Breaking Path Dependency

Think about the last few problems you solved—at work, home, where you volunteer, wherever. Now ask yourself two questions: 1) How did you solve it? and 2) Are you happy with the outcome? 

Typically, when we face a problem, we rely on what has worked in the past. When you think about one of your recent problems, did you…

  • Talk to the same colleagues or friends you usually talk to?
  • Involve the same kinds of partners for help?
  • Consult the same kinds of data that has worked in the past?
  • Look for solutions in the places that have worked for you before? 

These are great steps to take when time is of the essence and a quick decision needs to be made. Following a path that has worked in the past is smart and efficient. Successful problem-solving habits maximize our mental processing capabilities, allowing us to dedicate more time to important matters. 

The dominant path we use to make a decision or solve a problem often defines the way that we, as well as the organizations of which we are a part, approach challenges. For good reason, we might say, "If the path works, why change it?"

Path dependency is “the way we do things around here.” It describes the practices, relationships, habits, and assumptions we rely upon to make a decision. But, because the past is a critical influence on the future, it is important to keep our path dependency in check.

Oftentimes when approaching challenges, today’s path is actually yesterday’s path.

Sound familiar? Path dependency is plaguing many of our churches and Christian institutions today. We are confronted with new and challenging problems and continue to use the same problem-solving methods we have always used, because, well, they worked in the past!

But they can't work forever.

And so we work harder and faster, investing even more of our precious (and diminishing) resources into solving our problems. Then, when we don’t immediately see the results we are accustomed to, our anxiety spikes. Stress and fear of failure encourage us to dig our heels in and cling to the habits and practices we know, because changing the way we do things requires dramatically more mental energy than we can muster in the moment.

How do we break path dependency? How do we make different decisions? How do we achieve different results?

Jesus’ actions as recorded in the gospels give us a number of great practices for breaking path dependency. In its simplest form, breaking path dependency is rooted in diversity.

Jesus spoke to lots of different kinds of people. We find him hob-knobbing with the rabbis in the temple, asking for water from outcasts, or bringing both fishermen and tax collectors into his inner circle. Whenever Jesus went to a new place, he engaged new people in conversation on their level.

Jesus had a diversity of knowledge. He could talk politics with those trying to catch him in a tricky conversation. He told stories about farming, money, law, families, animals, travel, cooking, and even housekeeping.

Jesus understood his larger cultural context. Admittedly, by today’s standards he might not have traveled more than a few counties away. Scholars say that he probably stayed within 50 to 100 miles of his birthplace. Nonetheless, he exposed himself to different cultures, traditions, and customs. (And if you don’t think culture and traditions can vary much by county, come visit me in Virginia!)

Most importantly, in all the places Jesus went, with the people he engaged and the topics he studied, Jesus practiced empathy. He listened to people’s stories with an empathetic ear, putting himself in their place, especially in times of stress. He listened for their deepest desires and greatest needs. He acknowledged children who wanted to be seen and not pushed aside. He heard the hemorrhaging woman’s pleas and brought her back to community.  He heard a man asking him to “help his unbelief,” and he gave him a faithful way to live.

What is the problem you are facing right now? What is the challenge before your institution?

Think about how your surroundings inform the way you approach challenges. Reflect on how you might apply some wisdom from the latest book you read to your situation. Ask someone you who is not your regular confidant for their opinion. Get out of your usual setting and go for a walk, or sit in a different space to think about the challenge.

Diversity of people, ideas, and places break path dependency and invite us into new ways of thinking and being in relationship with others. Empathetic listening enables us not only to appreciate the diversity around us, but to apply it in our lives as well. The church is begging us to break our path dependency and reach into new places and relationships for hope and renewal. 

So what is your problem and what are you going to do about it? 

Contributor: Victoria White
Presented by: The Institute for Youth Ministry


Victoria White is the Director of Grants at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity where she encourages traditioned innovation among Christian institutions and their leaders through teaching, writing, networking, resourcing, and grant making. A native Texan, Victoria is an ordained Baptist minister, a pastor’s wife, and mother to 2 hilarious and mischievous children. You can find her working in her home office overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with a gigantic Great Dane named Minnie, or on one of the 5 million sports fields her kids play. She loves to laugh, mostly at herself.