LEADERSHIP & The Bottleneck Created by Most Decisions Going Through the Lead Pastor

by Bob Whitesel D.Min., Ph.D., 10/19/15.

A recent student lamented that all leaders (both paid, and laity) were always having to ask the senior pastor’s permission on almost all decisions.  “Let’s ask Larry first” was the retort he was growing frustrated at hearing (a pseudonym).  Or perhaps you have said yourself, “Let’s ask the head guy first.”  😉  The student citing Larry was frustrated that all leadership decisions went through the senior shepherd, even many middle-level decisions.  He wondered if the church (which now had several thousand in attendance) might still be functioning as a Simple Structure.  And if so, how could it grow so large and not become a Functional Structure, or a Multi-divisional Structure?

A short description of the three stages of organizational behavior (or just download my chapter on “Organizational Behavior” from Foundations of Church Administration (Beacon Hill Press, 2010).\

Simple Structure Organizational Behavior:  Owner/manager controls all major decisons.  Similar to a mom-and-pop store the organization stays small (usually in a church around 100 attendees).

Functional Structure Organizational Behavior:  Departments “function” as competing silos within the organization.  Their is internal tension and rivalry (churches usually in this stage are usually 100-300 in size).

Multi-divisional Structure Organizational Behavior:  The organization is made up of several sub-organizations that share assets. They aren’t departments, because each has their own departments.  Rather they are called “strategic business units” (SBUs) for they each have a strategic part of the market that they reach.

The quandary my student was facing with his question, had to do with the organizational behavior of the organization as it moves from the Simple Stage, to the Functional Stage, to the Multi-divisional Stage (Schaller would call this the mini-denomination stage).   That progress is the natural and most efficient process for a non-profit organization to go through.  However, sometimes due to many factors a church leader acting as the “owner/manger” (of the Simple Structure) will have grown a church up to several thousands attendees … while still operating it as a Simple Structure.  Clues that this is happening are: the widespread manifestation of the Pareto Principle, people need to “check with the leader” before new directions or course corrections are implemented, and a steady influx/outflow of good subordinate leaders.

Now my old friend, Pete Wagner would argue that this is an example of the apostolic gift of visionary (some would say autocratic) rule.  However, in my work with congregations of all sizes I have found the happiest congregants are in an organization that has a leader who empowers people to make decisions, and develops Vice President-type leaders who oversee their own “divisions” (read “sub-congregations”).

Congregations that are lead by a strong (what has come to be called “apostolic”) leader have a brittleness.  If anything happens to that leader the organization sufferers and looses vital momentum until another semi-autocratic leader emerges.

However, “healthy” organizations are those where multi-divisional structures allows multiple leaders to emerge, modeling their behavior after the senior leader who is a delegator, facilitator and vision-caster.  If a leader leaves, even the CEO, there are skilled subordinates with upper-management experience who can step forward.

You can see, the church in my mind has a long way to go to catch up with the management world’s understanding of organizational behavior and changing leadership styles during growth.   But that is why we have this course!  So you can be on the cusp of helping change the future and viability of our denominations.