The Fish Bowl Leadership Model
and How It Needs Fresh Water



I have a unique viewpoint of the Church. I have been surrounded by clergy my entire life. I’ve lived with clergy, worked for clergy (of several denominations), worked with clergy (also of several denominations).


But I am also a lay person, content to be a lay person. Lay people are important!


The Church is perhaps the last relic of top/down power structure in the free world. The role of laity is to support clergy. Lay observations carry little weight.


I’ve been studying “church” as a lay person for decades. I’ve read dozens of books. I follow a few blogs written by clergy. I have provided decades of lay leadership to small congregations.


Last weekend I cleaned some bookshelves and came across The Once and Future Church by Loren Mead. This book was ground-breaking thinking in 1991. Twenty-six years later, the application of its wisdom has proven to be a challenge.


1991 was early in the societal revolution created by the internet. In just 25 years, we abandoned century-old societal patterns.


The Church, however, remains behind.


The 21st century is very, very different from anything we’ve seen before.

1. More people are educated at higher levels.
2. The pace of change is ever-accelerating.
3. Diversity in the secular world is the norm in most western population centers.


And then their is the big one—the internet. Wow! What is possible today that we never dreamed possible 50 years ago!


The church doesn’t seem to understand it. Even the writings of clergy advocates are rooted in hierarchical thinking, asking only—How can the internet help us do what we already do?  We just can’t get our heads around the potential.


What is stopping us?


Fish Bowl Leadership

Church leaders lead from inside a fish bowl. Leaders swim together and get along grandly in their glass encased world. They share similar experiences and ideas day after circular day.


That glass bowl muffles outside voices—in both directions. The curved glass distorts the view—from both directions.


As long as the temperature is right and someone sprinkles enough food in the tank, church thought leaders keep circling the tank, revisiting the castle and treasure chest they just passed, over and over.


In the fish bowl of church leadership, clergy talk to clergy.  The fish bowl is a leadership ecosystem that never quite connects with the outside world.


Laity are frustrated hobbyists who dutifully attend to the fish without the agency to do more.


Until now.


The signature achievement of the current era is the shift of power. We see this in every aspect of our lives—entertainment, education, government, business, family and commerce. People expect to be involved. This is important for church leaders to understand. Future generations will never know a world where they couldn’t be involved. They will not be interested in sustaining a church that does not realize their potential.


Is it too late for the Church?


Change begins with challenging fish bowl thinking. Perhaps this year, the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation is a good time remember this has happened before.


But how? Where to start?

Let’s start small.


Here’s one example of fish bowl leadership thinking that has been around for a while and is rarely challenged.


I”ve heard pastors use this in sermons and at congregational meetings. I’ve read it in blog posts. Perhaps you have heard it too.


“Statistics indicate that most people become involved in church as a result of an invitation from a church member.”


This is usually presented to laity with the intent to inspire. But fish bowl leaders deliver the message unaware of how it sounds to the listeners on the other side of the glass barrier.


This is what they hear?


So, it’s our fault our church isn’t growing.


If pastors think they are empowering members by quoting this statistic they are wrong. They are guilt-tripping members while exonerating themselves of responsibility. At least that’s how it seems from this side of the fish bowl.


So let’s challenge the statement.


What does this statistic represent? How was the data gathered?

I suspect that the question was posed survey style. Something like this:


How did you come to join the church you currently attend?

  • I saw a welcome sign on the door.
  • I was born into a member family.
  • I was visited by a pastor.
  • A friend invited me.
  • None of the above.


We cannot tell from the answer if a pastor actually asked them?


Between 2011 and 2013, I and a few friends (some clergy, some lay) made a project of visiting neighboring churches. In three years and more than 80 church visits, only one pastor followed up. By postcard.


No doubt pastors use this statistic hoping to motivate members to be proactive in outreach. Do they know what we face?


Today’s laity feel pretty lonely. There are a lot fewer of us!

  • Frankly, we are embarrassed much of the time. Society has mocked “the church lady” for years.
  • The worship experience is alien to most of our neighbors and it isn’t PC to bring up religion in many venues.

Let’s assume people are better potential evangelists than pastors. How does church leadership help?


  • Does it model invitational behavior on Sunday morning and during the week?
  • Are members trained as evangelists?
  • Does it create an environment that members are eager and feel comfortable to share?
  • Is church involved in community to create the necessary opportunities for interaction?

Answering theses questions affirmatively is the responsibility of any church leader who expects members to be evangelists.


All of these require of leap of faith from the fish bowl.

This is the beginning of an extended look at fish bowl leadership and how it is silently toxic to church growth.

We’ll start with things to think about and see if some answers and strategies can be found to help us step out of the last two centuries and into a bright future.


This summer 2x2virtualchurch is launching a companion website, Small Church Toolbox, a resource site to help small membership churches minister in today’s world.