Appropriate Levels of Complexity

Complexity is probably one the most important factors in church organization, yet it is one that is rarely talked about. A system that is too complex or is not complex enough will not meet the needs of the church.

I was first introduced to the concept of organizational complexity by way of Mike Armour’s work on System Sensitive Leadership (links in the sidebar and the resources page). While the book doesn’t directly address organizational complexity, it does introduce us to the work of Clare Graves, a psychologist who developed the theory of emergent, cyclical, levels of existence. I’ve talked about these levels before and how they manifest in church life. Mike Armour covers this concept in detail. I’d put this in my list of must read books for church leaders.

One of the leading concepts in Clare Grave’s work has to do with complexity. While the different systems of thinking/existing are neutral as far as value goes, different levels of complexity will support different activities better than others. Some levels of complexity will not support some activities at all. For example, system 1 is all about survival. When you are trying to find where your next meal will come from and where you will sleep that is warm, you do not have the supporting structure to allow for innovation and creation. Similarly, system 3 is dominated by the strongest people. A “might makes right” if you will. If you’re not the strongest, the system will not support creative or developmental activities that meet your needs.

One of the presuppositions of the levels of existence theory is that problems generated at one level of complexity require a higher level of complexity to generate a solution. For example, system 4 developed as a response to the “might makes right” principles of system 3. System 4 is governed by law, rule, policy, and tradition rather than strength. Consider the world response to Hitler. After the allies overpowered the Nazi army, they responded by setting up a world body to enforce laws and rules to prevent that type of militaristic expansion from occurring again. System 4 provided great safety and protection from the bullies of system 3, which created an environment for system 5 to develop, which is focused on innovation, creativity, and individual accomplishment. You may recognize some of these general categories in church: the bullies that fight to get their way, the traditionalists that prefer the safety of familiarity, and the innovators that always want to try new and creative things.

Some of this may sound confusing, so here’s another way to illustrate the issue. Fighting with each other takes a relatively low level of complexity. Organizing an army takes a higher level of complexity. Equipping that army to fight in an age of digital warfare requires an even higher level of complexity. Developing nuclear warfare (only 7 or so countries have done so) requires an even higher level of complexity. Dealing with the effects of nuclear war and nuclear proliferation requires an even higher level of complexity.

An appropriate level of complexity is necessary for a church to be successful. Typically, complexity gets hung up over issues of power and territory. A small church that is led by a patriarch family, for example, will not survive past about 50 members if the patriarchic family is not willing to give up control. A medium size church that is led by a group of volunteer/laity elders or deacons will not thrive past 350 or so if they cannot relinquish control and leadership to ministry leaders/staff. A much rarer scenario has to do with the transition from 350 and up. Between 150 and 350, the church functions best if leadership is shared across a broad spectrum of ministry leaders that lead specific programs that they are passionate about.  When churches prepare to move past the 350 mark, the authority of the church has to re-centralize into a corporate model with professional staff that can coordinate the efforts of the church. Once the power has been shared among many people, it is very difficult to get it re-centralized again.

There is another interesting pattern as we progress through levels of complexity. Levels of complexity tend to oscillate between being group focused and individual focused. Compare these charts on church size and general system complexity:

Size Type Focused on:
<50 Family
50-150 Pastor
individual leader
150-350 Program
350+ Corporate
individual leader
System Values Focused on:
1 Survival Individual
2 Clan or tribe Group
3 Might makes right Individual
4 Law, Safety, Tradition Group
5 Innovation, success Individual
6 Mutual care and well being Group

The one issue that I have found inconsistent with Gravsian systems is the presupposition that the right solution to problems is a higher level of complexity. The issue I have is that sometime the problems are caused by too great a complexity. In these situations, reducing the complexity of the scenario also solves the problems. For example, a program oriented church divides the responsibilities of ministry leadership among ministry leaders that are passionate and concerned about their areas. In one particular church, there are separate ministries for greeting people at the door, for welcoming visitors at the welcome center, for helping people get to classes, and for ushers (those helping people find seats in the auditorium). This works fine up to about 350 members, however as the church surpasses that point, managing the transitions between each ministry becomes quite a hassel for the number of people they are dealing with. In this scenario, the best course of action is to integrate the separate ministries into one, essentially re-centralizing them into a corporate structure. This may be the only way to guarantee a consistent experience between each group. It definitely reduces the complexity of trying to coordinate the movements between the various ministry teams.

Boy, that was a long blog post. For those of you who made it through, what do you think? Next post will address culturally relevant systems.

2 Responses to Appropriate Levels of Complexity

  1. Meowmix says:

    I did make it through to the end. Don’t know how much I absorbed. The intricacies of your brain waves absolutely amaze me! 🙂 And I don’t know what I think, except that I usually try to go for the simple. But I was here!

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