when church is its own worst enemy
For the last decade or so, I – as many of you – have had the good fortune to move in two worlds: the corporate world and the church world. And during this time I’ve watched a good bit of cross-fertilization between these two spheres. Before and during the last ten years, the business world has seen an unprecedented emphasis on values and soft skills. Some of the influences on this emphasis have been religious. One could argue this began in 1982 with the publishing of Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s wonderful In Search of Excellence, that it reached what Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point sometime after the 1989 arrival of Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and that it has culminated today in a veritable flood of similarly themed books being published every year.
As a sometimes trainer and consultant in my company and others, I’ve very much appreciated the new nomenclature associated with this new emphasis. It’s provided me with a rich alternative vocabulary to express what for me are values that derive from a biblical ethos.
On the church side, perhaps never before have so many church leaders intentionally incorporated business methodologies as a matter of course. The explosive growth of Willow Creek Community Church during the 80’s and its similarly meteoric rise in the popular evangelical consciousness led thousands of would be megachurch pastors to assiduously apply Willow methodologies to their own church growth strategies. This is just one way the trend of applying business execution strategies has found popular expression.
I reflected on this relatively new symbiosis of business and church today at the unofficial launch of the Grace Learning Community, an organization within Grace Community Church in the Baltimore, MD suburbs. But I was sobered when it occurred to me that we are at one of the most dangerous moments of organizational life. But a brief word about what Learning Community is all about might be helpful.
Learning Community was formed as an adult education venue for Grace Community Church. Yet we also believe that the evangelical church in North America has overly relied on information transfer as the omnicompetent modality of spiritual transformation. And so we set out to craft a different kind of adult education experience. We avoid academic nomenclature, using terms like "workshops" and "facilitators" instead of "classes" and "teachers." We incorporate interactive exercises and discussions into our workshops instead of just lecture. We create a small groupesque environment in our workshops, having out-of-workshop parties and dinners or sometimes having dinner before a workshop session. Our facilitators meet one-on-one with each workshop participant at least once to consult with them on the next step of their spiritual journey. In short, we see our organization as a place where we help folks segue to other ministries, small groups, and spiritual friendships within are broad church community. We do not believe that their merely acquiring more information is the point, though we do believe that biblical information is of critical importance. We seek two conversions: a conversion to a lifelong quest for a biblical mindset and a conversion to spiritual friendship and community. And so in our workshops we strive to give our participants a taste of both.
So today our senior pastor, Mark Norman, provided our church with an extended announcement encouraging the entire body to take advantage of our very first set of workshops. And it occurred to me that we are in a dangerous spot.
I co-lead the Learning Community Leadership Team along with Mark Goodrich, Pastor of Grace’s Adult Ministries. For the last 6 months or so, Mark and I have spent hours and hours in many meetings with our Leadership Team identifying our organization’s core values. As we realized that our approach to adult education was going to be non-traditional, we began to consider how we might go about selecting our first crop of facilitators. Our vision was to create a facilitator’s community that would begin to incarnate and reflect the non-negotiable core values we had selected. But as we considered the best way to effectively transfer whatever insights we might have about spiritual formation to others, we realized that we needed to eat our own dog food! In the leadership develoment process we also needed not just to rely on information transfer but rather model it. And so we decided that we the Leadership Team would be the first Learning Community facilitators. We adopted a "find one, make one" policy where we would identify both potential facilitators to mentor and those who are qualified today.
And so we are today at the point of execution. And there’s danger because we now have the opportunity to snuff the life out of this little fledgling community we’ve developed through our policies and procedures.
Let me explain.
We don’t see the current uneasy dance between business and church as a bad thing. We’ve been very influenced by Peters, Covey and also by Jim Collins, Jerry Porras, James Kouzes, Barry Posner and others. For the last six months, a critical component of our planning has been influenced by Porras and Collins’ insight that the best businesses in the United States both stimulate growth and preserve core values. Similarly, these authors’ emphasis on the importance of tangible mechanisms have motivated us to identify operational distinctives that we view as the practical expression of our core values.
So, in more common parlance, as we now move organizationally from determining procedures that reflect our policies to the actual execution of our procedures, we now have the opportunity of dividing our heart from our hand and thereby lies the danger.
Dallas Willard, in his Renovation
of the Heart, puts it bluntly:
"The revolution of Jesus is in the first place and continuously a revolution of the human heart or spirit. It did not and does not proceed by means of the formation of social institutions and laws…" (p. 15).
Whenever a system of ministry is put into place, those who move and operate within that system must take extra care not to overly rely on that system as a means of spiritual transformation. When we observe spiritual transformation occurring in the midst of a system, it’s easy to miss that transformations are occurring because of other dynamic factors within the system and not because of the system itself. So, for example, when we earlier spoke of many would-be megachurch pastors emulating Willow Creek, we would have more accurately spoken of many former would-be megachurch pastors who found that though they’ve carefully duplicated every aspect of the Willow system, there were still some critical element(s) missing that led to a lack of Willow growth.
This same limitation of system in seen in the application of the spiritual disciplines to personal transformation. Merely reading the Bible,
or serving the poor, or praying the Psalms, or fasting will not effect spiritual change (cp. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Something else is needed. Something not entirely subject to systemization. Something dynamic and living.
Over-reliance on the system, of course, is characteristic of modernity in its mistaken belief that the perfect programming will yield its perfect
So in observing the sometimes positive effect of the systemic application of ministry it is easy to confuse the system as the most efficacious component of that ministry. And it’s an understandable confusion. The system is a portion of the ministry that is tangible, observable, measurable and subject to confirmation. It’s the stuff of annual reports and performance reviews. But it is not enough.
What, then, is the antidote? Is it the wholesale abandonment of policies, procedures, systems, tangible mechanisms, etc? No, we believe that systems are helpful because we’ve been commanded to execute our lives in an efficient manner, and systems enable efficiencies. Most certainly, spiritual change and effective service can and does occur in entirely unsystemic contexts. But it would be a simple lack of stewardship to fail to take advantage of the chance to optimize resources which systemic approaches allow, when we have the opportunity to do so. Rather, the solution is to recognize the limits of system.
I, actually, am the solution. So are you.
The problem of the limits of system is defeated as I, a Workshop Facilitator, slide into a booth to have breakfast with one of my participants because the Leadership Team agreed that every Facilitator would have a one-on-one meeting with every Workshop participant at least 2x in a three month period. As he speaks I am mindful that we are in God’s presence. I am aware of the fact that I am inadequate to this task but that He is strong where I am weak. I am aware that the Spirit loves this man and will work through me in his life as I am a submitted conduit of His blessing. I am present with God and present to this man. I focus on him. I realize that I am Christ’s ambassador to Him, that Jesus wants to love him through me. I am in the Spirit and am open to His leading. God has allowed this moment to come with me across the table from this man. I trust God with that and listen and speak for His glory and this man’s good. It is at the point of service – at the point of love incarnate – that the details of schedule and regularity and follow-up and accountability fall aside as relatively insignificant details. This is the stuff of ministry.
The limitation of policy and procedure is transcended for anyone within the system when they walk in the Spirit, being aware that the Creator of the universe loves them with an unimaginable love, and that He is with
them. Being present with and present to. The chasm between system and spiritual transformation is bridged when the servant reaches out in sincere love to the other as a representative of Jesus Christ on earth.
So we are in a dangerous moment here at the beginning of life for our infant organization. And it is not even the most dangerous moment. That moment occurs when the baton is passed from the first generation of leaders to the second, or the second to the third and so on. One can argue that the history of mainline denominations and their decline in the United States is the history of how their leaders have inordinately relied on their institutions to train their new leaders instead of making it their personal responsibility.
How do we maintain the spiritual health and ensure the future vibrancy of our organizations? How do we avoid the trap of relying on our institutions and systems to self-maintain? We do this by realizing that we are the answer. The organization is nothing more than us, and our procedures and systems are literally nothing more than details. Our ministries bear their fruit in those spontaneous moments of loving focus at the breakfast table.
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