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Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins, HarperCollins, 2001, 300 pp.

Good to Great for Social Sectors by Jim Collins, self-published, 36 pp.

I am always cautious when people try to apply the principles of running a good business to running the church. However, Jim Collins’ work is more about leadership and organizational development, and those kinds of ideas can easily be modified and adapted to the church world. His original research and ideas in Good to Great were so popular in the non-profit sector (including the church) that he wrote the secondary monograph to explore how to make those adaptations. His work is based on deep analysis of corporations that have been successful for the long term, defined as at least 15 years, and he identifies the core characteristics of companies that make the leap from good to great. I’ll comment briefly on the insights that I’ll take away from each, freely mixing between the two volumes. I know I am late to the party on this (the book is 10 years old, and well analyzed by pastoral leaders), but I want to process what I think that church leaders could learn from these guidelines.

1. Level 5 Leadership: a leader who combines personal humility and professional will, rather than charisma or packaged programs.

The Level 5 leadership Collins describes is very apt for pastoral ministry. We all know clergy who are charismatic, who wow crowds with their preaching and publish books by the scores. However, their churches often do not survive losing them. Level 5 leaders, on the other hand, may never have a famous name, but they build an organization that lasts by putting  the good of the institution above their personal gain, measuring success not by their personal progress but the strength of the institution. Some of the best pastors I know have built great churches that last and grow–but they are not snazzy preachers or sought-after speakers, although they are certainly competent in those areas. What they know how to do is develop faith and leadership in others, and always defer to the wider group rather than touting their own success. We in the church should affirm the gifts of these Level 5 leaders.

2. First Who… Then What: a primary focus on getting hardworking, team-playing people with the right skills and passions into the organization, then figuring out what to do and how to do it.

In my ministry, this has proved critical. If we can get the right people in the right positions, great things will happen with little direction or motivation from the pastor. On the other hand, we don’t hire and fire church members, lay leaders or volunteers. Part of being the church is working with who God sends, and faithfully welcoming every soul into Christ’s service. This is also especially tricky when working with volunteers and church members who may have served for a long time in the “wrong” position. Just because everyone is welcome in the congregation does not mean that everyone has the gifts to chair the Council, teach the children or manage the finances.

I practice this “first who” by never asking for volunteers anymore. When a task arises or position opens, I prayerfully consider who I think the right person is, then consult with the other leaders in charge of nominations. We then ask that person directly to serve. It takes extra time and energy up front, but saves so much difficulty and energy later if you have to motivate or direct the wrong person. If you get that right person, they can get more right people to work with them.

“Rightness” in the church is not about the best or most righteous or most faithful—we are a community of broken, flawed people and sinners. “Rightness” is about matching a person’s spiritual gifts with the needs of the church, as Frederick Buechner says, “the place where your deepest joy and the world’s deepest hunger meet.” (An important side note: I have never found people put out by never hearing a call for volunteers. Instead, they are flattered to be called directly. If you believe that everyone has spiritual gifts, then there is a place for everyone.)

3. Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith): a willingness to name and grapple with harsh realities, accompanied by a steadfast commitment and confidence that success can happen anyway.

If that’s not at the core of our Christian faith, what is? We follow a God who took up the cross, facing and calling out the brutal realities of death, sin, violence and empire—only to be resurrected three days later, having overcome them all. Yet far too often, we in the church are not willing to confront harsh facts. We are declining, young people are missing, buildings are decaying, Christendom is over. Only when we acknowledge the reality of our situation will we be able to effectively move in new ways to address it and be transformed–and, I believe, resurrected.

4. The Hedgehog Concept (Simplicity within Three Circles): a clarity about the organization’s primary purpose and mission, defined as what you are passionate about, what you can be the best in the world at, and what multiplies (for companies, profit and for non-profits, resources).

This is, I believe, the hardest one for churches. We harbor the belief that we should be all things to all people. In some ways, we are right—just look at Matthew 25: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and in prison and you visited me.” So, in addition to offering awesome worship, excellent preaching, quality Sunday school for all ages, and being good stewards of our buildings and resources, we are also supposed to demonstrate excellence in food ministry, prison ministry, a clothes closet, hospital and nursing home visitation. Most churches do a great job at some, a mediocre job at others, and leave some out completely—and always feel guilty that we “should” be doing more.

I remember attending a workshop with Gil Rendle where he said that family-sized (less than 50 in worship) and pastoral-sized (less than 120 in worship) churches cannot do everything, so they need to find what they do well and build from there. He told the story of a small church that hosted birthday parties and social events for children with special needs. At the time, I remember thinking that didn’t sound much like a church’s mission statement. After all, we in the church are, first and foremost, about spreading the love of Jesus. While those birthday parties would definitely be something Jesus would like and approve of, they can’t be the central mission of Christ’s church. Yet I think that Rendle and Collins are on to something. We will never handle disaster response as well as the Red Cross, or homelessness as well as our local shelter, or clothing needs and job training as well as Goodwill. We should figure out what we can do in our community that no one else can do as well.

Each church has its own culture, its own way of telling the story of Jesus, its own ministries that are part of its DNA. We can grow and strengthen the local congregation by discovering those spiritual gifts as a congregation and building on them. If opportunities or needs arise that do not belong, we will have to trust God to find another church that will be able to respond effectively. That means learning to say “yes” and learning to say “no” in discerning ways. I think that Jesus would be O.K. with that. After all, he did not heal all the crowds, nor did he seize every opportunity, and he said “no” to some times of teaching and serving so that he could be in prayer. God has the whole world, full of people of faith—God does not need our one local congregation to be all things to all the world.

5. A Culture of Discipline: people within the organization exercise a great deal of freedom and responsibility, self-disciplined by the Hedgehog Concept.

This one needs little adaptation for the congregational context. When a church is micromanaged, or when someone must always be pumping up or directing in order for a program to happen, whether that is the pastor or board or committees or lay leaders, growth and sustainability are impossible. The church needs to have a shared sense of what its purpose is, what its core values are—and let the ministries unfold from there. If people are growing in discipleship, they are growing in discipline.

6. Technology Accelerators: use of technology and technological innovation does not drive success, but it can accelerate success if used in accord with one’s Hedgehog Concept.

Church leaders share this misconception with corporate leaders: if we are declining or falling behind, it’s because we don’t have the latest technology; if another church is succeeding, it is because they use technology we don’t have. Collins proves this to be untrue. While technology used wisely will accelerate greatness, it cannot cause it. Technology might cause a short-term spike in energy or growth, but it will not be sustained. If you think technology is the cause of a church’s success, it’s only because they are using it effectively, in accord with a deeper sense of purpose.  Churches that invest in technology without investing in developing the tools of leadership and purpose will only have empty robots and fancy screens.

7. The Flywheel and the Doom Loop: organizational transformation works like slowly pushing a flywheel, grinding and slow until others join and it gets momentum. The Doom Loop is the cycle of jumping from program to program, fad to fad, and replacing the ideas after they fail to produce success quickly.

Oh, if only we could imprint this wisdom in the mind of every new pastor (not just new to ministry, but new to a congregation) and to all those expecting great things from them! Real, meaningful change happens slowly, invisibly at first, as a few core leaders begin to push the wheel. There are no overnight sensations that are lasting–it can take five, ten, 20 years for the change to really take off and have energy of its own. The “Doom Loop” is what happens when you implement a fancy new program that you think will change everything. When it doesn’t, you take your discouragement and go try something else. While I don’t think most congregations will give us 20 years to figure it out, if you start out with small changes, you can build momentum over the course of 5-10 years and see the congregation really begin to take off.

8. Built to Last: Preserve core values and core purpose while changing cultural and operating practices and specific goals and strategies.

This one also seems obvious for the church world. Our core value (“love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind”) and our core purpose (“love your neighbor as yourself,” and “go, therefore, to make disciples of all nations”) have been in existence for 2,000 years. When we keep those cores at the center of our life together, the church thrives—because it is being the church of Jesus. We can change “cultural and operating practices and specific goals and strategies” all over the place, as the church has through reformation after reformation.

As you can see by the length of this review, I think Good to Great and the accompanying volume on social sectors have much to mine for leadership wisdom in the church. While there are plenty of passages and bits of advice that clearly don’t apply in an organization that is about people and not profits, developing disciples not customers, there is plenty to make it worth your time to read.

My biggest question at the end is about some of the companies featured in the book. In the most recent financial collapse, several of Collins’ “great” companies have fallen apart—Fannie Mae & Circuit City chief among them. The book is 10 years old, but these companies clearly did not remain great. I wonder if Collins has analyzed why—if they changed some of their behaviors after his book was written, or if he would change some of his analysis.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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