You or your organization may be plateaued
- 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.