All Congregations Face Problems - Leaders Differentiate the Healthy From the Pathological

agree-to-disagreeThere are two kinds of problems in a congregation – healthy problems and unhealthy problems.  Understanding the difference is the responsibility of leadership. Healthy problems propel congregations into recognizing a changing need or environment so that they pay attention to structural changes and development of their people. Healthy problems include: over confidence by the founding pastor who sees herself as indispensable; eagerness – high energy; evangelism orientation without a corresponding discipleship process; seeking new ways to serve the community; growth beyond the ability to deliver; insufficient cost controls; insufficiently disciplined staff meetings; and inconsistent salary administration. If you work in or attend a fast growing congregation, you probably have experienced all of these normal problems.

Unhealthy problems indicate that leaders have ignored needed change.  Unhealthy problems include: arrogance; lack of focus – energy too thinly spread; no boundaries on what to do; pressing for more growth despite inability to deliver quality care; no cost controls; no staff meetings – no communication; and grossly under paid or over paid employees.  These problems show that the congregation has lost its bearing and is adrift.

Even dynamic congregations can lose the drive of their mission when mission looses focus and clarity. The shift of focus is subtle because management strategies included in budgeting, cost reduction, rightsizing, or structural realignment can undermine and distract leaders from the true driver of their success – their mission.

Dynamism in a congregation is situational, it is not guaranteed. It is possible for a congregation to become malformed and enter a period of decline and thus act like an aging organization shortly after it is started. When early aging occurs, simplicity (the earmark of a vibrant congregation) gets lost in complexity as the people in the congregation struggle to explain the gap between their actions and their ideals or to explain how their actions fulfill the mission.

Dynamism induces simplicity as the earmark of a highly reproducible structure.  This kind of simplicity was described by Rainer and Geiger as, “…a straight forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth.”[1] This definition is important to think about.  Simplicity is not the absence of complex situations – this misnomer only causes frustration.  Complexity and growth go together. Simplicity is the ability of the congregation or Christian organization to support a direct line of action between its mission and its target in the midst of an ever-growing complexity of networks and stakeholders. When this kind of simplicity is lost activity around the mission becomes as congested as a Los Angeles freeway at rush hour.

So how is a simple and dynamic structure developed?  Start with a blueprint i.e., define how the congregation will bring people to spiritual maturity i.e., start with your mission.  Then remove congestion to build movement. Design what you do in alignment with a spiritual maturation process and your core values. Then recruit people to the process to help others grow in Christ. Use the same process in every aspect of how you minister to the community. Then practice your focus, say “no” to almost everything. People are drawn to momentum, but not every opportunity that emerges is something to be pursued as an institutional response. Recall Jesus’ response to the disciples request that he expand his work in Capernaum.  The crowds sought after more but Jesus stayed focused. At the disciple’s request to engage Jesus’ new found recognition Jesus said, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, in order that I may preach there also; for that is what I came out for.”[2]

When you align your congregation around the purpose it is supposed to be about, you not only keep it simple you also end up launching new ministry because of your focus.  Again, look at who Jesus said “no” to. What were the results?  How many others besides the twelve did Jesus commission to ministry in the New Testament?  Look at Matthew 8:19-22; Mark 5:18-20; John 5:10-17; and John 9:1-41 where Jesus did not inhibit the man from following in the crowd or restrict him from talking. The fact that each of these people immediately engaged in ministry points to the discipleship emphasis of Jesus i.e., act on what you know.  It is as people acted on what they knew that Jesus then followed up to help develop their content. Notice that Jesus did not recruit any of these emerging ministers to the twelve.

We often get it backwards, wanting people to have all right content but who often have no idea how to put it to work and then insisting that all ministry happen through the programs authorized by the staff. It is important to see that any time we organize, no matter what spiritual label we put on it, we pull people together toward a common goal and create tension.  Tension develops between the organization we create and the mission we seek to engage.  The reason tension emerges is that organizations work with four primary drives: self-preservation, growth, effectiveness, and efficiency. A leader’s tension between how they define the work of the gospel and what consumes their time emerges when the organization asserts its drives and imposes its needs on the mission of the congregation. Instead, organization must subsume its drives to the mission it was designed to facilitate as a means of moving people together toward that mission.

Organizations are not people so how does this inversion occur?[3] Organizations become inverted when the people running the organization use its structures and processes to amplify their own drives for power, prestige, and pleasure not serving others.

Organizations invert when its leaders hide in structures and processes to avoid having to take responsibility to serve.  This happens when lead pastors or executive pastors or CEOs hide in their offices each day, running new efficiency studies to wring more money out of the operation and not asking what people experience when they meet the congregation. It happens in congregations when the pastor gets lost in the internal aspects of the congregation and tries to make things more effective (read relevant) or more efficient (read removing objections to the latest trend he/she wants to try) and not taking the time to know the questions people are asking about God.

Hodgkinson adds another perspective to creating a dynamic organization that is particularly helpful to those leaders who inherit organizations or congregations that they must rejuvenate.  To help sift through the haze of complexity, Hodgkinson offers a series of insightful questions that pastors should ask about their congregations.[4]

  1.       Is the organization unjustified in its basic purpose?  Can it describe its basic purpose?
  2.       Is the organization unjustified in its complexity of ancillary purposes?
  3.       Should the organization grow? Consolidate? Reduce? Is the growth pattern valid and defensible?
  4.       What are the latent functions of the organizational effort and are they valid and defensible?
  5.       What, so far as reasonable analysis can reveal, is the shape of the non-quantitative cost benefit account? Is the quality of organizational life adequate under its constraints?
  6.       What consistency exists between the answers to these value questions and the core commitments/assumptions of the leader asking them?

These questions can be a source of hope and vision or a source of intimidation and threat. The emotion experienced when these questions are reviewed is itself a reason to stop and reflect.  Ask yourself what emotion you experience and why?  This practice of self-awareness may lead you back to the question Jesus asked James and John – are you willing to drink the same cup Jesus drank?

So, what problems is your congregation facing?  Are they healthy or unhealthy? Will you exercise the courage and faith to discuss these problems or hide and hope they will go away or that someone else will deal with them?

References:

[1] Thom S. Rainer and  Eric Geiger. Simple Church: Returning to God’s Process for Making Disciples (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2006), 60.

[2] Mark1:38 (NASB)

[3] Christian A. Schwarz. Natural Church Development: A Guide to Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches (Carol Stream, IL: Church Smart Resources, 1996), 62-65. Schwarz’s discussion of a technocratic versus biotic approach to congregational life is another similar way to assess the tension that occurs in the organization of the church.

[4] Christopher Hodgkinson. Educational Leadership: The Moral Art (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 109-110.