Clergy-Focus, the Critical Clergy System and how the Middle Judicatory can help

Clergy:  Power and Vulnerability

With the exception of family-sized congregations, clergy are generally the individuals who hold the most power in a local parish.  Depending upon the polity, this includes the political, relational, moral, and platform dimensions of power.  The introduction of organizational intelligence (OI) into a system has the consequence of making the clergy person one of the most vulnerable, because he or she is the only person in the system where perceptions are individually focused.  This combination of power and vulnerability merits sensitivity on the part of OI interpretive and application consultants.

Since most middle judicatories are charged with particular oversight of their clergy, it is desirable for these bodies to prepare resources for clergy in congregations that are utilizing OI, especially if they are using OI systematically as an information system.  This is particularly true for clergy-focused systems.

The technical definition of a clergy-focused system can be found elsewhere.  Here it will suffice to say that a clergy-focused system is one where members tend to evaluate the vitality of the church through the lens of perceived clergy performance.  A clergy-critical system is one where members perceive that an improvement in the pastor-congregation relationship is the decisive factor in improving the vitality of the church.

Implications for a Clergy-Focused System

The fact that a system is clergy-focused can have a number of different implications and possible trajectories:

  • A “front and center” clergy person who can parley his/her relational capital into ministry and is a good fit for the congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership manage any narcissistic risks.
  • An overfunctioning clergy person who is paying a psychic price for success. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership manage tendencies to burn-out or flame-out.

Implications for a Clergy-Critical System

A clergy-critical system is essentially a clergy-focused system where things are not going well.  Again, there are a number of different implications and possible trajectories:

  • A pastor who is exercising the necessary leadership to shift the culture of a congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership by publicly and privately standing with them.  This usually occurs within the first several years of clergy tenure.
  • A pastor who is no longer, or never was a good fit for the congregation. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership in a process of discernment regarding the pastoral relationship.
  • A leadership team that is beginning to engage in a project (strategic planning, leadership development, financial campaign) that avoids the clergy issue. The middle judicatory can help the clergy person/church leadership avoid the costs of those failure paths by keeping the system focused on the primary issue.  Are they being led to (a) shift the church culture, (b) work on the pastoral relationship, or (c) dissolve the pastoral relationship?

In many cases, these will not be easy conversations.  However, many issues in clergy-
focused or clergy-critical systems will not improve with time.  Sometimes they will devolve into full-fledged crises of one kind or another in which no one wins and options are diminished.

Regimagesardless of where the congregation is, whether a clergy-focused or a clergy-critical system, there are important roles and conversations that the Middle Judicatory can be a part of – both in the short and long term.  Those early conversations on the part of middle judicatories can avoid painful, costly interventions down the road. These conversations and efforts can also aid clergy who may feel the weight of the congregation on their shoulders – before that weight becomes too much to bear alone.

From Holy Cow! Consulting and Crow’s Feet Consulting 


Now Available- Don’t Lead Another Pastoral Transition Before Reading this Book!

This latest book from Holy Cow! Consulting studies the data from nearly a thousand churches and makes some startling discoveries regarding what happens to churches during a pastoral transition.  In a relatively brief number of pages, Russ Crabtree provides answers to questions like:

  • What happens to the morale of a typical church as it moves through a
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    pastoral transition?

  • Why do conflict levels in a typical church tend to intensify during a pastoral transition rather than improve?
  • Why does the trajectory of a church through a pastoral transition not track what we might expect with a grief reaction?
  • What are the typical losses in attendance and giving during a pastoral transition and what are the impacts of those upon the congregation?
  • Do interim pastors typically help congregations become more flexible as they prepare to welcome a new pastor or not?

The book ends by proposing an entirely new way of thinking about pastoral transitions and suggests a transformation in the way we train interim pastors.

Reviews of Transition Apparitions: 

The myth of the grieving congregation in transition has finally been challenged with sufficient evidence to allow for “site specific” plans to emerge.    – Reverend Rebecca L. McClain

This book beautifully articulates what astute consultants have noted for years. Fear of the unknown and its uncertainty is a basic human characteristic that is the source of poor decisions, then wandering in the desert, and finally feelings of resignation.                                                                 – Dr. Keli Rugenstein, PhD, Director of Clergy and Congregation Care

Intrigued by the proposition that interim ministry is “overdue for some rethinking,” Russ began poking around in the Holy Cow! database and then turned (as he always does) to careful, systematic analysis of the data.  He began rethinking his own thinking about pastoral transitions and came away absolutely convinced, as he said to me, “we need a new model.”  So he designed it.    – Dr. James Pence, PhD, Walkalong 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 and Energy

We don’t get burned out because of what we do. We get burned out because we forget why we do it. – Jon Gordon

UnknownIn his book, The Energy Bus, author Jon Gordon makes the case that organizational energy is fundamental to the success of any enterprise. We agree. Energy represents one of two bottom line measurements of church vitality (the other being satisfaction).

There are three characteristics of energy: intensity, pace, and endurance. High energy churches are enthusiastically engaged in their mission, they move their mission forward from ideas to action without miring down, and they sustain efforts over the long term in a manner that is self-replicating.   One of the mistakes that churches make with regard to energy is the failure to distinguish between baseline energy functions and premium energy functions.

Baseline energy functions are those that people expect a church to exhibit as a minimum requirement. Research indicates that these include competent leadership, positive relationships, a safe and comfortable environment, and the fair treatment of individuals and groups. Baseline energy functions can only take a church so far. Once people feel good about the relationships within the church, passing the peace an extra time in worship won’t generate higher energy.

Premium energy functions are those that build on baseline energy functions and take energy to levels that people experience as exceptional. Premium energy functions include:

· Helping members and groups make significant achievements related to the mission
· Matching the gifts and motivations of members to ministry assignments
· Celebrating member and group contributions to the mission
· Offering members and groups opportunities for personal growth and development

When churches have low comparative scores in the area of hospitality, leaders often object that only a small percentages of folks are on the negative side of the questions. What they fail to realize is people today expect a church to have excellent relationships among themselves and guests. When a significant number of respondents are on the fence, a church will generally have difficulty generating baseline energy, and it becomes nearly impossible to generate the high level of energy that makes a church “hum” with spiritual electricity.

Russ Crabtree

Founder of Holy Cow! Consulting 

Organizational Intelligence and Satisfaction

The word “satisfy” gets mixed reviews in the Bible.

The Psalms speak of satisfaction as a way that God connects to his people. In Psalm 90:14, the writer entreats “Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Psalms 145:16 expands this thought to include other creatures: “You open your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

Other passages are not so sanguine. Paul sees the desire to satisfy others as an obstacle. “For do I now seek to satisfy men or God?” he asks in Galatians. As a tool of political expediency, we stray into the realm of the demonic. Mark tells us that “Pilate, wishing to satisfy the mob, released Barabbas for them, and after scourging Jesus handed Him over for crucifixion.”

In my experience, satisfaction in a church is rarely achieved by appealing to the mob, primarily because there are multiple mobs! What satisfies one mob alienates another! Satisfaction is achieved by fulfilling a mission that does not ignore human desires but transcends them.

I learned this as the founder of a project in Honduras caring for abandoned HIV children. Thousands of people have now gone to work at that project. For most, the experience involved immunizations, anti-malaria tablets, physical labor in dehydrating hot weather with mosquitos, scorpions, poisonous snakes, and cold or no showers at the end of the day. And folks had to pay over a $1,000 to boot! There wasn’t much “pandering to the mob”, but over 95% would say they were satisfied with the experience and the majority would say it was life-altering.

There is a satisfaction that is coveted as a primary goal in life to be achieved through a direct, frontal assault on the rest of the universe. It is its own reward.

There is another kind of satisfaction that is a by-product of other activities, like happiness is a by-product and can never be achieved by “trying to be happy.” Churches that land in the transformation quadrant are generally filled with members who have clarity about a mission that transcends them and draws them into an alternative reality where the Gospel is plausible and compelling.

Russ Crabtree
Contributing Author
Holy Cow! Consulting

Organizational Intelligence and Letting Go of Our Ego – Why assessment is important


After more than 25 years of working with organizational intelligence, it has become clear that lay leaders are more open to its benefits than clergy. Roughly 70% of the assessments we conduct are with churches or middle judicatories with no installed or “settled” leader in place. Only after a clergy person leaves do leaders feel free to conduct an assessment. Once a new clergy leader is in place, it is very likely that a church will not run another comprehensive assessment until the next ordained leader moves on. The rare exception usually occurs when a middle judicatory strongly encourages it as a matter of policy.

Why should pastors and executives support a periodic assessment of the faith communities they lead? Here are six reasons.

·      First, assessment provides opportunities to celebrate. The outfield wall of a baseball field may seem intimidating, but without it you don’t know when to cheer.

·      Second, assessment can help clergy identify the “levers” in a faith community where small amounts of applied energy can make big differences.

·      Third, refusing to face issues does not make them go away, it only roots them deeper. What we resist, persists. A non-defensive, non-anxious engagement of issues is healthy and often positive for everyone.

·      Fourth, an assessment can bring clarity to areas where the clergy leader is a good fit, but also areas where other members of the leadership team would make a better contribution.

·      Fifth, many issues are not problems with the pastor; they are problems with the system. When a clergy person resists an assessment process because he/she takes everything personally, the “system” is robbed of an opportunity to learn and grow.

·      Finally, fear of assessment can be a signal that a leader’s ego is getting in the way, Edging God Out, as they say. For the Christian leader, listening is not an option. It is no accident that the same Epistle that issues a sober admonition to those who teach also counsels us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak.”

For more on assessments and to get in touch with us to make this happen for your organization please visit our website at


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