As an entrepreneur, part of a family business, I had a chance to launch new ventures and restructure our old core business. We were like a car dealer for heavy construction equipment. Truly a “three yards in a cloud of dust” kind of business. My brother and I worked with my father until he died in 1990, when the company he founded was 35 years old. His unwillingness to trust, delegate and empower led the company to plateau at about $20M and 80 people. It was a story typical of many entrepreneurs returning from WWII: difficult start, fast growth, plateau, reinvent or die. Less than 10 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation.
In the decade after our father’s death, my brother and I realized we had to reinvent the business to move it off the plateau. As we grew the business over the next decade, we went through three visioning processes. Each led to a restructuring of our organization as we grew to 325 people in 11 locations, doing nearly $100M annually by 1999. Like the caterpillar, we had to break out of the old form and seek the form appropriate to the emerging realities and the next stage of our organizational life.
We learned that businesses all go through life cycles. Much like churches, they have a slow, painful birth. If they survive, they begin to grow rapidly. After a season of growth, entropy sets in, and they plateau. Entropy is a fascinating term. It's like my 59 year-old body. When I was young, my body would heal quickly when injured. Over the years, our skin begins to wrinkle and sag, our muscles won't respond as well, we start to slowly wear out. Organizations are like that. After the growth phase, they plateau, and then they begin to decline, and eventually they die. The difference between business and church is that no business is more than three years away from failure, as we’ve all painfully seen seen since 2008.. A church, on the other hand, takes two decades to die. You can hardly put a stake through its heart.
A few years ago, our Synod Mission Developer and the Bishop’s Assistant for Transformation went around together assessing which churches could be redeveloped into sustainable congregations, and which were circling the drain and beyond help. They met with leaders in these struggling churches, and in several cases, they gave the churches permission to die. They cast a vision of new life coming out of death. They raised over $500K for new mission development from churches that closed, sold the property, and dedicated the money to new mission.
My friend, Harvey Cheatham, is a Christ-follower with one of the more unusual paths I’ve seen. He studies the Esoteric Spiritualities and is finishing up a Ph.D at Saybrook, writing his dissertation on this, his life’s work. Harvey introduced me to meditation 25 years ago, and today, it is still the most meaningful spiritual practice to me. God has revealed himself and helped me find His faint path during these quiet times, never lighting more than the next couple of steps.
Harvey and I were talking once, and he suggested that there is an eternal struggle between form and Spirit. The creative spark, whether it is a vision for a new business, a new ministry, or a new church, comes to us from the ethereal. It has no form, and does not yet exist in the real world. As we begin to articulate this vision and make it real, slowly, it takes on form so that it can function in the world. No matter how inspired this vision might be, even if it is a revelation from God, it will take shape based on how we think the world works. We build the form and structures out of our mental maps of how to create what we envision.
Sadly, people begin to cling to the forms, the traditions, the buildings, and the “way of being and doing church” that they know. When these forms, structures, buildings and organizations no longer fit the context and the times, entropy sets in, and they plateau and begin to decline. Unless those old forms crack apart and allow the Spirit to find an appropriate form and expression for the age, they eventually die.
I remember reading a book on organizational design back around 1980 (can’t remember the title or author). The book posited that new organizational forms are created to solve big problems that overcome the existing forms. Many of these new ideas are first described in academic studies in a theoretical form. The example they used is that Henry Ford’s idea to build a car for everyone, the Model T, led to the creation of the assembly line, which spawned a form of organization now called the machine bureaucracy. So, people were thinking of organizations not organically, but as a machine.
In this design, jobs were rigidly constructed in a sequential order along the assembly line. You did not need to bring your brain to work; you were expected to function like little tops spinning each in its own place. Managers had a small span of control, and whenever one of the tops starts wobbling, managers rushed to the scene to get it spinning smoothly again. The sad story of General Motors today is the story of clinging to old forms, old structures, old mental models, long after they have ceased to be effective.
This book I read suggested that new organizations take 20 years to move from the idea stage, often in academia, to being implemented in business or government organizations. When I was taking my strategy class in my EMBA, I looked at all the forms of organizational structure, wondering what form described our business. We were no longer entrepreneurial, certainly not a matrix. Finally, I saw the description of the machine bureaucracy, and I knew that was it.
Since the mental models of the lay leaders in a church often dictate the form of organization created, they import the forms they know. Hence, the structures in all too many churches began to resemble machine bureaucracies. Church council was elected, and often leaders were chosen based on criteria other than spiritual leadership. Council works up job descriptions for staff and lay leaders. Control is at the center, with everything decided in that meeting. Little time was spent in prayer or discernment, so decisions were made based on human thinking, not the still, small voice of the Spirit.
Sadly, the machine bureaucracy model ceased to function well by the mid-1980s. In 1990, Peter Senge described a new form in his book, “The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.” This form is an empowering one, raising up a shared leadership model based on trust rather than fear. It posed a move to a more organic form, away from the machine worldview. Its tenets were to value the gifts of your people, respect each other, set stretch goals and hold each other accountable.
We spent the decade of the ‘90s working to transform the company into an empowered learning organization. Led by our vision, we hit a period of rapid growth. Sadly, none of the managers who had come up in the machine model successfully made the transition. Despite a significant investment in retooling skills, their responsibilities grew faster than they could. They would not surround themselves with the best people, because they were insecure and felt threatened, and they clung to old ways.
As we tried to transform the old equipment business, hiring lots of talented people, creating a meritocracy with career paths to more responsibility, we also started an equipment rental business, kind of like Hertz Rent-a-Car for tractors. Most equipment dealers disdained the rental guys and hated the idea of getting into that business. We followed the lead of some friends from another state and created a new business. With a clear vision and a new culture, the venture, after a slow difficult start, grew like wildfire. In four years we grew the 38th largest equipment rental business in the country, all within the state of Georgia.
The new creation flourished, while the old struggled to break out of its old form and find success in a new era. While working side by side, the new business taught the culture the need for speed. 24-hour service was another decision we made to support the needs of the customers of this new business. Our existing customers benefited from these changes, growing the old business as well. These moves created wrenching changes in the old culture, while being accepted as the norm in the new.
For this same reason, in the church world most growth happens in new congregations. Once a congregation has plateaued or begun to decline, only a drastic turn will change the fate from eventual death. But it plays out over decades. Many will end up like the withered fig tree, no longer producing fruit, no longer receiving the blessing of God.
At the Exponential New Church Planting Conference in Orlando, I heard about Seacoast Church in South Carolina. This one church has built a network that planted 100 churches last year! They typically cost less than $100K to start, reach sustainability in 18 months, pay back their startup costs in two years, and put two percent into the network to plant more churches every year. They work ecumenically and have planted two LCMS churches. What would it take to create such a network in your church? Your tribe? What a movement of the Spirit.
My personal experience and observations over a decade of work as a church consultant tell me that transformation is hard work. I once told my company board, when asked how our transformation of the old culture was going, “It takes a long time to turn a big ship.” One of them replied, “Yes, it does, but sometimes you find out the wheelhouse is not connected to the rudder.” I spent the rest of my time working for alignment throughout our organization, connecting the wheelhouse to the rudder.
The key to moving off plateau and reversing decline is finding a shared vision that all will energetically work towards, building success on success, growing as individuals and as a team. My friend Harvey looked at it this way. "You are working as a catalyst, breaking down the old, dysfunctional forms, so that Spirit might lead us into new forms for a new age.” Do not underestimate what hard work this is. One person cannot change a system, it takes a team. Most will fail at attempting transformation. We sold our rental business in 1999, and it thrived under new ownership. We kept the old core business, the one reluctant to change, and it crashed and burned in three years.
May God bless you with more success at this than I've seen. Just remember, as Bill Easum said to me in 2000, "Transformation in churches always begins with spiritual leaders." So, if you want to create deep and healthy change in your church, begin by discipling leaders who will catch the vision God has for your church and your community. Bathe it in prayer and humble service, and maybe you can succeed. I pray so.