Congregations are among the most fascinating systems anyone can be called to manage. Like all systems, they are filled with anxiety. Unlike most systems, they also are filled with a peace the world cannot give. Like most systems, they are guided by a vision. Unlike most systems, they are guided by a vision that has endured for two thousand years. As managers of these congregational systems, we make a mistake if we ignore the God-given vision and divinely implanted peace that has sustained the Christian church and congregational life for two millennia. They are strengths upon which we can build effective, growing ministries.
To fully maximize the vision and allow the peace of Christ to manifest itself in the lives of congregations, managers need to pay close attention to the systemic inputs of people, facilities, and money that generate the ministry outputs God calls on congregations to produce. To that end, there are six key practices for effective congregational management:
- Thinking Systemically. When managers of congregations deal solely with parts of the body of Christ rather than the whole, they become totally reactive. They fix the plumbing leak but never address an aging plumbing system that, over time, will deplete scarce financial resources that could have been used for mission. Reactive managing is more time-consuming than proactive attention to the system as a whole. When a major personnel, facilities, or financial subsystem malfunctions, it can bring the entire congregation to a grinding halt. It is far easier to keep a system maintained and running properly than to restore one that has failed. But such care requires that managers recognize and understand the systems of which they are stewards. To stay focused on the relationship of the parts and the whole, I recommend keeping Paul’s body of Christ imagery front and center. Comparing the body of Christ and it parts with the human body and its parts, Paul blends the idea of the whole with its parts in pure systems theory manner. Just as the human body needs ears as well as eyes, the body of Christ needs teachers, prophets, leaders, and managers. This is not only excellent theology. It is also excellent management theory.
- Understanding the Difference between Management and Leadership. Effective organizations are run by people who know when they are leading and when they are managing. The two require very different but complementary ways of thinking. Leadership thinks long-term, management short-term; leadership focuses on strategic issues, management on implementation; leadership inspires people, management brings people together into a cohesive, efficient group. When a pastor or layperson can differentiate between those occasions when she needs to lead and those when she needs to manage, she will be more effective and fulfilled.
- Lubricating the System. Managers “grease the gears” of a system to keep it running smoothly. Before friction (such as facilities issues, personnel problems, or financial surprises) reaches the point where it can limit ministry, managers apply the needed lubrication (usually involving more people, space, or money) to keep the parts running smoothly. If the system lacks effective management, the parts will begin to work against themselves in ways that damage the productivity of the whole. Paul advises that even the most nondescript parts of the body of Christ are significant. So it is in the life of a congregation.
- Maximizing the Possibilities of the Parts. When working with personnel, effective managers seek to bring out the best in those they manage while limiting the impact of an employee’s weaknesses on the system. With facilities, managers make the most of the limited space they manage, setting aside funds to pay for future capital costs. With finances, managers maximize dollars by ensuring that money is handled in a manner that discourages fraud, keeping utility and insurance costs as low as possible, and matching investments appropriately to the needs of the congregation.
- Limiting Risks. By the nature of their role in a system, congregational leaders are supposed to take appropriate risks. They may choose to start a program for which there is, initially, inadequate personnel and financial inputs. Fulfilling their role, congregational managers are supposed to identify and reduce risks. They ask the questions the dreamers sometimes ignore: “How are we going to pay for this?” or “Are we ready to make the repairs and renovations to our electrical and plumbing systems that will be needed to sustain this new program?”
- Aligning the Parts. Productive managers have a clear understanding of the vision and goals a congregation is attempting to implement. Ideally, this vision has been mapped out in a strategic plan that includes accompanying objectives, strategies, and performance measures. When the inputs of facilities, finance, and people are aligned with a well thought out strategic plan grounded in solid theology, a congregation can move mountains. However, it’s essential to have every part of the body aligned and invested in the plan. The organization’s “foot” needs to understand that it is as important as the “brain.” As Harvard Business School’s Kim Clark says, “You need to have everybody believe in the organization. You need everybody to think that they’re part of it, and they are being invested in, as well as being asked of.”
The best managers learn as they manage. Sometimes, we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. However, learning what works and doesn’t work with our given inputs and our own individual strengths and weaknesses as managers is key to growing into the practice of management.
Henry Mintzberg is a professor of managerial studies at McGill University whose writings are filled with great wisdom as well as practical insights. In his latest book, Managing, he writes, “Let’s recognize management as a calling, and so appreciate that efforts to professionalize it, and turn it into a science, undermine that calling.” I couldn’t agree more. Management is a calling—and managing a congregation is a holy calling. Good managers help God and God’s people do God’s work.
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Adapted from The Business of the Church: The Uncomfortable Truth that Faithful Ministry Requires Effective Management by John W. Wimberly, Jr., copyright © 2010 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Pastors are called to be not only leaders with vision but also managers of congregational systems, says John Wimberly in The Business of the Church. Drawing on his thirty-six years in ordained ministry, Wimberly weaves the realities of congregational dynamics and faith-centered purpose together with practical, proven approaches to business management, helping readers avoid common pitfalls and put into practice effective techniques of congregational management. The author’s conversational writing style and many real-life examples make what is for some a seemingly complicated, mysterious topic an engaging and easily applicable read.
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