Taming the Bureaucracy Beast

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The church needs innovation, experimentation and risk taking.  The church has bureaucracy; inactivity in the name of good order and process. Senseless bureaucracy keeps us endlessly mired in reporting, approval seeking and communication. We end up with repetitive meetings, multiple levels of approval, over-reliance on procedure, and postponed decision making until everyone is informed and happy.  What would it take to free ourselves from all of this and just get things done?

Too Much of a Good Thing

In the late 1980’s Zebra Mussels found their way into the Great Lakes. A few Zebra Mussels are healthy for a fresh water ecosystem. They filter the water and reduce the overgrowth of algae. They produce clear water and facilitate healthier conditions for bottom dwellers.

image controlsUnfortunately, Zebra Mussels also feed voraciously and reproduce rapidly. Instead of gently cleaning up the Great Lakes waterways, the mussels over-proliferated and destroyed too much algae, threatening wild fish habitats.  They also clogged fresh water intake valves and filtration processes that human communities around the Great Lakes depend upon to thrive.

Congregational systems are like the Great Lakes ecosystem in this analogy. A few good procedures and carefully constructed decision making rules will produce transparency and generate healthy representation. Good policy keeps us from running off the deep end in pursuit of ideas that are not a good fit for us.  However, when process and procedure over-proliferate, we end up with clogged decision making. Innovation and risk taking take a back seat to sustaining good order.

The good news is that there are things we can do right now to tame the bureaucracy beast and restore a healthier balance between order and innovation.

Know what you seek to accomplish:

Bureaucracy thrives when process takes precedent over outcomes. When communication, shared decision making, and keeping people happy become the outcome, we end up with stagnation and clogged intake valves.

We begin unclogging by naming the specific changed conditions we are trying to produce in mission and ministry. This requires naming the new learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning that fulfilling your mission requires. These are your outcomes.

Outcomes are the not the same thing as outputs. Outputs are the direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs indicate if a service was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of constituents served, classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged.  

When we are unclear about outcomes, we often chase outputs. Chasing outputs without clarity about outcomes promotes unhelpful busyness and feeds the bureaucracy beast.


Eliminate Liaisons

Congregational governance systems ensure representation, and the primary way we have pursued representation is through liaison roles.  We select leaders on the basis of their ability to represent the voice of a specific constituency: the choir, the youth, the women, or the daycare. The liaison is expected to attend all board meetings, as well as any committee or team meetings that impact her constituency group. Her job, in addition to representing the best interest of her constituency group, is to ensure that important information from the board meeting is carried over to the committee meeting, and vice versa.

There are several things wrong with liaison roles. First, liaison roles elevate communication and decision making over action. A liaison may be expected to attend three to four meetings per month so that her constituency group is appropriately informed and represented everywhere that a decision might be made. Volunteers use up all of their available time attending meetings, without actually engaging in any hands on ministry. It’s exhausting for the volunteer and the governance system. In this age of digital communication there are far better ways of sharing important information than requiring a person to sit in endless meetings, in case their viewpoint is required.

The second problem with liaison roles is that they don’t promote strategic thinking on behalf of the whole. They certainly encourage debate: my group needs this, your group wants that. A room full of designated liaisons acting in the best interest of their constituent groups won’t necessarily reach a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. They are likely to make decisions that serve the needs of the constituency with the most outspoken liaison.

What if, instead of appointing liaisons, we assemble smaller bodies of decision makers who act on behalf of the whole? We expect them to make informed decisions and communicate as needed with the appropriate constituencies of the church. This requires more intentionality when forming agendas, to make certain that the right people (the staff member or committee chairperson) are in the room when a decision is being considered. This would free us up to make decisions more flexibly, without deferring decisions back to committees or task forces for further consideration before a decision is authorized.


Design an Experiment

Some bureaucracy stems from the fact that we don’t want anyone to be surprised or upset about a decision that is under consideration. We postpone decision making until every voice is heard and until everyone is happily on board. This squelches innovation. Nothing happens until we all agree.

Next time you find yourself in a meeting where the group wants to postpone a decision, why not encourage the birth of an experiment? If the group isn’t comfortable approving a new giant step, figure out how to make it a baby step that everyone can learn from.

Bureaucratic systems are built to support “Ready, Aim, Fire!” mentality. Bureaucracy seeks absolute clarity and consensus before allowing action, so that errors are not made.

In this era of continuous change, we don’t have the luxury of moving ponderously. We need to act more quickly, embracing more of a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach to decision making.  We ready ourselves to take a step that is reasonable. We pull the trigger and move ahead with an experiment that will allow us to learn something. The experiment has to be appropriate in scope so that failure won’t be devastating. We learn from the experiment and refine our next steps, postponing acts of authorization until we have learned what we need to know.

Bureaucracy in a congregation is not inevitable. We don’t have to succumb to overgrown systems of communication, decision making and approval. We don’t have to wait for a major overhaul of our governance system from the denomination. We can begin right here, right now to streamline our approach and allow more innovation.

Will You Be Joining Us?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

(On the need to separate assimilation and membership)

Once upon a time, people understood that the way to assimilate into the life of a congregation was to join that congregation. The typical indoctrination process began when newcomers attended the Sunday morning worship service and registered their presence on a pew pad. The act of registration triggered a series of welcome communications from the congregation, and perhaps a visit from a church or staff member. Within several months of the first visit, the newcomer was invited to attend a “newcomer” class, which connected them with staff and church programs. The class almost always resulted in an invitation (actually, an expectation) to join the church. Upon joining, the newcomer was paraded in front of the congregation. It was a well-orchestrated process that helped the newcomer become known to the congregation. Being known was instrumental to being connected, and being connected was instrumental to being accepted and ultimately assimilated.Join Us Button purple

We know at a cognitive level that once upon a time is long gone. We understand that many of the newcomers who explore our congregations are suspicious of membership, but they do want to belong in community. More specifically they want to feel that WE belong to them. They are not interested in being assimilated and becoming just like us; but they are interested in acculturating. (They want to belong to a community that will change itself to receive them, as much as they will adapt themselves for that community.) People want to be known and accepted, but they don’t see what any of that has to do with membership.

We say that we understand these things, but our behavior suggests otherwise. Our behavior towards newcomers is very much about assimilation, not acculturation. Our behavior towards newcomers is still deeply rooted in unstated assumptions about membership, and still deeply tied to our membership processes. How does a person who is not interested in membership get acculturated into the life of your congregation?

Let me offer myself as a case study. In the last year I began attending a new congregation. I believe that my experience of assimilation into the life of this congregation is pretty typical of what many people experience in our traditions.

I attended my new congregation for a period of three months before deciding that I really wanted to invest myself in the life of these people and this community of faith. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, becoming a member was not appropriate for me. But, I very much wanted to belong.

So I kept up my semi-regular attendance and I met with the pastor, declaring my intention to be a part of the community. He assured me that I could participate fully in the things I wanted to do without becoming a member, and that membership wouldn’t really matter to people. I signed up to have an official nametag made so that I looked like I fit in. Over time I attended all of the available worship services; volunteered to help with housing the homeless; made several tentative visits to a Sunday school class that didn’t fit me well; stood awkwardly in the fellowship area after church hoping that someone (anyone) would talk to me; and generally hung around the edges of the congregation. Two rounds of newcomer classes came and went, but they were clearly linked into the membership process, so I didn’t sign up.

Each week attendance pads were passed around in worship, inviting me to register my presence. The form prompted me to check off whether I was a visitor or a member (no other option). After the first three months it seemed silly to keep checking off visitor, so I just left that section plank. The act of completing the form each week, and leaving that section blank, is a constant reminder that I’m not one of them.

During worship we greet one another during the passing of the peace. During this ritual people often approached me with, “Where have you come from?” After trying to answer that question in a variety of ways, none of which seemed to satisfy the asker, I came to understand that they wanted me to tell them what church I had previously been a member of. People sometimes asked me if I planned to join the church, and their eyes quickly glazed over when I tried to explain why I wouldn’t be joining (TMI… we didn’t really want to know, we were just making small talk and wanted you to know that we have a usual process for how this all works). I never saw or received a church directory, nor did I receive the electronic newsletter, or information about the church budget, or an invitation to participate in the financial stewardship of the congregation. Several congregational meetings were held for “membership” business. I didn’t feel welcomed and didn’t attend.

At the end of my first year I hadn’t formed a single meaningful relationship with anyone in the congregation. It was frustrating, and it was becoming painful to attend worship. I thought hard about moving on, but decided that the church really was a good fit for me and that I needed to try harder.

So, I finally bit the bullet. I signed up for the newcomer class, announcing my intent to stop just short of the act of joining. I realized that my assimilation was going to depend upon getting to know more of the staff and church leaders who could help me connect, and I knew that meeting other newcomers would introduce me to people who had not yet formed solid relationships in the church and might be open to friendship. And I was right! After three sessions of the newcomer class I met enough people that I actually began to feel a little more known, and a little more at home. I was starting to feel connected. But my progress didn’t come without additional awkward moments, of needing to explain why I wasn’t joining the congregation.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to berate my new congregation. I love this place. My assimilation would have been warm and wonderful if only I could have/would have embraced membership. And I suspect many of your congregations would have offered me the same experience. Our cultures of assimilation are deeply embedded with assumptions of membership.

So, what does that mean for all of the people sitting in our pews that cannot or will not invest in membership? It means that they are regularly sidelined and reminded that they are not really one of us. It means that many of them leave us before we ever get to know them, because it is just too hard to find their way in. I know that this is not what we intend. It’s time to wake up and be more intentional about our behaviors and processes.

We have a lot of adaptive work to do in this area!