Assessing the State of Your Church and How It Got There

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1177Over the past month or so, I’ve been writing a series of posts on the need for a Christian to know “what time it is” from a biblical (see here, here, and here) and personal standpoint (here).

Today, I want to begin to apply some of these insights to an organization. I’m going to consult a few business books and see how some of the advice might apply to a local church.

What Time Is It In Your Church?

Understanding the life and times of an organization is essential for wise decisions. Too often, pastors and church leaders step into a church or ministry situation without understanding the particular moment the organization is in. When that happens, bad decisions are likely to follow.

Some leaders strategize before they begin, or they take a strategy from a successful organization and attempt to transplant it into a new environment. Often these strategies fail, because they do not grow out of a proper diagnosis of the current situation of the organization.

In his popular book, The First 90 Days, Michael Watkins connects one’s understanding of the organization’s situation to having the wisdom to make good decisions. “Matching your strategy to your situation requires careful diagnosis of the business situation,” he writes. “Only then can you be clearheaded, not just about the challenges, but also about the opportunities and resources available to you” (61).

What are “the times” of an organization? If a pastor walks into a church and seeks to understand “what time it is” organizationally, what kind of diagnosis should he expect?

Where Is Your Church?

Speaking to the business world, Watkins sees four types of organizational “moments,” which I think we can apply to a church setting.

  1. The first is the “start-up,” which could compare to a church plant; it involves getting the new project off the ground.
  2. The second is the “turnaround,” in which the church has declined precipitously and needs to implement significant changes in order to survive and grow.
  3. The third is “realignment,” in which a church that is drifting into trouble or losing its focus needs revitalization.
  4. The fourth is “sustaining success”: the church is healthy and needs a leader who can take the congregation to the next level.

Once the leader diagnoses which of these four moments best describes the organization’s current situation, he or she must analyze the past. Watkins notes:

“You cannot figure out where to take a new organization if you do not understand where it has been and how it got where it is” (65).

To apply these insights to churches, we would focus on vital signs: spiritual health, average worship attendance compared to church membership roles, growth in evangelism and disciple-making, the church’s strengths and weaknesses. It may be uncomfortable to dig into some of these numbers, but it’s essential. There’s no use in denying or downplaying the current situation, whether good or bad.

The Stages of Decline

This emphasis on being honest about “the facts” is common in business books. Jim Collins’s classic, Good to Great, says making good decisions cannot happen apart from confronting the “brutal facts” (70). In a later book that tells the stories of once-mighty companies that have fallen, Collins outlines the stages of decline in organizations that ignore the brutal facts.

  1. The first stage is “hubris born of success,” which naturally leads to an “undisciplined pursuit of more.”
  2. What follows is a “denial of risk and peril,” and then “grasping for salvation” before “capitulation to irrelevance or death.”

The solution to this steady decline is to “determine the truth of your situation” honestly and diligently so that the correct decisions can become self-evident. Echoing the story of the men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), one might say, Leaders understand the times of their organization and therefore know what the people should do.

2 Dangers

In understanding the state of the church, the leader must avoid two potential dangers. The first is to be overly focused on oneself, to be more concerned about one’s reputation being at stake rather than the life and health of the organization. Collins warns:

“The moment a leader allows himself to become the primary reality people worry about, rather than reality being the primary reality, you have a recipe for mediocrity, or worse” (88).

A second danger is to be so focused on the facts and figures—the information—that the leader forgets to take into consideration the organization’s culture. Watkins defines culture as “the norms and values that shape team members’ behavior, attitudes, and expectations.”

The problems a leader will encounter always have a cultural dimension. To ignore this dimension is to fail to see why people in the organization act and think the way they do.

In a church setting, knowing “what time it is” cannot take place without knowing the established church culture. Matt Chandler, Eric Geiger, and Josh Patterson devote significant attention to the issue of culture in their book Creature of the Word. Some pastors think that if church leaders can agree on core values and a doctrinal statement, other aspects of the church’s vision will fall into place. However, Chandler, Geiger, and Patterson warn:

“If the culture of a church is at odds with the stated beliefs of the church, the culture is typically the overpowering alpha male in the room. The unstated message speaks louder than the stated one.”

Aubrey Malphurs says something similar:

“The better [the leaders] read and understand that culture, as well as their own, the better their potential to shape or lead and minister well in that culture. If they fail to read the culture well, it will mean that the culture of the church will lead and manage them.”

Conclusion

Don’t miss the importance of learning “what time it is” for a church and how it has progressed to this point.

If the church culture has stifled honest conversations about the current realities and challenges, people will begin to shield the leader from “grim facts” for fear of being criticized or penalized for telling the truth. Then, once the “brutal facts” are ignored, the organization suffers and, sometimes, dies.

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