I had dinner with a pastor friend this week, and one of the topics we discussed was "Systems Thinking". Systems thinking is really the application of policies, plans and procedures to ministry programs. All churches have policies and procedures, but in my experience it is rare that they have policies and procedures applied to the creation, maintenance, operation and staffing of ministry programs.
In many churches, running the church "like a business" is anathema. It is considered unspiritual. Systems thinking is often perceived as unspiritual, or interfering with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Many churches claim to be "spirit led" but it is just a rationalization for disorganization or chaotic management practices.
I think that people forget that "stewards" and "managers" in the bible are very closely related. Good stewardship is in fact good management. So why is good management anathema to the operation of ministry programs. God calls us to be good stewards of His resources. What is the problem. Really? In the bible the word that we sometimes translate as "elder" is also translated "overseer". How different is an overseer from a supervisor? Not very to my mind.
In the parable of the talents, Jesus himself correlates stewardship and fruitfulness. Right? So what is the problem?
I think that part of the problem is that pastors are not educated in stewardship as it applies to ministry programs. Seminaries teach them to handle the word of God correctly, to shepherd a flock, to lead worship, but not as much how to manage a staff, or how to run a non-profit organization. I also think that perhaps the aspects of ministry that attract people to those schools, do not attract people who like to plan. I never attended seminary or Bible college, but I have never heard a pastor talk about the classes they had in organizational behavior or ministry planning, or the professor who taught them church accounting and planning. They may have taken courses like that, but I never seem to hear about them. Not very inspirational?
Perhaps church boards do not value management skills or aptitude when calling paid staff. Perhaps they are simply focused on the more "spiritual" aspects of ministry. I have been on a couple of pastoral search committees, and in those cases, philosophy of ministry or leadership style were topics of conversation, but not qualifiers.
When I look for examples of "systems thinking" in the bible, I don't have to look further than Acts. After Pentecost, the church grew so rapidly that the 12 were spending too much time serving communion, to the point where it was interfering with their praying and teaching. So they create a brand new job description for "deacons". If you look closely, the Bible has all kinds of examples of systems thinking.
- Exodus – Moses delegating judging of the people
- Nehemiah – The organization of clans and families to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem
- Acts – Appointing of deacons
- Timothy – qualifications of deacons and elders
If a church is not to be run "like a business", then what is it to be run like? What is the alternative operating model? As a kid, I often heard adults use an expression for something disorganized, by saying that it was run "like a church picnic". So it was clear to me that church as a well understood example of poor management practice.
There are two words that describe (for me) the attitudes of stewardship: intentional and diligent. If we apply these two stewardship words to all aspects of our ministry, I think we get very close to systems thinking. We are stewards of not only the financial resources that God provides, but also the human resources of time and talent, and beyond that the spiritual gifts God gives to equip His church. When we diligently marshal these resources with the intention of producing fruit, we are not running the church "like a business", but in fact "like a church".