Stop swinging the pendulum

The problem with autonomy in church leadership is group think.

Allow me to unpack that a little. It’s early. Maybe you haven’t had your coffee?

Autonomya self-governing community.

Group thinkthe -practice of approaching problems or issues as matters that are best dealt with by consensus of a group rather than by individuals acting independently; conformity.

Translate that to the church.

Autonomy is all the rage in church leadership circles these days. It’s almost heresy to present the concept of getting outside help from another board or body when making decisions. If you read the latest leadership magazines or listen to the speakers at leadership conferences they all pretty much say the same thing: Your leadership team knows best; you have been called to lead locally, do it boldly.

And the result is group think.

I hate to say it, but sometimes instead of acting boldly groups act stupidly.

Too often, locked in a board room and forced to make a decision, a leadership team goes with a BIG IDEA and changes everything.

The result is a pendulum effect. Attendance is down? Let’s find the boring and replace it with the exciting. Let’s get rid of game time and go with meditation circles. Let’s stop passing the offering plate around and force people to text in their donations. Let’s fire the organized youth pastor and hire a relational one.

There is something in our DNA that looks at problems and processes only two solutions…. stay the same or make an extreme change.

And the nature of group think is that you are always going to chose A or B. No one in a room is going to fight for options C, D, E, or F. Because they want the meeting to end.

And in a group, consensus is viewed as good even if it is bad.

Pendulum swing vs. Minor Correction

Let me introduce two concepts to you since you probably sit on some sort of leadership team. Maybe internalizing these things will help your organization end the tennis match of pendulum thinking?

#1 Slow down – I’ve been in these meetings. And I know that at the board level there is a desire to move quickly in order to look decisive. (Or empty the agenda) And I know that those closest to the situations feel the most urgency to make drastic changes. By making the time to study and really understand a problem you will make a much more wise decision. When your board is on the verge of swinging the pendulum, just ask that a decision not be made for 2 more meeting cycles. Give everyone some assignments about the problem. Then agree to talk about it briefly at the next meeting. Then at the third meeting, make a decision.

#2 Side step to the right or left – Chances are that you are largely doing the right things for your organization. And what you are doing today did actually get you to the place you are at today. (In a good way) So rather than killing a program or firing a staff person, take the time to invest in minor corrections as opposed to swinging the pendulum. Consider investing in the staff people that you have. (Way cheaper, kinder, and wiser for the long-term health of your organization.) Or consider visiting other organizations that run a similar program to see what you can learn. And also consider that you probably have the best program, staff, or idea for your context in play and that you might just need to ride out a temporary downward cycle.

Break group think  and its pendulums!

One thing I’d like to see if for autonomous bodies (not bad, by definition) getting more comfortable with outside voices. You can be autonomous and still bring in outside voices. Bring in visitors from outside the organization to regular meetings… just for a fresh outside perspective. Once a year do a retreat with another similar board where you spend a weekend working on your problems together. When faced with a big decision, produce a white paper and ask another board for their advice.





8 responses to “Stop swinging the pendulum”

  1. Ashley Dawson-Bottorff Avatar
    Ashley Dawson-Bottorff

    I enjoy reading your blog. Even though I’m not employed by a church, I’m very involved in my church’s music program and chat with out leaders frequently. You seem to have good insights into common church issues. I really like your idea of doing retreats with similar boards. What an awesome way to bounce ideas off of one another!

  2. Matt Steen Avatar

    I get what you are saying and see the wisdom in this. I recently wrote on my blog about the pendulum effect and how it can devastate the local church. That said, are you concerned about the push for autonomous local church leadership? I get the sense at the beginning of the post that you might be. I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

  3. adam mclane Avatar

    @ashley- I love how Facebook has reunited high school friends. Too cool. It’s doubly cool to see how many of us have stayed committed to or come back to church.

    @matt- I’m not concerned with autonomy. Like any style of leadership, it has it’s positives and negatives. What I’ve presented here really steals the best part of being in a denomination and applies it to autonomous bodies!

  4. Todd Query Avatar
    Todd Query

    Dick Staub wrote a brilliant book (out of print now) called “Too Christian, Too Pagan” (“pagan” being Staub’s admittedly insufficient substitute term for “non-Christian”). In the book, he suggests–essentially–that the most dangerous place to be when a proverbial pendulum swings is in the middle…because you get whacked by it no matter which way it’s swinging. Oh…and another thing…Staub says that “the middle” is pretty much where you’ll find Christ…with a hand reaching in both directions (or, toward “Choice A” and “Choice B”). A true relationship with Christ, suggests Staub, means that your actions will be considered “too Christian” by your non-Christian friends, yet “too Pagan” by your Christian friends. Interesting stuff. Thanks, Adam.

  5. adam mclane Avatar

    @todd- the primary thing I bring to the table when I work with teams/boards/groups is something I call “third option thinking.” Typically, they’ve settled into option A or option B. (opposite ends of the pendulum) I try to get them to stop thinking linear, start thinking asymmetrical, and look for correcting what is mostly working vs. scraping something they have for something they want.

    The fault with A or B thinking is that you usually end up compromised somewhere in the middle. Then both sides are unhappy and the results suck.

    I think the problem with A or B thinking is that it’s 2D when life is more like 3D or even 4D. (If you toss God into the equation.)

  6. Brian Steele-Sierk Avatar
    Brian Steele-Sierk

    The genesis of this problem is a lack of widely agreed upon, meaningful and significant metrics for ministry. The common primary metrics (Money and numbers) and the go-to obverse (deeply discipled students) are just really bad metrics, and always fail to provide a decent guide to institutional behavior. Your option C, or 3rd dimensional pivot, is a handy tool, but you can’t tell if that works either if you are not clear on what you mean by successful.

  7. adam mclane Avatar

    I think most churches have 2 default measuring devices.
    – butts in seats
    – dollars in the plate

    While I don’t agree with those being what Jesus used to measure the churches “success” I tend to just leave that alone. At least they are measuring something. If I bring up that those necessarily Jesusy measuring devices I tend to get shut out of being heard from then on out.

    Does that make sense?

  8. Andrew Avatar

    With regard to this post and the most recent comment (re: measuring devices), I wonder how beginning all meetings and decision making processes with a time of intentional silence and prayerful reflection on the task of leadership might change these dynamics? Perhaps groups engage in destructive forms of group think because they treat the church not primarily as a spiritual fellowship but more as a nonprofit or even organization. If prayer and reflection can be engaged to change the culture of the church from organization to organism, it seems a great deal of the “group think” might become more Gospel-centered than it tends to be.

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