All organizations including businesses, ministries, missions and congregations have a predictable life cycle of missional growth, a plateau and then a slow slide into decline - unless there is direct and intentional intervention by leaders to renew the organization from within on a regular basis. All of us can name churches, for instance, that were once vibrant and missional but are not struggling to simply exist. In the business arena, General Motors is a great example of this life cycle and without the necessary renewal it ended up in bankruptcy. Denominations face the same laws of organizational life cycles as a recent report, for instance, of the Southern Baptist Convention indicates that they are facing the challenge of an aging organization now losing people and seeing fewer conversions.

If you are reading this and your organization does not face the challenge of plateau or decline, don't get too smug. No organization is exempt from this phenomenon unless there is direct intervention to prevent it. 

There are several factors that contribute to plateau or decline in organizations. First, organizations that start out missional can over time slip into institutional where the institution becomes more important than the mission. Here are churches who never change their bylaws or governance structures (which become sacred) even when they are strangling the congregation from responding to the needs of a new day.

Second, they forget the rule that "what got you to here will not get you to there" and become change resistant. Resistance to change will guarantee decline because what worked in one day will not work in another. This is the trap many missions find themselves in, doing ministry like they did in the fifties when the whole ministry context has changed around them. As a rule, the longer an organization has gone without major change the greater their risk of sliding into irrelevancy. Risk adverse ministries will go into decline.

Third, there is a tendency to worship the past and wish that the future could look like the past. I can think of congregations that were considered cutting edge flagship congregations twenty years ago who are in serious decline today but leaders still remember the good old days and just assume that they can make them come back. It won't happen without major change.

Finally, decline comes when the missional commitments of the ministry get lost in preserving the institution. Survival mode is rarely missional. The focus is on survival rather than moving forward and taking territory for Jesus. 

The only way to arrest this tendency toward decline is to continually renew the organization from within. This takes courageous leaders who care more about the effectiveness of their ministry than their own jobs because the only way to create ongoing renewal is to push the organization to take risks and get out of their comfort zone. Many will not like the discomfort of renewal. Here are some keys to such renewal.

First, there must be absolute clarity on the mission of the organization and what spells success. Declining ministries have inevitably lost their sense of clarity and unless a new and compelling clarity can be articulated renewal will not take place (see chapters two, three and four of Leading From The Sandbox). Can everyone in your organization clearly articulate a common compelling mission and vision? If not you are at risk!

Second, you can gauge your ability to renew by how change friendly your organization is because without regular and major change to meet the needs and opportunities of a new day decline is inevitable. Can you identify three to five significant changes that have taken place in your ministry in the past three years? If not, you are at risk!

Third, is there an openness and a strategy for getting new ideas on the table? This will usually happen when new people come on board and see what you don't see, or with younger staff members who are not stuck in the old ways of thinking. If you do not have an intentional strategy to bring new ideas and new people to the table, you are at risk! Long term employees will often work to guard the status quo which is comfortable for them rather than be initiators of new ideas which will stretch them.

Fourth, do you have the courage to move along leaders who are stuck in the past and who will not go with you into the future? Those who have quit growing and who guard the status quo are anchors to your ministry, holding it back. The mission is more important than job security. If you do not regularly evaluate leaders for their ability to lead the organization forward you are at risk! If you are the senior leader and realize that you have taken the ministry as far as you can, the best thing you can do is to step aside and let someone else lead into the future. Far from being a failure, you are opening the door to organizational renewal.

Fifth, are you annually driving a set of ministry initiatives that all can rally around, will help you achieve your mission better and keep improving the ministry results you are after? We call these the "game changers" that change the nature of the results in a significant way. If you cannot identify those annual game changers you are at risk!

The longer a ministry has been in existence, the more difficult it is to keep renewing it from within so that you don't move into the plateau and decline phase of life. In other words, leadership becomes more complex, not easier and the need for risk, new ideas, critical thinking and creating waves greater as the ministry matures. Take a moment and think about where your ministry is against some of these principles.
  • Jul 29, 2011
  • Category: News
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