Back in 2001, Jim Collins wrote one of the most important business management books ever, Good to Great. Although it’s about business, the principles are easily applied to churches, because it’s not about how to make a profit. It’s about how to be a great organization.
And as is so often the case, businesses have learned that Biblical principles are the key to great organizations.
There have been spin off books written about churches and social organizations, but the original remains the most useful, at least to me.
According to Publisher’s Weekly,
To find the keys to greatness, Collins’s 21-person research team (at his management research firm) read and coded 6,000 articles, generated more than 2,000 pages of interview transcripts and created 384 megabytes of computer data in a five-year project.
Collins’ team focused on companies that started out as mediocre and turned themselves into great companies that remained top notch in their fields year after year, even as leadership changed.
For a church, this is a critically important consideration. Lots of churches have prospered under the leadership of a remarkably gifted pastor or preacher, only to plateau or decline after the leader retires. A wise eldership wants to build in a way that will survive today’s preacher.
Here are the principles they came up with —
(1) a series of CEOs (promoted from within) who combined “personal humility and professional will” focused on making a great company;
(2) an initial focus on eliminating weak people, adding top performing ones, and establishing a culture of top talent putting out extraordinary effort;
(3) then shifting attention to staring at and thinking unceasingly about the hardest facts about the company’s situation;
(4) using facts to develop a simple concept that is iteratively reconsidered to focus action on improving performance;
(5) establishing and maintaining a corporate culture of discipline built around commitments, with freedom about how to meet those promises;
(6) the company builds momentum from consistent efforts behind its concept that are reinforced by success.
I’ve adapted much of this material from Collins’s diagnostic tool, available for free download. I’ve not tried to cover all the material, as some is more applicable to churches than others.
Picking the right CEO
This is the principle that stuck with me the most. Consider Lee Iacocca. He was the brilliant CEO who took Chrysler from bankruptcy to high profits. However, when he retired, Chrysler struggled to maintain its success. It was eventually acquired by Mercedes Benz, which quickly regretted its acquisition.
The problem was that once Iacocca became successful, he turned his attentions toward book writing and being a celebrity. He didn’t build an organization that would outlast his own tenure.
And this points up two types of very successful leaders. There are the Iacocca’s, who are very dynamic, energizing, and effective but who are ultimately unconcerned about what happens after they are no longer associated with the company.
This is not to say they are self-consciously selfish or self-centered. Rather, they are likely thinking that all they do is for the company, but the reality is they fail to think very far beyond themselves.
Collins points out that there’s a much better kind of leader –a Level 5 leader, who is —
ambitious first and foremost for the cause, the organization, the work — not themselves — and they have an iron will to do whatever it takes to make good on that ambition.
In Biblical terms, such a leader has humility — not false modesty and not low self-esteem. Rather, the leader sees himself as a servant of the church, rather than a person using the church to make himself famous or popular.
Level 5 leaders make decisions that prove best for the long-term success of the church and God’s mission. They give credit to others for the church’s success. They blame themselves for the church’s failures.
Moreover, Level 5 leaders do not build their churches on their charisma — although they may well be charismatic. They insist on building through excellence, hard work, sacrifice, and integrity.
Now, in Churches of Christ, the preacher is often not the CEO. He has some CEO responsibilities but others are carried by the elders. Hence, both the preacher and the elders must work to be Level 5 leaders together — as a team.
Elders who like the recognition and power that come with the office have to either repent or step down. Elders who insist on short-term thinking and refuse to pay the price needed for long-term success are bad elders, too.
In most churches, one of the most important task of the elders is to hire the right kind of preacher. This means a preacher who is in it for God and his mission and not about earning praise or acclaim for himself.
Many a church hires a preacher by picking a search committee, which makes its number one criterion for a preacher who is “dynamic.” Well, I know lots of churches that are dead or dying thanks to their dynamic preacher.
Not that being dynamic is bad. Rather, the mistake is hiring a minister who gets by on charisma but fails to truly build the church up. This is hard to explain, so let me give an example.
A sleepy Church of Christ hired a dynamic minister. He labored with great effect for decades. He was a highly skilled and popular speaker. He announced a vision for the church to become the largest Church of Christ in the state — drawing members even from surrounding counties — and he succeeded. Many great things were accomplished.
However, the eldership and membership were both split. Some members wanted a more contemporary worship. The preacher had drawn hundreds of young couples anxious for greater freedom in worship. Meanwhile, the members who’d hired him the first place wanted to be a mainstream Church with excellent but traditional worship. And the preacher led them to compromise.
Many other disputes were handled the same way. No one wanted to leave, but many different views co-existed in the church, and these were handled through compromise, some winning part of the time, and others winning part of the time. The church became “political” — that is, decisions were made to keep people happy rather than in fulfillment of God’s mission.
And then the charismatic leader retired. And then, politics no longer worked. Younger members wanted to hire a minister who thought like them. Older members wanted a minister who thought like them. Each side pushed its own agenda, and the elders tried to handle the disputes as they always had — politically. But the great politician was gone.
The church soon lost half its members and is struggling to pay its debts. You see, the preacher had made not a single decision for the long-term good of the church. It was just one decision after another designed to keep them together for one more week.
Had the preacher been a Level 5 leader, he would have taught the church to put God’s purposes first, and he’d have taught them grace at a practical level, that is, that grace means not getting your way or even wanting your way.
In churches led by Level 5 leaders, the membership puts God’s things first and they follow the examples of their leaders in excellence, hard work, sacrifice, and integrity.
In churches led by other types of leaders, the members are self-seeking, pursuing their own wants and preferences, and unwilling to yield to the church’s over-arching vision. After all, if a member doesn’t insist on having his own way, someone else will. It’s all about whoever screams first and loudest. And if you scream enough, well, you might get what you want more than half of the time. Sit by quietly, and you get nothing.
Therefore, be warned of preachers who come to the church knowing the answers and having a plan. Look, rather, for a preacher who wants to teach the church grace and love and God’s mission — and then with the church properly equipped, who will work within the congregational community to find God’s plan for that church. Look for a preacher — and for elders — who find their answers in prayer and discussion and God’s word, rather than in their personalities.