the shape of leadership

Are Your Systems Stalling Your Growth?

Four questions for evaluating effectiveness

In his book, Predictable Success, Les McKeown describes the stages organizations experience as they age. One stage he calls “white water.” Organizations experience white water when their growth exceeds the capacity of the organization’s systems and processes. Things start to get choppy, break down and fall through the cracks because old systems can’t support the new growth.

Think of it like a multistory building. The more floors there are to a building, the stronger its structural system must be to support the additional weight. The system that supports a building at one size will buckle under the weight of a building twice its size. 

The same is true in a church. In fact, you could argue that the Church is a giant system made up of many people with diverse gifts. The apostle Paul said, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28). If the system doesn’t work effectively and efficiently with the right people in the right places, it will grind to a halt.

As a church begins to grow, it’s not uncommon for it to outgrow its various systems. In the early stages of growth, you celebrate as people come to Christ, become assimilated into the church, and take their first steps toward discipleship. But somewhere along the way, as growth picks up speed, the church starts to feel chaotic. The growth begins to strain the systems and processes you’ve implemented. Suddenly, cracks and gaps appear in your support structures. Unless the systems change, growth will stop — or even collapse.

Every system has a shelf life, and the moment you outgrow a system, it no longer matters how brilliant it is. It’s broken. It’s irrelevant. The very thing that facilitated yesterday’s growth is now the lid to tomorrow’s growth.

So, how do you know when it’s time for an upgrade? How do you know when your systems are limiting your growth? I would challenge you to ask yourself four systems questions.

As a church begins to grow, it’s not uncommon for it to outgrow its various systems.

Do I Need to Add a System?

Sometimes churches hit growth lids, not because of a broken system but because of a missing one. You can’t outgrow a system that never existed in the first place.

If you are experiencing chaos in some area, you need to implement a system that brings order and efficiency. If hundreds of people are visiting your church and you’re not keeping any of them, you don’t have an outreach problem; you have a systems problem. Build an assimilation system that keeps the people God is bringing you.

Does Our System Produce the Outcome It Was Originally Designed to Deliver?

Systems should meet needs and solve problems. If your system is no longer solving the problem you created it to address, you have a new problem.

For example, if you create a small group system to disciple new believers, but the system becomes a hurdle for mature believers, your system may need a redesign. Is the system producing a good result? Yes! Is the system fulfilling its original purpose? No! Measure the system’s effectiveness by the result you originally intended it to deliver.

Is the Amount of Time, Energy and Money That Our System Costs Sustainable?

If a system consumes a lot of time, energy and money, it will eventually slow down the church’s progress.

For example, if your leadership development pipeline requires 12 months of classes before a person can serve in leadership, you’ve probably created a system that is slowing down your growth. You might have great leaders, but the amount of time and energy required to produce one is unsustainable. Rather than fulfilling a mission, your system has become the mission. Don’t marry your system; marry your mission.

Is Our System Standing in the Way of Growth?

Without the ability to scale, your systems will inhibit the growth of your church. If your system to recruit volunteers works great in a church of 200, it may become a lid in a church of 500. Your system to communicate with staff in a church of 300 probably won’t work in a church of 900. Growth puts strain on systems, and at some point, you have to re-engineer the systems to support the weight of existing and future growth.

A system helps you deliver a predictable result. You can have systems for assimilating guests, developing leaders, recruiting volunteers, planning sermon series, and a host of other things necessary for a thriving church, but no matter how great the system is, always remember that the system has an expiration date. Hold the system loosely so that it can change when its time runs out. Growth and continued effectiveness require system shifts.


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