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

Ministers as Managers: What Often Goes Wrong

Written by: on March 13, 2015

There is often great discontent in smaller churches, especially when all the churches around them are experiencing tremendous growth. This was the situation I was in for over 20 years. When I arrived, my church was running 120 in attendance. When I left, it was running about 120. During those years, we saw numerous pastors come and go, all promising that we would soon be on road to phenomenal growth. I remember one pastor most clearly. Shortly after the elders fired the current minister on the spur of the moment, they immediately brought in candidates to fill his position. The one they eventually hired was a regular sales person. He talked up the church left and right, claiming that our church was “poised for great growth” and that in five years we could see 500 people attending. This young man had all the answers, being well versed in the latest church growth methods, and he knew how to work a crowd. He was going to lead our little church into a great and glorious future. Our members ate it up. Their drooling was embarrassing. This pastor was soon hired. Two years later, we had lost over one-fourth of the congregation and the church was dying. The pastor left, finding greener pastures, where he was able to split his next church in less than two year. So, what went wrong?

This story illustrates well what Caroline Ramsey proposes in her articles on management learning and provocative theory. As I read these articles, I couldn’t help but think of pastors as “managers” and found a great deal of application for her ideas in the local church. The major issue that she addresses centers on the real danger in separating learning and theory from practice and day-to-day reality.   Ramsey suggests that “in emphasizing learning prior to practice we may be undermining the potential of managers to learn in practice, as they manage operations, people or markets in day to day activities.”[i]  The evangelical church is notorious for developing universal theories that offer all-inclusive packages for success, from church growth to evangelism, from developing strong marriages to running capital campaigns.

What I experienced in my local church was the thinking that, if certain “programs” or “methods” are presented by experts and have proven successful elsewhere, these programs–when applied to my church—will have guaranteed outcomes!   This thinking has led to many disastrous church growth programs in smaller churches, because it fails to take into account the context, the people (talents and attitudes) or the history of the church that these particular theories are being applied. In a very real sense, there is no listening or ground level engagement. Learning was never a part of the method. Ramsey rightly suggests that by blindly applying theory without consideration of context or people, “we may be restricting the potential for that day to day practice to speak as an alternative voice within polyphony, provoking mangers into action they hadn’t anticipated.”[ii] Our pastors preferred neat, clearly packaged church growth programs on “the tablets of stone to be handed to them,”[iii] rather than having to actually work out a practice with the people God had given them in their highly unique context.

I remember explicitly asking our leadership why they thought this new pastor was going to what the last pastor wasn’t able to do, when he was working with the exact same resources (i.e. us smelly sheep). They could not give an answer.  They simply believed that the pastor had all the answers. He had a wonderful theory, and he thought that theory was all he needed. But, as Ramsey helpfully suggests, “The theoretical and research writing does not stand free, available to be applied but, rather is as both instigator and product of relationally-responsive, improvisational practice. It is a performance being constructed by, recreated by and also provoking and inviting managerial practice.”[iv] What the pastor’s theory needed was real life interaction, allowing for creative development where theory and life, people and practice mixed, and where room for learning and improvisation in practice was allowed. For a workable practice in small town Iowa, mere application of someone else’s theory (probably developed in a large, metropolitan suburb), may not be the best way to go. For the theories to find life in a new situation required “creat(ing) more a partnership, rather than hierarchical, relationship,”[v] where the pastor had to do the hard, slow, messy work of engaging with the people and learning through practice, rather than dictating solutions from on high.

My pastors were always amazed that their church growth theories didn’t work in our church. What was needed was “a practice centered learning where new practice is privileged, rather than knowledge that is to be applied in practice.”[vi] This process of “practice centered learning” requires mindfulness, attention and narrative that will change the entire focus. “To focus on processes of deliberation, judgment or knowing is to miss out a crucial step in our engagement with the world around us.”[vii]   Here I think is where so many of my pastors missed out on. They failed to engage with the actual people and community in whom they were attempting to reach, and further failed to partner with the church members in developing practices. Instead of “learning in practice” that allowed for attentive and creative engagement to provide insights into how to grow the church, the pastors continued to force their theories on the people, even when they didn’t work. Here, the use of narratives is so important, as it provides the opportunity to hear the people who are partners in serving. Instead of assuming one set way forward, narrative “gives for multiple interpretations,”[viii] where the “answers were never complete, but, rather, always helped me notice new options or required me to investigate different contexts or see particular people. The answers drew my attention to different fields of activity.”[ix]

How much more effective would church growth theory (and other local church programs) be if we understood the concept of learning in practice? How easy it is for us to fall into the thinking that if it works somewhere else, it will work for us. Ramsey helps us to remember, theories are good, but theories that are applied without consideration of the people, the context and resources and are not open to creative opportunities through practice learning, will only frustrate and stifle possibilities for new and more effective practices.

[i] Caroline Ramsey (2011), “Provocative Theory and a Scholarship of Practice,” Management Learning 42(5) 2011, 9.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., 23.

[iv] Ibid., 11.

[v] Ibid., 15.

[vi] Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A scholarship of Practice Centered on Attention?” Management Learning, 45(1) 2014, 2.

[vii] Ibid., 5.

[viii] Ibid., 8.

[ix] Ibid., 12.

About the Author

John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

8 responses to “Ministers as Managers: What Often Goes Wrong”

  1. Deve Persad says:

    You ask a great question, John: “How much more effective would church growth theory (and other local church programs) be if we understood the concept of learning in practice?” Earlier this week, I sat with a CEO of a major Christian organization and we talked about some of these very things. When I asked him about how effective his ministry education was in preparing him for life in a church, he just smiled and said “you know the answer to that one.” And yet we continue, as church boards and denominations, to defer to ‘big-box’ solutions that disregard local history, context and people. Perhaps our quick solution society has contributed to this effect. The question for us is how do we help congregations understand the importance of local context in developing strategies?

    • John Woodward says:

      Deve, I think your question is key. Local congregations need to think locally…I think we are so aware of what others are doing (mega churches, big movements, latest fads), that we fail to realize that we are unique and different and special in our own way. Looking for solutions elsewhere is our first mode of action, rather than assuming that God has equipped the local body for the work that He desires that local body to do. So, I think we need to start training congregations to look within, to see the resources God has provided to reach those just outside the door. (How often do we think we need to hire someone to do something we feel we lack…maybe God is saying we just don’t need that to accomplish His task for our church?) But, we need to stop trying to follow what others are doing and find out more what God wants us to do! That I think is a good place to start!

  2. John…
    Your post and our reading both reminded me of the time in the 1980’s when Billy Graham came to Tacoma, WA. Churches all over the area were recruited and participated in evangelistic material from the association. We were preparing for all the new Christians that were going to come our way as a result of the crusade. I remember going and feeling so detached and somewhat skeptical of what I was seeing. Being a participating church we were assured that new Christians in our area would be directed toward our church. Billy Graham was our church growth method. (That is not intended to diminish his work, just reveal our expectation).

    As I think about what you have brought forth (which I so appreciate!) I am sensing the call to be both a leader and a manager. They most often have very distinct roles and responsibilities. But I am wondering if as ministry leaders we are to be managers (under Christ’s authority) to implement what we are to “do” and to “be” … and we are leaders – one’s who lead and empower others. I am pretty sure there is a paradox in there :).

    What I appreciated about Ramsey’s articles is that she recognizes we need the academic (this will be especially so as the church is marginalized) but it has to be held with the practical. I wonder if one of the areas that we are talking about is how we “assume.” What assumptions do we have in the directions we take and the decisions we make? You drew that out so well in your post.

    Thanks John for your insights and good work….

  3. John,

    Been there. Seen that. How frustrating. So sorry for the yucky experiences. What a sad waste of time. How can anybody promise what he or she does not know? These are not pastors; they are politicians. And politicians are not to be the leaders of churches — ever.

    When I was in full-time ministry, I went to church growth conferences. I hated them. I always wondered why the one thing left out of the equation was always God. Methods, theories, strategies, packages, other people’s ideas filled these conferences. But what about God? What about listening prayer? What does God want for a particular church? How can we know? We have to be listening more than talking, being more than doing.

    I have a friend who helps churches who are hurting. Sometimes, perhaps what God wants for a particular church is that it dies a death with dignity. But we are often so enamored with “Bodies, Bucks, and Buildings” that we can’t think of anything else. How sad. God help us to listen, not to tell and to be obedient, not merely presumptuous.

    • John Woodward says:

      Bill, I think you hit the nail on the head. It is that we so want to be “big” or to “grow” – that those become our aim, rather than being obedient to God. No one ever asks if our particular church is not meant to be big? Why is success a mega church? And if this is our goal, are we listening to God or to…whoever? What a great question: What does God want our church to be? I asked this question once to our church leaders, “why do you think God planted this church in this place at this time?” The leaders could not find an answer. If we don’t know why we are here to begin with, how will we ever figure out where we are going? We need to really stop and just listen to what God wants from His church…it would save us a lot of headaches…I am sure!

  4. rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks for a deeply provocative and thoughtful response to Ramsey’s articles.
    I think a number of us experienced the deeply disappointing years when the church growth movement was simply ineffective for most congregations. When I finished undergrad studies I served in a congregation that was in a church growth grove – building a new sanctuary that seated eight hundred, utilizing many of the successful programs that grew churches in the seventies and eighties. I remember special events, such as New Years Eve, that drew standing only crowds approaching one thousand; then came the nineties. Today the worshippers number one fifty to two hundred and the congregation is struggling.

    The things that worked back then are not working today; busing, evangelism explosion, and even Sunday school. You ask a good question; “How much more effective would church growth theory (and other local church programs) be if we understood the concept of learning in practice?” I think there are a couple of factors that play into an answer. Obviously, as you note, failing to take into consideration the context and resources changes the success possibility. We also need to recognize the impact of changing social and cultural structure and dynamics. I have often thought how different it would be if we had recognized in the seventies the shift that was already in full force. We would not have built an eight seat sanctuary.

  5. John Woodward says:

    Ron, I am totally with you on this. As churches everywhere were building bigger churches (“if you build it, they will come”) I kept thinking that our landscape was going to be like Europe, big-empty churches everywhere. Today we are seeing a lot of that. Instead of focusing on people, growing people in the Lord, it seems we just wanted to grow churches. And I think if we were truly to listen to people today, what they long for are connecting, relationships, community…the very thing that church growth methods often overlooked. I hope we are moving away from this and from “cleaver methods” for church growth. We have seen a lot in our time, haven’t we Ron?

  6. Stefania Tarasut says:

    It’s so much easier to fall into the manager position than to be a pastor with a greater picture and a vision for the congregation… moving people forward. A manager maintains the status quo, while a pastor should move people forward… I see it in myself. It’s easy to start off a pastor who leads the sheep but after a season I settle into a pastor that maintain the sheep and tries everything to make them happy in order to keep them in. Sad reality for many of us.
    Good thoughts John!

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