Are You Organized for Control or Growth?
Dr. James Emery White
- 2019 Apr 08
One of the pastors on our staff was overheard saying to another staffer, “One of the things that makes Meck so different is that it is not organized for control, but organized for growth.”
He gets it.
It’s a simple, but profound, idea.
When you are organized for control, then your decision making, systems, processes… they’re all about controlling things. The goal is to make sure everything is done a certain way, or that everything done is allowed. It’s more about the preservation of the status quo than it is the challenge of it.
When you are organized for growth, you are structured for rapid decision making, fluid thinking, the absence of sacred cows, the ability to think outside of the box. You are constantly asking: “How can we do this better? What would be even more effective?”
And leaders are free to follow the conclusions.
I cannot begin to tell you how frustrating it is to lead a seminar or conference, lay out some simple decision or action that would radically improve a church’s health or effectiveness, and have it be met by a chorus of leaders saying, “We can’t do that.” And nine times out of 10, it’s not because they don’t have the money, the volunteers, the facility, or even the desire—it’s because they don’t have the freedom.
They are not organized for growth, but for control.
And if they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they would be shut down because that “authority” is not trained, sensitized or inclined to make such decisions. If anything, they are vested in the status quo. So the ones best able to make decisions are not allowed to; the ones least qualified are. Or decision making is so radically democratized and shared, requiring so much time to act, that you lose the window of time to act!
I know there are a wide number of approaches to church government, from “elder rule” to a more congregationally based approach. Yet most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure: committees, policies and majority rule.
None of these terms are found in the Bible, and all three can kill you.
For example, committees keep the people who are doing the ministry from making the decisions about the ministry. Authority and responsibility become separate from one another. An effective structure, on the other hand, lets the individuals who are the most intimately involved in a particular ministry and the best qualified make the day-in, day-out decisions regarding that ministry.
The problem with policies is what Philip Howard calls the death of common sense. A policy makes decisions and directs procedure independent of the situation. In many ways, this is considered to be the strength of a policy. The dilemma is that it removes judgment from the process.
For example, a few years ago the federal government bought hammers using a specification manual that was 33 pages long. Why not just trust people to go out and buy hammers? And if they can’t be trusted to do that, then get different people in the position!
Another problem with policies is that they can become an end unto themselves. Rather than the policies serving the organization, the organization begins to serve the policies. Pretty soon how things are done becomes far more important than what is done.
Here’s a great question for your church structure that I believe was first suggested to my thinking in something I read by (or heard from) George Barna: “Suppose your church had an opportunity to implement a ministry that had a high potential for positive impact, but needed to get started immediately. Could your church spring into action within hours or, at the most, a few days?”
Some of the most strategic decisions we’ve ever made had to be made within days, if not hours. And we were structured to be able to do it.
Now, about majority rule. Majority rule is rooted in American democracy and, as a result, has often been incorporated unthinkingly into the church. The first misgiving about majority rule is noted by Yale University Professor Marshall Edelson, who writes how an excess of consensus, or an over-enthusiasm for democratic principles, can render an organization impotent in terms of actually doing anything.
The second misgiving about majority rule (and one far more serious) is the Bible teaches that the church is a family.
In most family structures, the immature (children) outnumber, or at least equal, the mature (parents). In my family, there were two parents and four children. If we had voted on everything, we would have had ice cream for dinner every night, no bedtimes and lived at Disney World.
The church is a family and, therefore, should be understood to have differing levels of spiritual maturity present in the lives of its members. If every decision is made by the majority instead of the most spiritually mature, then there is a very strong chance that the majority could mislead the church.
This is precisely what happened with the Israelites. Moses sent 12 spies into the Promised Land in order to report back to the people whether it was everything God promised. All 12 agreed that the land was flowing with milk and honey, but the majority said that the land could not be taken. Only two, Caleb and Joshua, were convinced that God wanted them to possess the land.
The people went with the majority, and it kept them out of the Promised Land.
Here’s the key to good structure: let leaders lead. I’m not talking about setting anyone up to be autocratic or dictatorial, and there should certainly be appropriate accountability. But don’t let that become a euphemism for control. A good structure releases the leadership gift mentioned in Romans 12 as fully as one would allow any other gift to be made manifest.
Yes, there will be some who might feel a loss of “control.”
But the church as a whole might begin to feel a sense of growth.
James Emery White
Philip Howard, The Death of Common Sense.
Allan Cox with Julie Liesse, Redefining Corporate Soul.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.