The Divine is in the Details: Why are congregations bad at processes

Here’s my assumption. Congregations stink at processes. They stink two ways. Most don’t have processes they dearly need. And the processes they do have do not embody adequately theological beliefs or commitments.

I’ve got some pretty big church horror stories, curl your toes incompetence. And many of them have to do with hiring and firing processes. They are legion and a few of them come from personal experience. I once interviewed with a congregation, was given every assurance the job was mine when I got on the airplane to go home and never heard from them again. I found out about this particular church from their previous minister who had taken the job at a church I interviewed for and never heard from. I was told I didn’t get the job by the preacher who took the job. Seriously.

I work with a lot of congregations. More than half report not having job descriptions for their ministry staff. Nearly all report lacking a meaningful process for reviewing staff. Nearly all.

The news is not much better for things like elder selection, budget processes, worship planning, ministry direction, etc. And processes for dealing with congregational conflict are sorely lacking. Most congregations do a poor job of communicating, and the capacity to share work among groups is low.

I know, this sounds very pessimistic. And I’m sure the congregation of which you are a part is the exception to all of these things. I have some hunches, however, as to why this might be the case. Two primary reasons.

First, congregations are full of volunteers. That makes processes tough, especially ones that require time and extended effort. Congregations, as volunteer organizations, have very low attention spans.

Second, ministers don’t see this type of work as ministry. They see it as administrative or institutional and they have more spiritual matters to attend. Ministry is thought of principally in terms of teaching, preaching, and praying. But I’m convinced that the nitty gritty of ministry is in making a shared life vibrant and life-giving, and processes that are meaningful, hospitable, and dependable are crucial to the development of this kind of sustainable community. Because many enter ministry to do other things, these kinds of considerations are often overlooked.

So, I talked in the previous posts about processes as an expression of faith. I want to be concrete about that in future posts.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to The Divine is in the Details: Why are congregations bad at processes

  1. Jason Locke says:

    You’re right, Mark. Most ministers don’t see the importance of administrative work. It can seem like a black hole that is all-consuming, yet it is more akin to an elephant that has to be eaten one bite at a time.

  2. Brock says:

    Does this mean you’ll be offering some concrete tools to develop processes, specifically the staff review stuff?

  3. Christopher Chesnutt says:

    Mark: I’m currently in the process of applying to and interviewing with a wide variety of churches. In fact, I’ve been in this process for several months now, and I completely agree with everything that you’re saying. I, too, have plenty of “horror stories” from personal experience. Yes, I understand that congregations are full of volunteers, and that these good people have full-time responsibilities elsewhere (jobs, families, etc), but that’s no excuse for failing to do a job well or to conduct a process adequately. Yes, I recognize that some jobs may not be as “glamorous/in-the-spotlight” as others, but we’re called to do all things to the best of our abilities and unto the glory of God. According to John 13 – where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet – sometimes the very glory of God is most clearly revealed through “menial acts of service.” Mother Teresa says, “Be faithful in small things: for in them does your greatness lie.” Someday, I may get invited to be the President of a large, multinational organization that pays a generous salary/benefits and earns me a lot of notoriety in the larger community. If so, I intend to do that job to the best of my abilities and to the glory of God. Someday, I may also have to wake up at 3am each morning and rock a fussy newborn baby to sleep, which I’m not getting paid any money to do and which won’t gain any me notoriety in the world’s eyes. Yet, I still intend to do this job to the best of my abilities and to the glory of God. So whether I “like” or “dislike” something, whether it brings me great recognition in human eyes or is known only to God, I intend to do it to the best of my abilities and to give God the full credit. How much more, then, should this desire to reflect the glory of God be the case in a congregational context – if, indeed, the local church is where the kingdom of God is most clearly embodied and incarnated in and for the sake of the world? Whether it’s the great preacher giving an inspiring exposition of Romans 8, or the guy who vacuums the auditorium after everyone’s gone home, I believe that every “process” is an opportunity to reflect the glory of God, and should, therefore, be conducted with great care. If I/we can’t be faithful at doing this when it comes to the “small things,” how can I/we be faithful to this when it comes to the “big things?”

  4. Christopher Chesnutt says:

    “Once a task has begun, never leave it til it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well, or not at all.”

  5. C Jean Cain says:

    I have worked with many faith-based organizations whose hiring and firing processes negate their assumed integrity and are thoroughly bereft of any God-like elements. I have participated in organizations and broken processes (maybe no tangible process) where we have emotionally maimed people and could in no way have been mistaken for Christ followers. It is as though fear seizes us, convinced we need to move quickly whether bringing someone in or desiring one to go for whatever the reason. Sort of like quickly tearing a Band-Aid off a festering wound, “just rip it off!” and move on. But people are not the same. God’s people (and we are all God’s people) need care and intention, the healing of emotions does not occur without intention. Not to mention the reputation this behavior creates for the organization which is often ignored or we lead ourselves to believe nothing else could have been attempted.

    Why aren’t churches and organizations asking, “How do we treat people entering our organization or leaving it with a process committed to upholding who we want to be as we represent the Triune God?” Please know that I am speaking to myself in this rant as a leader I have been a party to many damaged lives, reactionary behaviors and ill thought out processes.

    Not too long ago the faith based organization I worked with was faced with a dire financial crisis. Although associated with the leadership I was informed I was to partake in the letting go of several employees and one in particular who had served the organization for over 20 years. I was never given a chance to have input on how this should go down (process) but the leader wanted it to happen all at once and wanted offices cleaned out and those selected employees escorted off site much like he had seen occur in his corporate experience. I contacted my superior requesting if there was a way to accomplish this task and leave the employees with some dignity. Could we talk to her tell our dilemma, celebrate her years and give her time to figure things out? But my message never got through or was ignored. Unfortunately I still participated, fear again! We were a close knit Christian community and I believeed this was in conflict with whom we were as an organization calling others to lead lives worthy of Christ. Similarly I have seen those invited to join Christian organizations where there was no welcome, no computer (for weeks), no introduction and little orientation to the new culture and/or city. Where is this welcoming presence we are to emulate? Where is this opportunity to serve in the activity of leadership that we have been called to?

    I hear and see this happening over and over and severely damaging the cause of Christ. Shame on us!! Sometimes I think we believe that we won’t ever see this person again so let’s just move on. Not a great way to think when our God is all about reconciliation. Our Triune God is about community and relationship so we should be placing time, conversation and effort in creating processes that speak over long periods of time about who we are as His followers.

    I realize that many times hard feelings occur on both sides of the hiring and firing process but even when by chance there is thoughtfulness and good process (a rarity) I pray that your blog opens us up to being intentional and known for making every effort to treat people coming or going with a well thought out, respectful and Christ inspiring process.

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