The Clergy-Focused Congregation

One of the things that we say about organizations is that focus trumps picture.  That is simply another way of saying that when people reflect on how they feel about an organization, they don’t look at the entire picture of what an organization does.  Instead, they focus on a few things that are important to them.  The few things they focus on are more decisive than everything else in the picture in determining how they feel about that organization overall.

We call those important areas where members focus drivers of satisfaction.

One of the patterns we observe in some faith communities is that members focus on the clergy person when they reflect on how they feel about the church overall.  We call these systems “clergy-focused.”  Generally, like the example below,  a system is clergy-focused when three or more of the top five drivers on a Vital Signs report concern the work of the clergy person…or two on the clergy person and one on worship.drivers for clergy focused.png

Sometimes, people confuse clergy-focused with clergy-driven.  When we say that a church is clergy-focused, it does not mean that the pastor is running everything.  A church can be clergy-focused where the pastor is leaving every decision to the lay people.

In a clergy-focused church, how people feel about the pastor is more important in their overall view of the church than other parts of the picture like Christian formation, hospitality, music, youth ministry, or how decisions are made.  In fact, members in a clergy focused church will often indicate dissatisfaction with areas of the church that arguably have nothing to do with the pastor.

To say that a church is clergy-focused tells you nothing about the strength or weakness of the church.  Some clergy-focused churches are transformational.  Other clergy-focused churches need reinvention.

In a clergy-focused church that is in need of reinvention, making changes in any area will have little impact on the how satisfied people are with the church unless the changes impact how they feel about the relationship with the pastor.  For these churches praiseworthy efforts like strategic planning will have little benefit to the church for the same reason.  I do not recommend strategic planning for a clergy-focused reinvention church.

Clergy-focused systems have some advantages.

First, positive changes can happen quickly in a clergy-focused system.  When a new pastor is brought on board who “clicks” with the congregation the mood of the congregation can change almost instantly.

Second, some pastors function well in a clergy-focused system.  They tend to be persons who enjoy center stage, have a bounded-ego, and who can parlay good will and resources into ministry and mission.

Third, clergy-focused systems can grow to become quite large since members may have lower expectations of their interactions with the congregation because the benefits of membership accrue to their relationship with the clergy…even if it is a distant, virtual relationship.

Clergy-focused systems have their downside as well.

First, clergy-focused systems tend to be anxious systems because success or failure hangs on one person.  The pressure of clergy-focused systems can lead to pastors who burnout or flameout.

Second, the conflicts in clergy-focused systems tend to get focused on the clergy person even if they have nothing to do with him or her.

Third, there are few remedies for clergy-focused systems that get themselves into trouble.  Once things goes south, it is difficult for the pastor-people relationship to be fixed.  When the church is clergy-focused and one or more critical success factors on the clergy person are above 30, steps should generally be taken to help the pastor move on. This is especially the case in clergy-focused, Hearth and Home church cultures.

Wherever a congregation finds itself, it is important  to know what the congregation is focused on so as we move forward we are mindful of what might be trumping the bigger picture.   It is also important to remember even if we can’t see the bigger picture, there is always someone who can. Unknown


The Smaller Picture – The Power Focused Congregation

This post stems out of a conversation regarding a church that had drivers which were highly focused on clergy and governance questions from the Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT)*.  For those of you handling these types of interpretations or working in/with congregations we hope this is helpful.  It is important to note this is where the clergy profile comes into play even if you, as an interpreter, are not privy to the profile itself.  The clergy questions help you, as the interpreter, determine if you have a power or even a clergy focused congregation which is an important piece of the congregation’s data.  If you have further questions please comment below or email me at               –Emily Swanson, President of Holy Cow! Consulting 

One of the learnings gleaned from Organizational Intelligence is that focus trumps picture. When people reflect on how they are experiencing a particular congregation they can’t possibly consider everything the congregation does, or what we refer to as the picture. Instead, they focus on a relatively small number of factors that are having the largest impact on their own experience. What they focus on becomes more important than everything else in the larger picture. What people choose to focus on varies from one congregation to another and becomes that congregation’s fingerprint.

One of the types of congregations we see when interpreting the data from the CAT is the Power-focused congregation. Power-focused congregations are congregations where members gauge their overall experience based on:

  • How decisions are made.
    • Example: whether the board or the congregation should approve the budget
  • How they feel about persons in power.
    • Example: whether the persons in power represent their constituency within the congregation
  • How they feel about a particular issue.
    • Example: A political or larger societal issue.

On a Vital Signs* report, a power-focused church is indicated by strong drivers that are usually a combination of questions from the Governance Index and questions regarding the clergy person.

The following is an example of drivers that indicate a power-focused congregation – note that the first is from the Governance index while Drivers #3, 4 and 5 are focused on the clergy:Drivers for Power Focused.png

When working with a power-focused congregation, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Sometimes power-focused congregations can be helped by developing an external,
    missional focus. This is especially true when the issue is internal. However, it takes time for a congregation to shift its focus from power to purpose.
  • Sometimes power–focused congregations can be helped by realizing that there are alternatives ways of dealing with conflict, such as negotiation, mediation, or, when necessary, appeal to higher authority. Avoidance strategies such as clamping down on behavior may simply drive the conflict underground.images-2.jpeg
  • Power-focused congregations can be some of the most difficult congregations to help because they tend to set up in a “win-lose”
  • In larger power-focused congregations, polarization can occur around staff issues, particularly when a staff member with a significant constituency is fired or disciplined.
  • Power-focused congregations are almost always congregations with significant conflict as reflected in low conflict management scores. When conflict scores are higher than or equivalent to governance scores, it generally m
    eans the conflict is active, whether overt or passive.

Unfortunately, there are some power-focused congregations that will not recover unless one faction yields to the other for the sake of the mission of the church, or finds a faith community that is more resonant with its core values.

-Russ Crabtree, Founder
Holy Cow! Consulting


*The Congregation Assessment Tool (CAT) and Vital Signs reports are trademarked, copyrighted and owned solely by Holy Cow! Consulting.

The small but mighty power that is the Transformational Church

Robyn and I spent the weekend with two churches. Both congregations were in the transformational quadrant of the energy-satisfaction map.  Both have created vital worship experiences for their congregations. Both are flexible to change so they can be more effective in their missions.  Their congregations have developed meaningful relationships with each other and there is trust in the decision-making and the leadership.  There is a commitment to learning and quality educational programing – meeting their congregations in all stages of their life.   They are both out in the community teaching, clothing, and feeding their neighbors. The difference between the two? One church has a weekly church attendance of just under 500 people. The other church has a weekly church attendance of 50 people.

We often hear from congregations that they feel challenged by their smallness.  They do not have enough people, enough resources, enough hands to help.  And there is truth in this. The challenge is real and it can be overwhelming.  But this weekend reminded me that even the smallest of us can have enormous impact.  We can share meals with each other. We can teach each other.  We can heal.  We can minister to the broken. We can sit with each other in times of great sorrow and share great joy. Whether there are 500 of us or 10, we can do all of these things.

In our work with all congregations, large or small, our charge is to help them on their journey to becoming the vibrant church that Jesus spoke of when he started with just twelve.   The small and mighty can do amazing things.

Blessings as we all grow together,

Emily Swanson

President of Holy Cow! Consulting

Organizational Intelligence (OI) and the Grand Analogy

In his book, The Mind of God, physicist Paul Davies reminds us that one of the abiding mysteries of the universe is why the physical world can be accurately described by mathematics. When I was in research, it always amazed me that I could model a physical system with the most abstract set of mathematical symbols scribbled on a sheet of paper and observe that it would accurately predict how that system would function in time and space. What is it that connects such seemingly dissimilar things?

We read Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” without objection that a “world” and a “stage” are two very different things. Our minds admit analogies of all kinds that connect apparently dissimilar things in a way that one actually gives insight into the other. We admit “love is a many splendored thing” as if love were a “thing” like a table or chair. Why do we do this?

There seems to be some Master Analogy at work in the universe that connects dissimilar things in ways that give insight into both. For Christians, that Master Analogy is the incarnation. The incarnation affirms that there is no fundamental contradiction between divinity and humanity that would preclude them existing in one person. There is something divine enough about humanity, and something human enough about divinity that they can be connected through analogy, metaphor, and poetry. The power of every parable to reveal God rests on this connection.

If this is true, all of creation is sacramental. It points to a deeper reality underlying this reality that is good, beautiful and loving.

Why does OI “work”? How is it that a bunch of symbols on a page can tell a story that helps a body of people feel known and, through a gracious interpreter, feel loved and hopeful? Beneath all the technology and mechanics, the answer is more mysterious than we may realize. OI “works” because this Master Analogy is connecting up the universe in a way that is nothing short of magical and has been revealed to us in the wonder of Christmas.

Happy New Year!

Russ Crabtree
Contributing Author
Holy Cow! Consulting

Organizational Intelligence (OI), Treasuring, Pondering.

“But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

Luke 2:19

One of the uncomfortable revelations of Organizational intelligence (OI) is that our current spiritual practices are having little impact upon the ability of members to sustain positive relationships, practice hospitality, resolve conflict, trust leaders, or engage in ministry. One of the most important tasks of the Christian Church in the 21st century is to adopt a spiritual practice that bears fruit, that is, one that actually “works.”

One of the findings of neurobiology is that stress activates portions of the brain that trigger reflexes to fight, flee, or freeze. Lived out in a church under stress, this means that we are almost guaranteed to see people engaged in conflict, rigid behaviors, or leaving the fellowship all together. Religious practices that are simply focused on ideas, doctrines, rules, authority, pleading (or other forms of verbalized anxiety) have been shown to have little impact upon a person’s serenity, ability to nurture positive relationships, or to achieve meaningful goals.

What does show promise in the research is the kind of “treasuring” and “pondering in the heart” exhibited by Mary. Because negative messages travel through the brain ten times faster than positive ones, a deliberate effort must be made to “treasure” some thoughts more than others. Otherwise the good news of Jesus Christ becomes bad news wrapped in a thin religious veneer.

The ability to focus the mind, to ponder rather than wander, has also been shown to have positive effects of all kinds upon the lives of those who make it a regular practice. What’s more, the power of an intentional imagination is greater than we have realized. When a person imagines being touched by Jesus, the changes in the brain are the same as would occur by actually being touched by Jesus.

When my oldest daughter was seven years old, she rose up in the middle of a children’s sermon and started to walk away. When asked where she was going, she said simply, “I have heard this before.”

It is important to realize that it is not what we “know” that is transforming. It is what we treasure and ponder. This means keeping “young ears.” Listening with young ears means listening as if you are hearing something for the very first time. Whenever someone is helping me deal with an issue, I have learned not to say, “I know that.” When I deflect something I need to hear with “I know that”, I have just joined my seven year daughter in walking away from what God is offering.

There is so much I have heard before but not treasured or pondered. I suspect that the way toward a spiritual practice that creates thriving communities and individuals lies along this path.

Russ Crabtree
Contributing Author
Holy Cow! Consulting

Organizational Intelligence and Hearing your Story

In the wonderful book A Spirituality of Imperfection, authors Kurtz and Ketcham illustrate the power of story in our spiritual journey. In a portion of the book I found particularly memorable, they tell of a man who had assumed a “holy” lifestyle out of fear that he would be persecuted if he stayed true to his own unpopular thinking.

Everything changes when a story-telling stranger comes to town, and unbeknown to either of them, begins to relate precisely the story of his life. After hearing it, the Bishop (this is the identity he had assumed) breaks into tears, rips off his vestments and confesses the truth of his life. In the process he believes he has saved his soul.

The authors end with these words: When you hear someone tell your own story, you are forgiven, and if you are forgiven, you are healed.

Everyone who has sat under the spell of inspired preaching knows the experience of feeling singled out from a sanctuary of hundreds or thousands, hearing someone tell their own story…and finding healing in the process.

At our best, Organizational Intelligence (OI) interpreters enable members to hear their own story as the Body of Christ. When you can turn to the pastor of a clergy-focused system and say “You are likely experiencing considerable pressure in this system even when things are going well” you are telling his or her story in a way that no one else ever could.

When you can turn to the stewardship chair in a church where giving is already 4% of income and say, “You must be finding it puzzling that no matter how effective your campaign, giving does not go up much,” you are telling their story in a way that lifts the millstone of failure from his or her shoulders.

When you can say to a highly settled congregation, “It must be both frustrating and puzzling that it seems like you just get past one conflict only to have another erupt in its place,” you tell their story in a way that provides insight and offers hope.

Sometimes, congregations that experience OI brought to them in a way that they hear their own story is enough to spark a healing shift all by itself.

Our task as OI interpreters is not simply to present data. It is to tell a congregation’s story, which, when mingled with grace, makes them feel visible. When someone sees us and stays with us, they also save us. “God with us’, in all its expressions is the hope on which the universe is hinged.

Russ Crabtree
Contributing Author
Holy Cow! Consulting