What is the Spirit Doing with Ministry Systems and Structures?

As we enter the Lenten Season for the next few weeks, The Ministry Collaborative staff will be inviting you into conversation with us on topics that we’ve seen bubbling under the surface of our work and experience as ministry leaders. Our goal is to use this time of spiritual repentance, sacrifice, risk taking and reflection to talk about issues we tend to avoid. With that in mind, can we please talk about…our church systems?

Ya’ll are probably tired of hearing our team say, “everything is being revealed and accelerated.” But you know what? It’s just very, very true.  To be frank, we may have underestimated the degree to which it’s true. In addition to talking with clergy and lay leaders every day, we keep a close eye on multiple sets of quantitative and qualitative data, including our own internal program. And, there’s really no denying the tremendous tectonic shifts taking place in ministry, the magnitude of which I can’t imagine seeing again in my lifetime. Phyllis Tickle’s metaphor, the 500-year rummage sale, is with each passing day appearing more accurate than any of us could have imagined.

Here I want to focus just on some of the organizational and systems shifts we’ve been seeing and addressing. These are shifts that many of us assumed would come to the fore over the next 5 to 10 years, but which accelerated all at once in just a few months of 2020! Seth Godin wrote just a few months ago: “In a crisis, there’s maximum attention. And in a crisis, we often discard any pretense of caring about systems and resilience and focus only on how to get back to normal. This is precisely why normal is what normal, is because we fight to get back to it. Changing the system changes everything. And it might be even less work than pouring water on today’s tactical emergency.”

So, can we please talk about….

  • Doing less and going deeper. Mark Ramsey has said probably 100,000 times, “Congregations need to do less and go deeper.” There is a commonly held assumption among congregational leadership boards that we need to take care of all the “business” of church first, and then if we have time we’ll make sure we’re investing spiritual vitality. There seems to be this fear of not getting the “work” done. But why the assumption? Isn’t it possible that if we invest most of our time and energy in things like faith, hope, and love, that the institutional stuff that actually matters, will get taken care of? And guess what, if some of that stuff falls through the cracks, there’s a real possibility that it wasn’t that important in the first place. Ask yourself and your congregation, “What would doing less and going deeper mean for us?”


  • Related to the first bullet point, is the collapse of the program dominated ministry models. Clergy talk about this all the time, and in theory, know it to be true. Yet one of the elephants in the room for so many pastors and congregations we converse with is that there are often multiple programs or activities that are orbiting around the life of the congregation that are not really nurturing faith, meeting community needs, or moving people into deeper discipleship with Jesus. Some of these are programs that everyone assumes they should just have, but never ask why, or if they should do something else instead (yes, that one, the one that just jumped into your head when you read that). Oh, and they’re a cash vacuum. This was true before the pandemic, and it is almost doubly true during the pandemic. What experiments can you run with these programs? What needs to be merged with something else? What needs to be phased out entirely? Who are you going to disappoint, and how will you stay close but persistent?


  • Structures that are really, really stuck. There are so many congregational polities, structures, systems that, even when involving smart, faithful, and gifted people, nevertheless do not have the capacity to adapt to the pace, types, and degree of transition in the world around us. There are no easy answers here. But the questions are vitally important: What needs to be disrupted? How will we disrupt in a way that retains credibility, trust, and creates leverage, in order to take what’s valuable and do something good with it? What needs to go faster? What’s in the way? What is the Spirit telling us to let go of or dismantle for the sake of Jesus’ love for the world?


  • Congregations that are still looking for answers inside their own systems and limited perspectives, wondering why there don’t seem to be any new answers. But as Steve Blank says, “there are no facts in the building,” meaning that learning, curiosity, and discovery must be seen as fundamental to our identity. How will congregations start to look “up and out” at the world around them and learn from unexpected people, places, events, and resources? What is the Spirit doing “out there” and how will we attend to it? Where is Jesus’ kingdom coming through the margins? How will we receive it? A while back, I developed this illustration to capture some of what our team has frequently described as “down and in” vs “up and out.”

  • Collaboration cannot be an afterthought or a bonus on top of everything else. It has to be a fundamental value. We are not witnessing the end of connectionalism, but we are witnessing a radical new connectionalism, one rooted in local communities, and which requires smart collaboration for effective ministry. Lacking collaboration built on deep trust, we tend to build hierarchies (either implicitly or explicitly), resulting in choke points, bottlenecks, micromanaging of ministry, and often dysfunctional systems.  We know that over the long-term, this isn’t sustainable because it unduly burdens pastors and fails to equip lay leaders.


  • We need to get out of our lanes. Too many congregations are still trying to keep ministry compartmentalized, linear, non-messy. It involves this set of assumptions: We have the youth ministry lane, the worship lane, the adult education lane, the missions lane, the communications lane, and so on.  And then an individual, group, or committee is then assigned to these lanes. They work in these lanes, and then they report back to all of the other people working in the other lanes.  And then if a staff person or volunteer vacates their lane, there is an urgent need to refill that lane with someone else. Let’s stop doing this. Rather than setting up lanes for every task and drawing complicated and largely useless flow charts, lets simply and clearly articulate desired outcomes, frequently revisit core values, identify gifted and committed people (who may or may not fit your preconceived lanes!), and just say, “Go!”


  • Less strategic planning, more strategic thinking. “If the current season of crisis and change doesn’t end ‘strategic planning’ and consign it to the dustbin of history, nothing will. Speaking of dustbins, go into most pastors’ offices, and there on the highest shelf you will find the last four strategic planning reports, with their carefully formatted cover pages now crumpled and gathering dust, having not been opened since the night the board adopted them. The importance of strategic thinkingis now in full view.  Strategic thinking is dynamic, nimble, adaptive, and imaginative.  Dust cannot collect on a board’s strategic thinking.  And it most often begins with a stretching of a board’s imagination of what God is doing and what is possible with the Holy Spirit urging us forward.”


  • Ministries that are averse to experimentation, risk, and creativity are probably not going to make it. What does faithful risk-taking look like? What sort of culture’s can we nurture so that we can more frequently and collectively say, “Ok God, we’re going to give this a shot, and if it fails, may you be honored anyway?”  What can we just try for a short period of time without over-planning and with thorough evaluation and learning, simply because the Spirit says so? What are we holding too tightly that needs to be held loosely?


What else would you to add to this list?

Perhaps, most important here, is that these are not simply the latest trends on systems thinking or organizational strategy.  For me, all these bullet points have deep theological roots: being led by the spirit alone in unanticipated ways, depending solely on God for wisdom and provision, creating deep koinonia and trust, being on the move with Jesus and not being stuck in our plans and strategies, and always putting people over program, nurturing depth of faith in Jesus above all else.

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