Sermons by Pastor Marlan Knittel

Marlan Knittel

Pastor Marlan's Blog

July 26, 2017
Wise World Foolish Church Part 1

Get the Right People on the Bus

As a teen, I loved blowing things up--tin cans, cow pies, homemade firecrackers--you name it.

Then I discovered acetylene gas. When it's mixed with oxygen, the result is explosive and spectacular!

It was perhaps New Year's Eve of 1977 and I was 16 years old. Earlier in the day, I had taken large garbage bags, filled them with the appropriate mixture of the two gases, and taped electronic igniters to the assembly.

About 9 o'clock in the evening, I placed the assembly on the roof of a cow trough, connected the igniters to an extension cord, and plugged the cord into a timer set for midnight. Anxiously, with a flashlight, I rechecked the timer setting and the extension cord. It was 11:30 that evening when I found myself on the front porch, looking over the pasture, my eyes riveted on the dim outline of that cow feeder. The minutes crawled by as I checked my wristwatch again and again and again.

Finally, my watch indicated that it was almost midnight. I was looking out into the pasture, dark under the night sky, my heart pounding, when all of a sudden a bright flash illuminated the pasture, the surrounding fence and the road in front. The brilliant flash was immediately followed by a powerful, sharp boom that rattled windows and sent a blast of air rushing past me. A millisecond later, it seemed that hundreds of sleeping birds suddenly awoke and tweeted.

Years later, reading a book by Jim Collins was just like that for me--a flash of light and an unforgettable awakening.

As a pastor, with all my training and years of experience, the secret of church growth seemed shrouded in obscurity. While I'd studied (and taught) the New Testament blueprint, and while I had followed my gut instinct, there were puzzle pieces that just didn't seem to fit.

But then I started reading Good to Great. A secular book about businesses, not churches. A book about making money, not winning souls. And as the pieces began tumbling into place, the words of Jesus flashed into my mind:

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: "for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." (Luke 16:8)

Jim Collins is perhaps one of the most influential 20th-century thought leaders in the business world. He studied mathematics and earned his MBA at Stanford University, worked with a number of boards and companies, and has written several books, including:

And Good to Great, which " ...attained long-running positions on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Business Week best-seller lists, has sold over 2.5 million hardcover copies, and has been translated into 32 languages," according to Wikipedia.

For this book, Collins and his team analyzed the histories of 28 companies over a time span of five years. After sifting through mounds of data and thousands of pages of interviews, Collins and his crew discovered the key determinants of greatness—“why some companies make the leap [to greatness] and others don't" (Good to Great, cover).

And my mind lit up with an explosion of thoughts when I applied the following successful business principles to creating a great church. Here are the gems that exploded off the pages.

First, get the right people on the bus. (And get the wrong people off.)

Books on leadership usually tell us to first gather a committee to vision and create a mission statement. But that is usually about as helpful as gathering a group of strangers off the street and asking them to create a strategy and care plan for raising your child. It's about as helpful as getting a group of advertisers and asking them to create a road map to create nuclear fission! Collins puts it this way:

When we began the research project, we expected to find that the first step in taking a company from good to great would be to set a new direction, a new vision and strategy for the company, then to get people committed and aligned behind that new direction.

We found something quite the opposite.

The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus…. They said, in essence, “Look, I don't really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: if we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we'll figure out how to take it someplace great.” (p. 41)

There are three reasons for this:

First, if you begin with “who,” rather than “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world…. Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. (p. 42)

As Collins explains later,

The best people don't need to be managed. Guided, taught, led--yes. But not tightly managed. (p. 56)

Further, commenting on Gillette's president’s penchant for picking the right people, Collins writes,

[Mockler] was so good at assembling the right people around him, and putting the right people in the right slots, that he just didn't need to be there at all hours of the day and night. (p. 61)

Getting back to the three reasons for the importance of getting the right people on the bus, here is the third:

Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn't matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won't have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant. (p. 42)

This is precisely the problem that many churches face. They've gathered the wrong people to create a mission statement that will be virtually useless and worthless by the time the ink has dried! I know. I've led out in doing just that--wasting people's time creating something that is irrelevant and worthless the moment it's done.

Picking the right people is everything. A former conference president I served under would allow churches to be without a pastor upwards of a year. Why? Because he was passionately committed, not just to filling a vacancy, but to getting the right pastor! This president embodied Collins' "Practical discipline number 1: When in doubt don't hire--keep looking." And under his leadership, Central California Conference became known around the nation as one of the best conferences to be in. It had an all-star cast of pastors, evangelists and workers.

Yet many churches are staffed with abusive or controlling people who are more concerned with their own status and power than with the well-being of the people they are supposed to be serving.

Getting the wrong people off the bus doesn't mean, as Collins puts it on page 54, "to think that the way you ignite a transition from good to great is by wantonly swinging the ax on vast numbers of hardworking people." But how do you know when to act? Collins gives a simple litmus test: 1) Would you hire them again? and 2) If they came to tell you they were leaving for an exciting new career, would you feel disappointed or secretly relieved? (p. 58)

But instead of picking the right persons, we tolerate the very people who destroy a church's spirit and suck the life out of its best people.

We've all experienced…. [having] a wrong person on the bus and we know it. Yet we wait, we delay, we try alternatives, we give a third and fourth chance, we hope that the situation will improve, we invest time in trying to properly manage the person, we build little systems to compensate for his shortcomings, and so forth. But the situation doesn't improve.… Worse, all the time and energy we spend on that one person siphons energy away from developing and working with all the right people. (p. 58)

How do you get the right people on the right seats (and the wrong people out)? In the Seventh-day Adventist church system, it is the nominating committee. I remember one woman who dominated a church board to such an extent that I considered tape recording a board meeting and actually calculating the percentage of time that this woman held the board hostage with her wishes and opinions. (She dominated up to 50% of each board meeting.) Finally, board members got so frustrated with her filibustering that they realized the only way to solve the problem was to remove her from her position. And fortunately, the nominating committee was composed of people with good judgment--and that's precisely what they did.

“But,” I hear you say, "how can you make sure that you get the right people on the nominating committee?"

  1. Pray for God's leading
  2. Choose people who are passionate about lost people, and who love God with all their hearts. (These are the people who are inviting their friends and connecting with new members and visitors.)
  3. Choose people who value Unity in Diversity rather than uniformity and control. These people will choose leaders who will nurture a culture of freedom and creativity, emphasizing ministry to lost people instead of excessive control and order in the church.

Alternatively, a number of churches are replacing the nominating committee with a Ministry Assignment Committee that meets year-round and is always available to put the best people into the right places. This type of committee is usually staffed with people who are passionate for lost men and women, and possess the above qualities. Often, the committee is comprised of the pastor, the elders, and others they choose who possess wisdom and discernment.

Such a committee usually has the ability and time to examine spiritual gifts and inventories of members. And it's key to remember that Jesus Himself did not choose the best qualified. Rather, he chose people who were teachable and humble, and he grew them into mighty warriors for the cross, passing by those who were mired in tradition and ceremony.

Often we go through the tedious process in a nominating committee, asking, "How can I fill all these slots as quickly as possible with the best people?" That's not what Jesus would ask. He would ask, "I have all these people with great potential. They may have a tardiness or temper problem. Where can I place them so that they can be transformed into the future leaders of this church?" To Jesus, it was never about policy or filling a position--it was always about people!

This is the first post in a five-part series. Click here for Part 2.