If you asked most people in my church or who are familiar with church things what my title is they will tell you that I am the “Pastor” or sometimes the “Senior Pastor” of San Clemente Presbyterian Church. But, officially, in the Presbyterian Church (USA), my title is actually “Pastor and Head of Staff”. And if Brafman and Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and the Spider is correct, that title and all that it reveals could be the one of the most significant reasons that the PCUSA and other denominations are in decline.
But let me tell you a true story…
Last fall, a consultant that we hired to evaluate our church walked into my office. The plan was that after he had sifted through a few hundred surveys and finished up with several focus groups (including a group of people who had left our church), and had conversations with my executive staff and some representatives of the rest of the staff, that he and I would talk one on one.
He sat down, smiled and said, “You should be very happy about what is going on around here. All the indicators are that this is one of the healthiest churches in the country. People respect you, they love your preaching, they know and are committed to the vision of the church, they trust the leadership, they believe that it is heading in the right direction. It’s a really strong church. In fact, if I lived near by, I’d raise my children here.”
I listened, not terribly surprised, but gratified all the same. But, I knew that a “but” was coming…
“But, people are beginning to disengage emotionally. They feel as if there is no place for them to personally contribute. That the staff and inner leadership of the church runs everything so well that there is no need for them. Many people feel as if this church can run just fine without them and that the church itself doesn’t need them to participate in any way. They are satisfied but complacent. Many of them are beginning to slip away.”
As I listened to him, I felt both saddened and relieved. I had had a sense that there was something that was creating a kind of malaise in our church community. That for all the indicators of strength, that we were beginning to plateau numerically and become complacent spiritually.
“Okay,” I said, “it’s good to get that feedback. So what do we do?”
He said, “First of all you have to see the problem for what it is. For all the strengths you bring, Tod, the problem is you. We have rarely seen a church that is as healthy as this one. We have NEVER worked with a church that talks about its pastor as much as the people here talk about you. The people are here because of your preaching and your leadership. Many believe that this church was turned around, even 'saved' because of you. The people who left did so because they thought that you can’t relate to them. The people who are excited feel personally close to you, the people who are complacent say that they need you to support their visions and dreams. And most people believe that the church will die if you leave. This whole church is built around you.”
I gulped. I honestly didn’t know what to say. I didn't like the idea that this church was so much about me. I felt a bit embarrassed and defensive. I really hadn't tried to make the church so centered around me. But obviously, that is exactly what had happened. So, I just asked, “What do we do?”
He said, “You have a couple of options. On one side, you can all continue on the way you are going. You have great job security, the church trusts you, people will follow you. You can keep doing what you are doing for another ten years and then what will very likely happen is what is happening at large churches all over the country. They start a slow decline that continues until the pastor finally leaves. Then they cave in. And the church has to start all over from the ground up.” (My mind raced to all the other ministries that I have been part of before coming to SCPC…none of them thriving today.)
“Or you can begin to make changes to move yourself out of the center of the church while still being the pastor of the church. You can move from a ‘pastor-centric’ model to a ‘collaborative’ model.” And that was the first time that I heard the word in this context that would lead to the biggest “adaptive shift” of my leadership style: “Collaborative”.
Starfish and the Spider is study in the power of collaboration. The Starfish and the Spider argues that while healthy, “centralized leadership” can build healthy, visionary, enduring organizations that are worthy of investing one’s energy, time and resources, that same centralized leadership also stymies the collaborative creativity that makes personal investment and participation so exciting, meaningful and well, fun.
In fact one of its central rules is “Everybody wants to contribute”. They draw upon the story of Wikipedia to demonstrate that when given an opportunity to meaningfully and positively invest in something they believe in, most people would rather be participants than spectators. However, strong centralized leadership, no matter how well-meaning and effective, inevitably erodes participation and personal contribution.
In Starfish, Brafman and Beckstrom demonstrate that whenever there is a “head” in the center of the “body”, the body overtime naturally becomes overly dependent on the head. (Indeed, if the head is cut off, the body dies.) But if the function, the values, the security and accountability of the head can be distributed throughout the body, then the body can survive, adapt and multiply.
What I learned from the consultant and from reading this book, is that the very style of leadership that has made my congregation appreciate and trust me was now keeping us from becoming the church that we needed to be and this book was giving me a vision for what that new creative, collaborative community could look like in our church.
Now, Brafman and Beckstrom are NOT arguing for complete decentralization (indeed, in most cases that would be catastrophic), but for what they call the “sweet spot” of the “hybrid-combo”: A system that is centralized in the things that bring security, accountability and trust and decentralized in the areas that need creativity, participation and investment.
In a “Collaborative Model” the whole system is set up to engage and invite the personal participation of every member of the community in the partnership of ministry. It’s not about carrying out the leader’s vision, it’s about each person working together in partnership to contribute to a much greater vision. As our consultant told me, “Tod, if this church can stay as healthy as it is, and become more collaborative, it can make a great impact for the Kingdom.”
To understand more about this, next post, I’ll say more about the history of our church, “The Hybrid-Combo Sweet Spot” and why Ebay had to buy Paypal.