DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Lessons on Greatness for the Church

Written by: on September 18, 2014

I cannot read a business book without automatically applying its lessons to my church or ministry, because I have never worked in the business world. My initial response tends to be negative, as my mindset is: “What does Wall Street have to do with Jerusalem?” So I began reading Good To Great by Jim Collins with a very skeptical attitude, only to be surprised by the many gems of wisdom that filled these pages. I think the reason this book resonated with me was the underlying thesis: greatness comes from one’s character, a clear focus, keeping core values and the careful collaborations, which are all important considerations for any ministry. As Collins further writes in Good to Great and the Social Sectors, not every lesson from Good to Great will apply to non-profits and church organizations, but he masterfully shows how the most important qualities of great business practices can inform social organizations.

Let me share with you just three gems of wisdom that stood out for me. The first insight is that the essential characteristic of the good-to-great leader is that she is compellingly modesty. Collins writes, “the good-to-great leaders didn’t talk much about themselves.”[i] Those who work with them “continually use words like quiet, humble, modest, reserved, shy, gracious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, understated, did not believer his own clippings, and so forth.”[ii] And yet, these leaders are “equally about ferocious resolve, an almost stoic determination to do whatever needs to be done to make the company great.”[iii] It is understandable that the later characteristics are necessary to grow a major corporation, but it seems quite extraordinary to find in such ambitious individuals true modesty and humility. As I pondered these two seemingly contradictory characteristics, I couldn’t help but think: here are the necessary qualities of a missionary. In order to pack up your family and put yourself into unfamiliar (and sometime hostile) situations requires both a great stoicism and an even greater resolve. Yet, in order to be an effective missionary, one must be vulnerable to the people and adaptive to the culture, to act humbly and graciously as Christ’s messenger of hope and love. However, it seems in many churches and businesses, the concept of a “modest leader” has no place. Today, churches seek that charismatic, driven mover and shaker with a bigger than life personality to bring to greatness their struggling church, or at least saving it from dying. The research suggests that companies led by such egocentric and driven personalities experience only temporary greatness and short-term growth. There is much antidotal evidence to show many churches experience the same results under similar leaders. The truly good-to-great organizations are those lead by driven, but truly modest and self-effacing, leaders.

Second, Collins suggests that good-to-great companies are those who “first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it.”[iv] What strikes me about this point is that it emphasizes the importance of people in the process of success. There is so much talk in churches about programs and methods, about buildings and equipment. But, in the midst of all these plans and programs, few ask who is available or equipped to do actual the work. The churches I’ve been involved with have always fallen short on understanding the importance of this principle. Often, leaders are chosen because of how long they (or their families) have attended the church, without any consideration of leadership skills or even interests. Further, the “niceness principle” of many churches makes it impossible to ask anyone, no matter how ineffective or disruptive they are, to get out of the boat. So, our churches long to be great and to follow the examples of the big churches without a willingness to change their mediocre leadership that has prevent growth and vision all along. Then they wonder way their church doesn’t grow. Being highly selective in who is brought into the leadership, in both churches and business, is even more important than determining (as Collin suggests) where the organization is going. Without qualities and skills of great leadership, it won’t matter where you are heading, because you probably won’t get there anyway.

Finally, Collin suggests that good-to-great companies follow the Hedgehog Concept. Two circles of the Hedgehog Concept include knowing “(w)hat you can be best at in the world” and “(w)what you are deeply passionate about.”[v]  Here are such basic and simply ideas that many of the churches have no clue about. One church where I served as an elder, I asked the church leaders (out of frustration, I admit) a simple question: “Why do you think God placed our church in this place at this time?” In short, why are we here? I got nothing but blank stares and the discussion never got off the ground. The church never did decide what it could be best at (for God or the community) or what we were passionate about (what could turn that flywheel and stir our interest to sacrificially serve). My point wasn’t to get our church to be like other churches, but to find out what was our church’s DNA, what was our purpose and focus in this small corner of the world that God placed us. What should we be the best at? Answering these questions would have made possible for our leaders to decide what the church should be doing, and what it should stop doing.   If you are clear about your core, then you can throw off all the stuff that distracts from being the very best you are called by God to be.

And there is so much more wisdom to draw from Good to Great. I am now convince, “the key question is not about business versus social, but great verses good.”[vi]  Shouldn’t we all be interested in seeing God’s church becoming more than just good?

[i] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 27.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., 30.

[iv] Ibid., 40.

[v] Ibid., 95-6.

[vi] Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), p.30.

About the Author


John Woodward

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

8 responses to “Lessons on Greatness for the Church”

  1. John…
    Such good (insert smile here), no I mean “great” take-aways from our reading this week. Of your insights I especially appreciate your engagement with the bus. This is the one I struggle with and yet agree with, probably because I have seen only some people let on the church leadership bus and have seen others removed. While I think the “bus” really should be so much more in line with what you have written. The bus has room for everyone, and there is not a “bad” seat on the bus, but not everyone can sit in the back rows to bounce around nor can everyone sit in the front. Like you I love reading these kind of books … let the ideas, brainstorming and implementation commence!

    Safe travels … Looking forward to seeing you and meeting your wife next week!

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Thanks Carol for your insights. It ties well with your post. I think you bring up the biggest issue that churches must face: How to incorporate everyone? If everyone is welcomed, everyone is gifted, then indeed there is a place on the bus for everyone – not just to ride but to contribute. I think our big problem is that we have little vision of how to move people forward – in gifting, in character building, and in managing responsibility. Instead, we leave people where they are at and ring our hands because there is no good leaders around! Yes, Carol, lots of interesting things to ponder from this book. (Note: I am writing in London – we fly out this evening to Johannesburg…see you soon!)

  2. Deve Persad says:

    I appreciate your insights, John. In particular your connection with this reading to the role of the missionary: “Yet, in order to be an effective missionary, one must be vulnerable to the people and adaptive to the culture, to act humbly and graciously as Christ’s messenger of hope and love.” Too often we forget that our role, whether “at home” or “on the field” is to be mission-focused, representing Christ and His Kingdom to those around us. How much more effective could we be, if we applied some of your suggestions.
    To what extent have you seen character development used well, in mission training?

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Deve, your question is a good one. I sadly see little focus on character development as part of mission training. I think it is assumed that if a person is going to do mission work, they already have the character traits — but I think most missions look for the “driven, stoic and strongly determined individual” but maybe fail to see that they in fact have the necessary qualities of a servant leader that you so well described in your post. I think this is another great omission in many mission organizations.

  3. John,

    Great work here, my friend. All I can say here is you nailed it.

    I, too, was skeptical when I started this book. I figured it was just another quick fix read. But I was surprised. I liked the research and the results of the research. This book is a keeper and I will use it in the future. The only area where I am still skeptical is in the matter of “who will DO something” with this material? At least in my experience, I have never met any (actually, maybe one) Level-Five Leaders. At least I don’t think that most leaders are at that level. The one I did know was a humble yet powerful 75-plus year-old pastor from Northers England whose name was Pastor Douglas Evans. Douglas was different: He was truly humble; he was a powerful minister; he knew who he was and where he was going. He also pushed my wife on a swing and ironed our clothes when he stayed with us (twice). If all Christian leaders were like this, the churches would be packed, or at least have a better reputation.

    By the way, I love the story you tell about your question to the elders at your church. Wow! Blank stares. That is both unbelievable and believable all at the same time. Did you stay at that church? Did they ever figure it out? Let’s chat more about this in Cape Town. See you soon!

  4. Liz Linssen says:

    Hi John,
    A very well-written blog. Those same points you drew out also hit home to me. I agree, Collins’ book is so incredibly valuable. I was amazed to read that between 30 to 50% of enquiries he receives are from social sector leaders, not business leaders. The world, it seems, is crying out for great leadership.
    I wonder John, how are things in the current church you’re in? You mentioned about your time as an elder in the past. Does your current church have the right people on the bus? If so, how did you find them? Would be interested in hearing more.

  5. Hey John,

    So often the “secular” leadership books and seminars leave out one of the biggest leadership examples when they leave out the church and the leaders they have. It is good to see that Collins recognized this leadership dynamic and addressed how the principles in Good to Great could apply.

    Because of our leadership focus in this LGP4 DMin we often gravitate to what makes the leader a type of leader that we want to become. You said “it seems quite extraordinary to find in such ambitious individuals true modesty and humility.” Within the church the same holds true. How many leaders do we know of that have been great, hard driving, leaders only to be so focused on themselves without humility. Yet humility seems to be so counterintuitive according to the world’s criteria of leadership but here in Collin’s research it is the way of the Cross and in the foot steps of Jesus that true great leaders are best fashioned.

    The most humble leaders I have found have been in the missionary family of christian workers. They may be so much more than a little pastor in America with his “big” church of 500, and yet though they regularly see 1000 salvations, water baptisms, healings, and nations changing they remain as humble as a little child. Great that you brought out the missionary correlation. May you an I aspire to such humility regardless of our titles or degrees.

    Bless ya, John!!

  6. mm Stefania Tarasut says:

    John, it seems to me that in most churches, once we get people on the bus we will not let them out until we’ve used all their energy and resources. I think we need a lot of faith to let go, to wait, and to put people in the right positions.
    Thanks, John!

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