Archive for April, 2010


A Church & its Building(s)

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

This week I engaged two separate congregations in conversations that initially appeared very different. One congregation contacted me about working with them on strategic planning. The other congregation was interested in talking about creating a multi-site regional ministry, bringing together a thriving large church with several nearby smaller congregations that appear to be failing. Central to both conversations were issues about buildings.  

The first congregation, the one focused on planning, is in the midst of a significant zoning argument with community leaders about their proposed plans for building a family/community center. The immediate neighborhood doesn’t  want this building that the congregation intends to use to serve the larger community. The congregation has been trying to birth this new location for thirty years and has already invested significant sweat equity in bringing the plans to fruition. The congregation is divided about whether the building plan is a good idea or not, and leadership is having a hard time keeping congregational mission at the core of the conversation.

The second congregation (focusing on the regional ministry concept) is struggling with how to think about the usage of buildings that are already owned by several merging congregations. Is there something about the “soul of place” attached to these locations that needs to be preserved in the usage of the buildings, or should the buildings be sold and the assets used to better resource the new Regional ministry. And what happens when the buildings are not owned by the congregations, but are owned by the denomination. Who has a right to make decisions about the future of these sacred spaces?

(Very coincidentally, both the planning congregation and the congregation planning a regional ministry happen to share a property line. They are next door neighbors. Both are large congregations. One is Episcopal and the other is Presbyterian.)

At the heart of both conversations are questions and themes about building usage, community needs and sacred space:

  • What is the relationship between congregations and buildings going to look like in the next decade of church life?
  • Will large campuses and building structures continue to be foundational to life and ministry in the large church, or will the large church become more about taking ministry out into neighborhoods, making use of smaller building units strategically located to meet local demographic needs?
  • How do you keep conversations about buildings focused on the right kinds of questions, so that the conversation is primarily about mission and only secondarily about the buildings that make the ministry possible?
  • Does space have a soul? Is there something inherent in the very space itself that must be tended in decision making about buildings?

As I ponder these questions, and try to help these congregational leaders frame the right questions, I am reminded of a helpful resource that was published by the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The name of the book is Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission and Message by Nancy DeMott, Tim Shapiro, and Brent Bill. The book introduces a 3 pronged approach to decision making about buildings and space; discernment, deciding, doing. If your congregation is engaged in conversations about building usage, I’d highly recommend this text.

Photo Credit: Br3enda’s

Pastor As Symbol

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

Pastors are symbols of their congregations. The person who occupies the office of pastor must, on some level, embody the culture and mission of the congregation. This phenomenon becomes more pronounced the larger a congregation becomes. In the very large church people who listen to the pastor teach on Sunday morning rarely encounter the pastor as person at any other time; they only experience a pulpit persona.  Effective large church pastors know how to craft and project themselves as effective symbols of their congregation.

Recently, Doug Riddle at the Center for Creative Leadership posted a blog entry about the Leader as Symbol. Here’s what he said:

“Among leaders I’ve coached, one of the most difficult transitions is the one from person to symbol. It’s not that one stops being a person. Rather, the body politic needs symbols that can provide a rallying point. People may not read the Constitution of the United States, but they need it to be there. Flags are more obvious symbols of our collective identity, but people are, too. This explains the demand to see our leaders. Consultants advise presidents and CEOs to “make themselves more visible.” Visibility in leaders is important because they play a magical or symbolic role.

Oddly, this is one of the constraints upon senior leadership because this role has little obvious content. It is nearly all emotional force and it is strangely important for the shaping of organizational culture. The personality expressed on the stage stands for the culture of the organization and we see it most clearly in those who have shaped their companies through their personalities. Steve Jobs is Apple and Apple is Steve Jobs. This is not true only for the employees, but the stockholders whose hopefulness rises and falls on rumors of his health.

 Leaders are real people, certainly, but part of their duty to the organization is fulfilled in their flag value. Unless you created the organization and still head it, you will need to decide what elements of the existing culture you will work to change and what you will inhabit. Either way, the higher you rise in your organization the more seriously you need to take your signal value. For a few close friends you may still be Dorothy or Ahmed or Seymour, but for many more you are the company.”

  So, have you stopped to think recently about what kind of signal value you project in your congregation? What symbol are you communicating by your presence? How is that symbol creating or reinforcing congregational culture?

And perhaps more importantly, how are you tending the well-being of the person behind the symbol, so that you don’t lose yourself along the way?

Photo Credit: Holy Symbol of Sikhs  from Captain Suresh

Innovation & Early Adopters

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

When I work with congregations in the midst of change I often speak about Rogers Innovation Adoption Curve . It’s important for leaders to think about where they are focusing their energies among follower groups as they seek to lead change, (innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, laggards). So often, leaders waste their energy trying to get “laggards” on board with a proposed change. The reality is that laggards are never likely to come on board and they’ll sap all of our leadership energies if we let them. The diffusion of innovation curve reminds us that it’s much more effective, from a leadership perspective, to focus our energies on the innovators and early  followers. This week I discovered a wonderful TED talk video that illustrates the importance of harnessing the energy of those first followers. Check it out. It’s funny and SO true.

How to Start a Movement

Membership Assimilation

Monday, April 5th, 2010

I’ve just finished studying the Faith Communities Today 2008 research (released in late 2009).  It has some interesting things to say about the large church that I hope to unpack on this blog in the days ahead. Here is the notable topic that first grabbed me. The survey identified and queried congregations on five different approaches to member assimilation.

  1. Invitation to participate in a class for new persons (47% of all congregations surveyed use this pathway)
  2. Invitation to join a small group (40%)
  3. Invitation to participate in worship (60%)
  4. Regular fellowship activities (58%)
  5. Invitation to participate in community service (49%)
  6. Invitation to serve the congregation on boards and committees, etc. (49%)

Survey results suggest that congregations with over 500 attendees in average weekly attendance have to be, and are, much more intentional in their strategies around assimilation. (See page 21 of the report) Larger churches use significantly more pathways and they are more intentional about creating and communicating those pathways to newcomers.  That’s not particularly new or attention grabbing. I think we’ve all intuitively known that.

But this is remarkable! The survey also measured the percentage of congregations who actively contact members that have stopped attending.

          Average weekly attendance         % who contact lapsed members

          Less than 50                               63%

          50-399                                        62%

          400-499                                      64%

          500+                                           37%

The drop off in this practice after the 500 mark in worship attendance is significant. After reporting this statistic the FACT 2008 report goes on to say, “ Given the positive impact of such a seemingly simple practice in larger congregations, the fact that congregations of over 500 attendees are significantly less likely to do it suggests a potentially simple way such congregations could enhance their growth prospects.”

As I ponder this statement made by David Roozen , author of the report, I’m trying to decide if it’s insightful, naïve, or both. It’s pretty clear to me that large congregations don’t follow up with lapsed attendees because of the sheer impossibility of the task. How do you track attendance, participation and lapsed members; particularly across multiple worship venues and campuses? It’s not the “simple practice” that Roozen suggests when it comes to the large congregation.

If we could track, and if we did follow up, would it make a difference? Or, are large churches just naturally more transient? Does the low percentage of churches that engage in this practice suggest that it’s just too hard to do it in the large church, or is it a reflection of the fact that churches have tried it in the past and it just doesn’t produce any meaningful impact?  What say you?

Photo Credit: Flickr.com

Starfish & Spiders

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

I admit to being jaded about books that claim something new in the field of leadership. I’ve been a student of leadership theory for many years and frankly, it seems that most “new” ideas in leadership are simply a rehash of something that’s been around for awhile. So, I’m generally cautious when someone recommends a new leadership book and tells me that it’s a must read.

Owning my skepticism, I just finished a book that a colleague recommended called, The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. The book makes use of a very compelling metaphor and makes some key points that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.

Here’s the metaphor. If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; but if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. With a spider, what you see is pretty much what you get; a body’s a body, a head’s a head, and a leg’s a leg. But starfish are very different. The starfish doesn’t have a head. Its central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated through each and every arm. Traditional top down organizations are like spiders, but in this post-modern era starfish organizations are changing the way face of business and non-profits. (Maybe they should be changing the way that we organize our churches?)

A couple of basic principles govern the formation of starfish organizations. They are decentralized and focused on diseconomies of scale (smaller subunits within the organization.) They rely heavily on spontaneously organized and linked networks. They harness the power of chaos. Knowledge is spread and shared throughout the organization; it is not hoarded at the top. Everyone at every level of the organization has a fundamental desire to share and to contribute.  They are almost impossible organizations to kill because the DNA of the organization is carried in every part of it. If a leader fails or is taken down from outside the organization new leadership spontaneously emerges. Catalysts, rather than appointed leaders make the organization effective. Catalysts are a cross between an architect, a cheerleader, and an awestruck observer. Ideology is the fuel that drives the starfish organization, as expressed by a well articulated set of values.

So, here’s the thing that I keep wrestling with since reading the book. Decentralized organizations really aren’t anything new. We’ve been studying them for decades. But this way of talking about a decentralized organization does seem fresh. I’m particularly taken with ideology and core values as the glue that hold the organization together. What I’m still wondering about is how we distinguish between an effective starfish organization and utter chaos. I’ve been in lots of congregations that would like to think what they are doing is taking a decentralized approach to ministry, when in fact they are simply yielding to chaos and a lack of organizational skill. What are the attributes of a well run decentralized leadership structure? The book has me thinking about it, but I’m not sure it has answered the question for me.