Monday, July 23, 2012

Organizational Life Stages

Before taking off for a week of camping at Lake Red Rock, near Pella, Iowa, I was ruminating over a blog post by Chad Hall entitled Leadership Direction: Organizational Life Stage that relates life stages of typical organizations and how they might relate to a local assembly:
  1. Birth (Entrepreneurial).  In this stage, creativity and vision are high, creating a lot of energy and progress for the congregation.  What are less developed in this stage are relationships (still forming and not yet formalized), management structures (not yet needed or supplied from birthing congregation/denomination), and programs (not yet needed).  The great need in this stage is leadership.  Most churches inhabit this stage for six months to three years.
  2. Adolescence (Collectivity).  In this stage, vision is still the driving energy, but alongside come relationships and programs.  Relationships (including leadership structures) become intentional and planned.  Likewise, programs are developed to facilitate the achievement of mission and vision.  In this stage the great need is for delegation with control.  Depending on the rate of growth (size) and other contextual factors, a church can be in this stage for many years.  In fact, some church plants experience an arrested development by remaining here for too long owing to an unnecessary resistance to formal systems and structures.
  3. Adulthood (Formalization).  In this stage, vision is still in the driver’s seat, relationships and programs are matured, and systems of management and accountability add a stabilizing energy.  The greatest need for churches in this stage is to cut through red tape so that management systems are supportive rather than directive.
  4. Maturity (Elaboration).  Maturity looks a lot like Adulthood (all systems are operating well and “things have never been better”), but it’s in this stage that vision begins to wane.  Vision gets replaced with management, and the switch is hardly noticed because the relationships and programs are still operating a high level of effectiveness and the visionary/missional aims of the church are being realized.  In this stage, choices are made that determine the long-term health of the church.  The greatest need in this stage is to make a tough decision about which of three ways to deal with Maturity: 1) re-visioning (re-energizing the vision so that the church experiences almost a rebirth); 2) maintenance (keeping things going as long as possible through decline until death); 3) inheritance (intentionally donating the resources of the church to a new congregation that is flush with vision).  A sincere challenge is that most churches cannot tell the difference between Adulthood and Maturity until it’s too late.  The question to ask is “What sets the direction for our church?”  If it’s still vision, the church is in Adulthood.  But if management sets the direction and makes the decisions, then the church has moved into Maturity.  The sooner a church recognizes the moving into Maturity, the more leverage they have for re-visioning or leaving a sizable inheritance.
  5. Retirement (Decline).  In this stage, a congregation has moved vision and relationships to the backseat, programs are functioning but less effectively, and management is the only highly functioning element in the congregation’s life.  This reality actually creates a dysfunction wherein the church will soon find programs unsustainable and demise inevitable.  I’ve seen very few churches enter retirement and make the choice to re-develop or leave much of an inheritance.  The greatest need in this stage is dignity.
These represent what I have seen and experienced in any number of organizations.  As well, many local assemblies run through this cycle in their attempts to share the gospel, minister to those around them, and build up believers.  Plans are made and programs initiated with in an effort to shore up one or more areas where ministry is lacking.

But there is a serious flaw when applying these life stages to the church.  Do you see it?  Take a moment before continuing.

What is the flaw?  Those who agree with the author's thinking assume that the church is a man-made organization.  It is not.  The church is the body of Jesus Christ with him as the head (Eph 1:22-23) and therefore an organism.  Planning and coördinating happen at the head with the members reacting as the head determines to care for itself accordingly.  Any local assembly is a microcosm of the total body of believers so that:
  1. Creativity and vision are not so much a result of careful examining of demographics and planning, but making disciples.
  2. Believers mature, not relationships and programs, with the outgrowth being more deliberated relationships and continual commitment to building up one another.
  3. Overseers are leading and guiding the flock to full maturity in Christ with a view of helping them make disciples.
  4. Direction is not set by a new vision but by carefully examining if the assembly is remaining true to the faith and correcting course when necessary to remain faithful.
  5. If the ongoing existence of the group and its programs has become the focus over the gospel, we humble ourselves in repentance and return to our first love.
When the church is putting more energy into maintaining programs, casting vision, or looking for God's movement so we can join Him, we have already lost the mission that the Lord Jesus has already plainly given to the Twelve.  I have both seen and heard firsthand accounts of assemblies that disbanded.  Not one died from holding fast to God and his word.  They did so from losing sight of it.

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