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Why Do Many (Most?) Churches Have a Hard Time Getting Things Done?

Bud Wrenn | Pinnacle Consulting

Bud Wrenn

March 2021

The title of this article may be sort of a ‘duh…’ question.  We all probably know that it is true that the average church doesn’t function as well as the average company.

But I think we often just leave it at that.  We don’t really talk much about WHY that’s the case.  But I believe that the WHYs on this issue could actually be helpful, and actually even quite liberating, for church leaders.

Since 2001, I have been a director of an organization called ‘The Innovative Church Community’, a leadership development organization for leaders of churches (largely in NC) that are a)  trying to drive organizational health into their congregations,  and b) utilizing more contemporary methods of presenting the Gospel.  Many of them are finding success, with the main reason being that they are humble and authentic enough to be willing to learn from other churches and church leaders who may be a little ahead of them on the journey.

So what are those reasons that churches often have a tough time getting things done?  Here are some thoughts….

First, churches generally don’t do a very good job of planning, most likely because of a simple lack of corporate language in the church around the discipline of planning.  I write about this extensively in my book “Innovative Planning: Your Church in 4D”.  For example, it’s common to hear phrases like ‘long-term strategic planning’ in churches (and we hear this phrase even in for profit companies at times…), with no regard for the fact that strategic planning is by nature more short-term, and not long-term, in terms of the planning horizon.  A major causal factor is that many folks IN the churches are working 40-50 hours each week in organizations which have their own corporate language around planning.  They bring their various preconceived ideas and definitions from their work organizations into the church, and the result is that words like mission, goals, strategy, etc. have divergent meanings in the church.  The result is usually significant confusion.  Church leaders must bring consistency to the church’s planning language as the first step in developing an effective planning culture.

Second, doctrinal differences can get in the way.  Even within a single church, disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture can escalate into a fairly major impediment. Obviously we are unlikely to see this type of difference being a factor in non-faith based organizations.  Companies are likely to see some employees have significant differences of opinion about the company’s values, for example.  But these differences are not likely to keep folks from working together.  In the church, doctrine for most Christians constitutes not only how we conduct ourselves in the church, but also how we live our very lives – 24/7/365.  So doctrine is, at least theoretically, absolutely foundational to the everyday conduct of our lives.    Church leaders have to find ways to rally their people around the ‘majors’ – those essential doctrinal points that everyone (or nearly everyone) can agree on, and not on the ‘minors’, which are the lesser points that may be more subject to interpretation.  Also, rallying church members around the church’s vision, mission and strategies – rather than doctrine – will be key to moving the church forward.

Third, churches are ‘staffed’ largely by volunteers, and driving accountability into a volunteer workforce is quite different than it is for a ‘paid’ workforce.  For example, receiving a paycheck for work performed can go a long way in helping employees understand what they need to do to make the organization successful.    Also, the potential loss of a paycheck for NOT doing the job can be a significant motivator as well.  Motivating volunteers and holding them accountable is in many ways much more difficult in largely volunteer organizations.  Church leaders must be diligent in finding alternate ways of driving accountability into the volunteer workforce.

Fourth – in many churches, discussions around conflict and differences of opinion are avoided.  In the church, we may relate these types of things to sin.  We think that Jesus’ commands to love one another compels us to be NICE to others.  After all, isn’t that what Jesus was – NICE?  Of course not!  Jesus was the most polarizing figure in human history!  He confronted and engaged conflict-type situations on a regular basis.  He taught us that the way to get to resolution of issues was to have intelligent, honest conversations about issues that matter, in order to try to arrive at a place of resolution. Church leaders would be so much better off by teaching congregations to resolve conflicts and differences of opinion in honest and transparent ways.

Fifth, church leaders may have the attention of even their most dedicated volunteers only a few hours a week as opposed to the typical full week we may see in most non-volunteer organizations.  Many church leaders feel badly because when compared to what goes on in other organizations, it looks like their churches are just not getting things done.  That may be true, but it also may be that things are simply happening at a slower pace, because of the lower availability of ‘man hours’ in relation to more ‘full-time’ work contexts.  I find myself reminding pastors that 2-4 years in a church may be like maybe 3 – 6 months to 1 year in many for-profit organizations.

Sixth, leaders of churches are generally not taught how to plan, and execute on plans. This is some of the old ‘…they didn’t teach me that in seminary…’ dynamic.  Many church leaders are ill-equipped to lead organizations because those leadership functions, including planning and mobilizing others, are not addressed well in schools that purport to prepare church leaders for their work.  ‘Spiritual leadership’ can be quite different from ‘project leadership’.  Throw on top of that the complexity mentioned earlier (point 3) about accountability being more difficult in a volunteer organization, and we see that for church leaders, getting things done can be a huge challenge. Church leaders must commit themselves to be lifelong students and learners of leadership principles and practices that can advance their abilities to motivate and mobilize others to get things done.

Number Seven:  In many churches the authority is vested in people who are nowhere close to the front lines of operation in the church. This is about committees. We probably don’t have to look too far to find churches in which, for example, Children’s Ministry committees, consisting of folks who are not directly involved in the actual operations of the Children’s Ministry, are actually calling the shots for the ministry.  In the interest of trying to be good stewards, many churches try to over-engineer their structure to drive decision-making controls into the church.  While this may be well-intentioned, it almost always creates needless bureaucracy in the church, and stalls decision-making.  Churches must realize that the world around them is changing rapidly, and we in the church have to keep up.  Relevance requires nimble and responsive decision-making.

Eighth, churches generally don’t do well assessing projects to determine whether or not they are successful.   So, evaluation of programs, ministries, structures, etc. doesn’t happen as it should, and as a result, ineffective programs, ministries and structures are not necessarily likely to be improved or even discontinued because of this ineffectiveness.  Again, much of this grows out of the church being a volunteer organization, and so the limitations of time and other resources hinder these efforts.  Also, the idea that we have to be nice all the time causes us to avoid situations in which we have to give volunteers constructive or negative feedback (…After all, what if they quit?!)  Churches and church leaders need to learn to build evaluation processes into their operations very early in the establishment of those operations, and commit to the discipline to do the evaluations!

Ninth – Most churches look at their future from the perspective of today rather than tomorrow.  What I mean by this, is that congregations often use TODAY as their starting point for planning what their future looks like.  In other words, they think in terms of the resources – financial, manpower, technical, etc. that are currently available to them, as they project into the future what their church can actually accomplish, or what or who their church can actually be.  This will invariably lead to an incremental approach to planning for the future, and status quo mindset usually ensues.  As a result, the church never really stretches itself.  It locks itself into the limitations of today for its work tomorrow.  Church leaders should help their congregations frame a perspective not from historical accomplishments, but from an honest look at the future and what God is calling them to accomplish.

In the coming issues of Pinnacle Principles, we will dive individually into these factors that hinder church productivity, and will present some steps that church leaders can take to overcome them – and to create areas of strength – in their own leadership contexts.


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