The Firehouse Principle

Is your church prepared for the worst? Some of you may be thinking, “What a cheery question!” It is a really important one. In his outstanding book, Great by Choice, Jim Collins writes about a key trait possessed by 10X companies–those who outperformed their competitors tenfold during times of epic chaos:

10Xers differ from their less successful comparisons in how they maintain hypervigilance in good times as well as bad. Even in calm, clear, positive conditions, 10Xers constantly consider the possibility that events could turn against them at any moment. Indeed, they believe that conditions will—absolutely, with 100 percent certainty—turn against them without warning, at some unpredictable point in time, at some highly inconvenient moment. And they’d better be prepared (29).

When it comes to preparing for the worst, I’ve observed at least three kinds of churches:

  1. Those who don’t prepare at all. They have high debt loads, live hand to mouth, and have little if any ministry strategy preparing them for the possibility of some downturn. I’d suggest these churches number roughly 25% among churches I’m familiar with.
  2. Those who overprepare for the worst. I once consulted with a church of 12 people who had more than $200,000 in the bank they had set aside for a “rainy day.” It had been raining there for twenty years, and they couldn’t realize it, because it rained every day in their minds. They didn’t have that money set aside for growth or expansion. It was for apocalypse, or to bolster their long-term desire for mediocrity. I’d guess these churches number 25% of churches I’m familiar with.
  3. Those who are well-prepared should famine hit the land. I’d guess 50% of the churches I’m familiar with would fall into this category. The difference between unprepared, well prepared and chronically anxious to the point of overpreparation  is faith. We will often say we are “stepping out in faith,” or “trusting God” when we simply lack the discipline to live out the instructions God has already given us. Well-prepared churches don’t spend most of their time preparing for the worst, but they do expect it to come their way at some point.

Do not forget to plan a ministry strategy for such times as well. For instance, if there is a severe economic downturn, how will you adjust ministry? If the company that employs half of the church transfers out of town, how might you adapt? If your church splits (God forbid), how might you need to change your ministry?


Preparation for the worst actually has the effect of lowering the leaders’ anxiety on a daily basis–paving the way to more effective and enjoyable ministry. Some of you might be wondering how worrying about all of this makes ministry better or more enjoyable. Well, it gives you the freedom to do ministry with reckless abandon because you know what you’re going to do if a fire ever breaks out.

If preparing for the worst really lead to mass anxiety, firemen and police officers would be the most anxious of all. But, if you’ve ever seen a group of cops out for a night together or firemen in the firehouse with no alarms going off, you’ll notice how much fun they have. Firemen are ready for a fire to break out if one does…but they don’t live in fear of it because they are prepared when (not if) it happens. Preparation affords them the freedom to enjoy their job.

This brings us to one big difference between prepared churches and firehouses. It is this: Churches are expected to do more than stay prepared for the worst and put out fires as they arise. We are called to be about God’s work passionately while remaining prepared for the worst. We can’t orient ourselves around the possibility of disaster. Churches oriented around a chance of rain will be less effective when the sun is shining. Have an umbrella and know where it is. But, spend most of your time outside enjoying the beautiful day of ministry God has given you.

Some of us won’t want to act on this because we feel we are already just barely eeking by and don’t want to endure the pain of “scaling back” in order to prepare the church better for a true downturn. Trust me, it’s highly preferable to the pain of doing so in the middle of a catastrophe.

Prepare for the worst, but don’t over-prepare.

Prepare, and don’t underprepare.

Have an appropriate plan and go out and do what God put us on this earth to do.