Leaders who desire to make a positive difference too often start with organizational mission and vision. As this series has (hopefully) shown, there are many questions and issues to address well before looking at the organization’s future. But there comes a time when the leader does need to turn his or her attention away from questions of self (e.g., Who am I? What do I have to offer?) and toward questions related to the organization.
In the next few posts, I will explore some frameworks for helping you consider what’s next for the organization you lead – be that a church, a ministry, a family, or business.
Five Life Stages
The first thing to consider for your organization is where are you here and now. A helpful framework for understanding the current reality of your organization is the Organizational Life Cycle. There are numerous variations of this framework (see Organization Theory and Design by Richard Daft), but the one I see most helpful for churches considers five stages in the life of a congregation:
- Birth (Entrepreneurial). In this stage, creativity and vision are high, creating a lot of energy and progress for the congregation. What are less developed in this stage are relationships (still forming and not yet formalized), management structures (not yet needed or supplied from birthing congregation/denomination), and programs (not yet needed). The great need in this stage is leadership. Most churches inhabit this stage for six months to three years.
- Adolescence (Collectivity). In this stage, vision is still the driving energy, but alongside come relationships and programs. Relationships (including leadership structures) become intentional and planned. Likewise, programs are developed to facilitate the achievement of mission and vision. In this stage the great need is for delegation with control. Depending on the rate of growth (size) and other contextual factors, a church can be in this stage for many years. In fact, some church plants experience an arrested development by remaining here for too long owing to an unnecessary resistance to formal systems and structures.
- Adulthood (Formalization). In this stage, vision is still in the driver’s seat, relationships and programs are matured, and systems of management and accountability add a stabilizing energy. The greatest need for churches in this stage is to cut through red tape so that management systems are supportive rather than directive.
- Maturity (Elaboration). Maturity looks a lot like Adulthood (all systems are operating well and “things have never been better”), but it’s in this stage that vision begins to wane. Vision gets replaced with management, and the switch is hardly noticed because the relationships and programs are still operating a high level of effectiveness and the visionary/missional aims of the church are being realized. In this stage, choices are made that determine the long-term health of the church. The greatest need in this stage is to make a tough decision about which of three ways to deal with Maturity: 1) re-visioning (re-energizing the vision so that the church experiences almost a rebirth); 2) maintenance (keeping things going as long as possible through decline until death); 3) inheritance (intentionally donating the resources of the church to a new congregation that is flush with vision). A sincere challenge is that most churches cannot tell the difference between Adulthood and Maturity until it’s too late. The question to ask is “What sets the direction for our church?” If it’s still vision, the church is in Adulthood. But if management sets the direction and makes the decisions, then the church has moved into Maturity. The sooner a church recognizes the moving into Maturity, the more leverage they have for re-visioning or leaving a sizable inheritance.
- Retirement (Decline). In this stage, a congregation has moved vision and relationships to the backseat, programs are functioning but less effectively, and management is the only highly functioning element in the congregation’s life. This reality actually creates a dysfunction wherein the church will soon find programs unsustainable and demise inevitable. I’ve seen very few churches enter retirement and make the choice to re-develop or leave much of an inheritance. The greatest need in this stage is dignity.
So what about you and the organization you lead? Which life stage are you in? What does the organization most need right now? What do they need from you?