When resilience isn't enough

Sometimes small changes don’t protect a city or an institution from a storm. How do Christian leaders know when it’s time for sweeping change?

Engineers who protect cities from storm surges have a term called “resilience” -- toughening a city in small ways so that it can “soak up a surge” without completely destroying the city. Steps towards greater resilience might include installing floodgates at sewage plants or raising the ground level in at-risk areas.

But given the recent destruction by Hurricane Sandy, oceanography professor Malcolm Bowman says that resilience is preventing NYC from making the larger changes it needs to make, such as building a $6 billion barrier system like some European cities have in place to protect the city from major storm surges. Instead, New Yorkers have relied on a series of small changes and a can-do attitude, the very spirit that helped them survive 9/11. These may not be enough to protect the city in the future, warns Bowman, if weather patterns continue to change.

In the institutional world, we like resilience.

Former Duke Divinity School dean Greg Jones describes resilience as an indicator of a leader’s ability to persevere. The Old Testament is full of people like Joseph whose resilience helps them persevere or survive. Joseph adapts to a pit, a prison and a palace with courage and the ability to land on his feet and even thrive. And we need resilient leaders and institutions, New Testament scholar Kavin Rowe explains, because “we see in them the hope for which we yearn.”

But the recent hurricane damage reminds us that, sometimes, resilience may prevent us from making larger, critical changes. There are times when we need to stay the course and times when we need to embrace more radical change. “The time has come,” declares Bowman in his comments about NYC, “the city is finally going to have to face this.”

How do Christian leaders know when it’s time for a more sweeping change?

Scientists wrestling with various coast-protection techniques ask questions that may be helpful for Christian leaders to ponder when considering larger changes in their own institutions:

1. How would this change affect the wider ecology?

2. Who would benefit from this change?

3. What might be the long-term effects?

4. What is at stake if we don’t make this change?

5. Is the cost worth the estimated future benefits?

6. What are our deeper responsibilities in this situation?

7. What examples of similar changes have worked elsewhere?

Engineer Graeme Forsyth recommends a five-mile “levee-like barrier” extending from the Rockaway peninsula in Queens to the Sandy Hook promontory in New Jersey. While students of history know that sometimes big walls have been a bad idea, Christian leaders need to learn when it is time to embrace a change that might just shelter us from the next storm surge.