Process – Friend or Foe?

I have a love-hate relationship with “process.” By process, I’m referring to that which we require as a pathway to accomplishing a given task. If you want to become a member of a gym, you must fill out paperwork, disclaimers, pay money, get a photo id card taken, and obey the gym rules going forward. That’s all process.

Churches have processes too. We have elder selection processes. We have processes for vetting volunteers who work with kids. We have hiring processes, and a myriad of others. Then, there is the slew of unpublished processes out there. For instance, “If you want to get something done, you need to make sure Joe is OK with it.” Churches have a tone of these.

Process is more friend than foe, but can become our enemy when it takes on a life of its own. If you don’t believe that’s possible, wait until tax time, or time to renew your driver’s license in California. No body of rules or law has ever gotten simpler. Even the Ten Commandments grew into hundreds of laws when put in the hands of the Pharisees. Law only grows, unless major efforts are taken to prune it regularly. If none are taken, like Bougainvillea, process starts growing with great beauty, only to take over the yard completely.

Here are eight short observations about process that will help keep it a benefit rather than a hindrance to our churches.

  1. Resist making “policies” unless you must. The reason is, policy is too blunt of a tool to effectively govern. I’m not saying churches shouldn’t have them. I’m saying the second you make a policy saying you won’t allow X, Y will come along and go over, around, or through your policy. The other thing we can do is make policies that handcuff us going forward. Keep hard and fast policies to a minimum, and make decisions case by case on other things. If making decisions takes forever or is too hard—you probably have a policy problem already. What kind of policies should be hard and fast? Security policies, in particular.
  2. Process is never the tail that wags the dog. Feeding the dog, bathing it and clipping it on a schedule makes it a better dog. But, that isn’t what makes it a dog. Mission first. Process serves mission.
  3. Don’t focus first on the process to achieve something, focus on achievement and ask why it was successful. Then look at the process you achieved to get there. That’s a good place to start in honing a better process. If you start with, “what kind of process would we need,” you won’t really know yet. If you start with, “why was this successful?” you are starting with something that worked at least once. Obviously, in cases where process must come first, this doesn’t apply.
  4. Paper does not equal process. For instance, just because you have a candidate for a ministry position background checked and they fill out every questionnaire you can throw at them does not mean you’ve been thorough. Neither are you thorough simply because you take a long time to hire, etc. You can be thorough and quick; thorough and slow; not thorough and quick; not thorough and slow. Taking a long time to hire can give the illusion of being thorough, when in reality it was just slow. Paper can give the illusion of being thorough, and become a means of shifting the “work” of hiring to the would-be employee or volunteer. Thorough is thorough…paper or little paper, long time or short time.
  5. Process offers less protection than we think. Is there a church on the planet that doesn’t have a rule against staff infidelity, embezzling church funds, or other universal vices? Yet, it happens all the time, sadly. I’ve observed it isn’t simply because there weren’t adequate safeguards in place. Most churches have those—which gives them a false sense of security when they aren’t pastoring their pastors well. The best defense on some things is a good offense—fostering vibrant spiritual lives and emotional health among staff, for instance, is a far better risk management tool for the church than policies. Have both (policies and pastoring), I say, but don’t think you can govern through rules. It’s never worked. It never will.
  6. Know what your process is so you can fix it when it breaks. I heard a variation of this from Andy Stanley who said, “If you don’t know why what works works you won’t know how to fix it when it’s broken.”
  7. Revisit your processes to see if they need tweaking at least once a year, and probably once every six months. Prune them. If you don’t, process will take over. It is a nearly immoveable tyrant once it takes the throne. The question to ask here is: Does this process effectively preserve, protect, or (especially) further the mission of God through our church?
  8. Have as much process as needed to further mission effectively. No more, no less. Too little process and you’ll have things out of control or flaky. Too much process and you’ll sap vision and/or step toward putting yourself in a bureaucratic strait-jacket.

What else might you add? Is process a friend or a foe in your church?

 

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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