‘Stone ships’ and fear are among the church’s greatest hurdles to leadership

Ronald E. Keener

Churches deserve extraordinary leadership, and it isn’t about being a mega church or a celebrity church, says Nancy Ortberg, a partner in Teamworx2 [teamworx2.com] and author of Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands: Lessons in Non-Linear Leadership (Tyndale, 2008). “Extraordinary leadership restores the power of God in our churches,” she says, as places of transformation.

Church Executive posed questions to Ortberg:

You speak about “stone ships.” What do you mean by that and what are a couple stone ships you have seen in the church?

Stone ships are bad ideas. You hear people say at the beginning of a brainstorming session, “Now remember, there is no such thing as a bad idea.”  Well, actually there is. Often, in churches, as an attempt not to hurt someone’s feelings, we implement them.

They become ministries that are ineffective and dysfunctional, but no one has the courage to stop them or help to heal them.

The other perspective on stone ships is that bad ideas will be a reality if you are truly developing a culture of risk-taking and innovation. We can’t be so afraid of mistakes that we fail to try new things.

You note that discussions about the future “need to move out into the organization.” How do you make that happen in a church which has diverse groups?

Primarily through collaborative conversations.  Most leaders think about the future, but few involve others or invite participation in the discussion. We avoid these conversations and thereby avoid all of the great energy and momentum these conversations can create in an organization. A conversation is not a promise and collaboration is not abdication.  It is, however, an invitation.

You say that “assessing the current reality almost always involves bad news.” How should we deal with being the bearer of bad tidings and practice “ruthless honesty”?

The truth is always our friend. Even if it is delivered poorly, we are all adults capable of separating the poor way it may have been said from the truth that may be lurking in it. The best course is truth delivered in a compelling and kind way.

Organizational change presumes individual change.  It is simply impossible for churches to change without people needing to change, and that’s where the courage of a leader, to hear and respond to the truth, is so important. It takes a lot of discernment, humility and openness.

From the perspective of your book’s theme, what are churches lacking in being prevailing churches?

I see many prevailing churches, but I would say those churches that are struggling most often lack compelling leadership that stirs people to believe that the power of the Gospel is by nature a transforming power. Then we need to develop and execute a strategy that releases that power.

I have to believe that the Holy Spirit intends for every church to be a prevailing church.  Perhaps fear and routine are some of our greatest obstacles to that.

What tensions most often arise in church administration and programming?

In many organizations the tension between innovation and infrastructure is strong. Often the innovators have the more “exciting” work to do, and those doing infrastructure are often viewed as necessary but not very interesting.  That kind of perspective can cause distance between those departments and adversarial relationships.

Organizations desperately need both innovation and infrastructure. Much of this comes back to valuing the spiritual gifts equally.  We so often put gifts like leadership, creative communication and teaching on a pedestal and treat gifts like administration as boring second cousins. That is so anti-Gospel; healthy churches value both.

You write about the culture of fear within organizations. Where does fear raise its head most often in the church?

Here’s what fear looks like in a church: hierarchical, authoritarian leadership; leadership through external, behavioral modification techniques; avoidance of conflict; doing the same thing the same way with the same people year after year and saying “God told me to do this.”

Fear results in people protecting their area to the exclusion of other areas; spiritualizing when things don’t go the way we had hoped.  Fear really poisons the church.


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