February 19, 2018—Congregations are, by their nature, authentic communities of faith—despite the fact that they are also organizations. That’s an insight worth keeping in mind for every congregational leader. The tendency for leaders too often is to address congregational issues from an administrative approach in an attempt to control outcomes. Symptomatic of this tendency is the popularity of management books among clergy. Administration and management can work at one level, at the organizational level, but they will not work at the “communal” level. (Read an excerpt on what makes a congregation a faith community from the book The Hidden Lives of Congregations ).
One reason why management and administration cannot effect control or bring about essential change in congregations has to do with the nature of congregations as communities. Congregations are localized, encultured, emotional relationship systems and they are more organic than organizational. They embody well what constitutes a community, despite their organizational structures. If you want to understand a congregation, you’d do better to assess its culture than analyze its organizational chart.
One example often cited by harried administratively-oriented congregational leaders is that of trying to fix a dysfunctional committee. The logical, organizational approach is to remove (“fire”) everyone from an underfunctioning or dysfunctional committee and replace its members with more responsible, professional, and competent players. But most congregational leaders who have used this approach often find themselves frustrated by the fact that changing the players on the committee does not seem to bring about change in the functioning of the committee. I’ve heard one pastor moan, “How is it that professional and capable individuals can turn into such a bunch a clods when they become a committee?!”
Perhaps the most dramatic phenomenon related to congregations as authentic communities has to do with the tenacity of patterns of behavior through multigenerational transmission. Newcomers to a congregation can get into communal patterns, exhibit corporate behaviors, focus on issues, and fight the same fights whose origins lie generations in the past—even when they are not aware of the history and have no personal memory of the events! How does that happen? One explanation is that organizations can develop amnesia, but communities do not.
One concept that helps illustrate this phenomenon is “dynamical systems.” In part, this concept shows that memories are properties of the system—systems can remember the events of the past! Systems (cultures and communities) maintain and perpetuate (remember) patterns, properties, language, and event memory. Additionally, systems (cultures and communities) organize to their environment.
This phenomenon exists at all levels, from ants to congregations. Ant colonies, for example, replace their individual members over time, yet maintain the properties and patterns of the colony (the homeostatic patterns). Additionally, no two ant colonies are exactly alike because each colony adapts to its environment—they organize differently as they organize to their unique environment. Even the collective colony “memory” seems to vary from colony to colony depending on its experience.
That sounds very familiar to congregations, does it not? Over decades and generations church members come and go, yet cultural, behavioral, and emotional process dynamics and characteristics remain, maintaining both culture and identity–the good and the bad. Communities have powerful ways to ensure that new members accommodate to the system—even their leaders! In sociology, this phenomenon is called accommodation, the process by which individuals and groups adjust their relationships to each other in order to overcome the difficulties which arise in competition, contravention or conflict (Gillin and Gillin (1948)).
The reason certain committees will always be dysfunctional, regardless of the individuals who populate it, is that corporate memories are properties of the system, not the individuals only. Once an individual becomes part of the system, he or she “inherits” the corporate memory, and, the roles and ways of functioning that go along with them! Congregational leaders do well to remember that congregations are primarily communities of faith—that is their nature. A congregation needs its leaders to understand its culture and to function in ways that can foster healthy and vibrant community life, often, more than it may need efficient managers or expert organizational gurus.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context. (Didache Press), and; A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.