“Your organizational structures are killing you”

decision makingI was recently talking with my good friend Eddie, part of the leadership team at a mega-church, and I asked, “What’s a blind spot smaller churches seem to have – from the vantage point of mega-church world?”

Eddie didn’t even hesitate. “Your organizational structures are killing you,” he said.

Me: “What does that mean? How can we organize differently?”

Eddie: “Last year, we had the idea to start a multi-site location one Tuesday. It was the first time we had ever talked about it. Six weeks later, on Easter Sunday, we opened the site. How many committees would your church have had to go through to do that? How many people would have had to approve it? How long would it have taken you?”

At Eddie’s mega-church, there’s a weekly Tuesday meeting of their 6 or 7 primary leaders. He says everything could change on any given Tuesday.

Now we’re not all trying to become mega-churches. That’s not what I’m advocating here. And maybe we would say there are good reasons to move a bit more slowly. But is there a chance your organizational structures are a serious problem? How long does it take to make a relatively major decision? How many meetings have to be called?

How long to make even a minor decision? Are there less-than-earth-shattering things that likely can’t be accomplished in three months’ time because there are too many steps in the decision-making process to get there by then?

[For an example of how the UMC is struggling with this at an Annual Conference level, not to even mention the General Conference level, see here.]

How come a 3,000-member church is able to turn more quickly than churches much smaller? This seems to defeat the whole notion/excuse that “It takes an aircraft carrier a long time to turn around.”

And is there a risk that church politics start to play a bigger role when people know how easy it is to throw a wrench into the middle of plans and grind everything to a halt – or at least slow it enough that it’s likely to die?

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For anyone in church leadership, you should take the time to read the article “Leadership and Church Dynamics,” by Tim Keller. Thanks to Chad Brooks for pointing it out to me. Find the link here (requires free registration) or download the PDF directly here.

17 thoughts on ““Your organizational structures are killing you”

  1. It’s not even really organizational structures, although I’m certain that’s what a mega-church leader would see (we see what we are trained to see). Rather, isn’t the issue too many stakeholders? Fewer people, but a higher percentage who are extremely invested.

    There are a number of reasons for this: many mega churches are less than a generation old and still with their founding pastor, smaller churches are more dependent on volunteer members and the loss of any one is significant, members of smaller churches are likely more tightly knit and form alliances much more easily. Just because of this difference, Consensus-building is a more crucial part of the process in smaller churches.

    1. Hi Brian,

      This is a great point. If you get a chance, read the Tim Keller article I linked at the bottom. I think it will make a similar diagnosis.

      Less-than-a-generation old is almost surely a part of this, too. Show me a long string of required steps before action, and I’ll probably be able to show you an unpopular/unwise decision in the past that prompted the extra red tape. When we have long histories, we have long lists of accumulated red tape. Yes, more nimble means more prone to make an unpopular decision. Perhaps even a more unwise decision (though large group decisions don’t typically look too wise to me — just watered-down compromise that tends toward the status quo). At some point, though, shouldn’t we be asking just how much we’re forfeiting by requiring so much consensus-building? And how much is “consensus-building” producing constant politicking?

  2. Shouldn’t we also be at least a little concerned that seven (7) people would get to call all the shots for a church of 3000 members? I can see potential for nimbleness yes. But I can also see potential for grave abuse.

    1. Yeah, I was trying to dance around that a bit to be fair to the mega-churches, both leaders and members. There are no doubt wonderful volunteers in those churches, and staff is no doubt responsible, but in that example, resources were available that divorced staff action from the majority of congregants. Smaller churches don’t have that luxury.

      1. Brian I think you have a strong point about their organizations often being only one generation deep. So it is a little hard to say where they will be with leadership styles in another generation or two.

        I’ve read stats for years that suggest that newer churches grow faster and are more nimble in decision making. Could some of the success of the Mega-churches be just their newness? And will that success continue when those churches start to become multigenerational? I think it is too early to tell.

  3. I totally agree with Timothy. I think it works at a megachurch b/c many megachurches have “mega leaders,” that are able to say this is the way God has lead a small group of people to go and a lot of times a mega church has a large less invested group that will simply just go with the mega church leader. Big decisions are an opportunity to influence organizational culture and many times smaller churches are working to change their culture. I’d much rather work at a church of 250 with 30% invested to the point where it takes longer to get stuff done thane a church of 3000 that will go wherever 7 people want to go.

    1. Thanks Derek,

      I get your point here and expect there’s a decent bit of truth in it.

      To push on the other side, though… I’m not sure it’s fair to say that less people are invested just because their approval isn’t required for a decision to be made. In some sense, couldn’t we say they are more invested because they’re willing to support the decisions made by those they recognize as their primary leaders?

      Is a football team less invested if they accept and commit themselves to the coaches’ game plan rather than require the whole team to sign-off on it?

      When Paul took the collection to Jerusalem, he didn’t seem to offer the Corinthians, Macedonians, and other churches options about how they’d like their money to be used. (Is there a lesson about restricted giving here?) He told them what was happening and asked for their support. Did that make them less invested?

      At the end of the day, this mega-church still needs its people to be invested. If the people don’t give, don’t volunteer, don’t show up to support new directions, then it all fails. So I’m just not sure that the number of people required to make a decision here reflects the investment of the people. Perhaps it reflects the people’s trust in their leadership.

  4. This is a thought-provoking post, and I want to throw two quick observations into the mix for conversation sake. I know it’s dangerous to think too much about a casual conversation and blog post, but I’m wondering if there aren’t two a priori assumptions working in the background here.

    First, it seems the organizational structure of the church is being described as external to the church; that is, the structure/organization of church is portrayed as some sort of external apparatus which can be removed, modified, and/or discarded without really changing the reality of church as such. In this sense, I wonder if the conversation isn’t being inhibited by some sort of dichotomy between inner/outer and form/content (essence of church / structure it takes). Within such a framework, it seems as if the essence of church has ultimately little to do with the church’s organizational form and structure and vice versa. The latter can be removed, modified, or discarded without really changing the reality of the church. I think this is important, if for no other reason, than that the three largest Christian traditions (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican) hold that apostolic succession and the historic episcopate (a governmental structure to be sure) is essential to church as such, not something which is external and can simply be modified or discarded. In short, I wonder if our dialogue is tinged with a very Protestant (Evangelical?) and perhaps even quasi-modern presupposition.

    Second, and consequentially, it seems the church is described in largely reactionary terms. The dialogue in the conversation hinges around a discussion over how fast or how slow the church is able to respond to external stimuli and perceived needs – in this instance, the perceived need to start a multi-site congregation in a particular location. There are two assumptions going on here. First, it is assumed that the church should be reactionary and that this is good – that is, that the church should react to (or respond to) the external stimuli of the larger culture. Secondly, a corollary assumption dependent on the first would be that a faster response time is better (more productive/efficient?) than a slower response time. In other words, if the church is supposed to react and respond to the ever-changing, external stimuli of the larger culture, the quicker it can do so, the better. Ultimately, the problem which Eddie pinpoints concerning smaller churches is that they are less productive and efficient in the agreed upon response. I think we’re carrying a whole freight of presuppositions in at this point, particularly how the Church relates to the world, but maybe even economic/capitalistic ones.

    . . . just some quick thoughts I thought I would add to the conversation.

    1. I can’t site study off hand. But my own pastoral experience is that churches that grow and engage their community are willing to change. In some cases the question isn’t speed of change but willingness to make changes. I think underlying this conversation is the concern that many churches just won’t try new ministries and make changes and that they may use the more complicated structure of the church to throw up road blocks to real change.

      1. Thanks for responding, Timothy. One of the purposes of my original comment was to try and unravel why we all think such ‘change’ is inherently good, or, to use your statement above, why we think “engaging our community” is necessarily conjoined with “being willing to change”. I think there are reasons for this, and I was trying to point to some of the undergirding assumptions operative in our conversation which tie these two motifs together in such a way that it is hard to think of one without the other.

        Also, I think I was really trying to push at the notion that churches simply don’t try new ministries and/or make changes merely because the complicated structure of the church gets in the way. Rather, the very structure of the church is integral to the church, and a modification or removal of one is seen as a modification and removal of the other. I used the example of the historic episcopate and apostolic succession to illustrate this above, but I think I can use a hypothetical (albeit ridiculous) example to better illustrate. One way to really get people in the door of a church is to set-up ecclesial prostitution. The church could locate, bring in, and pay prostitutes to have sex with church members who wouldn’t have to pay for the sexual service. A whole architectural building/hotel could be erected on church property, a schedule could be organized to decrease wait times, and one could have a representative prostitute on the church board/vestry to insure fair treatment of the prostitutes. Such a strategy would actually probably work good in lower socioeconomic urban areas. The problem, however (and I think we can all agree on this), is that the very reorganization of governmental structure in this instance (e.g., allowing prostitutes on the board/vestry, building an edifice to facilitate prostitution, organizing a prostitution schedule, etc.) is contrary to what it means to be the church. This may be a ridiculous example, but I think it illustrates the point that the organizational structure of the church cannot be separated from the essence of the church.

      2. Well, that is a pretty unusual illustration!

        While some of the structure is integral to the order of the church I can’t say that all the structures we’ve created are such. I’m in the UMC which certainly has an Episcopal structure and the local church has a mandated structure. But that still doesn’t mean we haven’t created informal structures that have no baring on being an episcopal church that may get in the way of need change.

        Certain everything doesn’t need to change. But when we create informal structures and informal cultural mores which basically tell those outside the church that they have to fit into our culture, like it or not, then I believe we are doing disservice to the gospel in the name of our familiar way of going things.

        As an example, many churches won’t allow someone to sit on a planning committee until a person has been a member of the church for years. There is no mandate in the UMC Discipline for such behavior. But that doesn’t mean chuches don’t do that and thereby shut out input from new people.

    2. Caleb,

      Thanks for this. I’m not surprised to see you taking this conversation into much deeper waters than I originally had in mind.

      1 – Form/content
      You’re absolutely right – our form says something about our very essence. And our essence requires certain things of our form. We can’t treat the two as if they’re separate. What does the church’s very essence require of our forms – in this case, regarding decision-making structures? You’re right to point out apostolic succession and the historic episcopate. I’ve come to this particular discussion with a pretty Protestant, even congregational, mindset. That’s odd considering how I’ve been approaching many other things recently.

      I don’t have the mental energy to work through this right now. Perhaps some others can chime in. Or I may try to write more in the future. Caleb, I’d love to hear you lay your own thoughts out some more. For now – what leadership and decision-making forms are required by the very nature of the Church? How wide are our various options for modification based on context? Lots of presuppositions will obviously go into anyone’s responses here, too.

      2 – Reactionary decision-making
      I may be thinking of these issues in different terms than you are, Caleb. I haven’t seen this example, or many others, in terms of being reactionary. I’ve been thinking more in terms of the mission of God in the world, the Church’s being sent, Jesus saying, “Go into all the world…,” etc. So in my mind, I’m not looking at this as a reactionary approach to the world, but asking how we can best respond to the leading of God to go into the world. That will consider contextual issues, as it seems to have throughout the Church’s history, but it doesn’t begin as a contextual reaction.

      Then again, on smaller matters, this does address some reactionary things. How will we make decisions and move forward on matters big and small? I think there are some major theological implications here – a view of God who has created time, requires our response and obedience, even conveys an urgency for response at times – but again I’m running out of mental energy here. Perhaps some others can carry this further. Or, Caleb, you can tell me if I’m misunderstanding you – or not being able to rise to the levels you’re trying to take this conversation.

  5. Haha, you caught me, Teddy! I’ve never been very good at “constructing” anything which is why I would make a horrible pastor . . . but I’ll try and respond to the best of my ability . . . just don’t laugh!

    In answer to your first question, as an Episcopalian, the historic episcopate, Apostolic Succession, Mass, and even the parish structural system are essential to me. At this point, I don’t think I would really budge on any of them. The other stuff I would have to think about. I think my main point, though, was that the whatever structures one has carries with it theological import, and it sounds like we’re in agreement here. The fact that a small leadership group can literally add another worship site to an ecclesial community or completely rearrange a worship service may be viewed as more practical/productive when it comes to logistics: conceiving a plan, mobilizing resources, and executing and finishing a project. From a Roman Catholic perspective, however, such a group completely demolishes their parish system (by having authority to add a satellite extension), circumvents the historic episcopate (Bishop’s approval?), and mutilates the Mass (ability to completely change the worship liturgy). For Catholicism, all of these things are essential to what it means to be the church. From a productivity/capitalist standpoint, then, a seven person leadership team or committee may be conceived of as great idea, but from a Catholic theological standpoint, it undermines what it actually means to be the church.

    I’ll definitely acquiesce on my second point (which I don’t think you misunderstood at all), and I’m glad you pushed back. In trying to answer some of your questions, though, I think it is this pragmatic/capitalist/efficiency framework and legitimization which I referred to as “reactionary.” It’s just really hard for me to understand the leadership team described in the original post as anything other than a marketing group (identifying a particular people group, conceiving a plan, mobilizing resources, and executing said plan). The first step in all of this is identifying a market group and then, of course, responding/reacting to it. As such, it seemed Eddie was critiquing smaller churches for their perceived inefficiency in responding (or reacting) to such a market group. They couldn’t move fast enough in the market economy because their existing structures bogged down their productivity. I know these terms weren’t explicitly used, but I use them here to highlight the undergirding capitalistic/marketing framework within which he is able form his critique. Once again, marketing implies a reaction to . . . this is what I meant by reactionary.

    That being said, however, you’re absolutely right, and I’ll concede my point. One could conceive of being missional and evangelizing in a different way, one in which the church isn’t perceived as a means to an end but as an end in itself. After all, the Great Commission is simply not a call to GO. Rather it is a call to make disciples and baptize them into the church. I’m definitely not advocating negligence when it comes to evangelizing, and I’m glad you pushed back on me at this very point. When reading over my initial response, I definitely came pretty hard against being missional as such, and you were absolutely right in that I was really hammering against just one understanding or way of looking at it.

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