Sermons by Pastor Marlan Knittel

Marlan Knittel

Pastor Marlan's Blog

August 19, 2017
Wise World Foolish Church Part 4

Create a Culture of Discipline, Not Control

It has only happened to me once. It was a gray, snowy day in Berrien Springs, Michigan. I have long forgotten the errand, but as I was driving slowly on an icy road, I came around a corner just a little too fast and began sliding toward a deep ditch beside the road. Desperately, I tried to steer and brake my way back to the middle of the road, but it was all in vain. I felt the sharp bump as my early Toyota sedan came to rest in the snow at the bottom, the driver's side sticking out of the ditch at an odd angle. Fortunately, a four-wheel-drive with a winch happened by soon afterwards.

Unfortunately, churches end up in ditches all the time.

This is the third post in a five-part series. In the first post, we examined Jim Collins' first secret--getting the right people "on the bus." The second principle is to face the brutal facts about your church's future. The third principle is to emulate the proverbial hedgehog. Today, we will examine Collins' fourth business principle as it relates to church growth.

Fourth, great companies create a culture of discipline, not control.

For a church on the road to greatness, there are two ditches to avoid.

The first ditch is mediocrity. My wife and I have been appalled at the lack of excellence we've seen in many churches. Sabbath School teachers parroting quotes and questions from the quarterly, and sound bites from Doug Batchelor, rather than helping their class to actually "hear" the Word (which requires study and practice). Worship team members refusing to practice, or meandering nonchalantly from the back of the sanctuary at the end of the service, leaving visitors to look around in embarrassment, wondering what is going on. Keyboardists refusing to practice with their worship team, unworried about their numerous mistakes. Elders droning on during offering appeals, or turning prayer requests into glorified gossip for members, and meaningless babble for visitors. In Bible times, Israelites were forbidden to bring defective animals to sacrifice, but many of us do this all the time.

I remember a time when the vast majority of cars driven on this planet came from America. A Japanese automobile in the 1960s and early 1970s was considered a novelty. But no more. Why? Because while American automakers were making bigger, more powerful automobiles, the Japanese were paying attention to tiny details. Details like

Americans began to notice that Japanese cars were quality and that they ran a lot longer and got better mileage than American cars. If Americans are "sharp enough" to know quality when they see it, why on earth would we expect them to come flocking to a carelessly planned worship service?!

However, it’s also a mistake to go to the opposite extreme.

That's why, secondly, we have also been horrified at the reactionary control exercised by some church leaders in attempting to whip their lame-offering church into perfection through policies, procedures and board actions.

Creativity is the engine that powers all great advances. From Einstein discovering the secrets of the atom, to Edison creating the light bulb, to a group of men honing and shaping the Constitution of the greatest nation on earth, creativity is the engine that moved them to greatness. But creativity only thrives in an atmosphere of freedom. And if church leaders pile up policies and petty rules, eventually they will stifle the creative energy of their volunteers and drive the hope of the church to passivity and inaction.

As a very personal example, I've watched my wife pour her passion, enthusiasm and energy into growing a church worship service that mentored youth and other participants and sucked members and visitors into a vibrant worship experience. But I've also seen her come home, deflated, after church leaders--the same leaders who publicly praised her--passed a board action that effectively bypassed her as a leader and stripped her of her creative freedom. Knowing that average church members would be treated with even less respect, she, rather than quietly walking away (like most would), took pains to explain to board members how their heavy-handed actions might affect a volunteer.

However, my wife was met with blank, obtuse looks and silence. After the board reaffirmed their original decision, I watched my wife’s passion for ministry in that church die. After spending hundreds of hours investing in worship ministry and creating a beautiful, classy church website, she had become listless, discouraged, and avoided anything related to church for a time. (To her credit, this was the final straw in a series of oppositional experiences.)

The church board was surprised by her resignation, claiming that their action was "just business and not personal." But is it good business to elect people to leadership positions, and then go over their heads without consulting them at all? Is it good business to discourage and inactivate your greatest resources--your volunteers? According to Collins, it's not enough to merely get the right people into your organization. Great companies must then go the extra mile by giving their employees freedom to create within a framework of accountability. Great companies know that micromanaging and controlling will deactivate and stifle their employees, and that great leaders empower their employees rather than control them through fear or petty policies and rules.

This isn't just a business principle. God Himself is passionate about freedom. Ellen White wrote in 1902:

God will not vindicate any device whereby man shall in the slightest degree rule or oppress his fellowman. As soon as a man begins to make an iron rule for other men, he dishonors God and imperils his own soul and the souls of his brethren. (Testimonies for the Church 7:181 - 1902)

Back to Collins:

Indeed, discipline by itself will not produce great results. We find plenty of organizations in history that had tremendous discipline and that marched right into disaster, with precision and in nicely formed lines. (Jim Collins, Good to Great, p. 126)

Throughout the study, we found comparison companies where the top leaders led with such force or instilled such fear that people worried more about the leader--what he would say, what he would think, what he would do--than they worried about external reality and what it could do to the company. (p. 72)

Consider Ray MacDonald, who took command of Burroughs [a business machines company] in 1994. A brilliant but abrasive man, MacDonald controlled the conversations, told all the jokes, and criticized those not as smart as he (which was pretty much everyone around him). He got things done through sheer force of personality, using a form of pressure that came to be known as "The MacDonald Vise." MacDonald produced remarkable results during his reign. Every dollar invested in 1964, the year he became president, and taken out at the end of 1977, when he retired, produced returns 6.6 times better than the general market. However, the company had no culture of discipline [or creative freedom] to endure beyond him. After he retired, his helper minions were frozen by indecision, leaving the company, according to Business Week, 'with an inability to do anything." Burroughs then began a long slide, with cumulative returns falling 93 percent below market from the end of the MacDonald era to 2000. (p. 130)

How much more will control or micromanagement stifle church volunteers, who receive nothing more for their time and energy than verbal appreciation at the most?

Ellen White notes,

The Lord has shown me that gospel order has been too much neglected and feared. That formality should be shunned; but in so doing, order should not be neglected." (Supplement to Christian Experience and Views, p. 15 [see also p. 97]. Quoted in 1BIO 286.5.)

Formality is defined as:

an established procedure or set of specific behaviors and utterances, conceptually similar to a ritual although typically secular and less involved. (Wikipedia)

the rigid observance of rules of convention or etiquette...a thing that is done simply to comply with requirements of etiquette, regulations, or custom. (Google dictionary)

an established way of doing something. (Webster online)

A middle-aged professional in one of my churches came to me one day with a passion for youth. “Pastor,” he said, “I've been thinking, and talking with my wife, about how often times our youth have nothing to do on a Sabbath afternoon. After gulping down a plate of food at our fellowship meal, they are often running around the church building not doing anything constructive. I know that a number of them are very musical and I think they would love to get together to sing and play instruments. They could be doing this in the sanctuary with someone running the soundboard and someone else putting the music on the screens.”

I was excited that this man, who was was extremely busy between his work and his family, was willing to spend precious time and energy investing in our youth. I told him that I loved the idea, and that he just needed to talk with the youth leader to make sure that whatever they did harmonized with that leader's plans.

The youth loved it. Someone played piano, some of them played guitars, and others sang favorite Christian songs. On the second or third Sabbath, however, one of my older board members, somewhat agitated, came to me demanding, “Who gave them permission to do this?!” and insisting that this activity needed to be approved by the board. While I didn't see any reason why it had to be brought to the board, I wasn't opposed. But I did not know the rest of the story.

The next thing I knew I was receiving a flurry of heated texts from the professional telling me that he was fed up with the meddling of the church board, that he was done leading the youth in their music, and was resigning all of his church positions. He'd been told that the board needed to approve this.

I later learned that this had been “the last straw” for him, the culmination of a number of times when his generosity had been checked, micromanaged or quenched by the board.

Of course, there is a need for accountability, but rather than asking, "What's our policy?" a church should ask: "Is it unbiblical? Unethical? Immoral? Illegal?" If the answer to those four questions is "No," then leadership should roll out the red carpet for the volunteer--not roadblocks!

Great companies (and churches) avoid both ditches by creating a culture of freedom and accountability. Curious about how creative, successful start-ups turn into mediocre companies run by control freaks? See below.

This is the fourth post in a five-part series. Click here for Part 5.

How do creative, successful start-ups turn into mediocre companies run by control freaks?

As a company grows and becomes more complex, it begins to trip over its own success--too many new people, too many new customers, too many new orders, too many new products. What was once great fun becomes an unwieldy ball of disorganized stuff....

In response, someone (often a board member) says, "It's time to grow up. This place needs some professional management." The company begins to hire MBA's and seasoned executives from blue-chip companies. Processes, procedures, checklists, and all the rest begin to sprout up like weeds. What was once an egalitarian environment gets replaced with a hierarchy. Chains of command appear for the first time. Reporting relationships become clear, and an executive class with special perks begins to appear....

The professional managers finally rein in the mess. They create order out of chaos, but they also kill the entrepreneurial spirit. Members of the founding team begin to grumble, "This isn't fun anymore. I used to be able to just get things done. Now I have to fill out these stupid forms and follow these stupid rules. Worst of all, I have to spend a horrendous amount of time in useless meetings." The creative magic begins to wane as some of the most innovative people leave, disgusted by the burgeoning bureaucracy and hierarchy. The exciting start-up transforms into just another company, with nothing special to recommend it. The cancer of mediocrity begins to grow in earnest. (Jim Collins, Good to Great, p. 121)

Why are policies and procedures created? Collins' answer may surprise you:

"Most companies build their bureaucratic rules to manage the small percentage of wrong people on the bus, which in turn drives away the right people on the bus, which then increases the percentage of wrong people on the bus, which increases the need for more bureaucracy to compensate for incompetence and lack of discipline, which then further drives the right people away, and so forth. (p. 121)

His solution is simple: "Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline" (p. 121).