The Structure of the Past


In Post 1: I looked at how the principles of holacracy, an organizational model that is growing in popularity, is compatible with the founding principles of the Protestant movement.


In Post 2: I mused about how church structure as we have known it for hundreds of years might incorporate holacracy.


In Post 3: I looked at another example of a Protestant faith group that uses principles like those of holacracy.


Today’s Post

Why the current structure of most churches fails small churches

Here is a graphic that describes common church structure based on my experience as a Lutheran. We use words like congregation council and synod. Other denominations use different language for similar concepts.

Here’s the basic idea:


Typical Church Structure

This structure worked for a long time.  It found its way into constitutions.


Good-bye to the 19th century

My first clue that it might be time for a change came about ten years ago. Our urban neighborhood congregation was beginning to attract a number of immigrant families. We did our best to fast-track them into active engagement in church life. Many of them were already familiar with Lutheranism from their home countries, but they weren’t necessarily familiar with things Americans take for granted.


Our pastor met with the new members and read the congregation’s constitution. I was tending the children. I could hear the discussion, but I was not taking part. I noticed that the group was very engaged and were asking good questions.


The pastor read the clause that references Robert’s Rules of Order as the mandated guide for meeting procedure.


One of the new members asked, “What’s Robert’s Rules of Order”?


I realized that what is common in American life is not necessarily recognized worldwide. There might be other methodologies. (The author of Robert’s Rules of Order was a major in the U.S. Army in the 19th century. His work has not always been well-received and has been frequently revised to answer objections. Even this standard is not set in stone!)


This was to be our experience a few years later when Robert’s Rules of Order was widely ignored in our dealings with our regional body—another affirmation that Church standards were failing us as members—and our leaders as well!


Our experience was a sign of the times, perhaps. The fast pace of change spawned the holacracy movement in business.We needed a more efficient change to involve people and compete with the rest of the world.


The same years within the Church have been characterized by frustration.

  • There is dissatisfaction among leaders, considerable congregational conflict, and dismal statistics with both attendance and giving plummeting.
  • The losses are nearly across the board, with larger churches often reporting greater statistical loss but are still able to meet basic budgets.
  • The graying of church leadership is even more pronounced than the graying of church memberships.


Smaller churches have had to scale back in leadership, which tends to also lead to a scale-back in services and witness.


This leadership crisis has presented few innovative answers—and some of them have proven to be successful only short-term—abandoned without fanfare within ten years.


So let’s look at why the hierarchical structure isn’t working.

The above graphic does not address the national and regional structure. In our experience, the national and regional expression of the Church was of no assistance. We can only wonder if other churches have the same experiences.


We were left wondering if these expressions are worth the expense. Their primary function at the regional level is to oversee the qualifications of pastors and other rostered leaders and match them with mission needs—like an employment agency. Regional leaders know more about the pastors than they do the congregational leaders, creating an inequity.


We see the role of pastor being watered down considerably because many congregations cannot afford the mandated salaries. This results in a greater reliance on second-career and retired pastors who are eager to take on short-term commitments such as interim or bridge assignments. In our 80 church visits in 2011-2013 about a third of the churches were working with assigned interims and many more had minimal part-time leadership.


Does this mean small churches cannot be a meaningful presence?


Who’s the Boss?

Because commitments of part-time pastors are tied to salary levels often based on hourly rates, small congregations tend to develop a culture where laity pick up the slack. There is nothing in the constitutions forbidding this. In fact, laity are theoretically encouraged to support “the priesthood of all believers.”


But it does create tension when pastors want the full leadership power while serving only 20 hours or less a week.


Ministry today calls for a variety of skills. Congregations councils are responsible for finding those skills. Our hands are tied when we must devote all resources to one part-time leader. Looking beyond that one leader guarantees trouble. But progress is unlikely without it! Rock. Hard place.


This is not to debate that one side of this tension is right and the other wrong. It is simply recognizing that the tension exists— and it often hinders mission and leads to the type of conflict that results in closing churches unnecessarily.


Nobody likes to deal with tension.


But holacarcy recognizes the need for creative, disruptive tension and proposes a way to put it to work. It starts by addressing the question: Who’s the Boss? More about that in the next post.


But let’s move down the chart.

The congregation council in some form or other is also constitutionally mandated. It, too, is challenged by hierarchical structure.


A lot of the traditional emphases of the business arm of the Church have changed. Technology and cultural expectations are root reasons. There was a time when our denomination’s worship resources were used for nearly a century without much change. Then we started republishing hymnals every 20 years or so. Then we needed ethnic editions. Now, the internet makes printed music of the latest hymns available immediately upon release.


Education is challenged by modern family structure and schedule demands. We still work hard to encourage families to carve out time for some form of Christian education scheduled onsite—with less success. Work schedules and family demands vary greatly. There are work-arounds, but congregations must develop online learning models—a major rethink.


There is more overlap.  Finance needs to overlap with Stewardship. Stewardship needs to overlap with Witness/Communication. Fellowship is part of just about everything. And more.


How do these structured standing committees work together, especially when there are fewer people to help?


This overlap means waiting for the next scheduled meeting of other committees to get buy-in. The investment of time kills many a good idea.


The demands of structure overwhelm laity—who are volunteers and will look for more rewarding ways to spend their time.


Does that mean there is no hope for small congregations?


It may simply mean that smaller congregations need to find a structure that is more effective and affordable.