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You or Your Organization May be Plateaued if… (Part 3)

September 17, 2018 Leave a comment

You or your organization may be plateaued…

  1. If you’re trusting your programs to drive your growth.

If you’re like a lot of leaders, you’re getting a bit weary of words like vision or mission. After all, what are words when you actually need to produce something. High-minded talk is just that…talk.

Still, there’s no denying that a loss of vision in a church or an organization is the primary cause of plateau. People who forget why they do what they do usually stop doing it very well. In truth, vision can be on the wall, but if it’s not in our hearts, things will stagnate. The “why” turns out to be the key ingredient in re-energizing our efforts, and it’s amazing to see how easily its place of importance is given to something else.


Depending on your setting and the nature of your organization, the word “strategies” might feel more familiar. These are the mechanisms we use to bring about the realities our vision longs for. Programs are the steps we take to get where we long to go, but they are not the destination or the dream, and they make a lousy substitute when we slip them into the wrong place.

I see it all the time. Leaders who perceive that their group is plateaued start looking for that strategy piece, that magic bullet that will get the machine humming again. Conferences promise the answers, books chronicling the successes of others pile up in the corner as the search for “what we must do” takes over the leader’s focus.

Most of us have experienced the disappointment of “doing what they did and not getting what they got.” Someone else’s journey seldom lays over ours like a tight-fitting template. Elements like setting, resources, capacities, and opportunities rarely match the environ that brought someone else’s brilliant moves. Their program fit their moment and isn’t likely to fit ours.

AND…since programs are a means to fulfill vision, programs require vision to be fulfilling. Think about that with me. By design, programs are intended as the mechanism for achieving the goals of our dreams. But when there’s no clear dream, what will programs aim for and how will they be motivated. Programs without vision are just a lot of work. And new programs in the hands of folks with no vision have little if any prospect of effectiveness. Our search for that magic bullet comes up empty, not because the ideas are bad, but they fail because what they need to succeed is lacking.

The answer isn’t a “what,” it’s a “why.”

If lost vision, in the organization or in the pew, is the principal cause of plateau, then rediscovering it or finding a new one must be the way forward. Plateaued organizations typically don’t discover this until decline has brought us to our knees. Our struggle isn’t that we’re doing the wrong things, it’s that we aren’t doing them for the reason with which they were imagined.

Now vision is a struggle for many of us. After all, only about 20% of leaders are natural “vision leaders.” These friends look for answers in the vision drawer first, but most of us are looking somewhere else. As “values leaders,” we believe that doing what is right and always doing it right should bring results. Excellence in our processes and our programs becomes its own destination, and we struggle to acknowledge that our goals aren’t being met.

Fresh vision that rings clear in the hearts of our people is the catalyst to break from the bonds of the status quo. A new day starts in new hearts before it can be shaped into new ideas. “What should we do?” is never the first question to consider. Instead, discover your “why” and the “what” will be easier to find. Never forget that without strategy, a vision stands still, but without vision steps in any direction are unlikely to bring success

You or your organization may be plateaued if… (Part 2)

September 10, 2018 Leave a comment

You or your organization may be plateaued

  1. If you’re better at why we can’t than how we could.

A common characteristic in plateaued and declining congregations is the ease with which they reject new thinking, new ideas, new vision, and just about any other “new” mindset that presents itself. A culture of “no” often arises when we are stuck, not because we’re negative people, but because the status quo has become deeply entrenched and we often lack the kind of people that can help us think our way forward.

Plateaus typically come at the end of growth, not decline. It’s near the top of the closest hill where we can most easily find that settling place, and when we do we can find it equally easy to stay there. Plateaus are most commonly caused by lost vision among the rank and file. People are pleased with yesterday’s victories and are prone to bask in them until the momentum they provided slips away. Without vision, forward movement ceases and soon the pond from which we once fished out great ideas and efforts begins to grow stagnant.

People who join the leadership ranks in times of plateau are often a different breed than those who stepped forward when we were climbing. These friends, good people all of them, tend to be more managerial types—they can help us consolidate the previous gains and build systems that sustain them. These folks are good at doing what we’ve done and even adding some efficiencies to how we do it, but they’re not typically good at doing something new. In fact, the status quo that led to their leadership slot becomes something to subconsciously protect and taking chances on new ideas feels threatening.

I’ve worked in more than one organization that was trapped in this quicksand. New ideas, new product designs, new ministry foci, were typically met with “why that won’t work” or “why we can’t do that” type of responses. Often in such places, salesman or others responsible for the frontlines of customer engagement bring ideas that are quickly shot down by those who must produce them. In the church, it’s the ministry leaders who dream of new approaches only to have those governing the purse strings easily dismiss them.

A culture of “no” doesn’t always feel like a negative culture. Usually those who create it believe they are acting responsibly, avoiding careless spending, following the rules, or maintaining good stewardship in their efforts. This is simply who these leaders are and how the world they have created works most comfortably. Unfortunately, their sustaining motivation can lock an organization into zero growth mode.

Some have made a big deal of the difference between leaders and managers, and this is the arena where that difference makes sense. Surely, every entity needs both, but if your organization is quicker with the “no” than the “yes” it could be because you have managers in chairs where leaders should sit. Frustrated leaders call these folks “bureaucrats” or other less than attractive names, but what they have identified is a culture that hears “no” before it considers the possibilities ahead, a culture that’s better at setting up camp than going into battle.

Truth is, in the church this culture can grow out of frustration over what we really can’t do. When we see other ministries scale the mountain and celebrate the successes we long for, we want to take their climbing tools and join the fun. But then we realize those tools weren’t meant for our ascent and we add to our list of what we apparently can’t do. As that list grows, so does our tendency to greet future new ideas with the “no” we’ve learned from experience.

So…what do you do? Well, that conversation is yet ahead of us. But the first and necessary step is to say “yes” when someone asks, “do we need to change?” Plateau is so easy to deny and inaction is equally easy to justify. Now, the road out doesn’t come with just any new approach or idea, but it will never come at all until we recognize that a plateau has us in its grasp.

You or Your Organization May Be Plateaued if… (Part 1)

August 31, 2018 2 comments

“So…you’ve plateaued…”

Actually, it’s quite unlikely that anyone will actually tell you that, at least not in a timely manner. In truth, we don’t usually realize that we’ve plateaued in our careers, our personal growth, our marriages, or in the ministries we lead until signs of the more dreaded “decline” are in evidence.

To plateau is to “reach a state of little or no change after a time of activity or progress.” It’s when growth has stopped and isn’t going to restart on its own—a moment we typically don’t discern until we’ve been stuck for a while. For example, think about when you realized that you had stopped growing taller. For me, that was around 69 inches and it happened when I was 19, but something inside me was convinced I would still grow a bit more. After all, I had added 9 inches in the previous two years so there was every reason for me to believe (and hope) that greater “heights” were ahead. Even now, at 57, I’m hoping…but 38 years of evidence is starting to convince me that I’ve plateaued. (Yes, that’s what denial sounds like—and I’ve heard from others that some decline may be yet ahead).

When you’re leading any type of organization, including a church, signs of plateau aren’t easily discerned. We have our own forms of denial that block our view of reality—thoughts like next Sunday will surely be better…next month’s sales report will likely reveal what this month’s report didn’t… next season’s team will be better if we all just try a bit harder… But that’s not how a plateau works.

Having worked with churches and organizations for a lot of years, I’ve often wished we could discern plateau more quickly. If we just knew sooner that we needed to do something like refresh vision, develop new strategies, target new horizons, or awaken our values. Sadly, such knowledge doesn’t come in good timing, choosing to wait until the cement of a plateau has hardened around our feet.

Likely the biggest culprit in this ability to see we’re stuck is DENIAL. We want to think we are still in growth mode, not that the vision which once propelled us has now lost its steam. We want to believe that our renewed commitment to do what we’ve always known to do has some new results just waiting to emerge. After all, our current wisdom brought us this far. Finding new wisdom isn’t easy and chasing new direction can be risky—especially if we don’t have to…yet. So we hope for that better day to rise from the midst of our current day, and only when the days actually start getting worse do we confront the pain of seeing that something must change.

Recently I’ve been reflecting on plateaued organizations and on the indicators that might help a diligent leader to discover such a current condition. Though we don’t want to think we’re at that place, there are some organizational indicators that offer us the “heads up” we need to get started on solutions. These are the realities of plateaued organizations that many leaders and teams just get used to, not realizing the greater warning lights they’re trying to trigger.

A number of years ago, a comedian rocketed to career fame by suggesting that if certain elements were present in your life, “redneck” might be a label you’re wearing. Well, a list of signs that you or your organization might be plateaued won’t be as funny (or career-defining for me). But maybe that list could help you see what you’re not seeing or give you reason to face what you might be denying.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be sharing these indicators of plateau. At the moment there’s nearly a dozen of them, and they’ll relate regardless of the organization you lead. Most days, my vantage point comes from the world of the local church, but anything you lead, large or small, must confront the evidences of plateau. I am convinced that knowing these signs will help you gain both a better understanding of how organizations and churches work and what it looks like when things aren’t really working as well as we want to believe.

Subject to Change – 14

This 14-part series of blogs–Subject to Change–is taken from the first three chapters of a new book by the same name that I hope to release in 2019. Believe me, there’s a lot more thirst-quenching truth to draw from the well of things people wish their pastor knew about leading them in change. I welcome your comments on what you’ve read thus far…

So, Pastor, we know you’re anxious to get started on the future, but let us walk you through our past a bit. We need you to know a few things before we put this car in drive. So let’s summarize a bit:

We need you to know that you’ve missed a lot.

We need you to know that yours isn’t our first vision.

We need you to know that getting this far hasn’t been easy.

We need you to be gentle when discovering our failures.

And, we need you to walk in our old shoes a bit before thinking we can run in your new ones.

We’re all a part of a larger story, a tale we hope will reach epic measurements, and we want you to be everything your role requires. We’ll even help you by doing our parts too. Just don’t think that this story started the day we added your name to our bulletin. It didn’t and there’s a lot of stuff behind us that we’ll keep carrying until you lovingly help us lay it down.

Here’s what happens if you do. If you love us enough to listen to our stories and let us cry through the sad parts, we’ll write new stories with you. We don’t need you to fix us—at least not yet. We don’t need you to run your highlighter over our failures—we know them too well. We just need you to love us enough to think you can learn from us too. And we’ll teach you what a few forays into the tall weeds have taught us. We both need to know those things ‘cause we really don’t want to end up there again.

Remember My friend, Bill? He turned out to be a really good guy. In fact, by the end of our journey together, he was ready to stand before his congregation and use his influence to fuel the new direction he and his team had discovered. Turns out he’s the kind of guy you’d love to have in your church. To say that he’s a believer in his congregation’s future today would be an understatement. I’m guessing there are several folks in that church reeling in shock to see Bill becoming such a catalyst for change. Last I saw, He was joyfully flailing his arms to fan that flame. It feels really good to see him so enthusiastic. Like most of us, he’s a lot better looking when he smiles.

Funny thing, though. I keep running into Bill nearly everywhere I go. Actually, it’s not Bill himself, but maybe a few of his cousins. In so many settings, I find people twisted into a tight ball that will only ever be unraveled when a wise and caring pastor takes the time to do what Bill’s pastor did for him.

Truth is, Pastor, none of us have been where you want to go, and we’re pretty sure that you haven’t been there either. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go or we don’t long for destinations like the one you describe. We just need a bit more trust, a bit more relationship, and a little less fear to climb aboard your fast-moving train. We’ve always thought there could be a Promised Land for our congregation, but so far it’s only been a place we talk about and we’ve already tried more than few maps to get there. Yours may be the right one and you may be the chosen one to guide our journey there, but the previous locomotives that have powered through here and the depot full of baggage they left have taught us to prefer looking more than leaping.

Subject to Change – 13

Welcome back to our ongoing discussion of the things people wish their pastor knew before leading them in a journey of change.

A second fact many pastors will discover when they look into the congregational past is that we’ve got our share of dysfunction.

No congregational journey can be reviewed without discovering a fair number of detours, wrong turns, and family quarrels in the car. Welcome to humanity, the necessary risk God took when entrusting His eternal purposes to us. We tend to get a number of things wrong on the road to getting them right.

One of the greatest ventures in human history begins unfolding in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. Moses, a slave baby raised in the palace, leads masses of the oppressed to a land of freedom and plenty. It’s a compelling story with every plot line the most creative screenwriters could possibly manufacture. That’s why every movie ever filmed of those events gets the label “epic.” It’s an amazing story.

But, think about this story from the bird’s eye view. First, you have such an amazing vision—Promised Land—a gift to people who’d spent more than four centuries in slavery. We’ve lived the American dream for a little more than two centuries. Imagine facing your greatest nightmare for twice that amount of time only to have the horror melt into a hope like this one. Honestly, the idea was so appealing that even a bunch of Egyptians gave up their homes to follow those slaves into the desert.

Of course, this was God’s journey. He proved He was along for their ride on numerous occasions. First, He extricated them from Pharaoh’s grip with the help of ten horrific plagues, aiming them into the Egyptian neighborhoods with a precision that makes our smart bombs look like kindergarten projects. Then, He dropped a moving sidewalk into the middle of the Red Sea, creating an aquatic adventure Sea World can’t copy. Maybe they could if anyone would have taken a few photos, but there wasn’t time before God Himself collapsed that body of water into a frenzy of waves that washed away the powerful army that had been chasing them.

There was honey-soaked bread-like stuff on the ground. There was water from a rock, and quail that flew so low and so slow that even the senior adults were catching them in their bare hands. I hunted quail a few times and know first hand what a miracle that would take. To say that God made this journey with them seems to be a colossal understatement.

Don’t forget the cloud. God put a puffy tour guide in the skies to show them when and where to move forward, and He even lit that fuzz ball up with fire at night so they’d be confident of His direction, even while they were sleeping.

And Moses was a pretty good leader himself. The Book of Hebrews lauds his humility and its clear that this former Egyptian prince had a heart for God that few can match. If you want to be a leader, it’s hard to find a finer example to follow than Jochebed’s boy.

So, put that all together. You have amazing vision, God’s power and presence punctuating the journey in “you-had-to-be-there” kind of ways, supernatural guidance so clear that even the most foolhardy could see which way to go, and a leader of leaders that’s easily among human history’s top ten guys to follow anywhere.

And still there was dysfunction. People complained and wanted to go back to the land of slavery where they were now hated with immeasurable fury. Some of the leaders were given to backbiting and jealousy. They even called God’s spotless record of support into question when the enemies became bigger. Frankly, if there was ever a journey that should have danced all the way to the end, this was it. A real life musical in the making, and yet they hit an awful lot of sour chords.

Every journey has problems…yours will too. So, Pastor, as you look at where we’ve been, be gentle.

Too many new leaders try to build their current credibility on the failures of the past. They vocalize the frustrations of the formerly frustrated; thinking that affirming their disagreement with former leaders somehow aids their own popularity. They point out the mistakes of the past; hoping people realize that “had I been here” the path would have been straighter. So trashing the predecessor or ridiculing the past becomes the path to a weak leader’s future.

He won’t live to see it.

If you criticize the day you didn’t live and the road you didn’t walk, you alienate those who did. Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but the last thing we need is for someone to remind us of that. Besides, that leader you’re refuting cared about us, led in circumstances you don’t fully understand, and sought the same God for direction that we need you to be talking to. Don’t ridicule the work that preceded your arrival. You won’t earn our respect that way.

Change, on its own, can feel like a criticism of the past. A new way causes some to think you’ve decided the old way was foolish. Don’t add to those inaccurate perceptions by careless words and actions that seem to prove them true. The Apostle Paul wasn’t afraid to confront unhealthy stuff when necessary, but even he told us to prove all things and do your dancing around the good stuff (somewhat paraphrased).

If you want to lead our next step, affirm the steps we’ve already taken. You may be smarter than our last pastor, but if you insist on acting like it, some of us will feel compelled to prove otherwise. He was our friend first. Even if he made a mess of things and limped away in colossal failure, it’s not fun to gloat over his grave. We need to build with rock, not mud.

Subject to Change – 12

July 16, 2018 2 comments

Welcome back to our ongoing discussion of the things people wish their pastor knew before leading them in a journey of change.

Remember my friend Bill? He was the fella struggling to see a future for his church because the past tended to demand his undivided attention. Like a driver with an 18-wheeler bearing down on him, he was struggling to give any focus to the windshield. Sometimes the monsters in the rearview mirror really are closer than they appear to be.

Bill’s story is sadly far more common than most of us realize. When you become the pastor of a local congregation, there are many stories you don’t know and haven’t been a part of. And, a lot of them aren’t good stories. In fact, people don’t talk about them, and if they do, they only whisper.

To effectively lead many established churches into the future, a pastor has to have a grasp of the past. You see, the past has shaped the present and it has molded some of its participants too.

Over the years, several people have told me that I tend to walk too fast. For whatever reason, my approach to getting where I’m going occurs at a pace that’s uncomfortable for many of those who walk with me. So, I’ve been known to escape the sight of those following me through airports or traipsing toward the work site on a church missions trips. “Can we slow down a bit,” they ask politely, though I’m guessing they may be mumbling other things.

I admit that I walk fast. The “too fast” part is the opinion of others. And, chief among them is my wife, who frequently reminds me that we’re not in the hurry my legs seem to believe in. Now, my wife is an aggressive high-achiever who, like me, packs more into her calendar than some find realistic. She’s not slow by any definition. My guess is that the difference in our paces relates to leg length and one other major factor—shoes.

I’m no expert on women’s shoes, and I tread cautiously here so as to avoid losing what could be more than half of my readers. But it seems to me that in women’s shoes, there is often an inverse relationship between attractiveness and functionality. When Nancy Sinatra originally sang, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” she probably had a specific set of footwear in mind. So did Jessica Simpson when she more recently recorded the same tune, though I’m guessing that her closet offers a variety to choose from. The song suggests that each woman had other options in their closets, but they weren’t made for “walkin’.”

I’ve never worn women’s shoes and have no plans to do so. But I have become convinced that should I ever don a high heel, the speed of my gait would surely be affected. Simply put, if I walked in my wife’s shoes, I wouldn’t walk faster than she can.

The idea of walking “in someone else’s shoes” implies understanding where they’ve been and what they’re dealing with from an insider’s perspective. It means exploring what we feel about the journeys we’ve faced and how those journeys may currently be killing our feet or even hurting our hearts. A leader who ignores the impact of where we’ve been will never understand us enough to effectively lead us in a new direction, no matter how wonderful the waters of your Promised Land might be for soaking our feet. You need to take a few steps in our shoes.

That’s what we’re asking you to do, Pastor.

And, yes, that will probably mean moving a bit more slowly. You see, our shoes can be caked from the mud of a previous journey. Our shoes can be damaged and the heels a bit broken from a few missteps or battles we may not have won. The racing stripes wore off long ago, too. But these are our shoes…and they’re the only ones we have.


Subject to Change – 11

July 9, 2018 1 comment

Pastor, if you’ll listen to your people, you can gain important insights that will help you lead them in change. Here’s something you can learn…yours isn’t our first vision.

There’s something exciting about a fresh start with a new pastor. You can tell as you watch the Sunday attendance swell a bit on that first Sunday. Even some of those who had drifted away in recent months stop by again—people come to see.

What are they looking for? That’s a bit hard to be sure of. Some may have felt rejection from a previous leader and now look to see if there’s any single Sunday evidence that the new regime will be different. Some miss their old friends and see leadership change as the opportunity they need to reenter without having to answer a lot of questions. Some may be wondering who else had left after they did, since they figured theirs would be the first of many departures.

But most come to see what the new day will look like. They come to hear what new priorities will be undertaken. They come to feel the direction of an altered journey to determine if the church will now choose a destination that they’d like to find. In a word, they come for the vision.

Vision is a difficult word. It suffers from overuse, to the point that any clear sense of its intended meaning has been obscured by the dozen or so other meanings it has been known to carry. Vision can mean many different things to many different people, much like the idea of “love” and the specific manifestations of “flu.” You just can’t use such words without also explaining what you really mean.

In this instance, vision definition is in the eye of the beholder. What did that slightly enlarged crowd come looking for? What were they hoping to hear or to settle in their minds by darkening the door on our new pastor’s first Sunday? And what was it that they apparently didn’t hear or didn’t like since their Sunday attendance didn’t reproduce itself?

In such moments, vision means new direction and destination, and the strategies that will get us there. While that’s more than the word should really mean, a pastor’s sense of vision must produce it all. He must tell us where we are going, why we are going there, and how we will most likely get there. That’s what Moses brought down from the mountain and that’s what we’re looking for from the new Moses who just moved his family into our tiny parsonage. What’s God telling us to do, how is He telling us to do it, and what will things look like when we’ve done it?

That’s a lot of pressure on poor Moses, especially if he hasn’t been up the mountain yet.

Truth is, a new pastor can’t and shouldn’t have all those answers on his first Sunday. He just joined our carpool, and even if we decide to let him drive that first day, the only places he knows to find are the places he’s already been. He could try to superimpose the road map of his last church on us, but that’s probably not a journey that fits in the new place. So, how can he know where we’re going or have the beginnings of any idea of how to get there?

Vision is hard, and how to find it deserves its own book, but what we really need pastor to know is that we’ve been down this road before—more than once.

As I already mentioned, I was pastor number thirteen. From everything I could tell, those other twelve guys were pretty remarkable. Though many had died before I started to live, some of the names were quite familiar. There was the prominent missionary whose amazing stories among cannibals in Liberia were the stuff of legends. Little wonder, that the great missionaries to emerge from this historic congregation were launched during the late 1920s era, when his vision ruled the roost.

There were the denominational leaders, a few who had spent time amidst this congregation on their way to bigger things. The footprints of their excellence were still discernable in the hallway carpet and in the hearts of those they once led.

There was the guy whose evangelistic zeal had guided the days of the church’s greatest attendance. Busses in the 1960s had brought dozens of children and parents to the door, a strategy that swelled the black and white sanctuary photos of those days until it seemed the building would hold no more. (I finally got around to reading that history book.)

And there was my predecessor, the brave saint who led the church’s aggressive and under-resourced move to the suburbs. It wasn’t easy to abandon the deteriorating building his vision inherited for the temporary comforts of a shopping mall until the new campus could be ready. It wasn’t easy enduring the financial failings of a general contractor that left much of the finish work to his aging congregation. It wasn’t easy, but he did it—by vision.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, twelve pastors meant twelve visions. And, after you’ve rambled in the wilderness chasing after that many different oases, it’s hard not to lose your own way. Just like in your church, pastor. Once the people have been led to pursue a few different visions, their anticipation of the next one wanes a bit. If the last couple of chases have done little to quench their desperate thirst, don’t be shocked if your enthusiasm for a new journey is met with a bit of barely-veiled ambivalence.

We’ve been here before.

Now, that doesn’t mean we don’t want to go with you or that we’ve all purchased subscriptions to “Better Homes and Deserts” and want to plant radishes in the sand. We want the new day you hope to bring, it’s just that we’ve been down a few roads already. That’s why those folks didn’t come back after they dipped their toes in the water on your first weekend. We want vision, we need vision, but after we’ve lived through several visions, vision just doesn’t rev our engines like it used to.

You’ve probably heard about that frog that once battled the limits of the jar that contained him. In his early days, he jumped a lot, banging his somewhat slimy green head on the underside of the lid until repeated bouts of dizziness taught him a new way. Now he doesn’t jump as often, and certainly not as high, so go ahead and use that lid on a jelly jar (just wash it first).

Frankly, church can be a place where we talk a great deal about what we’re going to do and why we should do what we’re going to do, but it’s not always a great place for getting it done. Motivation without strategy has doomed many a vision, and left us with a keen awareness of the gap between where we are and where we could be. Add thoughts of God and His purposes to this mix and “could be” starts feeling like “should be.”

So, Pastor, don’t think we’re not interested in the new day you dream of. We truly are. But yours isn’t our first lap on the vision track and some of us still have sore muscles from the last time we tried to sprint. We’re a bit more cautious now, and we might need some pre-race stretching.