Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church Organization

Here is the first in our series of "best of" articles for 2011, which first appeared on September 12.  It was written by Derek Penwell.  Enjoy!

Make sure to read the next articles in this series on church organization: Killing the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-MakingCrack Addiction and Church TransformationOn Dating, Neediness, and Congregational Transformation, and Death of a Salesman . . . Please?

Do We Have to Look Like a Fortune 500 Company?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way churches organize their common lives. Part of my D.Min. project centered on reexamining that most ubiquitous form church organization—the “functional church” model.

In a post-World War II era, when the country was heavily invested in manufacturing as the life-blood of the economy the functional church model–based on the industrial organizational model, which privileges efficiency and production–appeared perfectly natural … almost like the universe itself was organized that way. So, when churches started to have a “board of directors” that oversaw the work of “departments” and “committees,” modeled after the indisputable success of Ford and GM, it seemed to make good “business sense.” In fact, early visionaries of this model of church organization went so far as to understand the church’s work to be production, not of durable or household goods, but of “spiritual” goods.

In a society where manufacturing drives the economic machine, efficiency and production are the metric by which success is measured. Henry Ford, an early industrial innovator, sought new ways of manufacturing cars more quickly and efficiently. He “combined precision manufacturing, standardized and interchangeable parts, and a division of labor.” It was possible to assemble a vehicle on an assembly line, in which people were given single tasks and asked to perform them repeatedly—without necessarily having any larger sense of how the car fit together as a whole. This allowed for an amazingly efficient process that boosted output, while keeping costs down.

As one might expect, these new manufacturing methods spurred innovation among organizational thinkers. “If we can break down the assembly of a car into a manageable number of discrete actions on the assembly line, carried out by people trained to do a repeated action, surely there must be newer and better ways to arrange the business side of things more efficiently.” So, methods of business organization were developed to ensure efficient production through standardized and interchangeable parts and a division of labor. Companies found they needed whole divisions dedicated to overseeing particular aspects of the business. It just made more sense to have operations managers freed up from the worries associated with accounting or maintenance or human resources. In fact, whole departments became necessary, which did not require as a condition of completing their tasks, that anyone in the department would know the first thing about cars.

And this arrangement worked quite well when it came to running companies dedicated to producing cars, or sewing machines, or Red Ryder BB guns. But its applicability to the church raises some serious issues.1

The functional church model, though arguably distorting the gospel by turning it into a purchasable product, seemed to work as a tool to organize the life and work of the church. And when churches, alongside their manufacturing counterparts, were booming, organizing like a successful business made practical sense—it was a culturally recognizable form, whose success seemed to make it the only sensible way to organize. With churches busting at the seams attracting new members in post-war America, there were plenty of people to fill out the church’s organizational chart. It was neat. It was recognizable. And it worked.

So, what are you driving at Professor Pedantic?

Ok. Thank you for putting up with the history lesson.

A few important things have changed, both in the nature of the foundations of Western economies and in the life and cultural status of the church. Our economy is no longer a manufacturing economy. This presents a problem, since though we aren’t making as much stuff, we’re still training people in institutions formulated originally to produce factory workers—that is, obedient and productive people always looking for the affirmation of the people put in charge of them. (See Seth Godin’s great book, Linchpin.) Christian ministry, by its very nature, needs creative leaders—which, because of an older model of church organization, often punishes the people best suited to the kind of innovative adventure the church finds itself on at present.

Moreover, the culture, which during the mid-twentieth century was friendly to the church, has since fallen out of love with it. People increasingly quit coming—especially young people. The precipitous decline in church membership has left most churches with only fond (but distant) memories of the halcyon days. Fewer members in this case mean a lack of people to populate the numerous departments, boards, and committees that we’ve grown to feel are necessary to the existence and operation of any self-respecting church. Churches have fewer people, but the same number of bureaucratic spots to fill; and the inability to fill them causes not only feelings of anxiety (“We have to have the committees staffed, because …”), but also feelings of inadequacy (“Surely all the other church have fully staffed committees.”).

But why do we need all of these committees? Committees, generally speaking, are themselves hugely inefficient.

In order to justify their existence and the feeling that if there’s a committee, it ought be doing something, committees call meetings. These meetings—which are often convened, not because there’s anything in particular to do (or even plan to do), but because it’s the first Monday of the month, and that’s always when the Education committee meets—are often filled with hand-wringing about the fact that, either they can’t find anyone to chair the committee or they can’t recruit anyone else to take an interest in serving on the committee, or they feel like there’s some worthwhile project the church should undertake. So, much of the meeting turns to questions about what it should do.

Then, someone will have a great idea. “Let’s start a __.” Everyone agrees what a wonderful and noble idea it is. Meetings are set up to plan this exciting new foray into _____. Brilliant ideas are put on “to-do” lists, calendars are synced. The excitement is palpable.

Then, comes that awkward point in the meeting when some intrepid soul ventures, “This is great … but who’s going to be responsible for doing all the things we’ve said?” Uncomfortable silence. Then, somebody says, “Well, I guess we’ll need to ask for volunteers. We could put it in the bulletin and the newsletter.” A sigh of relief goes up, as if to say, “We’ve done everything we can do.”

So, this brilliant idea goes through the ordinary channels, soliciting volunteers. It appears in the bulletin and the newsletter. The committee chairperson stands up on Sunday morning before worship and announces, “We need help with a new project. We’re really excited about it. If anyone’s interested, please see me after church.”

What happens? Nobody volunteers, and a good idea eventually dies from inattention, morale plummets, and it will be a long time before anyone gets excited about the prospect of rolling the programmatic rock up the hill again.

In business, it’s (at least) possible for people on committees and in departments to dream up new initiatives, and then compel people to carry them out—a highly touted virtue of the manufacturing model is compliance, remember. But in church, people can say no, or, more likely but no less devastatingly, people can say nothing.

In the world in which we live, people are busy. Most pre-retirement households require that both partners work, rendering one prolific source of mid-twentieth century volunteerism—namely, housewives—anomalous. Because of the economy and the vast increases in education debt, young people (Millennials and Gen Xers) regularly have to work more than 40 hours (which as a concept was, not coincidentally, negotiated largely by union workers in factories to help keep them from being worked to death). And, if there are children in the household mix, time is even more precious.

Consequently, one of the complaints routinely made by older members in churches–namely, that the generations following behind don’t seem to be picking up the ball–fails to consider a couple of things. First, working people in younger generations often don’t have the same number of hours to commit to a community organized around committee meetings as their predecessors did. If economic pressures force you to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week, the last thing you want to do is to go sit in a meeting—much of which will be spent either complaining about the lack of participation or trying to figure out what to do, and who’s going to do it.

Second, young people don’t have the same emotional investment in the programs and initiatives that proved so successful and rewarding to the generations that came before. Rightly or wrongly, what young people hear when churches appeal for help is: “We need more bodies to do stuff we thought up when we were your age, but no longer have the energy to do ourselves.” Instead of reassessing why there is no energy behind beloved programs, dropping them, and looking for those places where there is energy, churches often note the lack of energy, and then try to generate it by appealing to tradition, faithfulness, involvement, etc. Again, rightly or wrongly, young people apparently aren’t interested in propping up programs they had no hand in forming. They have neither the time nor the inclination to do work somebody else is passionate about, just because there are folks who feel strongly that it ought to be done, but are no longer able to do it themselves.2

That is not to say, however, that young people are lazy and apathetic. On the contrary, young people by most sociological measures are interested in two things that committees used to accomplish: 1) communal or social interaction, and 2) a desire to offer service. There are a couple of differences, however, in how young people view those two things. The social component young people seek needs to address a deep yearning to belong to something larger; which is to say, they are looking for engagement with a community that will both feed them emotionally (and increasingly, spiritually), as well as offer them opportunities to work to make a better world.

As a group they are savvy about social media, and satisfy some of their communal longings on-line. This also means, though, that they believe much of what used to be done at committee meetings can be done on Skype, by email, or by Google Docs; and they prefer to reserve their time for true face-to-face interaction for something other than committee meetings. Consequently, if you call a meeting and young people attend, the meeting better be necessary, substantive, and to the point, or they won’t come back.

Furthermore, an interest in making a better world, or a commitment to social justice, strikes a chord with younger generations. As a demographic, they care intensely about peace and poverty, the environment and equal rights for all. They are capable of intense commitments that require them to devote great energy to causes about which they feel strongly. (It should be no surprise that exciting communal movements like “The New Monasticism” have taken hold with these generations). But because of the limits of time, they tend to be choosy about those opportunities to which they commit themselves. As a result, it can be difficult to convince them that programs without a big payoff in spirituality, true community-building, or social justice are worth their time.

So what do I think we need?

I have two broad suggestions:

  1. The church needs to shed its attachment to any method of organization that drains energy rather than amplifies it.
    • If you spend more time talking about the failure of the organization than actually doing something, you’re going backward. Do the hard work necessary to change and move on.
    • If you spend too much time researching, thinking that there’s a perfect system other people are using that you’re missing out on, you’re stuck. There are no perfect systems. The only system you need is the system that helps you get ministry done.
    • If your system of organization makes you guarantee an initiative will work before it gives you permission, you’re always going to be playing catch-up. There are ten failures for every success. So, the more success you seek, the more you’re going to have to learn to live with failure.
    • If you need total agreement before making a decision, you’re guaranteeing mediocrity. Programming, organizing, ministering for the lowest common denominator of agreement will never excite anyone for long.
    • If nobody wants to do it, don’t do it. Quit wasting time trying to gin up the enthusiasm to do ministry nobody cares enough to do. (Possible objection: “Some things have to get done, even if nobody wants to do them–like say … worship and paying the bills.” I’ll stipulate that some things have to get done for the church to continue in its present form. But if there isn’t anyone who can muster the enthusiasm to do those things, it’s time to start thinking about changing forms or closing the doors anyway. I’ll defend the assertion that if nobody wants to do it–VBS, Women’s Circle, etc.–there’s not much point in wasting time and energy trying to manufacture the passion.)
  2. The church needs to re-think what work meetings are supposed to accomplish.
    • Meetings and brainstorming are two different things. Meetings are about decisions. Brainstorming is about ideas. Both are necessary, but many church meetings toggle between the two as if they were the same thing. They’re not; and when you mix the two, you introduce confusion and drift–which keeps people from wanting to come back. If you’ve scheduled a meeting, make the decisions necessary, then figure out how to support those decisions. If you’ve scheduled a brainstorming session, throw it open to all ideas. Then, after everyone has had a chance to reflect on the options, reconvene at a later time in a meeting to make decisions. Don’t try to do both at the same time.
    • Inasmuch as possible, try to do work on-line. There doesn’t have to be a meeting to decide who’s going to bring the congealed salad to the potluck. Email, Twitter, Facebook are great tools for avoiding frivolous meetings.
    • Produce and distribute an agenda. It shows you’ve thought beforehand about the things you’ve asked people to gather to decide. It communicates that you take your meeting seriously, and you want everyone else to take it seriously also.
    • Stick to the agenda. If there are important items that come up that aren’t on the agenda, you should seriously consider calling another meeting to address them. Having an agenda provides a tangible instrument that everyone can refer back to, in order to hold each other accountable for keeping to the task at hand.
    • Announce the length of the meeting from the beginning, then honor that time commitment. It shows that you value everyone’s time. Habitually going long in meetings communicates a belief that whatever thing you’ve called people together for is more important than anything else they could be doing with their lives.
    • As much as possible, schedule meetings to address decisions that need to be made, not because the calendar says it’s time to meet. Meeting for the sake of meeting is a sure recipe for losing young leaders (and old too, for that matter).

Bonus: Learn about the wonder of doodle polls! Trust me.

We live in a different world. That’s a commonplace almost not worth mentioning … except that, while we know it’s true, we often live as if it were not–as if the church organization that met the needs of an industrial world should continue to be sufficient to meet the needs of the information society. Unfortunately, as churches are finding out, Jesus’ saying about new wine and old wineskins continues to prove uncomfortably true when it comes to organizational strategies. Whether the world we inhabit is better or worse than the one we inherited is another argument. My point is that different jobs need different tools, and different paths require different maps (even, perhaps, especially, if the destination remains the same).

Does the church have to be organized like a Fortune 500 company? No. But that’s good news, because we’ve shown over the past thirty years that–its theological dubiousness notwithstanding–as a practical matter most churches can’t make the functional church model work anyway.

The true test of a faithful church is not whether in can produce a slick flow chart–but whether it can produce disciples who follow Jesus.


  1. One of the issues raised in framing the gospel as a product is theological in nature, having to do with the extent to which packaging the gospel as a salable commodity does injury to the gospel–which doesn’t fare well in the consumer marketplace (without great contortions); it’s difficult, after all, to highlight suffering, sacrifice, and death as the centerpiece of a marketing campaign. (But that’s a whole different post.)  ↩
  2. If it sounds as though I’m insensitive on this point, like I find some kind of satisfaction in killing off cherished programs, I understand. But the truth is I’m not. What I am doing here is describing what I take to be the realities churches face. I take no satisfaction from the hurt that results from a lack of support for a beloved program. I’m merely trying to explain why that support may have evaporated over the years. ↩