I first read Jim Collins seminal leadership book, Good to Great, as a seminary student over a decade ago in (of course) a pastoral leadership class. According to the copyright, the accompanying ‘Good to Great and the Social Sectors’ monograph was already released, but we didn’t read it at the same time. In hindsight that was a strange decision on our professors part, as we spend much of our discussion time in class doing the ‘translation’ work that the ‘social sectors’ monograph does, adapting the really good insights from Collins detailed research and writing into our church context.
This translation work is necessary, of course, because no matter how great the temptation as churches and non-profits to become more ‘business-like’. In fact, this is literally the point Collins makes in the first sentence of the monograph (Collins 1, 2005). We must resist the temptation because, as Collins work clearly shows, simply being ‘business-like’ isn’t necessarily a pathway to success and it is very unlikely that it is a road to greatness.
In my personal experience, when leaders in the church push for the church to adapt a more business-like approach it tends to be for one of three reasons. First, most of our church leaders come are volunteers and come from a business background – this is what they are familiar and comfortable with. It is what ‘makes sense’ to them. Second, because they know it and it makes sense to them there is an assumption that it will work better than what is being done currently – even if there isn’t a full understanding of what is currently being done. Third, sometimes I have seen this word be used as a thinly veiled excuse for a lack of compassion or concern when it comes to the treatment of staff or the disposition of resources.
Perhaps Collins greatest contribution not just to the social sector, but generally, is a researched definable process for moving or making the transition from a good company or organization to a great one (or really better an explanation for why some companies make the leap and others don’t).
There are many key insights along the way here:
- The importance of understanding inputs and outputs – i.e. in the social sector money is only an input, in business it is both. So, if those of us leading in the social sectors are focused the inputs – like the NYC policeman we will be end up focused on the wrong mission. Figuring out what the ‘outputs’ – or in more traditional church terms, the ‘mission’ of the church is or should be is not always as simple as it should be – but, Collins highlights, it is absolutely critical.
- Collins also highlights the importance of figuring out a way to measure your progress. It is easy, too easy at times, for us to internalize and spiritualize the work that we do in a way that allows us to become content with treading water and even stagnation – The church is called to be the bringing the kingdom of God near…. so, what does that look like?
- Page 9 of the social sectors monograph contains this quote – which Collins says is about driven and disciplined thought and action in pursuit of greatness, but I think might be an excellent description of the life of discipleship we are called to: No matter how much you have achieved, you will always be merely good relative to what you can become. Greatness is an inherently dynamic process, not an end point. The moment you think of yourself as great, your slide toward mediocrity will have already begun. (Collins 9, 2005)
- He highlights the important role that leadership plays, but astutely pinpoints that the type of leadership that is necessary and effective in the diffuse structure of a church/non-profit requires a different type or style of leadership. A style that he calls ‘legislative’ in contrast to ‘executive’.
- Here he briefly hits on one of the truest struggles of working with completely volunteer ‘workforce’ – as Collins says: ‘True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to’ (Collins 13, 2005) The highlights the struggle of leading a volunteer organization and then critical importance in those organizations of a clearly defined and communicated mission and vision.
- A closely related challenge in leadership is maintaining high standards in ‘getting the right people on the bus’ when, again, you are completely reliant on volunteers to staff all of the ministry, programs and work that you are trying to do. A key lesson here might be that it might be better to not do something than to do it poorly.
- The value of a highly motivated and skilled volunteer that has ‘caught’ the vision cannot be overstated – in fact getting these people ‘on the bus’ is likely the key to becoming ‘great’…. but the inverse is also true, moving forward with programs led by those that don’t have an understanding of the vision and aren’t committed might do irreparable harm.
- The confluence of the ‘Hedgehog Concept’ and the ‘Buechner quote’ – Collins parsing of the Hedgehog concept for the social sectors: 3 circles of passion, what were best at and the resource engine (comprised of time, money and brand) is a different way of thinking about and getting at a Frederick Buechner quote that has been very popular as a way of defining our Christian calling: ‘The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’
- The Flywheel Concept – as I read about it and tried to connect it to a church context – made some sense to me as a way to think about the role that momentum, ‘groupthink’ and momentum play in the often incredibly rapid growth of some churches – and how megachurches seem to just grow and grow.
Beyond all of these great insights, however, there was one thing that kept gnawing at me. Collins work assumes that the people reading his research want to move from good to great. I think this is a fair assumption of those reading his work – why else would they be reading it, right?
I think it is also a fairly safe assumption that most of those involved in companies have a vested interest in being a valued part of a successful transition from good to great as well – even if it is only out of self interest, wanting to ensure continued employment, etc.
When it comes to the church, however, I think the question of whether most church members want to move from ‘good to great’ or to put another way, do they want any change at all, is very much an open question. In a job, there are clear expectations and responsibilities and if you don’t do your job you might not keep it – or you might contribute to the demise of the company. But in a church it doesn’t (usually) work that way.
To begin with, the motivations for involvement are often very different. We go to work well aware that we have responsibilities and things we have to contribute. Often, we come to church not to contribute, but when we need something (baptism, wedding, funeral, confirmation, support, etc)…. This is all good and an important part of what the church is and should be. At the same time, it often means that we find in our churches a place of comfort and familiarity – and as such aren’t necessarily interested in having the church change or grow, even if that change if from good to Great.
Finally, for some of us, one of the biggest barriers to embracing the vision to move from Good to Great is fear: fear of failure, of inadequacy, of not being enough, etc. This is where all of Collins research, as wonderful and thorough as it is falls woefully short. Because the good news for those of us that trust in Jesus Christ is that it is, ultimately not about us – but about God’s Holy Spirit in and through us.