The True Strength of the Horizontal Church

HorizontalLeadershipFirst, let’s define the difference between the “Vertical Church” and the “Horizontal Church.”


The Vertical Church developed early in Christianity’s history. The Bible gives advice and talks about the qualities of leadership, but the rules of the Church as practiced for centuries are man-made—popes, cardinals, bishops. monsignors, pastors, laity  (or any denominational equivalent) were ordained by men, organizing the only way they knew how. When Christianity was developing, top-down was the societal norm in government, business and even in family life.


Vertical thinking is all most people in church leadership positions know! Their paychecks rely on them being good at it. They are often truly surprised when the authority they safely assumed is no longer automatic.


Time, patience—and money—for vertical structure are running out.


The Horizontal Church is emerging. It is the product of worldwide restructuring of how people think and relate to one another TODAY. Leadership is learning that top-down management stifles creative energy. It is growing more and more difficult for CEOs to give orders and compete in the marketplace with their products and for good employees.


The fuel for this shift in thinking is undoubtedly the internet. Today, when creative thinkers are told NO, they simply go online and figure a way to fulfill their dreams without the traditional structure that looks out for itself.


The Horizontal Church will bring new ideas and energy to a religion that is struggling for relevance in today’s society.


But it won’t be easy going for a while. The Church is entrenched in being Vertical. It will be difficult for church leaders to accept that the future of the Church will be stronger if they let go.


It is obvious in a study of statistics that the Church resonates best with the elderly–people who grew up with top-down, vertical power in their lives. Younger people, say 50 and down, have made adjustments in their lives. The older end of this spectrum either made adjustments in their fields or struggled to find a new field where they didn’t have to adjust. (Could that be the reason for so many second career seminarians?) The younger spectrum has known nothing but horizontal thinking. Church makes little sense to them.


The Horizontal Church must let the laity in—and not in a token way.


The church recognizes the shift in thinking to some extent. Here is a quote from a church leader.

“…the church has largely trailed corporate America in styles and patterns of leadership. While we’re still practicing an authoritarian style of top-down leadership we copied from corporate America in, say, 1950 or so, much of corporate America has moved on to embrace a more collaborative, engaged kind of leadership. These old patterns of leadership in which we’re often stuck are not sufficient for the leadership tasks at hand.—Amy Butler, Senior Pastor, Riverside Church, NYC

I’m Weak Like You

This writer goes on to describe what she feels must become the norm in the Church. She calls it Vulnerable Leadership. Pastors lead by sharing their failures. “I’m weak like you. Let’s work on our weaknesses together.”


Perhaps I see a problem here because I have been self-employed most of my life. Really self-employed—not like pastors who claim self-employment but who get a monthly paycheck with benefits. I know that vulnerability is not a strength. The self-employed learn early that customers may show empathy but they won’t hire you for their important jobs if there is any chance you will be focusing on your health or personal struggles.


A Vulnerable Pastor makes the first job of every congregation to heal‚ starting with the pastor. The result? A clique of dependency. Stronger church members, who might be raring to take on ministry challenges, will be perceived by those in the clique of dependency as a threat to the social order. The neighborhood will soon see a Church that is not for them, because they don’t fit into the clique of dependency or they will catch the vibes of tension between the clique and those who don’t fit into the clique.


A Better Way: I’m Strong Like You

Vulnerable Leadership may have its place, but younger church people are likely to view it as condescending.


WORSE: It misses the strength of Horizontal Leadership. For Horizontal Leadership to work, the approach must be “I’m strong like you. How can we work together?”


This shift in thinking will empower people who are chafing to make a difference in the world — and who can make a difference almost everywhere but in the Church!


Build on strength—the gifts of the Spirit. Be bold. Be strong. For the Lord God is with you!


Strong people can show compassion! Model it. Teach it. But lead from strength of character.


I urge church leaders, dabbling in Horizontal Leadership styles for the first time to:


Lead from strength. Put your best foot forward.

Expect and encourage laity to do the same.