a second; in social planning it takes a little longer, but not nearly as long as Congress takes!

 IV. Critiquing the Muddle

            So, back in 1970 I was finding that there was something here to get my attention; but, of course, my interest in the method was in how this might play out in the context of church planning.  Christian planning needs to be realistic and straight-forward.  While it’s dissatisfied with some aspects of our present world, it’s skeptical of utopian flights of fancy that would never be feasible in the real world.  Certainly, Christian planning welcomes any rational approach for solving social problems which by its very simplicity and crudity can be easily communicated to other people.  It seeks outcomes that are open to public criticism and evaluation.  So, disjointed incrementalism is a good way to start for church planning.

However, there’s a point where Christian planning can’t be completely happy with the nature of this approach to solving social ills.  It’s the “disjointed” part of the methodology–its apparent “blindness” to the direction of the changes it produces.   The problem with muddling through is always the danger, after a series of disjointed so-called “corrections,” of finding yourselves way off in left field.  Braybrooke and Lindblom acknowledge this problem, and they require a high level of mutual agreement and understanding from top to bottom in an organization in regard to its mission and what’s feasible; but they fail to pursue just how this can be guaranteed in the planning process.

Any Christian planning theory, therefore, would want to add at least two further provisos, which might be expressed by two commonplace Christian virtues: faith and love.   This sounds hopelessly maudlin, but I mean to use these Christian terms in a very specific sense.  Christian planning succeeds only, first, when it is carried out in the context of a consensus around the aims and mission of the church; and, second, where there is an air of trust and communication.  It’s essential to have some agreed upon generalized sense of where we are going as a church.  This is why it’s good for a church to wrestle with its mission statement every few years.  And this has to be more than simply a nod to what we refer to as “our Christian faith.”  Christians need to be in the habit of vocalizing their faith in concrete expressions in the social context of where they are living.  This is the only way “faith” makes any sense.  Moreover, there needs to be a watching and listening, an openness and communication to each other that is almost second nature, so that ideas and problems are quickly understood all around.  What Christian planning requires, if it is to succeed, is a sense of oneness and an atmosphere of sensitivity to each other: we are really one group, one body.  This is what I mean by “Christian love.”

These traditional characteristics of Christian living have a very specific role in the planning process.  They need to be present in order to avoid a church or a sub-group running off in some wild directions that are not helpful in the wider context.  And within the planning group a quick and easy communication style must be present lest the decision process gets bogged down in endless talking and bickering without anything being tried.

Now, these values of faith and love can be combined with that third Christian value in St. Paul’s triad: “hope” is what focuses planning on a realistic future.  Hope sympathizes with a suffering present, but it projects a vision of a redeemed future.  It provides that distinctive double vision of the Christian church which is expressed in the Pauline appeal to “be in but not of the world.”  Christian planning needs to be thoroughly realistic and “down to earth,” like the method’s simplicity.  But it also has to provide, along with its realism, a vision of a better world to come.  This is what hope provides.  The German theologian Jurgen Moltman, in his book Hope and Planning, warns, “Planning must [always] be aware of its origin in hope ….  If it puts itself in the place of hope it loses the transcendent impetus of hope and loses itself.”[4]  Planning without a sense of hope operates in a fool’s paradise and so fails to inspire.

Braybrooke and Lindblom correctly point out that for incrementalism to work it has to make two assumptions, two preconditions which in the context of much of contemporary political and economic policy rarely attend, except in limited systems within that structure.  For incrementalism to work effectively it, first, needs a general agreement on what you’re trying to accomplish, “the orientation that most analysts in a particular country or culture share,” in the words of Braybrooke and Lindblom which they too easily assume to prevail.  And, second, incrementalism presumes that people can communicate quickly and effectively, that those who are injured or unhappy because of neglected consequences of previous policy action will be able to enter the planning dialogue and introduce needed corrections—again, frequently not an easy thing to come by in today’s world.

Christian planning cannot make either of these easy assumptions.  In the first case the Christian perspective is that human societies rarely maintain a unified perspective of what needs to be accomplished.  Totalitarian regimes cannot achieve justice and social tranquility if they fail to share the same vision of the future as their citizens.  Democratic societies, of course, also suffer from diverse visions but their system of government acknowledges this brokenness and embraces the risky relationships out of which the “new” will emerge.  Without hope people cannot deal creatively with the confusion of values that pervades the broken present world which hope embraces.[5]

But in regard to the second presupposition, Christian hope has a much more important critique.  Hope, in accepting a suffering present, sees that the reason there is suffering in the world is essentially the powerlessness and helplessness of portions of humanity who cannot overcome the impingement of the world upon their aspirations.  What hope perceives when it takes present reality unto itself is a hope-less humanity, a humanity which is compelled simply to cope with its world, because it has no way to rise above it and solve its problems.  The blind-spot of incrementalism is that it doesn’t understand history which constantly reveals that many people simply have no voice and are not able to correct bad consequences of previous policy decisions.  Often the ones whose tail is stepped on cannot howl loud enough so that it can be heard. This is what the rise of labor unions sought to correct in the early 20th century.  Hope’s embrace of suffering brings these complaints to the fore.

And this, of course, is very close to the essence of why the church is in the world in the first place to give the persecuted a voice and to respond to that appeal.  Indeed, some would say, it is the very voice of God in those who cry out!  The church does its planning in an incremental way but it is guided by hope.

 V. Learning to Live With the Muddle

            The end of this story is the beginning of another one, the full telling of which will have to wait for another day.  But, briefly, I can say I completed my master’s studies, received my degree, and then entered a whole new turn of events in my life and briefly to the history of Yale University.

Five graduates of YDS and five from down Prospect Street at the Episcopal Berkeley Seminary, which was in the process of merging with Yale, were to be accepted into a pilot program for a professional doctoral degree in divinity.  After a series of interviews and a qualifying examination, I was fortunate to be one of the applicants accepted.  So I decided to stay on another year at the quadrangle.  It was an exciting and challenging experience, but at the end of one academic year the ten of us were disappointed to learn that the experiment was over.  There was no explanation, but there were rumors that the PhD program in theology was already giving the University enough hysterics, and it was in no position to take on another doctoral program..  Anyway, we were sent away with no degree, no graduate credits and hardly a goodbye—we were promised some sort of notation in our seminary record describing what we had accomplished, but I’ve often wondered what it says.  The operation failed but the patients survived.

Nevertheless, the extra year on campus did give me the opportunity to immediately put to use my learnings in biblical ethics and administrative science.  I was hired by YDS, with Gaylord Noyce’s opening doors for me, to teach a field-based course in “Consultative Strategies in the Parish,” and to supervise four STM candidates in consultations with three churches in New Haven and Hartford, much as I had done the previous year.  In the classroom I taught them what I had just learned: disjointed incrementalism, TOTE, flat-level leadership pyramids, quick accessible communication, and continual rechecking a shared mission; in short, a hope-full planning process.  My student-workers didn’t always buy everything I said, but they listened and grew.  And they did the job with the churches well enough to get their approval, and in one case, their rehiring for an additional semester.

And it confirmed for me that I was on the right track for organizations and especially churches  to make decisions that succeed or are self-corrected by what is learned by mistakes.  I have learned to keep people thinking and talking together and trying what seems wise from our admittedly limited perspective.  Putting people in places to experience not only the problems but the opportunities, without asking them to look for ultimate solutions, gives you people who are smart and agile and ready to try again.

One disbeliever of incrementalism has charged that the method is like cutting off you dog’s tail a little bit at a time.  But the incrementalist who is by nature open, armed with many alternatives and schooled in practical experience probably would never even embark on such a cruel plot.  If he did, after one whack, he would say, “I’ll never do that again!

[1] David Braybrooke and Charles E. Lindblom, A Strategy of Decision: Policy Evaluation as a Social Process, London (1963), p.v.
[2] Op. cit., p.vi.
[3] Op. cit., p. 41.
[4] Jurgen Moltmann, Hope and Planning, trans. By M. Clarkson (1971), p.194.
[5] Op. cit.