Church Organization

An Open Letter to Church Shoppers

By Rev. Mindi

Dear Church Shopper,

I hate the term “church shopping.”  Shopping implies casual browsing, sampling, purchasing, consuming, returning and exchanging, etc. I know that you have been brought up in a consumer culture, and this is the language you are used to. You want to find the right church like you want to find the right pair of shoes: you want to make sure they are a good fit, and that they feel on the inside as good as they look on the outside. You want to find the church that feeds your needs, your desires, what you imagine church should be. And if your desires are not being met, if you are not being filled, you will move along.

The church is the body of Christ, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12. It is a body. It is an organism. It is something you become part of and participate in, not sample and browse, consume and leave behind. Church is something you belong to, become part of, and it becomes essential and integral to your life. As Paul says, the hand cannot say to the foot, “I have no need of you.”

Unfortunately, for many churches in the United States, they have also bought into the consumer culture. They try to put on a good show to feed your entertainment needs as well as your spiritual needs, but often the spiritual need they fill is to make you feel good about yourself. We all like to feel good. But at times we also need to be challenged and have a kick in the pants when we are not doing our part to help the poor and the oppressed around us.

Sometimes the mainline liberal church has bought into the consumer culture as well. Sometimes we use phrases like “social justice” and “missional” as catch phrases to lure you in to doing work in the community to help others, but we aren’t always good about it. Sometimes we are helping ourselves. Sometimes we don’t listen to the needs of the community and continue to do the same things we have always done rather than meeting the needs of those around us.  Sometimes what we are doing is not social, is not justice, and is not about serving others. Sometimes the church has used bait and switch tactics, without realizing it.

Church is not the pastor. Church is not the building. Church is the people, the body of Christ, coming together to be one. We shouldn’t be church because the building is pretty. We shouldn’t be church because the pastor is inspiring. We should be church because we recognize that we are the body, together, and we have need of each other. And our money shouldn’t be the most important thing—whether it is our individual giving or the church budget. Sometimes, I think the real problem in all of this is that we have given money power over all of us. That is consumer culture in a nutshell.

So please, stop shopping. Join a church community and belong. Of course that might take a little time finding—there is something to be said about theology and mission that connects you—but don’t go for a while and then leave because you hope to find something better elsewhere. Become part of the community. Belong to one another. Be the church. 

(And churches, let’s be the church, too. Let’s stop trying to show up one another. Let’s actually focus outward to do that social justice thing in being part of God’s beloved community on earth. Let’s worry less about entertaining and feeling good, and more about being the church together, beyond our building’s walls).

Be the body. Belong. Become.

Never Let the Guy with the Broom Decide How Many Elephants Can Be in the Parade

By Derek Penwell

“Who authorized that decision? Nobody knows what’s going on around here anymore.”

How many times have you heard that one?

What’s the quick response when that complaint makes its way into the life of a congregation?

“Well, it has been a while since we talked about the organizational structure. Maybe we should look at the constitution and by-laws again, make sure we’re doing it right.”

It occurs to me that what’s at the heart of grousing about congregational organization is fear over who gets to say “yes.”

“Who authorized that decision?” is usually an expression of fear about where power is located. So, congregations spend much of their time in organizational thinking concentrating on this issue—who gets to say “yes.”

By-laws, organizational charts, endless meetings all exist—at least in part—to rehearse the relationship between an idea and its authorization.

“I’ve been in recovery for 3 years now, and I’d like to start an AA meeting in the adult Sunday School classroom on Tuesday nights. Who do I have to talk to get permission to do that?”

“Well, you’ll need to check with the secretary to see if the room’s available. You’ll probably have to get board approval for that. Is there going to be smoking on the grounds?”

“I’d like to offer a middle-school class. What’s my next step?”

“You need to talk to Angie, she’s the Education chairperson. She’ll bring it to the committee. Then, they can pass a recommendation to the board, which will vote on it.”

“We’ve got a group that wants to use the church fellowship hall for a drag show. Is that all right?”

“You’re going to have to bring that one straight to the board.”

We have amazingly complex systems of authorization in place. Layers of bureaucracy that ensure no one gets away with anything.

Believe me, I understand. You can’t have just anyone doing who-knows-what in the name of the church. Eventually, that will come back to bite you.

But for all the time churches spend figuring out who gets to say “yes,” it’s amazing to note that they’ll let just about anybody say “no.”

“Now, see, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

Is it really? How many truly interesting ideas have been shot down in church because one person pulled the trigger?

“That sounds like a great idea, but I’m afraid that if we let those people use the building, something’s going to get broken.”


“Of course we love young people, but I don’t think that kind of thing is appropriate for Christians.”


“I think you’ll find that nobody will mind … except, Norman. Yeah, he won’t go for it.”

Brooms, Elephants, and Blocking

Merlin Mann has famously said: “Never let the guy with the broom decide how many elephants can be in the parade.”

What does that mean?

It means, according to Mann, that to the guy with the broom, an elephant isn’t an elephant, it’s a source of inconvenience. If you ask that guy, he’ll say there shouldn’t be any elephants, and you should spend your time and money hiring more broom guys.


Because elephants, no matter how wonderful they might make the parade, threaten to make that guy’s life miserable.

“What is the purpose of a parade?”

To entertain people.

“Do elephants entertain people?”


“Then let’s have more elephants.”


The guy with the broom answers the question about elephants by saying that elephants upset the balance. As if the purpose of a parade was not to entertain people, but to make one guy’s struggle with life a bit more manageable.

Of course, people say “no” for reasons other than just that a proposed action produces more headaches. There are any number reasons people give for blocking:

  • We don’t have the money to do x.
  • We’ve tried x before, and it didn’t work.
  • We’ve never done x before, and we shouldn’t start doing it now.
  • “People” will get upset if we move forward with x.
  • “People” might leave if we follow through with x.
  • My aunt Gladys would roll over in her grave if she knew we were doing x.
  • X is just not something a place like this should be involved in.

Or, there’s the all-purpose blocking tactic:

  • I’m not comfortable with us doing x.

Any idea, no matter how good, reasonable, or promising that runs up against one of these phrases in a meeting is almost surely doomed in most churches. In unhealthy systems, blocking tactics are virtually fool-proof.

And the beauty of it is almost anyone can successfully execute them!

  • People who haven’t been to church since the Nixon administration
  • People who’ve never given an hour or a dime
  • People who’re resentful about the prospect of having to give another hour or another dime
  • Even proxies for people dead, absent, or non-existent (i.e., “People are saying …”)
  • (I’ve even heard of denominations that are set up to allow people to be bused in for the express purpose of keeping change at bay.)

Bonus: The louder and more obnoxious you can be the better chance you’ll have at succeeding!

The Problem

Don’t misunderstand. Sometimes blocking is necessary. Prophets are often blockers—loud obnoxious people who are famous for standing up and saying “No!” We need people with the courage to stand in the middle of the road and refuse to get out of the way of the oncoming tank convoys.

The question I’m raising is not whether blocking should occur sometimes, but whether or not a congregation or a denomination should be prevented from ever even attempting great and interesting things because of the threat (real or imagined) of the broom pushers, who if asked, will invariably say “no.”

Or what about this: Everybody in charge knows it’s the right thing to do, but nobody wants to clean up the inevitable mess.

Organizations devote so much time and energy to set up systems that are explicit about who gets to say “yes.”

What’s a quorum? How high up the organizational chart does it need to go to get authorization? How many votes are necessary? Who said you could do that?

I think organizations would benefit from spending a quarter of the time dealing explicitly with the question of who gets to say “no.”

What kind of investment is necessary on the part of a person who seeks to torpedo an idea? Does the person have to demonstrate any expertise in the area before being able to stymy the group, or is just “feeling” like it’s the wrong thing to do enough? Can one person carry the water for another person, a group of persons, a whole demographic?

Saying “no” is just as much an exercise of power as saying “yes.” We write all kinds of rules about the latter, without ever explicitly taking up the issue of the former.

The problem isn’t just that good ideas are always in danger of being shot down. In an unhealthy system good ideas often don’t see the light of day because everybody knows up front that bringing them up is a waste of time. I would wager that serial blockers have killed ten times more ideas in people’s heads than they’ve killed on the floor of meetings—just because everybody is convinced that bringing up an idea would be a waste of time, or because it would cause World War III.

The reality of the situation is that you’ll never do great things, exciting things, things that change the world if every idea is stillborn for fear that somebody will object.

Spend some time considering to whom you give the power of veto.

Make sure you know why the guy with broom doesn’t like elephants in the parade.

Or don’t do great things. The choice is ultimately up to you.

Here’s an idea for a cheap bracelet: WWJASN

Who would Jesus allow to say no?

(From the archive.)

Wrong is Right

By: J.C. Mitchell


For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  1 Corinthians 1:25


It is cold and dark, and my December schedule is very full.  So I have been daydreaming of riding my motorcycle.  There has not been time for a relaxing therapeutic ride this month.  So I do the next best thing: meditate on the lessons I have learned on such rides.

The one I want to share was a late afternoon ride that I was taking on dirt roads outside of town.  I was about 30 miles out of town when I decided to turn back and take the state highway home.  I got up to speed, and I noticed a lack of power.  I was certain there was something wrong with the engine, to keep the speed at 75 (or so) with the throttle all the way open.  There must be something wrong with the engine the way I was losing power in a consistent and steady way.  I decided I should just limp to town on less power.

I then saw a small country gas station and had a desire for a cola, so I lifted off the throttle and rolled onto the dirt.  I dismounted and saw my back tire was going flat from large puncture.  I was wrong.  I was so wrong, that if I went on my assumption further the tire would have started shredding.  I was very glad I was wrong.

Many churches (or individuals) are very certain they know what is wrong.  For example, I was having coffee last week and overheard a group from a church talking about what they needed to do to attract younger people.  I had heard every suggestion that I have heard before at the various churches I or friends have served.  Most of the ideas were not new, but they were certain that they would work if they could implement them correctly.  I do have to admit I could hear the tire shredding when one said, “We could attract young people if we change the time of the Board meeting, we should ask them what time.”  Oh yes, I start following Jesus, but it is because of the Board meeting’s time that keeps me from a particular church.  I see the ditch coming quickly.

I was certain my lack of horsepower was due to the engine, but because I listened to my gut, I stopped (and I was thirsty).  I did not really know until I stopped.  I avoided the ditch, and I was very happy to be wrong.

As I took off my helmet, I had no idea how I would get home.  I went into the country gas station and bought the cola.  The clerk at the counter looked for a plug and came out to see if we could plug the tire.  He only had one and it was certainly for a smaller hole.  However, with a little work with the reamer, a lighter, and the last plug he had, we got the hole filled.  Once pumped up the tire hissed slightly, and I pulled out onto the highway.  

I must admit I was nervous as I got up to speed.  I made sure I observed and checked that I was making progress.  Sure enough I got to the motorcycle shop in town.  They came up to the bike and before they saw the makeshift patch they could hear hissing tire.  

Often churches add programs to what they had been doing for years, as if these programs will draw people in not just for that new program but to fulfill what they know as church.  My motorcycle lesson suggests we need to stop, and see where we are wrong, before we end up in the ditch. If we figure out what we do not know and where we are wrong, we can perhaps with the help of a consultant or other observer, we will continue on the journey.   We may not be confident it is safe, nor should we be, but our success is found in our ability to share vulnerability. 

Most churches end up attempting to jump the shark, with all their baggage weighing them down, rather than doing the hard work down on your knees in the dirt with a lighter and a plug, new friends and a lot of faith and vulnerability, to bring the Gospel to town.

I am pretty sure Jonah and Paul were not motorcyclists, but both had been shown by God that they were wrong.  It would be wonderful if we could have such certainty, but honestly I believe it is because we cannot not see or hear over our own certainty of being correct.  However, will we respond as Jonah, or as Paul?  Will we whine about losing our own construction of God, or will we enjoy being wrong for God.  


JC on the bike.jpg

Clergy Appreciation Month

By Rev. Mindi 

In the past month, I have had five clergy friends think about quitting, look for a new (non-pastoral) job, or actually leave the church for good. And there have been a few times I have thought about joining them.

What is going on?

It’s Clergy Appreciation Month, but not a lot of clergy appreciation seems to be happening. Instead, it seems more like Clergy Expectation Month:

--Expectations of working a 9-5 work week plus evenings and Sundays

--Expectations of pleasing everyone, of not making waves, of getting along

--Expectations that if the pastor is effective, more people should be coming in the doors

--Expectations that pastors have a special gift to handle more stress than others

Perhaps I’m just exaggerating… or perhaps you have been there, too. With clergy salaries frozen or cut, and the cost of seminary education continuing to rise, I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it to tell those who are thinking about ministry to maybe think about some other way that they can serve God.

But I know the truth. When you are called, you know that if there was something else in life you could do that would make you happy, you’d do it. But there isn’t, and that’s why you are here. Because this is who you are.

So how do we make it through? How do we make it through the terrible meetings, the exhaustion, the emotional toil? How do we make it through when our blood pressure is (literally) rising to unhealthy levels because of the stress? How can we serve God best when we have these unrealistic expectations loaded onto our shoulders?

I’m not saying anything new here, but it needs to be said again. 

We feel so alone. We feel that there is no one we can turn to.

We cannot allow ourselves to become isolated.  And the best way to do that is to make sure that others aren’t isolated either.

Clergy friends, we need each other. We need prayer partners, we need accountability groups, we need retreats. We need respite care for ourselves. We need to be able to talk and laugh and cry and hug and care for each other.  We need to share our crisis of faith as well as our frustrations about church life. But most of all, we need to lift up one another, to listen to one another, and be there for one another.

But I think we need to take it a step further. I know that in this last move, I have had a hard time finding clergy groups to be a part of.  Within my own denomination there are groups, but I’m more removed from the urban center so there are few near me. I’m also limited because I’m part-time and have other community events, parenthood and other commitments. But I’ve never been invited by another local clergy person outside of my denomination even for coffee. I have introduced myself to a few clergy members, but nothing has ever come of it. It’s been easier to be isolated than ever before, it seems.

But then I get that green light on my email and see that there is a Google Hangout of clergy friends from back in Oklahoma, or a Skype call from clergy back in Massachusetts.  I receive a prayer card in the mail from a retired clergy member I knew when I started in ministry, and that Facebook message that says, “Thinking of you.”  And I remember that I’m not alone.

Friends, we cannot be alone. We need each other. We need to know that there are those who will help us through the tough times. Perhaps if we can reach out to one another and help bear each other’s burdens a bit, we can slow down the thoughts of giving up, and instead give to each other. 

My prayers are with you.

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. ↩

Making the Time to Be Scared of More Interesting Things

Make sure to read the other articles in this series on church organization: Killing Church Committees and Other Reflections on Church OrganizationKilling the Whispers and Other Reflections on Church Decision-Making,  Crack Addiction and Church Transformation,  On Neediness, Dating, and Congregational Transformation, and Death of a Salesman . . . Please?

The Chihuahua Brain Revisited

I was listening to Merlin Mann the other day (someone you should really check out if you haven’t yet). He mentioned that his big goal in life right now centers on “making the time to be scared of more interesting things.” I love that.

What does that mean?

We humans–having only recently (at least by the standards of evolutionary time) reached a period where we don’t constantly have to be on the lookout for saber-toothed tigers–still carry around in the oldest parts of our brains a vestigial, reactive fear mechanism. I’ve written about this before, calling it “the chihuahua brain.” Basically, we have highly sensitive threat sensing detectors that are tripped much more frequently than the true danger in our environment warrants. Fight or flight is a helpful response in the face of rampaging mastodons, but not so much when confronting a job interview or a contentious committee meeting.

When this fear manifests itself, it’s like a little siren in our systems that ceaselessly directs attention to the possible fall-out from facing the threat, leaving decision-making in a simple binary format–fight or flight.[1] When we’re afraid, creativity takes a vacation. Your imagination, when your body tells you it’s in danger, extends only to a preoccupation with what you taste like to something larger than you are.

But most of us don’t live in mortal danger. Consequently, our reaction to perceived threats is almost always disproportionate to the actual peril we face to our lives. Having someone annoyed with you (no matter the extensive level of aggravation) is not the same as having someone poised to kill you–yet your limbic system responds much the same way in both instances.

But often our fear is even less immediately threatening to us than another person’s actual annoyance. Much of the time, we spend our lives afraid at the prospect of annoying someone else.

I hope you see the widening separation. Being afraid of annoying someone is at least two removes from being afraid of death or bodily harm. But, the amygdala is a blunt instrument, incapable of the fine granularity necessary for nuanced problem solving–it pumps the bellows of fear indiscriminately.

So, whether you’re about to get hit by a truck or whether you’ve just realized that you are supposed to be at an important meeting, the process your brain goes through to warn you of danger is virtually the same.

Since we have these threat detectors so indiscriminately tuned, it pays us to work to try to reprogram them.[2] But, the process of reprogramming is not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to suggest, following Merlin Mann, that if fear is an inevitable part of our lives, we would do well to find more interesting things to be scared of … in particular, in the church.

Like what, for instance?

Pounding Nails for Jesus

  • Why not be scared of the fact that there are innumerable kinds of great, creative, meaningful, reign-of-God kind of work out there needing to be done, rather than expending inordinate amounts of energy worrying about whether your church organizational model has a good enough flow chart, or about whether to “jazz” up the worship service?

Should we have committees or teams? Should we use hymn books or a projector?

Make a decision and do something. These are tools. They don’t do any work by themselves. If you spend all your time hand-wringing about the tools, you’re not doing ministry. A cheap lousy hammer will pound more nails than an expensive slick hammer that only gets discussed in meetings.


The point?


Talking about hammering isn’t hammering unless it results in actual nails being pounded.


  • Why not be scared of the reality that there are all kinds of opportunities to offer your church as a gift to your community that are being missed, instead of being afraid that if you do let strangers become a part of your church’s life somebody’s going to leave the gym lights on, or cook stinky cabbage in the kitchen and forget to clean it up, or skateboard in the parking lot?

Give your building away. No, I’m not necessarily talking about selling the place and giving the money to the poor (though I can think of plenty of theologically compelling arguments why you might want to do that–like this for instance). I’m talking about seeing your building as a gift that you can share with the community, not as an heirloom to be covered in plastic and stored in mothballs. Church buildings are hammers–if they’re not being used to pound nails, they’re just decorations in a lovely toolshed.


The point?


If your church building is a tool, and if you spend more time polishing and oiling the stuff in your toolbox than actually making things–it is altogether appropriate to wonder whether you are a carpenter or merely a tool collector.


  • Why not be scared of the fact that there are loads of people who don’t want to have anything to do with the church anymore because they’ve been turned off or hurt through the church’s ham-fistedness (or, in many cases worse, the church’s silence) on issues like openness to and affirmation of LGBTQ people, rather than being afraid that if you accept and celebrate gay people, somebody’s going to leave your church and walk down the street to the other church that has a praise team and catchy bumper-stickers?

Love the people Jesus loves. Of course, someone might object here that Jesus loved everyone, but that he had definite ethical standards he expected people to live up to.


My response: Exactly! But it is instructive to remember that Jesus loved those who’d been God’s gatekeepers in the religious arena by repeatedly calling them hypocrites and whitewashed sepulchers (in the case of the Chief Priest, the Elders, and the Pharisees) and chuckle-heads and point-missers (in the case of his own disciples)–while, on the other hand, loving those who’d been dismissed or forgotten by the the religious folks (i.e., the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, tax-collectors, and lepers) with tenderness and compassion. The church needs to figure out how to love the latter without becoming the former. Then, like Jesus, we can worry about doing our jobs as a vocation given us by God, rather than worrying about how many people like us.

Ministry is the work. Loving people is the nail-pounding the church needs to use all its fancy tools to do.


The point?


If you make decisions about justice based more on who you’re going to lose to the church up the road than on who you’re going to make room for, you need to seriously ask yourself whether it’s ministry or maintenance you care most about; which is to say, are you more concerned about pounding nails or forming a carpenter support group?


If you’re going to be scared, why not make time to be scared of more interesting things?

  1. “Playing possum” is another possibility, I suppose. Even so, the range of options is necessarily limited, because the sheer processing power it takes to run all the cognitive options takes both too much time and too many of the body’s resources (blood, oxygen, etc.). By the time you’ve run down the check-list of possibilities, you’re already on the way to being lunch.  ↩
  2. Talk therapy, etc.  ↩