Build Systems or Leaders?

Which is more important: the system or the leader?

Since arriving at St. Paul’s, which is a pastoral-sized congregation*, I’ve figured out that much of the structure of the church is based on specific leaders doing specific tasks, rather than systems. I’m not sure how to feel about this.

*[a pastoral-sized congregation is what many would call a “typical” church: 75-125 people on a Sunday morning and most of the ministries of the church are pushed through the Pastor’s office.]

With the passing of one of our dear leaders last year, this conversation became more important. John was our Memorial Day flag guy. He would put flags around our columbarium to mark the resting places of our deceased veterans. He took this on himself and did it himself. He kept the flags in his garage and every year he would bring them out.

I suspect that he did this as a personal ministry. It is now seen as an institutional ministry.

Without John to curate his own personal system, we are left with three options.

  1. Find a person to take it on by herself.
  2. Systematize the process.
  3. Let the ministry end.

Which way do we go?

It would be simple enough to find a committed leader to take on this ministry by herself, making sure that she knows how to do her ministry. This solves the labor problem, but not the continuity one. It represents the incarnational aspect of ministry, but neglects the need for clarity in the congregation–since only one person will know what is going on.

Seth Godin writes that we should “build the system that can scale” which means that we do from the beginning, what we would do at any size. In this way, it is a clear vote for building a simple system for the future. However, this means the congregational leadership has to make a perpetual emotional investment into maintaining this practice.

The third option is to recognize the ministry for what it was: the devout act of one faithful man. Is our attachment to the ministry really about the ministry itself, or the person? If we are committed to the ministry, we will be eager to make it happen, otherwise, our true vote is cast.

In questioning what our attachment is really about, the true question is revealed. It isn’t so much a matter of individuals and systems, but a manifestation of our enthusiasm for ministry and commitment. The truth might reveal that we aren’t actually committed to the beloved practice after all.

I often argue that if we can’t find people to serve on altar guild, then we get rid of the altar guild. “What about the linens?” you may ask. We’ll have to get rid of those, too. Nobody to wash and iron them, let alone set the table. All we really need is a cup and a plate, anyway.

Will Jesus be present if it isn't this fancy?
Will Jesus be present if it isn’t this fancy?

We do have to answer this leadership question at St. Paul’s about this specific situation with the flags. It is a situation that translates, however. How, in your context, do you deal with the question of raising leaders or building systems?



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  1. Tom downs says

    Drew, you can guess where I come down on this question. In 1994 as we were designing a structure for the diocese, our primary concern was to build a system that encouraged widespread lay leadership. We promoted a vision that said we were building something great and that everyone had a role to play. We built in direction and resource, then got out of the way. At first it worked wonderfully, but with the passage of time, fewer and fewer people were involved… Until in the end work was simply left undone.
    Now the structure is about to be change. Apparently folks feel it was the problem. I don’t think that’ what went wrong. Over time the leaders with that vision passed out of the picture. Those that replaced them didn’t share the founders vision; they wanted something else. I guess what I’m saying is that structure won’t insure continuity; only a consistent vision can do that… And vision has to be cast by the central leadership, especially the pastor.
    My vision for my “family” sized parish could work in yours as well: everyone can have a ministry, no one should work alone, what becomes of it is up to you, if you want/need our imprimatur then ask. Central leaderships job is to say yes and get out of the way. I’ve given up trying to preserve programs no one seems to want or need.

  2. says

    It’s a hard question, and the easy answer would be to create a system to raise leaders, but it’s so much bigger than that… tough one, I thought about it, but I’m not exactly sure what I would do. I’ll think about it some more and I may come back with an answer. Regardless, it was a great post Drew! Seth Godin + Ministry = Awesomeness!

What do you think?