Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland Part 3-Addendum #3: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-When Churches are Like Leaky Ships, How Do We Fix the Boat?

Addendum #3 deals with church systems being like leaky ships. Addendum #4 will suggest tools for fixing the boat, and preview who might be best equipped to lead in that process.

In the changeover from old-world to new-world paradigms, how do we in the church discern what combination we need in deconstructing our pasts, and reconstructing our futures?

I don’t have the be-all, end-all answer to that question, but I’ve got a practical framework to suggest that I think will help.

As one who’s worked in recovery movement ministry, it’s long been on my discernment radar to watch for indicators that show what kinds of involvement are needed for different kinds of problem situations.

  • When someone is in crisis – whether they know it or not yet – then it’s usually most appropriate to act through intervention.
  • When someone is strongly at risk of being hurt or hurting others, then interception is usually what’s called for, before it gets to the intervention stage.
  • When there are no “presenting problems,” it’s always good to continue learning that acts toward prevention.

Sometimes each of us may need all three simultaneously, although in different areas of our life. And the same goes for organizations – at any given time, our organizational systems may simultaneously have points of breakdown, weak spots, and strengths in the mix.

These days, worldwide changes in paradigms and cultures mean we need to pay closer attention to how we’re dealing with the realities of prevention, interception, and intervention. As I’ve said elsewhere, “Changes are inevitable, but transitions are intentional.” All of us as individuals face some degree of culture shock as we attempt to adjust to the world as it is becoming. A parallel situation applies for organizations.

The Bible says there’s a time to plant, a time to uproot; a time to tear down, a time to build. This message of Ecclesiastes 3 is playing itself out on a global stage, and many of us probably feel like traditionalist actors on that stage, struggling with being thrown into a situation of improvisation!

In the resulting stress of the change/transition process for individuals and congregations, things can go in several directions. We hear the term “deconstruction” used of those who’ve become disillusioned with the ways church has been done. Sometimes this reaction-and-reactive process leads to a spiritual tailspin that crashes us in destruction. Sometimes, deconstructors pull out of their downward spiral in time, restabilize, and move forward on a reconstructive pathway. So, in short, the culture shock induced by unavoidable changes causes regression for some, progression for others, and depression – or worse – for still others.

From my observations of congregations over the past 10 years especially, I’ve come to the conclusion that the restabilization process is a critical stage before we go into reconstruction. Otherwise, we tend to stall out or burn out, because we failed to refuel. And, in fact, we’re trying to run on the adrenaline of need instead of a steady flow of fuel from understanding about our goal.

But what is stabilization about? If solidifying our systems is such a critical crossroad on the path to adaptation in this chaotic age, why haven’t we heard about it more?

This is what I wrote in my previous post on ministry 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.

This is how stabilization fits with that definition:

To simplify a complex process, stabilization of ministry systems involves a three-part process. First, we need to identify the current strengths, weak points, and excesses in the ways our operations functions. Second, we need to strategize and then implement specific ways to maintain the strengths, fill in the gaps of the weak points, and file off the excesses. Third – and some of this overlaps with the second part of the process – we need to make sure the “connection pieces” are in place.

The connection pieces are critical. They are far more than just abstract concepts like vision or mission; they require concrete actions in order to implement. Here are some examples: Ensure there are clear and consistent communications to the relevant people, delivered in timely ways. Do not make promises we cannot keep, and be sure to follow through on what we say you’ll do. Have written job descriptions that are up-to-date, accurate, and include regular supervision and periodic reviews. Conduct background checks on all applicants for staff positions and for anyone who works with minors. Train staff and leaders to mentor disciples, supervise ministry volunteers, and lead teams – because this is typically where much of ministry infrastructure fails.

In the next post (Addendum #4), I’ll have more details available. But for now, let me just say that I’m convinced from my own multiple church-based experiences, not just theory, that we can’t make adjustments until we know what we already have and we ensure our systems are solid. Otherwise, we end up with some very nasty surprises and culture shock that actually could set us even further back from the transitions we hoped for.

When it comes to systems stabilization, are we there yet?

No, but I believe there are at least six trends that indicate there’s positive movement toward reconstructive designs in systems solutions for disciples and churches …

Systems still don’t seem to be on our radar as leaders – even if we have some kind of exposure to how-to’s for organizing ministries. I suspect it’s because we receive little practical training on organizational systems, or in how to supervise staff or volunteers, create or maintain teams, design concrete systems (though perhaps we learn about vision-casting), conduct paradigm shifts, or lead cultural transitions.

Also, many of us suffer from an excess emphasis on specialization and compartmentalization. And while we worked to perfect related skills of efficiency and effectiveness, the world moved on and beyond to where other skills are needed. Such as thinking interdisciplinarily, creating connections, integrating the parts into a whole. In the old-world ways, we could perfect the parts and that would’ve been good enough. Under the new-world necessities, perfect parts without lively interconnection leave us like a not-yet-animated Frankenstein monster, strapped onto the laboratory slab.

We need systems. Systems that can be described in terms of processes and procedures, but that also do more. That look toward the long-term so we remain viable. That integrate strategies and structures so we can become maintainable. That get rid of toxic byproducts of the past so we become sustainable.

Meanwhile, what happens when we don’t have stabilized ministry systems in place?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?! So, what does happen when we don’t have stabilized ministry systems?

I saw this great poster one time, tacked to a ceiling. (It was in a dentist’s office, where that kind of thing makes a lot of sense.) The poster showed a multi-mast “tall ship” in dock. The slogan at the bottom said: “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship was made for.”

Church systems are like that boat. They were meant to take us somewhere. But, in terms of sailing the seas of new-world paradigms, old-world boats are very leaky. Without a solid boat with secure systems in place, church leaders cannot take their congregation anywhere safely. Granted, it may all sound good when the Captain of our local ship declares, “Let’s all move forward into the future, find the new place we fit in the unfolding world, and bring glory to God there!” But sincerity cannot keep a leaky boat from sinking.

If we had solid ministry systems in place, we could mobilize God’s people to plug up the leaks, waterproof the planks, and get the boat in ship-shape to sail on open waters. Instead, our “ministry systems” (i.e., database) perhaps can only tell us how many people are on board the boat and what cabins they’re in. Maybe our “systems” actually focus on visitor assimilation, simply trying to get more people to come on the boat and to stay on the boat. But if our boat’s leaking, and we’re not fixing it, then we’re stuck in the harbor and if we go out to sea, we sink.

I’ve been in enough churches to see what happens when pastors try to launch the boat into the ocean of the future without taking care of any of the systems leakage first. When pastors and other church leaders are not systems-oriented, here are some of the typical issues I’ve seen arise in different layers of the ministry systems:

The pastor gives orders over the intercom, but since he never got the communication systems fixed, the message doesn’t come across clearly, if at all.

He may not use a map to figure out directions or the best trajectory/course to take. He just makes things up from what he (or the leadership group) thinks is best. But visionary goals are not enough. Being rudderless and directionless in a sea full of unknown currents will eventually sink the ship, and there are no systems aboard to take readings on the cultural currents in these not-well-charted waters.

He doesn’t have a spiritual gift identification system in place, nor written job descriptions for ministry roles. And activities are often program-based, not based on the actual gifts, abilities, and passions of the volunteers. So people never get connected to where they were really designed by God to fit into ministry. It’s the equivalent of sending everyone to “the Bailout Brigade program” when the ship is already sloshingly semi-sunk, instead of getting God’s people connected into meaningful ministry where they can contribute to the sailability of the boat.

He only empowers people for whenever it fits with his travel plans.

He never encourages consistently in person or in public, and so some of his most key workers left the boat because there was no sense that they were wanted or welcomed there.

There was no equipping for specific gifts, only for temporary or program-based roles. Thus, there is no multiplication of volunteer workers, because any resources are merely added to the existing system of programs. Meanwhile, key volunteer leaders and staff consistently end up in burn-out because 20% of the workers typically do 80% of the ministry. But then, that’s what happens when all the potential volunteers are treated as if they are passengers whose needs are supposed to be met by staff and other leaders, and are often in fact restricted for any significant involvement. It doesn’t develop people into mature disciples – and thus, not only is the ship leaky, it’s turned into the equivalent of a floating nursery for spiritual babies.

Is this what was supposed to happen? I think not.

Yet, I know of many many people who tried to warn that the boat was sinking before it even left the harbor. And what kind of response did they get? Often, the ship’s captain never even listened or he acted like they were blowing torpedoes through “his” boat by “criticizing” when all they were trying to say was, “Let’s fix the boat.”

Hey – not fair to raise the question without sharing any kinds of answers. So, how do we “fix the boat”?

Stay tuned. That’s the subject in Addendum #4 

Series Links ~ Kingdom Leadership After Lakeland

  1. Part 1: Discernment and the Costly Descent into Darkness
  2. Part 2: Considering Various Sources …
  3. Part 3: Seven Critical Lapses in Leadership and an Appeal to Own Our Responsibilities
  4. Part 3 – Addendum #1: Notes, Quotes, and Questions on Reconstructing Authority
  5. Part 3 – Addendum #2: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-Six Trends Toward Systems Solutions
  6. Part 3 – Addendum #3: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-When Churches are Like Leaky Ships, How Do We Fix the Boat?
  7. Part 3 – Addendum #4: Reconstructing Ministry Systems-How Do We Fix a Leaky Boat, and Who Can Best Lead in Doing So?
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