This post and the next one pick up the theme of moving beyond the rubble of deconstruction. They deal with reconstructing ministry systems. After these, I’ll plan to continue with the planned posts on reconstructing “spiritual parenting,” and then on to reconstructing leadership. This may not seem like a very logical way to present this material, but all I can say to that is I post them when it seems like time to post them. I trust there’s a Spirit-directed flow to them for reasons I cannot fathom, and I’ve learned to be okay with that. And there you have it, so here we go!
This past year, I’ve spent a significant amount of time with my “futurist hat” on. I’ve focused on scanning the cultural horizons for signs that individuals and churches, leaders and movements, are becoming more prepared for the realities of “systems work” – even if they do not yet know that this is what they need. In brief, here’s what I mean by systems:
Ministry systems are an integrated set of Kingdom values, purposes, strategies, and goals. They are brought into reality through a comprehensive set of people-oriented infrastructures – processes and procedures, communications and supervision, follow-through and accountability, review and revision.
For systems thinking, think holistically. For instance: Comprehensive plans, not piecemeal programs. Connected parts, not segmented projects. Vision carriers, not vision casters. Collaborative teams, not celebrity individuals. All system elements must be consistent with one’s paradigm, or the means will cancel out the desired ends.
With all that in mind, here are six indicators I believe I am discerning. You’ll notice there’s no sort of big, tah-dah! kind of conclusion at the end. It just ends. In my next post, I’ll be blogging the beginnings of some ideas about reconstructing ministry systems.
I believe these six trends I’ve discerned indicate varying degrees of readiness for taking on a systems mindset. I’ve given some a bit more detailed description than others, not necessarily due to their relative importance, but rather because this is a “fuzzy process” and some trends have less evidence or clarity than others. Also, these are brief because to identify and download all my observations and examples, barometer issues and patterns rattling around my brain would make for a short book!
1. Changing Times Affect Us
I sense a general growing awareness toward transition among leaders in what Robert Webber terms Traditional (Builder generation) and Pragmatic (Boomer) Paradigm churches. (See his book, The Younger Evangelicals: Facing the Challenges of the New World.) They are seeing that change is on the way, regardless of whether they like it or not, and that they need to move forward and do at least something. Some of this general awareness comes from the changeover in generations and the absence of sufficient younger leaders (what I call the Holistic Paradigm) to pass the baton and legacy over to.
Also, the economic changes of late may amplify this situation as commuting to church becomes more expensive, giving totals decrease, people move to other locales for jobs, and other inevitable ramifications. Perhaps non-profit organizations will eventually even lose special tax breaks, which will make finances even tighter.
This awareness at least primes the pump for some eventual deconstruction because it moves people from denial to dissatisfaction. It is a necessary stage for reconstruction, but not sufficient. It does not quite constitute readiness for paradigm shifts, cultural transitions, or systems implementation.
2. We Must Change or Else!
Some churches are already in a situation of plateau or decline numerically. In such churches, choices are few and relatively drastic – but that seems to be typical of situations of intervention. These congregations can:
- Continue in the same path toward decline and/or death.
- Sell or turn over any assets to another church, church plant, or agency.
- Try to merge with a more viable congregation or church plant.
- Attempt to conduct a radical turnaround.
Other churches are faltering in qualitative growth, and it is clear enough that there are not enough spiritually mature people participating to keep programs going and prevent volunteers from burnout. Church leaders in these kinds of situations may look for solutions in increasing the percentage of visitors who become members, or promoting ways to help members get involved in ministry.
Each of these situations represents some significant turmoil. Once the denial is broken and some kind of commitment to moving forward is in place, there may be a readiness to hear about systems solutions. Or, there may be other obstacles in the emotional steeplechase of grieving that people must surmount before they’re ready to accept the situation and prepare themselves to do whatever it takes. (See my post that addresses “death” as a metaphor for change in institutional churches and applying Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief as a framework for response.)
Although there may be a sincere desire to move toward positive solutions to get away from the brink of disaster or the edge of decline, I’ve yet to see or hear of such a church where the internal systems of communication, ministry infrastructures, and volunteer mobilization are solid. Once on a path toward revitalization and re-missionization, such churches will eventually come face-to-face with their need for systems solutions – not just new strategies or new leaders or new ministry partners.
3. How Could That Ever Have Happened?
I don’t see myself as a doomsayer. However, it is my hunch that every modernist-oriented wing in each Christian denomination or movement in North America is headed for some kind of “meltdown” – if it hasn’t had one already. For instance, the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement underwent severe shake-ups from the crumbling of leadership in the recent “Lakeland Outpouring.” The chaotic events and fall-out there have led many insiders to question the reasons people adopt the spectacular and revivalism to the neglect of everyday discipleship, and to question the systems and structures that could incubate authoritarian leaders and lack of accountability.
Here are some other examples of major or minor meltdowns in the making:
- There is increased activity that includes intentional pull-out of congregations and dioceses from mainline denominations. The “atmospheric pressure” toward such drastic stances among those who stay the same and those who want something different has been building for over 30 years.
- The fact that, according to research in 2007 from Ed Stetzer and LifeWay, only 17% of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) pastors are under the age of 40. In the past few years, there have been efforts to connect with younger pastors who attend the annual SBC delegates’ meeting. That may help keep some next generation pastors in place, but what is being done to increase their ranks? And if the typical Southern Baptist systems are unattractive to younger generations, how far would SBC leaders go to change things – or do they see too much as “essential” to their systems to be willing to change them?
- Even Willow Creek’s three-year “Reveal” self-study, which showed they had been ineffective in discipling people to spiritual maturity, can be interpreted as a warning that Pragmatic Paradigm, evangelism-focused methodological models contain significant flaws. Will they move toward more holistic discipleship systems, or maintain the same overall reductionist overfocus on “worship” services for evangelism?
Such indicators of organizational breakdown lead to questions of why and how such things have happened. Also, it seems the conversations turn more often toward what can be done to prevent such problems in the future. These kinds of questions serve as critical sparks toward at least deconstruction. They may indicate readiness to move beyond reactions to renewal, restoration, and reconstruction.
But the period of questions is probably not the best time to do that if there’s been a major meltdown; those movements need to wait until some of the dust settles after their organizational “building” implodes. If they’re catching things at a critical point during interception before implosion is inevitable, then systems solutions may be on their horizon sooner.
4. No More Spiritual Abuse!
Many who leave churches due to reported “dissatisfaction” actually go because the leaders at the church they left behind were some combination of: controlling, change-blocking, mean-spirited, self-serving, power-hungry, proud, without boundaries, angry, lax, etc. This issue of abusive leadership is so pervasive in North American churches that it seems endemic.
Indeed, one indicator of trouble and interest in moving beyond it has been the significant amount of blogging the past few years on recovery from spiritual abuse. This has become especially noticeable since January 2008, when doctoral candidate Barbara Orlowski conducted in-depth research with over 100 former leaders who had left churches due to some form of spiritual abuse. (As a blip of an indicator, nearly half of all the very few people who find my blog come from a search for resources on spiritual abuse and recovery.)
Many who move through some level of recovery in “detoxing from church” typically begin addressing the reasons they were “set up” for being wounded. When they move past the surface presenting problems of unhealthy leaders who hurt them, and go into the toxic theologies and structures that created pervasive systems of counterfeit control, they often become more aware of systems solution for guarding against such toxicity in the future.
I suspect many who get to this point will adopt a redemptive call out of the ashes of abuse: “I will not allow to happen to others what happened to me.” Whether they take on a constructive role in a church or gathering may depend on whether the deconstruction turns to sheer destruction, or more toward reconstruction. It may take another decade or so before a “critical mass” of those from a “church left behind” discover through practice how to take on roles as positive system change agents in those churches, ministries, agencies, and denominations that still seem to have some hope for transformation.
5. Both/And Instead of Either/Or
With some of the “emerging” and missional movements, there has come more talk that recognizes a dynamic tension in theological concepts, ministry practices, and personal discipleship. For instance, I am perceiving more conversations that include BOTH contextualization AND counterculturization. The focus in prior times would likely have been EITHER cultural relevance (an overfocus which typically leads to syncretism) OR challenging one’s culture (which typically leads to isolating from it). Other examples include paradoxes in:
- Ministry structures (developing ministries in both church and community).
- Missional structures (serving in a local church while processing life in a “shadow team” or small group setting).
- Spiritual discipline practices (creating a bigger-than-just-ancient-future perspective by drawing from Christian traditions birthed in every world region and historical era – a more East-West-North-South perspective).
The presence of dynamic tension between two or more options that used to be kept separate represents a significant shift. I’m seeing things go from profoundly black-or-white, reductionist thinking to paradoxical, black-and-white-and-shades-of-grey-between holistic thinking. Since implementation of ministry systems requires the ability to think about interconnections and complexity, the presence of paradox seems to indicate both a readiness to stabilize systems and to address whatever lies beyond that.
6. Rise of Intercultural Clusters and Collaborative Work Groups
I believe I’ve been seeing an increase in the number of “interpolators” – interdisciplinary people who typically are culturally fluid and who can smooth the bridging among members of a multi-perspective group. In some cases, instead of individual interpolators, there are multicultural or “multi-branch” clusters of disciples working together on core issues for a more healthy and sustainable future in the larger Body of Christ.
I’m also sensing a much higher degree of collaboration across the same theological and denominational lines that likely would’ve been barriers even 10 years ago. People are moving from merely “post-something” status to “pro-connecting.” This is far more noticeable on the internet, where bloggers list links to others in their network(s). Also, news – not just connections – travel faster there. Here are some examples of systems-oriented collaboration.
- In 2007, 40 forward-edge writers (mostly bloggers) contributed a chapter each for the inaugural volume of Wikiklesia – a sustainable system for collaborative publishing that produced Voices from the Virtual World in about four months. Topics addressed extensively in that book are just now being dialogued about more frequently on the internet.
- A group of 50 men and women from three continents conducted a Missional Synchroblog in June of 2008 to address the meaning of “missional.” This collaboration might lead to other online synchroblogs or other resource from those already inside the missional movement.
- A cluster of disciples from a range of theological views have set up an informal grid of links to trusted bloggers who’ve written on sensitive subjects, like recovery from spiritual abuse, or theological critiques of revivalism.
- Disciples from more Holy-Spirit-oriented traditions have joined with those from more Word-oriented traditions in the Allelon Missional Order network. I am part of a similar combination that formed The Virtual Abbey. Similar kinds of cross-denominational clusters are evident when one analyzes patterns of virtual connections in blogdom online links and knows the theological perspectives of participants.
- An announced new (as yet unnamed) emerging evangelical network is forming to focus on evangelism within the “emerging movement,” using the relatively holistic Lausanne Covenant as its summary of faith and practice.
I believe these demonstrate some significant movement toward a more Holistic Paradigm. This paradigm assumes that people have something important to contribute to their communities based on their differences, not merely through their conformity. In essence, this is a strength-based approach that reflects a core systems principle: The whole is more than the sum of the parts. I see these new collaborations as indicators of what future systems-oriented collaborations will look like. At the same time, they could be taken as indicators that denominations where leaders choose to remain traditionalist or pragmatist will dwindle for lack of systems strategies, and they will continue to overfocus on a part of Christianity instead of the whole, and their spotlight in church history may shrink to the point of extinction.
Series Links ~ Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland
- Part 1: Discernment and the Costly Descent into Darkness
- Part 2: Considering Various Sources …
- Part 3: Seven Critical Lapses in Leadership and an Appeal to Own Our Responsibilities
- Part 3 – Addendum #1: Notes, Quotes, and Questions on Reconstructing Authority
- Part 3 – Addendum #2: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-Six Trends Toward Systems Solutions
- Part 3 – Addendum #3: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-When Churches are Like Leaky Ships, How Do We Fix the Boat?
- Part 3 – Addendum #4: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-How Do We Fix a Leaky Boat, and Who Can Best Lead in Doing So?