How Churches Decide

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By nature I don’t startle easily, I remember once at a faculty golf outing I was stung on my neck by a yellow jacket. I calmly asked my partner to hold my club while I pulled out the stinger, put a piece of ice from a cup against the puncture for a minute and then went on to finish the hole. Unfortunately, my partner was so startled and flustered he couldn’t continue; he nearly fainted when I showed him the removed stinger.

I am however, regularly startled by the behavior of churches and ministries that occasionally seek my help or advice. Usually they are reeling from some singularly disastrous decision or finally discovering the piper must be paid for a long string of poor decisions. Rarely is this precipice reached because of a singular unforeseen circumstance; it is rather the cumulative result of poor decision-making and poor leadership. As Jim Collins noted in his excellent book, How The Mighty Fall,

Every institution is vulnerable, no matter how great, no matter how much you’ve achieved, no matter how far you’ve gone, no matter how much power you have HTMFgarnered, you are vulnerable to decline. There is no law of nature that the most powerful will inevitably remain at the top. Anyone can fall and eventually most do.[1]

Throughout the Bible we see that common sense strategic planning (strategizing your activities to achieve your purposes) is extolled. The builder who plans (Luke 14:28), the warrior-king who evaluates the strength of his enemy (Luke 14:31; Prov 20:18); the wise herder (Prov 27:23–24), are a few examples. Conversely, the Bible often ridicules those who make foolish decisions (Luke 14:29–30).

In decision-making there are two possible paths;[2] we can call them processes, and in general two possible outcomes for each process. For simplicity sake we’ll call the two processes “Good” and “Bad.” While there is room for variations, a “Good” process involves examining data and must ask and answer some basic questions:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • Why are you trying to do this, that is, how does it mesh with your larger purposes?
  • Do you have the resources to accomplish the task?
  • Do you have the right personnel to accomplish the task?
  • What is the absolute time-line to accomplish the task?
  • What are the probable, possible, or plausible, hindrances to accomplishing the task?

A “Bad” process, to one degree or another, fails to consider these six questions; and sometimes irrationally or arrogantly ignores answers that do not coincide with a predetermined idea, usually from a dominant leader. Simply drawing a SWOT matrix[3] on the white board and talking through it does not represent a good process.

While we could write an entire essay on each one of these, for now let’s briefly note all six:

  1. The Task: It is amazing how many churches and ministries just “do things:” lots of things, lots of activity, lots of stuff, with little idea of what they are trying to accomplish. References to “advancing the kingdom,” or “reaching people,” or “impacting the community,” or other nebulous and vague goals replace real planning. Any significant proposal must ask and answer this basic question before it should even be considered. Failure to address this question isn’t always simple ignorance or neglect; occasionally it is an actual strategy knowingly employed by bad leaders. Without a specific goal, the failure of any task is glibly explained and dismissed as “not their fault.” Conversely any random success is claimed as another example of their exceptional insights and leadership.
  1. The Mission: Once you’ve decided “what” to do you need to answer the question: “why?” An appropriate mission statement or strategic plan[4] is the lens through which all proposals should be examined; it’s called “alignment.” Remember: the Strategic Plan comes FIRST! You cannot take a group of disparate projects and backfill them into a strategic plan. Well, of course you can do that, but your organization will likely be doomed. For instance a church may want to start a day care center, or a counseling center, or a bookstore; a ministry may want to add this or that program. In and of themselves none of those are bad things, but do they “align” with the overall mission or strategic plan? If the answer is no (or you have to rely on “Why Are Fire Trucks Red?” logic to arrive at yes) then no matter how “good” the idea is it should not be done, at least right away. Remember: every organization cannot do every thing.
  1. The Resources: When talking about resources the main issue is cash. In any proposal you need to face the realization that the cash you invest could be lost because the proposal fails. Some ministries throw money around carelessly and others are so risk-averse they never try anything. I know of a couple of churches that are doomed to perpetual mediocrity because they refuse to spend any money, despite having more than enough in the bank. Another key question is facilities, unless of course, the objective is to build new facilities; but even here you need to answer the question how will you manage in terms of space while you are building something. One church I worked with has been paralyzed for years because they really need to tear down their sanctuary and rebuild something more suitable. But they can’t agree on the short-term facility solution and so they do nothing.
  1. The Personnel: When consulting with churches I do an exercise to determine what percentage of people are doing what percentage of work. Leaders have to remember that eventually labor reaches a point of diminishing return. Some tasks simply require people with very specialized skill, knowledge, or experience. Depending on the task if you scrimp, trying to get by with a person who is a “fast learner,” you are, at best heading for a very bumpy ride and resource wasting or at worst your task is doomed.
  1. The Calendar: Many church leaders I deal with simply have no conception of time. The times I have been told, “this should only take a minute” are legion. Naturally, there occasional emergencies and time considerations must be set aside. At the Battle of the Bulge General George Patton turned the bulk of his Third Army nearly 180 degrees to relive the 101st Airborne Division surrounded at Bastogne. It remains one of the greatest military maneuverers in all of history. Of course Patton had anticipated the situation and had three different plans at his disposal and could activate any of them with a single code word. Projects, at least well done projects, usually take longer than the original proposal and always take longer than the leader(s) want.
  1. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: When we speak of “probable, “possible,” and “plausible” hindrances it is impossible to plan for every contingency. But in any task you have to at least have an understanding of potential hindrances. Remember the cliffLatin Proverb: Malum quidem nullum esse sine aliquo bono “it is a bad plan which cannot be altered.” For example a church I know of bought a 10-acre lot to build new facilities on. The price was good, obviously too good; and, while it was well-known that during WWII there had been “some sort of factory” there, the church leaders, certain that this was God’s provision and timing wrote a check for the total and acquired the property (on principle they were against taking out a loan). After spending more money on plans they sought a permit and had to, because of well-known regulations, provide a soil sample. The sample demonstrated that the ground was contaminated and could not be built on without a substantial outlay of more cash to rehabilitate the ground. Buying it outright had (1) drained an excessive amount of cash, and (2) left them with no leverage or advocate (had they sought a loan this probably would have been discovered earlier and even if not, the bank would have had an interest in assisting their client). As far as I know the church still owns a useless 10-acre parcel.

In our “Good-Bad” matrix decisions can go as follows:

decisionmatrix

  • Good Leads to Good: A good decision-making process leads to a good outcome. Things progress well and happily.
  • Bad leads to Bad: A bad decision-making process leads to a bad outcome. The disaster was both inevitable and predictable.
  • Good leads to Bad: A good decision-making process was followed, but there was a bad outcome. Whatever led to the bad outcome could not have possibly been anticipated. This is the “If I had it to do all over again I would have done exactly the same thing” situation.
  • Bad leads to Good: A bad decision-making process was followed but somehow by sheer good fortune (or the sovereignty of God depending on your theology) it all worked out. This is always the WORST possible situation as it both reinforces bad processes and convinces the leaders that “God is on their side.”

I don’t want to imply that every decision a church or ministry makes should be a laborious drawn out undertaking with pages of reports and analysis, far from it. No one is infallible, but some people just naturally are good, intuitive decision-makers. They address the six questions seamlessly and quickly. However, most people have a weak spot in their thinking as it relates to one of the six questions. I know otherwise good leaders who have no concept of time, others who simply cannot understand resource allotment, and others who are simply awful judges of people. There are very few people who are consistently good all phases all the time and the worst situation is dealing with someone who is convinced they are excellent at something, when its painfully obvious they aren’t. This is why a vibrant leadership team with high “questions to statement ratios” is vital[5].

But, the more spiritual amongst you is thinking, all this is nothing but secular business models overlaid on ministry; our planning is the Bible and God will see us through to advance His kingdom; some of you are even turning to James 4:13–15 at this very moment. Good!  But does this passage disparage goals and planning? Of course not, it condemns pride that schemes without regard for God. Bad decision-making processes will not be magically repaired by ending the presentation, “if God wills,” any more than a good process will have God’s blessing when both God and His Word are ignored. As the old saying goes, “Whatever man does without God he must fail miserably or succeed even more miserably.” Churches and ministries should never fool themselves into thinking that somehow God will always make Chateaubriand or Beef Wellington out of their hash.

 

Notes:

[1] Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall (New York: Harper-Collins, 2009), 8. This is a book that every leader should read, even if you are not particularly interested in business.

[2] Of course it is possible imagine you will take neither path and just “go with the flow” or “let go and let God,” or some such nonsense. But not having a decision-making process is a process; it’s just a bad one.

[3] SWOT Analysis= “Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats.” This is a rather structured planning method that was developed in the early 1960’s, probably at Stanford’s Research Institute, although no one particularly claims credit for its development. It is a helpful tool, although it is best used for individual projects. Absent a coherent strategic plan its value is limited and the analytics it produces can even be skewed.

[4] Strategic Planning is necessary, but often difficult mainly because “things change.” I’ve heard ministry leaders claim that because of constant change strategic planning is worthless. Or they rather piously claim that the “Bible” is their strategic plan and the Bible never changes. Neither view is a sound approach. Planning is essential in effective decision-making. Differing types of ministries will have differing needs for the scope of a strategic plan. Every church should have a plan that looks out about five years, but that’s a topic for another day.

[5] See Collins’ chart on “Leadership Team Dynamics: On the Way Up Versus On the Way Down,” Why The Might Fall, p. 77–78.

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Dennis Swanson

About Dennis Swanson

Dr. Dennis M. Swanson is currently the Dean of Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Formerly was the VP of The Master’s Seminary Library, Accreditation, and Operations for 24 years. He also oversaw the production of The Master’s Seminary Journal, and is an experienced writer and editor. Prior to the he was an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.