Let’s get right to it.
In the business world, a closed-system at the leadership level means that the senior leaders are listening to themselves and each other, but to no one else. Those in production are shut out of the decision-making process, as are the front-line workers, as are the customers. These companies go from out of touch to out of business in short order.
In the political world, closed-system leaders – like Marie Antoinette, of “let them eat cake” fame – are similarly deaf to the voices of outsiders. Such leaders eventually lose their heads, figuratively or literally.
Consider Israel’s king Ahab (I Kings 22), who didn’t want to hear from the faithful prophet, Micaiah because “…he never prophecies anything good about me, but only bad.” Micaiah was sent to his cubicle on the “bread and water” diet, but Ahab died in disgrace.
In much the same way churches can become closed systems and suffer serious consequences.
Here’s what it can look like:
- The senior or solo leader isn’t listening or learning.
He surrounds himself with “yes men” who tell him he’s doing fine. If the numbers are good, why change anything?
- The leadership team isn’t listening or learning either.
In the smaller church they’re usually a select group of elders or deacons who dress alike, act alike and think alike. They make most decisions without consulting anyone – with the possible exception of their frustrated spouses.
In the larger congregation the senior leadership team sits in better chairs around a nicer table in a beautiful meeting room, but the dynamics are the same. The rank and file church members don’t know them. Nobody’s listening, learning or growing.
One church I served had a “perpetual calendar” available in the church office. “Perpetual,” because the same things were done at the same time, without fail, every year.
- Individual ministry leaders aren’t listening or learning either.
The same individual has run the Sunday School for twenty-five years and has changed nothing for the entire quarter century, because she’s not listening.
In churches there is a good version of “ownership” and a bad version of “ownership.” Good ownership means that Mary takes on the responsibility of the nursery and takes pride (“good pride,” that is) in keeping it ship shape. Bad ownership is when Mary insists on managing the nursery long after she has ceased to do it well.
- New ministry leaders are rejected in favor of the old leaders.
As above, why would the church’s stuck senior leaders take a chance on anyone new when there is such sweet safety in sticking with the older leaders?
- New volunteers are rejected in favor of the familiar.
Many congregations have newer (sometimes this actually means about seven years) members who would love to serve but are shut out. Old Charlie, who runs the building and grounds committee, is comfortable with the same volunteers he’s had for thirty years. Why would he want to take his chances with some new person who might not do things “right”?
- The rank and file are not heard from until an assessment process or a meltdown.
When I’m doing church assessments (consultations) I frequently have folks tell me that they don’t know who to go to with their questions or concerns. And they really don’t know, because no one has told them.
In other cases, they’ve tried sharing their concerns with a board-level leader who listened politely but never responded with a meaningful answer. “I’ll get back with you” were the last words the troubled member ever heard.
In other churches, concerned or grieved church members aren’t heard until a major church disaster results in a denominational leader or interim pastor coming to town and listening to them.
- Critics and departing members are stonewalled.
I know how hard it is to listen to one’s critics.
I know how much harder it is to listen to people we love who are on their way out the door of our churches.
But we have to listen to these people. However bad their attitudes (and behaviors) might be; there’s usually at least a kernel of truth in their criticisms.
Losing people is a high price to pay for our lessons, but if we listen well, these folks can make our personal ministries – and our churches – immeasurably better.
For the sake of the Kingdom we seek to advance and the God we love, please don’t create or perpetuate a closed system church.