Moving beyond the 20/80% rule: competency five, finding and empowering new leaders for mission

I say this all the time to congregations: “the 20% who do 80% of the work.” I have yet to meet resistance to this characterization of church life. Not a single person has expressed skepticism about this or insisted their church is different. It’s true in congregations principally because its impossible for volunteer organizations to function without a core group like this. That’s not where the problem lies. Here’s the problem. New initiatives are often piled on the 20% because this is 1) easiest (laziest?) 2) because we value control and can maintain that within smaller networks.

As a result, finding and cultivating new leadership is inhibited.

Add to this another observation. Most of our current leadership tasks are defined around what I call chaplaincy functions: teaching, praying, serving the interests and needs of the flock, etc. Because these things are so crucial to sustaining identity, this kind of leadership tends to function conservatively. Even if an individual is fairly open to risk, make them an elder and they get cautious.

So, we need not only new leadership, but different kinds of leadership. We need apostolic leadership. Let me be clear what I mean here. We need leadership that takes the faith, not just preserves the faith. Or, as my friend Pat Keifert says it, we need not only guardians, but traders.

These leaders are good at taking faithful risks. And they often have primary relationships with non-church members. We trust the 20% because they’ve made church their top priority. We don’t trust the other 80% because they don’t seem as committed. And they might not be to the things that preserve the institution. But they may very well be more committed to the things that would produce new growth.

In the PMC process I coach, we create new leadership tasks through the process and make sure that congregations identify people outside of the 80% to do much of the work. We ask them to do short-term work, make it clear what the focus of their work is, and encourage them to take some risks. We don’t put the whole system at risk, but delimit both the scope and duration of their work. This puts the existing leadership and the “guardians” within the congregation at ease, while still allowing for fresh exploration. And, we give them spiritual practices to do as a group while they lead. Ideally, as the capacity of the congregation to experiment increases, so can the scope and duration of this type of leadership.

Some congregations have trouble letting go of control when we ask them to do this. I asked one congregation to create a team to manage aspects of process that should include no elders or ministers. When I met the new team, they had appointed as co-chairs an elder and a minister. But the most consistent positive feedback I get on the PMC process is that leaders emerge in ways the existing leadership never could have imagined.

It’s one thing to appoint new people to leadership tasks, it’s another to fully authorize them for their work. The work needs to be clearly defined. They need to have all the resources they need to do the work: time, money, training, authority, etc. And they need consistent encouragement/feedback and appreciation that is both concrete and genuine.

Finally, they need the room to fail. Innovation typically comes, not through a series of “successful” experiments, but from failures from which we learn new ways of looking at things. The evaluative question cannot be, “did this work?”, but “what did we learn?”

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and 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 is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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