"Why won’t the board embrace my plan to re-brand our church for the young immigrants moving into our area? I’ve been here 18 months, and I know this church has got to change radically if we want to reach our neighborhood.”
Sound familiar? There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to pursue an idea you love while everyone around you shoots it down or drags their feet on it. Unfortunately, though, as with so many things, timing truly is everything. Even if your plan has merit, is well researched, designed and powerfully presented, it may be coming at the wrong time in your church’s life.
Solomon remarked God has made everything “beautiful” in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11). That Hebrew word could also be translated as “appropriate,” “suitable” or “fitting.”
In its life span, a church goes through many stages, each with its own unique challenges and opportunities. Discerning where your church is in its life cycle is crucial to effectively choosing where you focus your energy.
Some of our insane busyness comes from trying to cultivate, plant, fertilize, weed, harvest and repair the fences in every season. You may have heard a great seminar on how to till the soil well, but you don’t till the soil in the middle of the growing season. Right ideas fail when it’s the wrong time for them. Wise church leaders know what time it is in their church.
Organizational Life Cycles
Living organisms develop and decline. Seedlings become saplings and then trees; buds open into flowers. They drop their leaves, stop producing fruit and die. Since Mason Haire’s 1959 seminal Modern Organization Theory, business leaders have applied a biological model of organizational growth and development to companies and other organizations. A few principles are consistent. First, stages are sequential in progressive development. Second, an organizational stage involves a broad range of the organization’s activities and structures, not just an aspect of the operation. Third, the sequential progression is not easily reversed.
Organizations move from inception and growth, to maturity, to decline and death, or redevelopment. Unlike plants and animals, organizations can avoid death by restarting with new leaders and a fresh direction. As with living organisms, it is possible to predict common issues at each stage of an organization’s life. Priorities, opportunities and dangers vary depending on the stage. By understanding organizational stages, you can put problems in context, effectively manage transitions from one stage to the next, keep your church on track and monitor warning signs of decline. Each stage offers wonderful opportunities and treacherous threats.
When you grasp what stage you’re in, you can focus on what will most advance Christ’s mission in this unique moment for your church or ministry. Rather than feeling a constant pressure to do everything all the time, you can align your ministry to life’s rhythms. Three rhythm strategies help you to do that: release expectations, seize opportunities and anticipate what’s next.
Most church plants, like small businesses, start off as one or a few people’s dream. A small team has the vision and bears the responsibilities. Communication is informal and there are minimal structures and systems in place. Every person is engaged because they have to be or church services would not happen.
Release expectations: When God used me to found our church, life would have been less stressful for me and my team had I taken the advice we give to young married couples just getting started in their first apartment: Let go of the expectation that you will have all the stuff your parents have right away. Just as young couples foolishly try to immediately get the furniture, appliances and devices their parents took years to accumulate, so young churches try to imitate the ministries of more established churches.
In the beginning, I tried to put in place a multiple-staff team to carry out a full-orbed ministry with excellence. Looking back, it’s obvious the expectations were insane. Doing it all over again, I would have let go of some of those expectations for myself and our team. As a result, we would have had less guilt over what we were not doing or doing well enough. We could have enjoyed ministry more.
Seize opportunities: The early years are the best time to establish culture, mission and values. When a church is smaller, leaders have relational opportunities that do not exist after the church grows.
Few of us can remember every vehicle we’ve owned, but everyone remembers his or her first car. Mine was a very-used red Ford Pinto with a white top. There is something about “firsts” that matter. In your beginning stage, you have most of your firsts. Seize the opportunity to mark those moments and treasure them. Celebrate your first office, rental space, baptism, wedding, staff member, donation, community service project and anything else. Stop long enough to marvel at what God is doing in the beginning stages.
Anticipate what’s next: Our church started services in one of the oldest schools in the city, Faubion Middle School. To say the least, it was a challenge. Electricity was inadequate, so we blew fuses. Windows in the bathrooms did not fully close, so it was chilly in the winter. The janitor was often hungover. Although we didn’t know how long we’d be in that school, we could have benefited from realizing more clearly this would only be a short season.
In the beginning stages, anticipation can be especially valuable. Starting a church is really hard. Many of those early difficulties go away as you grow. The time you put into crafting your mission and ministry model will pay off later. You’ll acquire better gear and equipment. Eventually you won’t have to do everything yourself. You’ll establish processes so you don’t have to start from scratch on everything. Doing things the third time is easier than the first.
In all organizations a growth stage is characterized by rapid expansion, the need for planning with increased size and complexity as well as the felt need to create policies and procedures for stability. A more formalized structure will emerge, along with functional specialization. It’s not uncommon to experience tension between founders and board members as well as face the danger of over-extension.
The founding pastor must learn to delegate. It’s no longer possible to lead over coffee with a handful of friends. Nor is it feasible to continue to make the copies, set up the chairs and play keyboard. Leading the church requires new skill sets for new issues—and that means more people, whether paid or not. And those people? They’ll require sophisticated systems for tracking, hiring, accountability and finances.
Release expectations: In the growth stage, you are adding staff and systems, so release the expectation that it will be as informal as it was in the previous stage. It might feel like it’s harder to get things done, but you need those processes and systems to effectively coordinate a complex ministry.
It’s hard but essential to release the expectation of relational closeness in this stage. In Sticky Teams, Larry Osborne uses sports analogies to illustrate how staff relationships change. At the very start you may be running track all by yourself. Then a couple of teammates join you, and you are playing golf, all riding in the same golf cart; all playing the same game together at every hole. Finally, you move to football where there’s an offense, defense and special teams, all with their own coaches. If the game has changed and you think you’re still playing golf, you will be really frustrated.
As a church increases in size, it outgrows the capacity of some of its original leaders. These are godly, wonderful people, but they may simply not have the horsepower to lead a larger organization. The person who could care for 10 children may not be the one to oversee 100. It’s painful to move a good friend out of a ministry role, but you have to release the expectation that the inception team can take you into the growth stage.
No longer can every staff member sit at the decision table with the lead pastor. It’s necessary to create a smaller management team to simplify decision-making. If you are in the lead role, it’s crucial to communicate well, especially to those who are not invited to be on the team. In hindsight, I wish I’d taken more care here. As a staff member, release the expectation you will be involved in every decision as you may have been at the start. Your role may become more specialized or more managerial. Your job change may have more to do with the underlying reality of the church’s stage than your ability or likability.
Seize opportunities: If beginnings are characterized by “firsts,” then the growth stage is a time of “new(s). You move into a new building. You get new computers as you move into new office space. You begin new systems and processes.
This is a time to learn from others. Go to conferences; visit other churches that are ahead of you. Find the current best-in-class approaches, tools and curriculums. You may work through a re-branding process where you refresh your first logo and website. Enjoy the renewal.
Seize the opportunity to reproduce. As living organisms, churches are made to reproduce themselves. If you do not seize the opportunity to plant another church or campus in the growth stage, you may never do it. It’s harder in the mature stage and nearly impossible in the declining stage. Now is your time to multiply. Once that impulse is embedded in your culture, you have a chance of continuing to reproduce into the mature stage.
Anticipate what’s next: In this stage, you might reorganize annually. We cycled through a pastoral team, management team, ministry team and executive pastor. For many personalities, this degree of change is crazy-making. It will not stay this way. Anticipate stability ahead. Most churches do grow into their size.
Anticipate what traditions are becoming sacred cows and make moves now to battle that tendency. Anticipate not growing. That sounds bad, but it’s unnatural and unusual to grow rapidly, year after year, for decades. There will be seasons of consolidation, of slower growth in attendance, as you catch up to your new size.
Check back here next week to read more about the other two phases in the church cycle, Maturity and Decline. Or, read this article in entirety in the Oct/Nov 2011 issue of Neue magazine.