In the book, Being Smart about Congregational Change, author Diane Zemke explains why strategies that work for leading change in a business context can miss the mark when it comes to volunteer organizations, such as local churches. One key reason that Zemke gives is the difference in leadership structures. “…leadership, authority, and power in a voluntary association are ambiguous….Pastors, in particular, are keenly aware that while they may have spiritual authority, real power rests with the members.”
Mission organizations have similar issues. While in the one sense, they are also volunteer organizations, in another sense, they tend to be structured like businesses. Most mission agencies have organizational charts with management structures that look the same as a marketing firm’s. I report to a regional manager, who reports to a country leader who reports to a regional director who reports to a Vice President who reports to a President.
The problem with this structure is that in a mission organization, it a house of cards. In a business, profit is driving decisions and advancement. People are promoted based on success, salaries reflect productivity, and in general, those who are good at what they do get recognized and compensated accordingly. The structure works because people are paid for their work. But in most mission agency, the missionaries raise their own support. Their salary comes from the donations of supporting churches, friends, and family. And while the funds pass through the mission agency, every missionary knows that the mission agency isn’t the source of their income. In fact, the inverse is true. Most mission agencies retain between 10 and 20 percent of the funds that the missionary raises for organizational overhead. In other words, the missionary is paying the sending agency.
And while I wish that we were all so holy that the “money” trail” was irrelevant to our work, the reality is, since we missionaries know 1. That we are not getting paid by our agencies and 2. That we are volunteers as opposed to employees, there may be a surface-level assent to the organizational structures imposed by the mission agency, but there is not an assumed sense that those in charge have the right to lead or the missionary should necessarily comply everything the mission agency demands.
For example, my mission agency “requires” missionaries to fill out monthly metrics on ministry activities. On average, only 50% of the missionaries in our organization comply with this request. And in the end, there is no way the mission agency can “enforce” their rules, because they can’t “fire” missionaries because we are volunteers.
What I find interesting is that mission agencies continue to push towards the business models when they are clearly ineffective. I wonder if they would be better advised to move away from a hierarchical leadership model towards a flat leadership model. I’ve been doing a bit of reading about this—which is actually the model used with great success in business in Scandinavian countries. “Devolving responsibility and accountability stimulates collaboration, innovation and creativity. And that is part of what the Scandinavian Model of Leadership is all about.”
What I’m gleaning from this and other articles is that greater innovation, creativity, and collaboration happen when the emphasis is placed on personal responsibility and mutual accountability. In a flat leadership model, people are encouraged to take responsibility for their own work and behaviour and to develop healthy reciprocal accountability structures that serve as sources of feedback and evaluation. I actually find this to be a highly biblical model.
Jesus wasn’t big on authority. He seemed to realize that humans don’t steward it very well, and pushed towards mutual submission as a better option. The disciples were constantly trying to establish hierarchies, and Jesus wouldn’t have it. If we would focus on all he “one-anothers” in the Bible, we’d have a highly effective flat-leadership structure.
And I really do think that that personal responsibility coupled with mutual accountability are the key components. Functional leadership expert John Adair sees leadership happening in three overlapping circles: the individual, the group, and the task. At the individual level, people need to know their own gift and abilities. In the mission world, I’d add that they need to be convinced of their call and equipped to follow it. But going further, the individual must also take the initiative and the responsibility to steward those things. We shouldn’t need babysitters, we should be diligent to work our full hours, doing productive and fruitful ministry, because we are God’s servant and we delight in doing God’s work.
At the group level, we need to benefit from the insight and accountability of others. Accountability should be welcomed, because I should always want to be getting better at what I do. I should seek out feedback, not shy away from it. I should strive for excellence because I work for the best boss ever, who also loves me. Feedback and evaluation help me grow, and I need others for this. This can also cost me something. I need to be willing to give feedback as well, which takes tile and focus off of me and my ministries and puts it on others and their ministries. We need to be willing to serve each other in this way.
Finally, at the task level, with personal responsibility and mutual accountability in effect, then the tasks that get accomplished will have broader impact. As people are accountable to one another they will notice natural opportunities for collaboration. They will learn from each other, and start to call out each other’s gifting.
Like churches, mission organizations need to rethink their models. Business models can be helpful, but cannot be directly applied. Let’s imagine a new way of leading in the world. A Kingdom way.
 Diane Zemke, Being Smart about Congregational Change (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014). Kindle loc 214.
 Diane Zemke, Kindle loc 243.
 “Not Familiar With the Scandinavian Model of Leadership? Then You Are Truly Missing Out,” Ivy Exec Blog (blog), April 24, 2016, https://www.ivyexec.com/career-advice/2016/not-familiar-with-the-scandinavian-model-of-leadership-then-you-are-truly-missing-out/.
 “John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership Model – BusinessBalls.Com,” accessed May 5, 2019, https://www.businessballs.com/leadership-models/action-centred-leadership-john-adair/.