Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Good to great for churches?

Written by: on August 31, 2015

I’m a sucker for contrarian insight and paradoxes; it seems Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, is as well. The author advocates that the best leaders—what he calls “L-5 leaders”—have a duality. They are “modest and willful, humble and fearless;” characteristics that don’t seem to fit together (although Moses comes to mind.) [1] Collins next observes the importance of getting the “who” before the “what”. It’s about having the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus, before we know where the bus is heading.[2] Again, this seems contrarian: wouldn’t common sense dictate we know where the bus is going so everyone gets on board with a common destination? Next, Collins represents leaders who face the brutal facts and lead with questions until clarity is gained.[3] This approach is in stark contrast to superstar CEOs that are hired as saviors—the best and the brightest—who have all the answers.

I’m a pastor of a small church that is going through a transformation; we’re slowly and methodically, in Collins’ words, “moving the flywheel.”  Good to Great might not provide me with a lot of theological guidance or ministry insights, but it does provide constructive feedback for the process of organizational change. This book is really a blessing for the thousands of pastors who are restructuring their congregations, bringing them through a time of significant transformation. Pastors don’t get restructuring feedback, but the principles of this book are very encouraging; below are some examples.

I started my current pastorate about three and half years ago. For the first two years I was consumed with separating the church from a K-12 school it had helped to start. The school had been its core ministry for three decades, but the relationship consumed the church, the tail was wagging the dog, and kept it from going from “good-to-great”. To the shock of some who viewed the school as our core ministry (read business), we decided to fully part ways. To drop the school meant a radical shift in our direction. “How can we leave behind something that is so obviously good?” When I read Collins study on Kimberly Clark and how several decades ago it had decided to sell off its’ paper mills—at that time nearly their entire business—and go into consumer goods, many were shocked at the sale.  It did, however, give Kimberly Clark tremendous focus as it rebuilt itself into a great consumer paper products company, competing with Proctor & Gamble.

Another good-to-great insight, that at first I found startling and eventually took solace in, was the need to have the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus: the “who” comes before the “what”. In the context of a small church, any reduction in numbers of people is difficult to handle, but when leaders pull away it’s especially challenging. Within the first year of our transformation, one Elder stepped away quietly: for a long time he wanted to start his own church, so his passion was elsewhere. I missed him and blessed him as he went. But at a critical time, during the separation from the school, another Elder left. His departure was public, painful, and somewhat humiliating. I had members challenging me that things must be wrong for such good folks to be leaving. Likewise, I had denominational leaders criticize the way in which we handled some of the issues. But these good men weren’t the men who wanted to take this church forward. They had other plans and passions that took them away from where we would be going. I could have the most compelling vision for the church (the “what”) but it wouldn’t have mattered—their heart wasn’t in it. They were the wrong “who” for our “what.”

I could cite other similarities between the book and our church’s restructuring.   I’m both encouraged and saddened by what I read. Encouraged that there is “change process” help for those like myself who are working with their church leaders doing the slow work of transforming heretofore plateaued or declining churches. On the other hand, I’m deeply saddened that encouragement for being “willful,”, or for “asking hard questions,” or for “leaving behind yesterday’s success” rarely comes from within the church—it comes from outsiders. A pastor who is professionally willful and personally reserved might be the ideal catalyst for pushing a church forward—but many in the church would still rather have a superstar pastor come in who seemingly by the sheer force of personality can catapault the church towards success. When will we ever learn?

[1] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap–and Others Don’t (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001), 22.

[2] Ibid. 41-42.

[3] Ibid. 74-80.

About the Author

Dave Young

husband, dad, friend, student of culture and a pastor.

13 responses to “Good to great for churches?”

  1. Mr. Bojangles says:

    So what determines who the “right” people are on the bus? If not the direction or vision is it the bus itself?

    • Jon Spellman says:

      People with a great depth character, strong work ethic (not workaholics necessarily…), Intelligence, both intellectual and emotional intelligence, people who follow through on their commitments…

      If you have people of a high character, you can train role specific skills. Character, on the other hand, cannot be taught…


    • Dave Young says:

      Hi Mr. Bojangles,

      Collins doesn’t really define what the “right people” for the bus are. Although the context of his research would say that those who are not dedicated to the ‘company’ or ‘organization’ becoming great aren’t the right people. He describes leaders that may have ascended within the company – when the company operated in a different economy, or when the company’s success looked different.

  2. Mary Pandiani says:

    Sounds like Collins’ book brought you some freedom in how you lead, giving you permission to make the hard decisions while asking the probing questions of what’s best for your church. Something I’ve appreciated in watching you lead this last year, Dave, is your willingness to stay in it. The moving of the flywheel has the feeling of training for a marathon…not exactly what I’d want to do with my time. But I can see that fruit is already happening for you and your church family.

    • Dave Young says:

      Mary, Thanks for your comments. Fruit is few and far in-between. But there is fruit, especially when you look at the micro not the macro. When you look at individual lives and what God is doing – as opposed to looking at the organization for great improvements. It’s hard to because organizational loss like the school, or fewer community groups. Are obvious and cause some of those in power to worry about our viability. But still God is faithful, He is changing lives.

  3. Jon Spellman says:

    Dave, I’m curious. In your ecclesial organization, how are pastors selected? How much power does a pastor have at the local church level to really chart a course and not lose his job if there aren’t immediate “results?” (Results in the institutional sense I mean…) Turning the flywheel in the context of a local church probably is about a good 5-year cycle before it begins to turn itself with its own momentum.


    • Dave Young says:

      Jon, I’m a part of the C&MA. We have district superintendents (bishop-level) scattered around the U.S. and they are responsible for giving a church a slate of candidates to be considered. The church itself chooses it’s pastor. I’d say on a scale of autonomous to hierarchically controlled, I’d say we’re somewhere in the middle. Maybe leaning toward autonomous. But that depends on how the “denomination” perceives your church. If they are healthy, you are left alone. If you’re struggling you get their ‘help’. I feel like your 5 year estimate for gaining momentum to be right on target. It takes 3 – 5 years to see a church substantially redeveloped/restarted.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dave, I think you nailed the ultimate view I have for this book. It is a great toolbox with great tools in it to help me actually lead the change I hope to see. Whether in a body, organization, or network the key characteristics Collins identify, in my experience, are real and effective. I am with your statement, “I’m both encouraged and saddened by what I read. Encouraged that there is “change process” help for those like myself who are working with their church leaders doing the slow work of transforming heretofore plateaued or declining churches. On the other hand, I’m deeply saddened that encouragement for being “willful,”, or for “asking hard questions,” or for “leaving behind yesterday’s success” rarely comes from within the church—it comes from outsiders”

    It does seem we as the Church should get this insight more directly from the Father (Theological thinking), the Son (Studying the word and Jesus’ life), and the Holy Spirit (Prayer and discerning and wise decision making), but I guess ultimately I am OK with God using Jim Collins to help us all do that as long as in the end the Kingdom is coming and God’s will is being done! 🙂

    Praying for you and your church body as you continue to seek and pursue faithful change.

  5. Nick Martineau says:

    Dave, Thanks for the insights and sharing how Collins book has practically played out in your church. I can only imagine how hard it must have been to walk your church through the process of letting go of the school. Decisions like that are difficult and it takes real vision and passion to see it through. “Sheer force of personality” doesn’t make it in the long run…Faithfulness seems to be what bears the fruit. Thanks Dave.

    • Dave Young says:

      Hi Nick, It’s interesting but the decision about the school was sort of made years before I came. Most well informed people knew it was past time to cut the ties. They just were too close to do it themselves. It was something I could do primarily because I was the new guy, saw it from a less biased position, and didn’t have the vested interest. So didn’t really require vision on my part. But it did require faithfulness – during a painful process. Thanks for the encouragement.

  6. Travis Biglow says:

    God give you more grace Dave as a pastor because I feel you. I have been going through transformation after transformation. I think I am at the third group of people but the best so far. It is hard when change is happening but it does not seem like it. But i am realizing now that God takes us through transformation and it is just that. I just want to encourage you to go forward. It gets down right discouraging sometimes but all in all the Lord is in control so we can rest in him even when change is hard!

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