People or Systems

There’s a popular book for entrepreneurs titled The E-Myth (later titled The E-Myth Revisited, and then a whole host of spin-offs). It focuses on creating a “foolproof, predictable business”—a “systems-dependent business, not a people-dependent business.” The premise of the whole book: if you want to create a successful business that you can sell, you need to minimize your dependence on people and personality. You don’t really want people; you want robots. You’re using people because they’re cheaper.

The book offers several helpful suggestions. I’ve recommended it to many people. But it’s based on a false premise––that the only reason you would create a business is to make money and sell the business (as opposed to all the other possibilities—to create something that’s good and beautiful and contributes to the community, to create meaningful and enjoyable job opportunities…) The book assumes you need a system that requires no subjectivity. You’re managing a mass of people who are expected to check the right boxes. Most of what they do is true or false, sometimes multiple choice, almost never essay response.

This kind of world is a dream for higher-level administrators. If only people and progress could be measured in True or False checkboxes. And at McDonald’s, they mostly can.

But we try to extend this kind of thinking to all kinds of other worlds where it doesn’t fit. We do it because it’s easier to manage by “foolproof” systems than by subjective decision-making. It’s easier to manage one uniform mass than a collection of diverse individuals. So mandatory rules tend to grow exponentially with the size of an organization. When you oversee a large number of people, rules are just easier than subjective judgments.

Of course, this also leads to a lot of stupid rules. I spoke to someone who works in a medical lab about how they have to place expiration dates on items that don’t expire. When the “expiration” runs out, they peel off the piece of tape and re-label with a new, false expiration date. Why? Because administrators four levels up passed a rule that everything had to have an expiration date, no exceptions. If you’ve been in a large organization, you’ve probably experienced something similar.

To set uniform regulations is easy. To know people and their situations––to have open, two-way dialogue with them––is much more difficult and far more time-consuming.

As organizations get larger, this means we’re likely to waste more and more of people’s time. Administrators several levels up pass rules to be uniformly followed, whether they’re beneficial to everyone or not.

This leads to mediocre performance for the organization, as they waste more of their valuable people’s time.

It leads to depleted morale, as employees find themselves doing more meaningless things, less things that really matter. (The person in the medical lab above was lamenting the reduced level of patient care because of the number of silly rules that were instead consuming their time.)

Finally, some of the best performers leave. They’re looking for a place to make a difference, not to check meaningless boxes.

The church is hardly immune to this. It would be much easier for churches to handle discipleship with a foolproof system, much easier for denominational leadership to mandate the same things for all of their clergy. But tending souls is as far from robot-work as anything. We can put the check mark in the right box and congratulate ourselves, but our system may not be having nearly the positive effect we’re assuming.

Preaching and the preacher’s soul

Don’t let sermon preparation be your only Bible study.” or “Your sermon preparation doesn’t count as your devotional time. You need to nourish your soul, too.” I hear several warnings like that in pastor circles. I understand the point and don’t disagree. Don’t read Scripture only under the pressure of developing it into a sermon. Read for your own nourishment.

And while I read Scripture for more than just sermon preparation, I can also say that my greatest growth and nourishment have come from the texts I’m going to preach. The extra weight of asking what God has for us in this word––the extra time and focus that demands––bring me to my greatest wonder and awe and conviction.

Preaching is good, if nothing else, for the preacher’s soul.

Pastors come from within the community of faith, not to it from the outside

My last post considered the position of a pastor within the church community. I quoted Tom Long, who says, “we come from within the community of faith and not to it from the outside.”

I made this extra observation in a footnote, but it merits more than a footnote:

Of course, this notion draws into question not just how preachers enter worship, but how pastors are appointed. In the UMC, we expect our pastors to be sent to us “from the outside.” Churches that “call” their pastors from somewhere else expect the same.

How few congregations embrace the crazy idea that their next leader(s) may already be in the room! How much would that one change of assumptions change about a church?

What if your next lead pastor were already in the room? Your next youth or children’s pastor? What if someone told you today that one of the teenagers in your church will one day be leading it?

Let’s add some extra urgency… What if someone told you that you’re not allowed to hire or receive an appointment from the outside for your next pastor? You must fill that role with a current member.

Would that change anything about what you’re doing? Why not begin to act that way now?