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The virtue of not changing

By Dr. Tim Spivey

Some concerned about their church’s well-being also experience frustration with their church’s inability to change. This can indeed be a problem. It could be, though, that it’s a lack of consistency in what should stay the same that is the real issue. While chasing around what the church down the street is doing, a church can neglect what matters most.

In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins and Morten Hansen argue that adherence to a SMaC (specific, methodical and consistent) series of guidelines played a far more significant role in companies’ ability to thrive in times of adversity or chaos than change. If what they are saying transfers to a ministry context, adhering consistently to specific ministry plumb lines may be more important to our churches’ well-being over time than the ability to change. Churches that are constantly changing their plumb lines don’t do well in times of chaos or adversity. Churches that have a clearly defined, specific, methodical and consistent set of plumb lines they adhere to will likely fair better over time.

“SMaC” guiding principles aren’t mission statements or core values. SMaC refers more to the “how” of ministry. The “how” and the “why” of ministry articulated in mission statements should go together. They just aren’t the same. Neither are SMaC guidelines doctrinal statements, nor are they tactics. In ministry terms, “add a second service,” is a tactic, not a SMaC guideline.

Here is an example of a New Vintage Church SMaC guideline: At New Vintage Church, we run a simple church ministry model. This is different from our mission statement – it isn’t a doctrinal statement, and it isn’t a tactic. It’s a way of doing ministry tied to our core. Like a constitutional amendment, it is changeable if need be – but not easily. Our tactics may change regularly – even constantly, but not our SMaC – not our ministry plumb lines.

For years, Southwest Airlines had 10 SMaC principles, one of which said, “Fly only 737s.” Collins and Hansen write:

“Putnam’s 10 points reflect insight, based upon empirical validation about what works. Take the idea of only 737s. Why would only 737s make sense? All your pilots can fly all your jets, allowing for immense scheduling flexibility. You need only one set of parts, one set of training manuals, one set of maintenance procedures, one set of flight simulators, one type of jet way, one procedure for boarding. But the truly amazing thing about Putnam’s list is its consistency over time. In total, the elements on the Putnam list changed only about 20 percent in a quarter of a century (127).”

After examining thousands of companies’ success over many years, here was Collins and Hansen’s conclusion: “We found in all our research studies that the signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change; the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency (p. 138).” Let that one sink in.

There’s nothing wrong with change. Change is necessary. However, make sure in your haste to change you aren’t abandoning things that actually help make you successful. If things at church seem like they need change, first make sure your plumb lines are clear and adhered to with great discipline. Even then, you may try changing tactics rather than the plumb lines. Perhaps Moliere was right: “most men die of their remedies, not their illnesses.”

Before we can cherish our SMaC guidelines, we have to clarify what they are. The best time to do this is before you’re in chaos or significant adversity. Trying to build foundation during a storm doesn’t work well.

Take the time. Do the thinking. It’ll be worth it.

Dr. Tim Spivey is lead planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, CA. Tim is also an adjunct professor of religion at Pepperdine University and purveyor of New Vintage Leadership, a blog offering cutting-edge insights on leadership and theology. He is the author of numerous articles and the book Jesus, the Powerful Servant.

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