Why Working Harder Isn't Working

January 27th, 2014
This article is featured in the Stuck: Now What? (Feb/Mar/Apr2014) issue of Circuit Rider

With few exceptions, I’ve found serving on conference committees frustrating, tedious, and exasperating. Much conference work is unfocused, disconnected, unfruitful, perfunctory, and redundant. I’ve despaired over committee work empty of purpose or ensnared by confusing policies, rules, and procedures. Most work remains completely irrelevant to the congregation, which is the principle ministry delivery system for our mission, and is equally disconnected from the real-world concerns of the people we seek to serve. I’ve puzzled over impenetrably complex systems for credentialing and ordination, restraints on local church initiative, and obtuse funding systems. Conferences seldom display a consistent vision, identity, or common understanding of their mission, and few have strategies for improving leadership or increasing the number of vital congregations.

Conferences are large, complex organizations that operate in ways no longer conducive to our mission. They remain an underutilized resource because they are poorly focused, are diffuse in purpose, and operate with inadequate systems of accountability and poor alignment of time, personnel, and resources.

Members of conferences sense something is wrong, as evidenced by constant calls to restructure, change job descriptions, and reduce costs. Current operations produce frustrated bishops, burned-out superintendents, under-appreciated staff, detached pastors, and exasperated laypersons.

An unstated (even if unintended) notion that “churches exist to serve conferences” drives many conversations and feeds much cynicism. Churches feel burdened by apportionments and weighed down by reporting processes. People love the relationships fostered by belonging to a conference but feel exasperated by the lack of identifiable, fruitful outcomes for their work. Conferences haven’t done well in establishing and reinforcing a missional urgency other than that created by the fear of decline. Most conferences don’t have a sufficient coalition of leaders focused on the mission to foster change and alignment.

If you and I were to stay up all night to devise a plan for associating churches, combining finances, and preparing and deploying leadership that would result in declining numbers, aging churches, unsustainable financial models, difficulty in recruiting young clergy, resistance to adaptation, and questionable relevance to next generations, we would design a system exactly like the one we have.

In my book, Seven Levers: Missional Strategies for Conferences (Abingdon Press, April 2014), I propose seven strategies to transform our basic operations. Until we rethink systems that limit and restrain, simply working harder, replacing people, or spending more money won’t help. The following mind-sets expose the assumptions that keep us stuck in broken systems that are barriers to accomplishing our mission.

The World Is Flat

Thomas Friedman’s book, The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005), describes how globalization permits direct person-to-person interaction. People contact other people directly, personally, and immediately through mobile phones, the Internet, and social networking (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and more). Instant communication, accessible technology, and reliable transportation create a “flat” world where persons form relationships and small businesses establish partnerships directly without large corporate or government channels. This leveling changed the world for journalists, retailers, music producers, publishers, banks, and universities. Anyone can access just about anything anytime from anywhere.

The same changes shape The United Methodist Church. Imagine a US congregation thirty years ago that felt called to supply clergy housing for United Methodist pastors in an African country. Before communication gaps were closed by the Internet and cellular networks, the congregation depended on conference staff to identify the projects and provide the means to make this happen. Because this involves work overseas, the idea moved up the hierarchy to a conference missions committee. If that committee agreed, they requested funding from the conference budget through the finance council. The annual conference would vote to support the work through apportionments or a special offering. Hundreds of churches would give money for parsonages in Africa through apportionments, many without knowing what they were supporting. The conference forwarded the accumulated funds up to the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM). GBGM then transferred the funds down the other side of the pyramid to their administrative officer for Africa, who forwarded the funds to the bishop of the country targeted for mission, who distributed the money through superintendents to reach the congregations that need parsonages.

(See Chart 1, rotating image)

Now imagine the same scenario today. A congregation feels called to build parsonages in Africa; a layperson surfs the Internet to explore options and evaluate existing channels and then directly contacts a pastor or superintendent in Africa. Connections are made, the congregation develops a special offering, and the church transfers funds directly or assembles a Volunteers in Mission team to send to Africa to build parsonages.

(See Chart 2, rotating image)

Globalization means that international ministry is no longer conference-to-conference through general boards. It is person-to-person and church-to-church throughout the world.

This flattened communication has huge implications. For instance, the Missouri Conference enjoys a long-standing partnership called the Mozambique Initiative. The project involves hundreds of church-to-church partnerships, pastor-to-pastor friendships, water-well projects, salary supports, mutual prayers, and educational and medical ministries. Congregations send video greetings captured on mobile phones for their partner churches to show on screens during worship over Wi-Fi, and the partner church reciprocates. Visiting pastors or lay leaders greet hosts with genuine affection, inquiring about children and spouses they’ve never actually met but whom they’ve come to know through live video conferencing, texting, and social networking. Financial and in-kind gifts total millions of dollars, and the partnership involves minimal staff in Missouri and in Mozambique. The Mozambique Initiative reflects a new connectionalism sustained by direct personal relationships, congregational contact, and frequent communication with little superstructure or centralization.

More noteworthy, many churches do extensive global work with no conference involvement at all. One congregation raised more than $600,000 for work in Ghana and sent work teams for construction, educational, and medical ministries. Smaller churches now support this work, which has no conference involvement at all. These examples that contrast the old “up and over” approach with the flat new world seem self-evident. Less obvious are the many conference systems designed to go “up and over” in a flat world.

Conferences support campus ministries in an “up and over” fashion. A congregation three blocks from a university wants to offer a college-age ministry. We require that congregation to join with all other congregations to send apportionments to the conference where the higher education committee determines how much money to distribute to that particular campus. Personnel decisions, evaluations, and supervision rest with conference committees. The money goes up and comes back down three blocks away. The system fosters disinterest and an absence of personal engagement between the congregation and nearby campus.

“Up and over” is how United Methodists traditionally approach new church development. In many conferences, pastors or congregations who take initiative more directly are restrained. Our systems fight or flee the new flat world.

In a flat world, churches start churches in their neighborhood, and even in other communities and other conferences. Congregations initiate student ministries at the campus down the street as well as at the university across the state where a number of their students attend.

Another implication of the flat world is that the “small can act large.” Individuals can establish large platforms for influencing change, and congregations have a greater impact than anyone ever imagined.

A single blogger can build an online community of hundreds of people. And congregations offer teaching events, often with higher quality, greater participation, and more impact than denominationally sponsored conferences. The Church of the Resurrection’s annual institute includes high quality workshops for churches of all sizes taught by a diversity of presenters and practitioners. Thousands of pastors, staff, and laypersons attend. Forty years ago, only seminaries, general agencies, or annual conferences provided such resources. Congregations multiply their ministry in a flat world.

The flat world also changes the definition of collaboration. Collaboration previously meant keeping communication going with the people down the hall in the same department. Now collaboration means working together with anybody and everybody, even with competitors. My laptop includes hardware and software from dozens of computer companies—Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco Systems, and others. Competitors must collaborate and specialize in order for any of them to succeed.

In the flat world, conferences collaborate with local churches to start new congregations, conferences work with other conferences to initiate campus ministries, and conferences collaborate with foundations and universities for leadership training.

Conference leaders who give their best in systems that don’t acknowledge the flat world find their work increasingly difficult and less relevant. Maintaining and enforcing “up and over” systems takes extraordinary energy in a flat world, and working harder to keep them going reaps fewer and fewer benefits. We struggle against this new world as something foreign, or we embrace it for the mission of the church.

The Giant Hairball

A second idea that explains why working harder isn’t helping comes from Gordon McKenzie’s delightful little book entitled Orbiting the Giant Hairball (Viking, 1998). The hairball is MacKenzie’s term for the accumulated procedures and policies that accrue in an organization. Rules, standards, guidelines, and accepted models become established and set in stone. The “hairs” of the hairball begin as practices that initially solve a problem. Because the idea works in one place, it becomes prescribed in all places. Rules accumulate far beyond their usefulness. Every new policy adds another hair to the hairball. The hairball grows enormous until it has its own heavy mass and gravity that pulls everything into the tangled web of established policies and procedures. The hairball makes change nearly impossible, stifles innovation, slows adaptive response, and kills the spirit.

Have you experienced the intransigence of an organization that is stuck in place by its own collection of rules and procedures?

At last count, there were 4,774 shalls in The Book of Discipline and hundreds more in conference standing rules, with paragraphs that begin, “The annual conference shall . . . The congregation shall . . . The pastor shall . . .” The Discipline’s description of a single conference board, Higher Education and Campus Ministry, extends into over sixty paragraphs, with nine pages about its composition, purpose, and tasks! Such detailed prescriptions limit the work of conferences. Obviously, we need standard order for the essentials, but we don’t improve and expand the mission of the church each time we mandate a requirement. There are dozens of reasons why any new idea can’t be done. Many conference meetings merely feed the insatiable beast with more resolutions and amendments that perpetuate a self-reinforcing system.

Orbiting is MacKenzie’s phrase for responsible creativity, vigorously exploring options, and remaining close enough to the organization to benefit from the physical, intellectual, and relational resources without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy. Orbiting suggests a healthier way for pastors and congregations to relate to the conference and for creative conferences to relate to the general church.

Hairball is policy, procedure, imperative, rigidity, submission, and regimented similarity, while orbiting is originality, nonconformity, initiative, experimentation, flexibility, risk, and adaptation.

Our propensity to solve everything by creating rules that must apply to everyone else creates an operational nightmare. Conference organizational charts, nominations processes, and budgeting requirements are prescribed in extraordinary detail and in ways that serve a thousand secondary purposes rather than the mission. They make effectiveness and alignment almost impossible. Exasperated leaders constantly try to work around unhelpful requirements.

If you had a great idea, where would you take it, and how would it be received, perfected, approved, funded, and executed? How does a creative idea move through your conference from initial spark to fruitful ministry?

Most conference systems include five to seven layers of organizational approval. Each person or committee has the ability to say No, but nobody has the authority to say Yes.

Younger generations have zero tolerance for the hairball (except for those we’ve trained to think this is the way United Methodism works!). In the world young people live in, many things happen at once with extraordinary immediacy. They expect quick responses and rapid action.

Our endless entanglement of rules makes us seem irrelevant to the world around us. Our focus on internal mechanisms draws our attention back in upon ourselves and away from the mission field. The hairball turns away next generations of leaders. Complexity is the silent killer of organizations.

Nonprofits are Different

Jim Collins’s Good to Great and the Social Sectors (HarperCollins, 2005) provides insights into why nonprofit organizations are difficult to lead and how ordinary business models don’t apply. Change through formal structures becomes nearly impossible with leadership diffusely distributed across various people, boards, and committees.

Most people picture a pyramid structure with the bishop on top. In fact, in United Methodist conferences, no one is on top of anything! Bishops hold authority over cabinets and their own personal staff. Council directors work with leadership teams nominated and elected by the annual conference. The laity elects lay leaders. Boards of Ordained Ministry operate independently from cabinets. The treasurer works for the Council of Finance and Administration. Retreat ministries and districts own their own property with their own personnel and policies.

Conferences have no concentrated executive power. As a result, bishops, council chairs, lay leaders, and conference staff appear less decisive, less focused, and more reserved in exercising authority than business leaders in similar-sized corporations. Jim Collins writes that they “only appear that way to those who fail to grasp the complex governance and diffuse power structures common to social sectors.” In the business world, the executive leader has enough concentrated power to simply make decisions. In diffuse nonprofit organizations, no one—including the nominal chief executive—has enough structural power to make things happen.

This is not to suggest that we should embed more structural authority in bishops, board chairs, or anyone else. Rather, we should realize that leadership in conferences relies less on hierarchical power and more on persuasion, appealing to mutual values, the power of common language, and the influence of coalition.

For instance, one of the most important tools any leader has is the ability to influence personnel decisions. In United Methodist conferences that authority rests not with bishops but is distributed throughout the conference system, with District Committees on Ministries, superintendents, senior pastors, pastor-parish relations committees, and the Board of Ordained Ministry each exerting significant influence on clergy; and the finance committee, personnel committee, and camping board fulfilling similar responsibilities for staff.

So to whom is the bishop accountable? The conference episcopacy committee? The jurisdictional episcopacy committee? The College of Bishops?

Each of these supervising bodies is probably driven by differing values. A results-oriented focus on fruitfulness may be resisted, or each entity may have its own outcomes that conflict with more strategic conference priorities. In business, desired results are more clearly identified: enough customers, revenue, clients, profit, and earnings. In nonprofit organizations, it’s more difficult to assess performance related to the mission, especially if that mission is unclear or diffused among a complex number of stakeholders.

In such a diffuse organization, everyone believes that things should change, but they can’t agree on what matters most, what each is expected to do, or how to measure progress. Leaders can’t select the people they need, they have difficultly removing people who are ineffective, and it’s nearly impossible to stop doing ministries and projects that aren’t working, even when everyone knows they’re not working.

A system with such diffusely distributed authority requires leadership by consensus on a limited number of critical issues and by appealing to common values. Mandates don’t work, and plans that dictate compliance from all boards, pastors, or churches are ineffective.

In the absence of concentrated executive authority, many conferences rely on legislative authority to develop focus. They turn to annual conference sessions for direction and change. The Book of Discipline embeds innumerable tasks in the annual conference itself as a collective body.

Developing strategies becomes nearly impossible with huge numbers of people who bring widely divergent agendas. Large venues are impossible for focused, deliberate change.

Working harder using only executive authority and legislation will continue to exasperate leaders. We need other tools to lead.

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