Pastors and the “planning fallacy”

My first contact with the work of Peter Drucker was in 1966 when I came across his book The Effective Executive on the new book display at a small branch library in Indianapolis. Since one of my areas of teaching was a course called Church Administration, I took it home and later bought my own copy. As much as any other book dealing with how pastors should care for the church as organization, Drucker’s insights guided me in ways that still are central to my way of working.

Forty years later, I began reading books by Ronald Heifetz and colleagues. Again, the insights of people who deal broadly with the character of leadership in organizations of many kinds have proved to be useful in thinking about how pastors of churches can do their work effectively.

Thanks to New York Times columnist David Brooks, I will be looking for a forthcoming book by still another writer who has much to say that can be helpful to pastors even though the focus of attention is much more broadly focused: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

In a recent column shaped by Kahneman’s book, Brooks discusses the limits of presidential power. He distinguishes between “discrete good” and “systemic good.” Presidents have the power to do specific things that help people and improve the situation, Brooks writes, and he gives examples. These discrete goods are important in their own right and ought to be done.

What presidents cannot do, says Brooks, is transform an entire system. The discrete goods may in time lead to systemic good, but the power to achieve that broader change in the national way of life lies beyond the power of any one president.

This assessment of the limits of executive power can be applied to the work of pastors of long-established congregations. Churches are culture bearing and culture preserving institutions. Attitudes, habits, and relationships are deeply ingrained, often in ways that are scarcely visible except to observers trained to see beneath the appearances.

Pastors may be told by leaders of their congregation that they are to help their congregation change. When the pastors try to do this, however, the congregation’s cultural DNA that has been building up for decades, often for more than a century, resists. No one intends to impede progress, but the system holds firm, and the congregation quickly reverts back to what it had been.

Pastors do have power to do discrete good. They can improve how a congregation functions, and this they ought to do. They can lead worship with spiritual sensitivity and dramatic skill. They can preach good sermons. They can lead by the confident, diligent example of their own lives. They can be spiritual guides to people on their spiritual pilgrimages. They can troubleshoot the system and propose new possibilities. They can invite new people into the congregation’s membership and help them find their ways into the leadership core. They can encourage specific modifications to the DNA, some of which will work.

In time—studies of congregational dynamics indicate that it takes close to a decade—these discrete goods may lead to systemic good, to the significant reshaping of the deeper layers of congregational culture. Even though a pastor and congregational leaders may have ideas about the new church they hope to see and in the light of this vision shape their discrete programs accordingly, they cannot predict what will come or determine its form and dynamic power. Yet persistent, patient, purposeful, prayerful work can lead to transformation that exceeds all that they could have ever imagined.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that faith hope and love abide and that the greatest of these is love. He’s probably right when we think of the full range of human life, that love comes in first. When it comes to pastoral leadership, however, I think that there may be a photo finish, with hope vying with love for first place across the finish line.

Note: Brooks’ column is entitled “The Planning Fallacy” and appears in the New York Times September 16, 2011. It was reprinted in The Oregonian on September 17, 2011. The graphic hangs in a room in First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon, that “change-resisters”  like me persist in calling “Fellowship Hall.”


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2 Responses to Pastors and the “planning fallacy”

  1. Dave says:

    The difficulty of changing a congregation’s cultural DNA is also reflective on the larger scale when we think of the General church. The support of finding and eliminating those areas of church structure that are racist are arguably high throughout the church. Yet, when it comes to structural change to eliminate racism the system holds firm. Like you say, No one intends to impede progress, yet that which is normal seems correct and therefore acceptable to maintain the status quo.

    I believe you are right that persistent, patient, purposeful, prayerful work can lead to transformation beyond our imagination. However, do those of us whom are privileged by the current system (certainly we who are considered leaders?) have a right to be patient while the same system wounds our sisters and brothers? As individuals, perhaps all we are able to do is discrete good. Yet, if we maintain a level of impatience and organize our various voices in a purposeful and action filled manner, we might help the indwelling of wound-ending transformation (systemic good) in a timely manner. I wonder…

    • Dave, you are right that institutional leadership is similar regardless of the magnitude of the institution. In his column Brooks was discussing the work of the US president in transforming American life. Church denominations are more complex than congregations and it is correct that similar generalizations can be made. The patient-impatient continuum is one that we always have to deal with. Those on the privileged side lean toward patient while those on the other side lean toward impatient. The decision about patience depends in part on whether the leader intends to move the institution forward or is ready to abandon the existing institution and generate a movement that sweeps the field.

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