Monday, April 20, 2009

thoughts on organizational structure and systems

During my tenure in Boston as a church planter, I was given the opportunity to spend time with some of the wisest older leaders I have ever come into contact with. These men and women, all in the their 60s, opened their hearts and homes to my wife and I and taught me more than seminary had ever hoped to. I, as a young emerging church pastor realized how little how I knew about missional approaches to church, social justice, systems theory and organization structure.

One of those older leaders, Dr. Doug Hall, is the president of the Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston's South End. He and his wife Judy moved to that neighborhood in the early 60s to lead the efforts of a small homeless shelter which they turned into one of the more impressive ecumenical holistic Christian organizations in the world. One of the pioneers in urban ministry (and still no book written- he is not like my generation. we write books before we have anything to say), Doug is a student of systems and organizational theory and influenced greatly by Peter Senge at MIT. He would sit me down in his office on a regular basis to explain his ideas and how they should impact Christianity and the church... ideas that need to be heard by more than me and those lucky enough to spend time with Doug.

One of Doug's mantras was that Christian organizations and systems need to be expressions of the Christian faith. In other words, we need to get How we organize and lead something from Jesus. This sounds simple, but in Doug's mind it was something different from the standard understanding of this. To Doug, that meant we must organize in a "Christian" manner. He had a simple org chart to show this, but I have taken his ideas and created my own implications of this mantra.

Here are a few ideas about organizing and organizational structure (some his, some mine), some of which I have put into practice in church, family and the departments I have led. Seeing an organization as a complex system (within the larger system and interrelated with other systems), there are some of particulars that should be associated with a "Christian" system (or organization/ structure):
  1. Redemption and Relationship must be the MARK of our organization (a redemptive spirit and attitude towards culture, people, world, etc.)
  2. Creation (or creativity) must be part of organizing
  3. Organize for the common good (and in a manner that manifests this)
  4. Partner with others relationally (be very open source and ecumenical. I would add that we must flatten structure when at all possible)
  5. Our organization must treat all in a redemptive manner
  6. When our organization messes up, or our best laid plans have unintended consequences we repent (organizationally), ask for forgiveness and learn how we can better organize or communicate in the future
  7. We must then recreate in a more redemptive manner (it is circular/ not linear in nauture)- redemption is the key
  8. Our communication should be honest, open and redemptive.
How we organize, how we communicate, and how we come to our decisions regarding these things are indications of our belief systems. For example, in my college fraternity we made decisions regarding who was part of our group based upon specific criteria, which were open to interpretation. However, in the choosing a pledge, one could see the value systems of each member, based upon the choices made. We would not admit it, but there were values based upon looks, potential, popularity, what each person offered (not always money), temperament, etc.

As the church makes its decisions, it betrays its understanding of the world and its value system by the decisions it makes and the manner in which it makes decisions (the "how"). The decision itself is important, but the "why" behind it is much more important. The How and What communicate Who we really are and What we really believe. This is what makes torture so onerous. Not only is someone hurt, but it communicated to others what we really think about people and their worth. The church must not fall into such a trap (which I think Christian organizations fall into more often than not- we organize according to other principles).

A Christian organization must be intentional to be "Christian" in its organizational structure, communication and leadership. If it is not intentionally different, it will follow the standards of others while insisting it is not. If we are redemptive our organizing must be redemptive in manner. If not, we revert back to the systems Christianity should be redeeming (and our organization needs to be redeemed from Day 1).

Just a thought.


One of Doug Hall's sayings is this:

“In a contemporary society lacking relational culture, churches are becoming dysfunctional at an alarming rate. Our society’s mental models teach us how to get things done without relationships. Earlier cultures enabled us to operate in a more relational manner, but in our day, while churches work hard to help people relate to God, many have forgotten how to help them relate to each other.


Jonathan Brink said...

Thanks for sharing your learning rick. Sounds like you had an awesome mentor.

When we started Thrive, the list you offered were some of the only things that worked. It was all about creating a redemptive community.

kristi said...

this is really great stuff. xoxo