I have worked with a number of churches who have revitalized themselves through a steady and consistent focus on lay vocation (see “Living from the Inside Out,” Fall 2004 issue). However, these promising episodes of energy and new life could remain just that—an ebb and flow of episodes. To maintain their vitality, these churches must become institutionalized in the best sense of that word. They must explore new forms of governance. Yet everywhere evident are the sad and discouraging stories of decline in a vast majority of mainline denominational churches, clinging to traditional modes of governance. Despite their familiarity, these old forms of governance simply don’t work as they once did. Heartening, however, are emerging new forms that, though less easily understood and still a-birthing, are potentially far more powerful in their ability to transform a congregation into what it discerns it is called to become.

An ocean voyage demands the courage to lose sight of the land of departure long before catching a first glimpse of one’s destination. Centuries ago, such exploration could feel like “sailing off the map.” Today, our churches face a journey of similar uncertainty. Trustworthy maps of the new governance forms that will better support congregational life are yet to be fully and accurately drawn. But, carrying the old maps of traditional governance under one arm and the still sketchy and uncertain maps of the new under the other, we must journey forth into uncharted waters if our churches are to have any hope of discovering the new life they seek.

What we are facing is not the developmental type of change we see in a tadpole’s gradual, orderly, incremental, and fully visible transformation into a full-grown frog but the much more mysterious transformational change we see in the transition from caterpillar to butterfly. Few people realize that inside the chrysalis the caterpillar has wound around itself is a bundle of formless cells, a puddle of protoplasm, neither a caterpillar sprouting wings nor a husk soon to drop away revealing a butterfly. All that the caterpillar was and all that the butterfly will be are contained in the chrysalis, but one form must relinquish itself that another might emerge. This kind of change is mysterious, hidden, and full of surprise—and a far less comfortable process of change than that exemplified by the tadpole. This kind of change is revolutionary. It is seemingly chaotic, disruptive, disorganized, and out of control—not likely our choice for how we’d like to experience change.1 But it may well be that we need to affirm and even welcome this kind of change if we are to see life return to congregations in decline.

The Bible is crammed with verses and narratives that echo this theme. Indeed, the foundational event, the defining metaphor of our faith, is not resuscitation but resurrection, the ultimate transformation.

Building on Rock
Nevertheless, the old ways can provide support for such a resurrection, as the following story illustrates: A creative young pastor was called to a traditional but faltering small town church. He combined a passion for the creative and innovative with keen sensitivity and a pastor’s heart. The church had a sturdy and devoted core of long-time members. Many of them were descendents of a few families who had loved and served the church for decades, and they were vigilant guardians of the traditions. But the engaging style and contagious energy of the new pastor soon attracted a growing number of newcomers. He began to make changes—gently, he hoped. Young adult programs sprang up. Different types of music were added to the worship service. A youth program grew, swelled by previously unchurched community teens. The lights were on in the church almost every night of the week! But from one longtime member came a candid and revealing complaint: “It feels like us old-timers are being pushed off the table.” The young pastor’s response was inspired: “Well, I guess we need to build a bigger table!”

That creative, bridging response became public. “Both/and” thinking dispelled the fears generated by “either/or” assumptions. The “new table” strategy was able to maintain and celebrate the old while still openly embracing the new. Too many first-call pastors roar into the church armed with exciting but untried templates of congregational renewal, leaving members feeling under siege. Likewise, experienced pastors often return from a workshop on revitalization, their enthusiasm for sweeping changes overwhelming the congregation’s startled leaders. Many of these ministers then react with surprise and resentment to the understandable and predictable resistance to their proposed changes. Recalling that Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill, and that he advocated the building of houses on rock can help strengthen our faith that the new can rise on the solid foundation of the old. This wisdom can be seen in the following, similar stories of three different churches.

– A Streamlined Infrastructure
A Methodist Church, among the larger of six congregations in a mid-sized east coast city, after two decades of steady decline experienced a sudden season of renewal under a new, energetic pastor with solid preaching credentials, a contagious enthusiasm, and an engaging vision. An ambitious building program was initiated, membership increased by a third in less than five years, and the church’s newsletter constantly featured new opportunities to learn and serve. The organizational infrastructure, with its proliferation of new committees and endless additional meetings, was not only cumbersome and unwieldy but also out of alignment with both the content and spirit of all that was happening. More than just alteration and adjustment were needed; a complete overhaul seemed in order. Six months later, participation and ministry were still burgeoning and new programs were multiplying, but the total number of standing committees had been reduced from 29 to eight!

– From a Pyramid to a Circle
A United Church of Christ church decided to stay at its center-city location in a deteriorating New England city even after the last of the other congregations in town had relocated to the suburbs. Their building a burden, their membership in decline, and once thriving programs dwindling, crisp vision and pesky determination persisted. A strategy of encouraging new groups and ministries to “bubble up” naturally proved immediately promising, but those tasked with maintaining an administrative structure inherited from the congregation’s glory years grew restless. Ultimately, they dared to jettison the whole bulky affair. They combined three boards into one, replaced the typical organizational pyramid with a circle, and reduced the number of committees and meetings by two-thirds—all as new programs, small groups, educational opportunities, and mission efforts flourished.

– A Focus on Empowerment
In a stable, established suburban community, a small, liberal congregation in the shadow of several thriving tall-steeple churches wondered about its future. Facing discouraging demographics and unable to compete with the vast program offerings and large staffs of the big churches, it decided to re-invent itself, becoming, by intention, a niche-market congregation. Con-sciously shifting paradigms proved helpful. If the large churches were like supermarkets, with a product to meet every need, they’d become a farmer’s market, providing space where programs and ministries emerging from member initiative could be offered. If the large churches were like catered banquets with endless buffets, they’d be like a covered dish supper. Leaders and standing committees began to encourage rather than sponsor new programs, and to empower rather than provide new ministries. In the process, they reinvented governance.

The organizational map of each of the
se churches emerged and evolved individually, but came to look something like the diagram shown at right. Each wanted to be intentionally and decisively Christ-centered and biblically grounded (thus the cross at the center of the diagram). Each had a circle of mission-focused and goal-oriented boards and standing ministry teams (the bureaucracy). And the vitality of the church—the ever-broadening number of groups, programs, and ministries—occurred in the outer circle of activity, the adhocracy.

Three Levels of Renewal
If we take a closer look at each congregation’s journey, we will find common threads. Three levels of renewal serve as a foundation on which to build.

– Renewing the Meaning of Membership
If you join a Rotary Club, a friend recently told me, you attend 80 percent of the weekly meetings and choose the project to which you will commit time, energy, and money. “No exceptions?” I asked. “No exceptions.” I’ve been a volunteer fireman in two communities. You attend meetings, go to fire school, show up at drills, and fight fires. That’s that. But ask an average member of a congregation what membership in the church means and it’s a different story: “I guess I oughta go to church,” they mumble, with “oughta” being the defining word—heavy with obligation, thin on joy. “I suppose I should send a check from time to time” likely follows, barely lifting the needle on the Richter scale of commitment. “I guess I should help out when I can” limps in third—and when a call comes, it’s likely not perceived as being the right time. Churches, it seems, have the lowest membership standards in town!

But churches seeking to revitalize themselves are changing that. The self-styled niche-market church described above decided to replace its legacy of casual, low-bar attitudes about joining with a six-month new member orientation process. Each participant, accompanied and encouraged by a “spiritual companion,” now attends courses and classes, keeps a personal journal, and is introduced to the life and ministries of the church. This process culminates in the completion of the following three-part New Member Covenant:

  • Because I want to deepen my faith and my relationship to God, I will…. In response to this opening thought, each person crafts a “spiritual growth discipline,” typically including commitment to regular worship, a daily devotional practice, joining a small group, and attending programs or workshops (or helping to initiate a new spiritual support group or program).
  • Discerning my calling and gifts, and knowing myself to be a part of the Body of Christ, I will serve this church by…. Guided in this discernment and introduced to the array of opportunities to serve, each new member finds his or her place or, as often as not, links with others in the class to create new opportunities for service.
  • Believing that a Christian is called to make love and a commitment to peace and justice visible and concrete in the world, I will…. By completing this thought, each person commits to a clear and specific plan for sharing his or her faith, living a vigorous personal and relational ethic, and advocating for peace, justice, and the poor. Almost every class has developed at least one new mission outreach effort.

While there was resistance to this bold change at first, the fruits of the new approach included increased numbers of people desiring to join, appreciation for the process, and an infusion of hearty and sustained participation and serving by new members—and, it turned out, a renewal of commitment by longstanding members. Membership covenant writing became an annual ritual at the turn of the year. This church would likely affirm that its most important job description is its member job description.

– Creating an Intentional Nominations Process
All too aware of the frustrations of board member recruitment, a nominating committee member may quietly muse, “How small do I have to make this job to get a yes?” Persuasion yields to pleading, the operative criteria being to get this job done quickly. But when discernment of calling and giftedness is the foundation for member responsibility-taking and serving, it is logical to approach nominations similarly. Imagine that same recruiter with a new script: “I am calling for the nominating committee. We have been pondering and praying, assessing our vision and goals for the year ahead, and sharing the names of those we sense are called, gifted, and ready to serve in leadership. I am calling to invite you to serve on our official board and to chair the Mission Committee. We have noticed your passion for outreach and your faithfulness in serving on several committees. I know, as an officer myself, that this task will demand significant time and energy. You may need to consider pruning your commitments in other areas to give this work full attention. It is a high calling. I do not ask you to give me an answer now. May I call back in about a week? In the meantime, feel free to call me with any questions. And please know, though we offer this invitation with full confidence and hope you will accept, that we want you to discern what feels truly good and right for you. Feel free to accept or decline, as you feel led.” Callers who take this approach find, to their surprise and delight, that they get heartier and more durable commitment and, yes, more yeses.

– Developing an Effective and Efficient Bureaucracy
Each of the churches described earlier tightened, sharpened, and streamlined its bureaucracy in the positive and creative spirit of that word. Organizational units were typically eliminated or combined. Board, committee, and leader job descriptions were crafted to artfully combine autonomy and accountability. The congregational vision statement was regularly revisited and renewed; each ministry team created a mission statement to guide its work, projected goals for the year, and formulated an action plan to carry them out; and leaders were trained in the skills necessary for effective leadership—all in a spirit of sharing and celebration. Bureaucracy is not a bad word.

Welcoming the Brand New—Adhocracy
In the process of streamlining their bureaucracies, these churches found themselves reinventing governance. They shed the all too prevalent and pervasive view of leaders as people “elected to do the work,” adopting instead a partnership vision of a leader: “a person who works with people to accomplish a purpose,” redefining leaders as people who work with rather than for the membership. They moved away from the typical “producer-consumer relationship” between leadership and membership, where leaders offer “products” (programs, groups, events, etc.) and hope members will “buy.” Rather than polling members about their needs so they could offer appropriate programs and opportunities to serve, leaders encouraged and equipped groups of members large and small to create their own opportunities for service. The familiar operational mantra, “You come on in,” where leaders beckon the membership to “come join our committee or ministry team, come out to support our programs, come and help us with our work,” becomes “We’ll go out into the membership, helping folks with creative ideas for programs and ministries mold and shape them, helping people with similar callings to link up, form a circle, and put wheels under those ideas.” This approach involves “self-directed people on self-managed teams,” as Stephen R. Covey, author of Principle-Centered Leadership, puts it. Top-down governance is replaced by bottom-up governance.

Notice that the largest space on the graphic shown on page 8 is beyond the bureaucracy—in the adhocracy. That’s where the action is. Even the church walls cannot
contain it! As the bureaucracy shrinks, all the while becoming more effective, the adhocracy blossoms. Ultimately, in the three churches described earlier, three-quarters of the programs, events, and opportunities appearing on the churches’ monthly calendars and in their newsletters were member-initiated, autonomously structured grassroots programs and ministries. It’s important to note that this approach was not, for these churches, merely a strategy—an innovative and outside-the-box tactic—or some new governance technology carefully applied. It was, first and foremost, an expression of faith, a product of foundational convictions such as the following:

  • Human beings naturally long for the divine.
  • There’s a deep, inborn desire to deepen and grow in relationship to God.
  • The church as the Body of Christ, a priesthood of all believers, compels everyone to find his or her place.
  • The church belongs to the people.
  • People are to be encouraged to discern their calling and giftedness for serving and then manifest these calls and gifts.
  • Naming the vision, mission, and goals of the church is the work of corporate discernment.

New governance this may be—with all the prayerfulness, creativity, and courage it demands—but it is firmly rooted in faithful conviction.

The Two Hats of Leadership
Let’s return for a moment to the aforementioned Methodist Church in the mid-sized city. A longtime, beloved but rather autocratic pastor had departed and the congregation found itself in a season of transition—perhaps toward the more partnership-based model of governance the new minister advocated. A new identity, a fresh vision, and a revitalized sense of mission seemed poised to emerge. The staff and key leaders went on a retreat. The exchanges were vigorous, but at times the differing visions for the church seemed competing, even colliding. “Who are we? What do we want to be?” the youth minister asked. “Are we a supermarket or a mega department store? Or a giant home center?” a lay leader added. “What if we are to become a mall?” the Christian educator mused. Something clicked! “A mall has two or three anchor stores, like worship and Christian education and pastoral care, then a whole lot of smaller stores,” the lay leader added, building the momentum.

The mall metaphor offered coherence and cohesiveness while affirming variety and multiplicity. The congregation’s basic approach to church growth and its organizational map came to look like our graphic. The bureaucracy developed and managed the “anchor stores”—property, worship, finance, Christian education, and so on. The lay leaders donned “manager hats.” But that’s only half of the job! A second hat is called for!

Developing and nurturing adhocracy demands an additional, different kind of leadership, which may be a truer form of leadership than what we typically see in churches. It’s important to keep in mind that the adhocracy is an approach to expanding program and ministry; it does not directly create them. This is dramatic, sweeping, transformational, caterpillars-to-butterfly leadership. More than new thoughts or new ideas, this kind of leadership demands a new way of thinking.

Three Leadership Functions
So how can one best introduce this new approach? How can a congregation shift its initiative for programs and ministries to the membership? How can this energy and responsiveness be motivated from the bottom up? It may involve three basic roles and functions for leaders: inspiration, consultation, and celebration.2

– Inspiration
How can congregational leaders create and nurture an environment of initiative and responsibility-taking by laity, an environment of inventiveness and creativity, of motivation and responsiveness among the membership? How can leaders “get the word out” that all can be co-creators of the ministry of the church? These questions begin to turn the soil in this region we are calling adhocracy. Inspired and inspiring leaders create and nurture a climate of expectancy, of responsibility-taking, of eager lay initiative. If you could read the congregational journal of that niche-market church, you’d see it unfold—slowly at first, haltingly, tentatively, almost imperceptibly. Indeed, let’s use them as a model. Here are some illustrations of how the adhocracy of that church developed—with inspiring results:

  • Sara met an Episcopal priest from Haiti, and wept as he spoke of the children in the most depressed part of Cite Solei (City of the Sun). She heard how little money it took to sponsor a child’s primary education, and compassion was transformed into action. Scholarship Solei began when three families each pledged the $200 yearly tuition and uniform costs for a student, another committed the $950 salary for a teacher, and yet another wrote a check for $1,500, which built a simple cinder block school.
  • Jeff, the part-time youth and outreach minister, practiced his Spanish as he talked with the Galo family from Nicaragua during their residency for a week at the church. He learned that owning a bicycle could be the key for high school graduates to begin their university education, and coaxed the congregation’s teens into rounding up old bikes and coming to youth group an hour early to repair them. This, in turn, infected the congregation with the dream. The church sent its 1,000th bike to Nicaragua not long ago!
  • Bill didn’t find any of the church’s existing adult education options appealing. Challenged to start his own, he invited others to join him in “praying over the news” as he spread out the Sunday paper in the church’s kitchen after worship each week. His circle became a steady, dedicated half dozen.
  • Jay didn’t want to join the property committee but said he’d plant and tend the gardens by the entrance. The idea caught hold and soon every garden on the church’s property had a sponsoring family.

Three years later, the church’s programs, groups, and ministries had tripled in number and participation. Three-quarters of them had been initiated in the adhocracy. Other churches have adopted a similar approach with similar exciting results!

– Consultation
People with fresh ideas and a readiness to carry them forward need assistance: guidance, encouragement, coaching, and access to resources, including budget. People leading a hands-on mission might seek out the Outreach Committee chair. Someone with an adult education idea might connect with the Christian Education Committee. These leaders know how to “get beside” the people who can best assist them while keeping the ball in their own hands. In the transformation of the New England congregation described earlier, the annual budget included “undesignated funds” for both education and mission outreach so that programs could birth anytime during the church year. Mini-courses or one-on-one consultations were available to teach the skills needed to birth a new ministry: convening and empowering a group, setting an agenda and leading a meeting, focusing vision and setting goals, and making appropriate contacts outside the church. Sometimes it was as simple as “Here are keys to the church. This is how you turn on the lights and adjust the heat, and there are the folding chairs and coffee supplies.” St. Paul would call it “equipping the saints.”

– Celebration
Leaders of empowered congregations are “liturgists of celebration.” People need, want, and have a right to recognition, affirmation, and celebration, so write newsletter articles about your church’s lay leaders, feature a ministry or program each Sunday, use them as sermon illustrations, or create a photo collage of church leaders and their ministrie
s on the bulletin board. Create a climate of appreciation not just for the “successes” but also for devotion, commitment, and hard work, even for initiatives that didn’t work so well. Celebrate faithfulness; it is a way to remember that it is God who “works it all together for good.”

Making the Crossing
New governance is a work in progress. It’s emerging and evolving. Moses and Isaiah remind us “to watch for the new thing God is doing among you.” Martin Luther invites us to love God and fail boldly. A two-week walk from the Red Sea crossing to the Jordan crossing took 40 years! But in that Jordan crossing is an inspirational metaphor for new governance. In that story, Moses had made his last speech and climbed Mount Nebo to die. Less formidable than the Red Sea, the Jordan was still a body of water to be crossed. Joshua called the people to the bank of the river, asking that the leaders stand in the front. “Just begin walking into the water,” he instructed. The narrative suggests that the waters toward the future parted “as they walked.” No dramatic parting after a single step, yet slowly, steadily parting with each step that was taken.

Those who would be church leaders, dare to stand in front . . . and start walking!

Questions for Reflection 

  • Think about your congregation’s history: In what ways does it animate and encourage healthy and vibrant church life, and vision and commitment for the future? In what ways does it discourage and impede faithfulness?
  • What do you think Jesus had in mind when he envisioned “church”? In what ways is your church’s life and ministry “what Jesus had in mind”? If Jesus returned to “see how it was going” with the church, and included your congregation on his tour, what might he have to say?
  • What is the prevailing “member job description” in your congregation? What does the average member of your church expert of himself or herself, and of others? What does “membership” mean to the members of your congregation?
  • Imagine your church as if it were a person, then develop a description of that person. This might include the individual’s gender, age, strengths and weaknesses of character, appealing and not so appealing qualities of personality, typical attitudes and behavior patterns, and perhaps even a name. What changes might be appropriate to help that person become healthier, more effective, and more faithful?

Develop a metaphor world that might represent your congregation. For example, perhaps your congregation could be represented by one of the following:


  • transportation (an airport, a rail system, a bus line, a highway system, a particular vehicle or mode of transportation, a train station, a bus station, etc.)
  • sports (a team, a stadium, a court or field, a league, etc.)
  • entertainment (a band or orchestra, a concert, a movie or play, a circus, a zoo, a television program, etc.)
  • shopping (a store, a market, a mall, a product line, a television channel, etc.)

Now choose a different metaphor world, or a different metaphor in the same world, that might image an alternative future for your congregation.



1. This metaphor builds on the work of Harrison Owen, Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations (Potomac, MD: Abbott Publishing, 1987), 7–9.
2. See Howard E. Friend, Recovering the Sacred Center (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1998), 143–149.