The Church that Exists Unto Itself

Does the church exist to run programs or to multiply disciples?

Of course, our primary goal is to multiply disciples, as indicated by Jesus’ final words in Matthew 28. But, no matter how we spin it, whether we call them programs, initiatives, movements, or campaigns, disciples are multiplied only within the context of the daily activities of family, work, and community.

In our society, those areas often do not intersect unless through some sort of plan or intention. Thus, the need for programs and the management of those programs. And so, I have realized that these two activities are not at odds with each other. Multiplying disciples and running programs can be symbiotic, as long as there is good leadership. Unfortunately, programs so quickly become the centre of our life together in the church, which is why so many, including myself, recoil at the idea of programs in a church.

Programs turn sour as a result of bad management due to a variety of factors. An unsustainable workload for volunteers, lack of funding or awareness, or any number of managerial issues can cause a program to lose momentum, focus or fail altogether. Programs become problematic due to bad leadership. If the initial purpose of a program goes off course and heads into a confusing or even harmful trajectory, relationships are harmed and unity is disrupted. The result is often the same: people are hurt, offended, experience a significant sense of loss, and become skeptical of programs.

How does this happen?

As is said constantly by my senior pastor, Dan Cochrane, we need to help our people lift their eyes higher. But, it is difficult to do this when our eyes are glued to figuring out what went wrong. This is often why leadership and management responsibilities are delegated to different positions. Can a single person lead well while managing the conflict between two lay leaders who both want it their way?

A word that comes to mind is alignment. This comes out of an article in a 1990 edition of Harvard Business Review written by John Kotter titled What Leaders Really Do. Kotter observes a problem with leaders who are more comfortable or familiar with management and see “the movement of people in the same direction” as a problem to solve. Taking this observation into the church, it is no surprise there is so much tension between leadership and management, programs and discipleship.

Managers love programs and would tend to use them to solve all sorts of problems. It is much easier to manage people when they do not bump into each other, so let us separate them all into neat and tidy categories. Leaders, however, embrace the chaos and are willing to allow the collisions to happen, yet can cause damage when the chaos becomes unmanageable.

Interestingly, it would seem that Kotter proposes communication as the key to dealing with the issues related to both management and leadership. As someone who values intentional and clear communication, I am fascinated by this idea. Early in our marriage, Lynn and I learned the importance of communication, both on the giving and receiving end. In short, the lesson was to choose words that demonstrate empathy and assume the other person is not being intentionally offensive.

A great challenge for both leaders and managers is communication. How much should a leader communicate the rationale behind a decision? How much detail is too much when managing a project? As it relates to programs in the church, a pastor or even a lay leader needs to be able to communicate often and consistently, the reason for doing what we are doing. And, as the programs are managed, communication will allow for exploration and re-evaluation of the methods by which we are doing what we are doing.

The extremes of management and the extremes of leadership are both undesirable. When taken to an extreme, leaders will neglect people’s need for parameters and direction. And at the same time, management can neglect the need to let go or adapt in order to bring the task and the purpose back into alignment with one another.

John Gardner states in his article, The Tasks of Leadership, that community exists in the minds of the people. So, what we believe about ourselves shapes who we are. The responsibility of both leaders and managers (and those for whom both roles are equally important) is to understand how they are responsible for understanding and shaping the community’s self-awareness. If the people see themselves as responsible for the survival of an organization, their efforts will go toward the success of programs regardless of the impact of the program. The church then exists unto itself.

But, if the people see themselves primarily as followers of Jesus who utilize the collective resources of the church for the purpose of spreading the gospel, then they will at times challenge the leadership and management of the church.

This is a good thing and a sign of a healthy community. Lean into this.