Several years ago, as I was just getting into ministry, I became enamored with the idea of small groups. Initially because it was different than traditional (that’s been a theme with me), then because I was hired to manage small groups for a church. I’ll work small groups in later in our organization discussion but for now I want to tell you about one of the best God-ordained mistakes I’ve ever made.
In researching small groups, I got a list of about 10 books on groups recommended by various people. One of those was the Second Incarnation by Rubel Shelley and Randy Harris. Now, when the book was recommended it was told me verbally. Since I have the worst short term memory in the world, I immediately forgot both the authors and title (that’s before I knew either Rubel or Randy), but I remembered the gist of the title. It was something about a second coming, the future, something that ended in -tion.
So when I got to the bookstore to browse around, I looked in the small groups section to see if I could jog my memory. The closest thing I could find was “The Coming Church Revolution” by Carl F. George (Amazon link is in the sidebar). Seemed to match well enough, so I bought it and subsequently left it on my bookcase for several years.
Several years back I barred myself from purchasing any new books until I had read the ones I already owned, so I picked up this book and read it. While it has very little to do with small groups as we typically know them, it was an amazing eye opener to some of the basics of church organization. A lot of what I discuss will be based on this work.
Before we really get into complex church org theory, we have to get some basics out of the way. Church consultants have existed for a long time… long before church even existed. The first such example in scripture is Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro. The story is marginally well know by church leaders, and the full version can be found in Exodus 18:13-26. The gist of the story is that Jethro observes Moses wearing himself out trying to lead the people of Israel by himself. His advice: put in a multi-layered system of upper, middle, and lower level managers to take on the burden. Only the tough stuff came through to Moses.
The principles of Jethro are still used today in many situations, and many churches have adopted this model as a way to do church. Either through the use of deacons or ministry leaders, churches divide the work up among others so that no one person has to bear the burden by themselves. This was a very popular system in the U.S., particularly during the years before and after WWII, when C of C in particular was at its highest period of growth. The hierarchiacal principles of this system won two world wars for us and helped us rebound from the stock market crash in the late 20s.
Something that needs to be pointed out in Jethro I, though, is that the focus of the system is on the benefits to the managers of the system. Even Jethro’s comments are focused on sparing Moses the burden of having to do all the work himself. The second level of focus is on accomplishing the mission. How are we going to get all the work done that needs to be done while sparing the leaders the pain of having to see it all done?
Echoes of this can be found in the way churches start off trying to decentralize their ministries. Leaders have too much to do, so we find some trusty workers to help take some of the burden. We have a mission that needs to be accomplished, so we generate bulletin articles and announcements to convince people to get involved in whatever effort it is that we need accomplished. Some attempts to use this method are genuinely about sharing the load, while others are cloaked methods of control. We make sure that we’re still in charge because we’re in charge of the people working down the pyramid.
Jethro I is a great start, but there are some deficiencies built into the system. We’ll talk about those in coming days, but until then I want you to shoot holes in Jethro I. What are the deficiencies in this approach to church leadership?