What difference does being missional make for organizational leadership? (There’s actually a whole stream of literature on this question, with more stuff still coming out regularly.)
It’s not an easy question — in that, transforming an organization or institution requires change. And make no mistake: the church is an organization (as well as a body or family); just like a seminary is a higher education institution, as well as a ministry training ground. And change does not happen spontaneously, nor does it come naturally to people — and it is people who make up organizations.
Change requires vision. But there are real liabilities to a single “visionary leader” seeing him-or-herself as the change agent. You may have seen instances yourself in which a leader has flashed and fizzled in either burnout or throw-out. I have seen this happen to a couple of our own graduates even. The literature on the subject warns against this, too.
Change requires vision, yet organizations need maintenance — and this in itself is not an evil. Efficiency, proficiency, and quality are good qualities, and are constant concerns. These qualities need accountability and assessment to be regularly ongoing — or initiated. Yet these can be the very instruments that stifle innovation, risk-taking, or . . . change.
The Missional Church in Perspective (by Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile; published by Baker Academic, 2011) does a nice job framing the trends and theological points in the “Missional conversation.” The writers acknowledge that it can be easier to start a new organization than renew an already-existing one; yet, they rightly point out, the most crucial work for the church right now is in the latter — (church) renewal. And, from a cost perspective, it is far better to transform an already-existing work than to try to raise up support, and network, and facilities, and infrastructure for a whole new enterprise.
The style of leadership to missional church renewal must be different, they insist, nonetheless. Here’s a quote that resonated with me and I’ve been percolating on it ever since:
One of the key insights about missional change recognized in that [missional renewal] literature is the importance of a ‘diffusion of innovations’ approach to change, rather than a ‘gap’ approach. In classic modernist planning, organizations tend to proceed by identifying what is lacking in their life against the backdrop of an aspirational future. Then they try to get members of the organization to close this ‘gap’ through various strategic methods or incentives. In churches, the gap approach often leads to poor outcomes.
First, the process of identifying the deficiencies within a church’s life has the effect of blaming and shaming the congregation. Second, the aspirational future is typically developed and articulated by a small set of leaders, not by the congregation’s membership more widely, and thus isn’t grounded deeply in the grass roots. Finally, it is very difficult to move church members across such a gap without the kind of coercive methods that can be employed by non-voluntary organizations such as businesses. Many such strategic-planning approaches end up failing to engage the membership in the kind of deep culture change necessary for missional transformation.
The diffusion of innovations approach, in contrast, draws on decades of worldwide research on how changes actually spread through human communities. Diffusion research recognizes that change typically spreads through social networks by a process of trial and experimentation. Key influencers within those social networks are integral to the spread of change and innovation. . . . The Key to lasting change is extensive participation by as many people as possible, where they are able over time to try out the new way of being church without risk of shame for failing.
Excellent . . . in how this sounds. Shame and blame bad — got it. Allow leadership to spread among a whole group of initiative-quality people. Sounds good; but I’ve also seen mixed results in trying this, too. Diffusing innovation makes leadership, well, diffuse — vision can thereby be diluted. Activity can increase without real coordination (leading to inefficiency and exhaustion, with few results to show for it). Creativity may increase, but so may distraction, or cross purposes, even outright resistance.
I’ll stop there. It’s your turn. Help me out here. What insights, cautions, questions, or perspectives might you offer here? Any points of success or failure that you’ve seen, encountered, or experienced that might add a dimension in our engagement of these complex questions and issues — especially for anyone trying to play a leadership role in transitioning a church or other organization in a missional direction?
The purpose of this blog will be to expand the influence of our faculty, maintain contact with our graduates, and invite other friends to think with us about important biblical and theological ideas.