The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 174
More churches articulate a vision than reach one. In fact, the number of churches that actually make progress towards their goals are small. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by obstacles to change, the tyranny of the urgent, and other roadblocks to actualizing your God-given vision. But you shouldn’t give up!
Today, we’re going to focus on how you can use systems thinking to reach your church’s vision.
Imagine for a moment that you walk into your office and flip on the light switch–except the lights don’t come on. What would you do?
First, you’d look around the room. Are other things that are plugged into the wall turning on? Is the power out in the whole room, or is it just the lights?
Then, assuming the electricity isn’t out, you’d try a new light bulb. You’d assume that this is the most likely, most common solution to this problem.
If this doesn’t work, you’d probably assume something might be wrong with the light fixture itself. If not this, perhaps the switch is malfunctioning in some way. You would systematically rule out problems and try solutions, starting with the easiest fix and moving onto the most complex and costliest.
This is systems thinking, in its most basic form.
No one ever walked into their office, noticed that the light wasn’t turning on, and decided that the solution was to bulldoze the building. But very often in church, we assume that drastic solutions are the only ones that will help bridge the gap between our current reality and our vision.
Let’s explore five simple steps you can use to apply systems thinking to reach your vision.
Subscribe below to never miss an episode.
Clarify the Gap Between Where You Are & Where You Want to Be
The most basic assumption that we’re making in this article is that you have defined what your vision is! Many churches have not taken this most fundamental step. You first need to determine where God is calling you to go as a church. What is the exciting, unifying picture of God’s future for your church as it can and must be?
Once you’ve determined where you’re going, you need to be honest about where you are right now. Perhaps your church could undergo a Church Ministry Analysis or some other assessment that can identify your church’s strengths and weaknesses. Or, your leadership may undergo some more comprehensive strategic planning process that clarifies the current status of your ministries and strategies.
Whatever your journey towards clarity, you must first be honest about the gap between where you are and where you want to be. Only then can you begin to make a plan for how you must move forward to accomplish your church’s vision.
View Your Church from “Outside” the System
Donald Rumsfeld once talked about “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” As best you can, your church needs to try and discern the “unknown unknowns.” Try to objectively assess the best route to your destination, divorced from your emotions and impulses. Certainly, your intuition is valuable and should be part of the strategic equation. However, our emotions can overwhelm our logic and we can miss obvious solutions.
Imagine in our example of the broken light, if your first assumption truly was to bulldoze the office. This isn’t a rational decision. Likely, you’d have some prior, emotional disdain for something in the office and so the broken light is just more evidence in your mind for why the office needs a total renovation. This doesn’t mean that an office renovation would provide no value, or wouldn’t even be something worthwhile in the long-term. But it’s not the solution to the immediate problem.
Likewise, if your instinctual reaction to every obstacle to your vision is a complex, complicated, and expensive solution like re-naming, re-branding, or a building project, there is a high likelihood that you’re missing a simpler, more obvious solution. Do your best to view your church from “outside” the system so that you don’t miss the most obvious shortcuts between your reality and your vision.
Identify the Simplest Solutions First
Systems thinking requires that you prioritize solutions to problems. Think about what the root causes of your problems could be, name a solution to that problem, and then prioritize these action items from easiest to hardest. Or, order the solutions from fastest to slowest. Or, you consider them from most expensive to least resource-intensive. Or, order the solutions from most likely to cause conflict to the least.
There are lots of ways to prioritize solutions, but at its core, you want to consider what causes the least friction (time, resources, relationships) to most. Then, make a plan to follow through on those solutions. We’ve discussed the Eisenhower Matrix before; essentially, prioritizing your to-do list by what’s important and urgent down to what’s not important and not urgent.
The solutions to bridge the gap between your reality and your vision are likely to fall in the “Important, but Not Urgent” category. These are often the tasks that separate high-performing individuals and organizations from those that are tossed about by the tyranny of the urgent and the eternal present. Only the churches that are truly committed to achieving their vision will do the hard work of prioritizing solutions to their problems and following through on those solutions, even when they aren’t urgent.
Think Self-Critically About Your Own Role
Unfortunately, the source of a lot of a church’s inability to reach their vision is poor leadership. All too often, church leaders are the problem. Therefore, a critical step in the process of using systems thinking is to take time to think self-critically about how you may be actively or passively enabling the dysfunction within the church.
If you were to enact one of your simple solutions, what are you doing to ensure that you don’t recreate the problem in a year, or two, or when you’ve retired? How are you going to ensure that your own leadership is as healthy as it needs to be to sustain change over the long term? Optimizing your own practices and strategies for leadership are as important as any other tactical solution you’ll implement in the church. Likewise, encourage your other staff and key leaders to reflect on their own leadership and how they need to change in order to be the kind of leader that can help the church accomplish its God-given vision.
Invite Others to Achieve the Vision Through Feedback, Encouragement, & Constant Communication
Achieving vision in the church is always a collaborative process. After the church is its people! Without the full understanding, vocal support, and enthusiastic participation in the vision, it will never come to fruition. Therefore, there are two important systems your need to build out or reinforce as you implement the vision.
First, be sure you have a good communication system. One of the most common frustrations we see in churches is the sense among the congregation that they don’t know where the church is going, how decisions get made, and how they’re supposed to engage. The frustration from leadership is that they feel like they communicate ad nauseum about vision, mission, and strategies. The truth is usually somewhere in between.
The hard reality is that your church’s communication is only as good as it actually is understood by the congregation as a whole. Even if you feel like you’ve repeated the vision and mission, if the majority of people don’t understand it and aren’t acting on it–you haven’t communicated it well. This is harsh, but rather than rationalize why you really are good at communicating and it’s the people’s fault for not getting it, you should take this on the chin. Find new and better systems for communication, and make further adjustments if it still isn’t hitting home.
Second, you need a good system for feedback. Going back to “unknown unknowns”, there is a good chance that some people in your congregation know and understand things that you don’t. Even the best leader has blind spots. The most experienced surgeon likely wouldn’t operate on himself! Therefore, you need to give clear opportunities for people to tell you things you need to hear.
Even when feedback isn’t rooted in reality, it’s often instructive. You might learn that there’s an untrue narrative circulating, or that your communication was poor. In other circumstances, you may genuinely learn new information you didn’t know and that you need to know in order to help the church bridge the gap between your reality and your vision. It can take time to build good systems for feedback, but be sure that you take the time to do it. Good feedback is one of the most valuable components of good decision-making.
Systems thinking sounds complicated. It isn’t. In its simplest form, it means thinking methodically through the solutions to a problem. To be certain, systems thinking is a deep well, and there is more to it than what we’ve covered in this article. However, if you’ll use the five steps outlined above, you will assuredly make significant progress in achieving your church’s vision.
BONUS: Watch this episode on YouTube.
Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).