The revolution our churches desperately need and how to make it happen

January 14, 2021 — Leave a comment

Congregations need clarity about why they exist, what they’re trying to do, and who is leading the way


When you’re in seminary, you take a class called “Polity” (Presbyterian Polity, Baptist Polity, etc.). The class introduces you to the processes by which congregations and denominations make deliberations and decisions.

Then, when you go to be ordained, you have to take a written exam in “polity” to make sure that you learned all about the processes in seminary and can apply them to a real life situation. I think my polity exam asked me how I’d handle an embezzling treasurers or some such hypothetical. I had to answer the question with specific reference to the Book of Order.

Presbyterians have tended to focus on the process than whether the process produces a good result. Process is important, but it’s not the same thing as leadership.

I’ve found that, regardless of church size, the most important thing that contributes to effectiveness in mission is clarity. Clarity about who does what. Clarity about who is responsible to whom. Clarity about how to act when you disagree.

Many church members think that they have clarity.

To some extent they do, but it’s usually the case that they are clear about what they think and they’re clear that everyone else agrees with them. It’s never fun to be around when church members discover that other people see an issue differently.

Our churches often lack clarity because the board (session) often thinks of itself as an aggregate of the congregation responsible for advancing the interests of certain parts of the congregation. Some forms of presbyterian polity even encourage this.

However, the purpose of the session is not to be a representative democracy. The purpose of the board is to discern the mind of Christ with respect to a particular congregation. It is to answer the question: what ministry niche does God have for us?

No church is for everybody, all churches are for somebody.

To that, the board and the pastor need to work in partnership to discern the answer to that question. And then the pastor needs to be freed to lead the church in pursuing the mission.

The best model for do this is, in my view, the accountable leadership model proposed by John Kaiser in Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in their Mission (2006).

The following is a brief summary of the concepts that undergird the book.


Mission: Why does our congregation exists

When I served a church in Bethlehem (PA) we were clear about our mission. We said it almost every Sunday: Know God. Love people. Serve the world.

It’s simple. It’s memorable. It’s shareable. We wanted to advance that mission by through our purpose which was: introducing people to Jesus Christ so that he can change their lives.

At the end of the day, there are only three options on why our congregation exists:

  1. It exists for us (inwardly focused)
  2. It exists for others (outwardly focused)
  3. It exists for both

If we choose “both” we will tend to focus inwardly first because that is the easiest thing to do. There are so many needs in the life of a congregation that, without being intentional, we will spend all of our time, money, and energy trying to meet those needs and ignoring the outside world.

The church then becomes a support group and not a mission outpost.

If we choose “others” we will find that our needs are also being met. If we prioritize outreach and mission we’ll find that through our service to others we find our own needs being met. As members give their time, talents, and money to advance the mission of blessing the world, they find they have enough to meet the needs of church members too.

It’s like exercize. The more you exercize, the greater your energy. And you eventually find that you can both run and get all the things done around the house, whereas you once felt you had to choose.


Mission: why our congregation exists

Our mission shapes two other things:

  • Vision: what our community and our congregation will look like in 3-5 years if we accomplish our mission.
  • Structure: the arrangement of resources (people, facilities, finances, etc.) for accomplishing the mission. 
  • Values: what we think is important. How we manage our resources reveals our true values.

Three structural paradigms

There are three tendancies when it comes to organizational culture:

  1. Bureaucracy: high responsibility with low authority = safe, but not effective.
  2. Authoritarian: high responsibility with high authority = effective, but not safe.
  3. Accountable: high responsibility with high authority and high oversight = safe and effective. 

Bureaucracy is safe because there are a lot of people who have to sign off on a decision before it is enacted. It’s ineffective because the more people who are involved in a decision the lower the accountability for the decision itself and the slower the time to enact it. Think of your local DMV. Did you enjoy your last trip there? I didn’t think so.

Authoritarianiusm is effective (you get things done), but its not safe. It’s not safe because there is no accountability for the decision-maker. How do you know the right issues are being addressed? Are they being addressed in the right manner? In the authoritarian system it’s my way or the highway.

The accountable leadership model offers an alternative. It’s effective because the leader has the authority to make decisions without a lot of red tape. It’s safe because there are guard rails–decided in advance–that ensure that the leader doesn’t overstep the bounds. It’s also safe because every decision is made within the context of a mutually agreed-upon goal/s adopted by the board or session.


In my next post, I’ll take a look at the nuts and bolts of the accountable leadership model and what it can look like in the life of a congregation.

Resource: John Kaiser, Winning on Purpose: How to Organize Congregations to Succeed in their Mission (2006).

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