“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
No statement defines the life cycle stage of Maturation better than Dickens.
The Maturation Phase of your Church Life Cycle
In “You Can’t Fix What You Can’t Name – Organizational Life Cycle Edition,” we defined this phase of the organizational life cycle.
The Church Life Cycle
For this series, we’re considering how churches progress through the six stages of organizational life.
Churches move out of the Orchestration Phases into Maturation as systems, models, and strategies are defined and cemented into the organizational fabric. These management methods were required for the church to grow. Systems brought your church out of the chaos of creation, but now, these same systems feel synonymous with your identity.
The Maturity Phase is where we begin seeing cracks in the organizational foundation. Until this point, the fractures in the system were caused by growth and innovation. Now, the problems are driven by the strategy rather than a need for a strategy.
Mature organizations often move from serving the mission to serving the model. In maturity, the organization formed during growth is now organized to execute what is, not what could or should be. Old strategies would be sufficient in present realities if the world remained stagnant. But nothing is fixed. Customer preferences and taste change. Culture changes. Opinions change. Nothing stays the same.
Churches in maturity are solid. Yet growth slows down and can eventually plateau.
The Most Common Response in Maturation
We made it!
That’s the most common response to this life cycle season.
Maturation feels like a desired destination. The strategy is set. The systems are in place. The organization is organized. Everyone has job descriptions and clear responsibilities. We’ve eliminated virtually all the chaos.
More ambitious churches in this season begin to plant churches, add schools, increase ministry programming, develop seminary or internship offerings, and/or try their hand at multisite.
Less ambitious churches bathe in the sun of success.
Both approaches are fraught with potential problems, though. The ambitious church sees addition as its next step. The more contented church considers this season to be the pinnacle.
In both scenarios, the church takes its eyes off the target – the community and congregation. More specifically, what’s changing in and around the community and congregation.
What’s Happening In and Around Our Mature Church?
This is a dangerous moment for the organization. As stated before, leaders create while managers orchestrate. In many mature organizations, for the first time, management begins to dominate the landscape. This moment represents our first “recycling” opportunity. Innovating and creating a new division, product, service, or concept can lead us forward, introducing a new round of chaos.
For this reason, and although not guaranteed, the more ambitious church is less likely to suffer into the next life cycle phase. Adding a new campus or ministries can (should) force the church to evaluate its current systems, methods, and strategies. When done openly and honestly, the church can recycle its life cycle by introducing a new round of Creation Phase chaos.
On the other hand, when church leaders assume their current strategy is ideally suited to the present reality, a plateauing into decline (and into the Preservation Phase) is nearly inevitable.
Let’s deal with this problem – STRATEGICALLY!
What To Do When You’re In the Maturation Phase
Simply stated, the path forward is, in a manner of speaking, backward. We must celebrate what was and even what is, but not attach so closely to it that it becomes our identity. How you’ve been doing it may differ from how you should keep doing it.
At some point, how you’ve been doing it most certainly won’t be how you should do it.
Let’s first address what not to do. Then we’ll talk more about Maturation Phase best practices.
What not to do…
Avoiding these common pitfalls is our first step to recycling our church life cycle:
1. Stop Making Excuses for Failures (and Metrics)
All organizations – especially churches – tend to become “good news” organizations. Not in the beginning, mind you. During the Creation Phase, chaos reigns, and nearly every evaluation conversation ends with “go-and-does” to improve things. Similarly, churches institute systems, methods, models, and strategies in the Orchestration Phase to bring order to the chaos to allow for healthy growth.
In the Maturation Phase, our tendency (perhaps created by some success) is to celebrate wins and make excuses for failures. That’s the definition of a “good news organization.”
2. Stop Believing Your Own Hype
Another way to say it is, Stop assuming you’re too big to fail. Famous last words. Organizational pride keeps a company or church focused on previous achievements. Humility reminds organizational leaders that there is always more to learn.
3. Stop Romanticizing the Glory Days
I’m in no way suggesting you forget the days and successes of the past, but as you know, when your memories surpass your dreams, the end is near. Memorialize the past without remaining beholden to it.
4. Stop Working In It So Much
We’ve covered this ad nauseam, so I won’t reiterate it all again. Simply stated, management desires to keep things as they are. The more managers we have, the more control and oversight we experience. That can be stifling for leaders and the organization. Managers, by role and responsibility, work “in” it. Leaders must rise above to work “on” it.
5. Stop Minimizing Cultural and Communal Changes
Churches are notorious for seeing and treating culture as the enemy. “It’s culture’s fault that…” “People just are like you were 20 years ago…” These are the sentiments of leaders on the fast track to the downward side of the cycle.
Culture isn’t the enemy. People aren’t the enemy. I mean, people are the point! As a church, our job as leaders is to contextualize the Gospel for the generation we serve. Jesus did this everywhere he went. Just look at his parables. The mission and message never changed, but the metaphor always did. I suspect Jesus would create parables today about sports teams, Instagram influencers, and next-day shipping.
Maturing Your Strategy During the Maturation Phase
Now that we’re committed to our stop-doing list, let’s engage in some strategic thinking to improve our situation in the Maturation Phase.
As we’ve said, this is a dangerous moment for any organization, including your church. Red flags should fly the moment you think you’ve “arrived.” But you may sense that in your dashboards, metrics, and stories.
The desire to maintain or defend our current approach leads directly to the Preservation Phase. As the growth curve flattens, we must become open to change and available to new ideas, strategies, and models.
I don’t need to tell you how challenging this is for churches and church leaders. Especially founders. But if change feels tough now, just wait until the Preservation Phase (which we’ll address in the following post). Change is always challenging, but the longer it’s ignored, the more complex it becomes.
The best strategy in the Maturation Phase is to evaluate your approach and plan against your mission. When I work with churches, we follow this simple yet tremendously effective approach:
Discover, Design, and Deliver.
The first step toward your preferable future is DISCOVERING where you are today. We discover our reality by defining our what, who, and where. I typically lead churches (and organizations) through a process like this:
- State or restate your mission and vision in less than eight words. This ensures the specific “why we exist” is clear.
- Define and refine your values.
- What competition do we face? For a church, this isn’t a list of the other churches in your community! They are not your competition.
- Ask these core four questions: What’s working? What’s not working? What’s confusing? What’s missing?
- What is our greatest opportunity?
- What significant obstacles are present?
- Are we working from any underlying assumptions? This last question is critical to breaking through what was previously true that no longer is.
Following our discovery process, we move into DEIGN. A well-designed strategy is a linchpin between what currently is and what could become.
Turning information into application is the secret to success. Great (honest) answers produced during discovery are only valuable if actionable. We must take action by taking what we’ve learned and designing a new approach.
Not to oversimplify the design phase, but with such great information, we now begin with the end in mind (our mission and vision) and design a better approach that meets people where they are and moves them forward in line with our mission.
We follow a set of questions to progress through the design phase of the process:
Define our Destination
- What must be true in a year?
- What opportunities will help us arrive?
- What obstacles must be mitigated?
- How do we ensure what’s working remains working?
- How does what’s not working, missing, and confusing affect our destination effort?
Define our Tactics and Steps
- What specific steps must be taken to implement our new strategy?
- How will each person and department participate?
- Who is responsible for what?
- When will tasks be completed?
- How and when will this plan be communicated?
- What metrics will help us track progress?
- If we engage in these initiatives, what will change?
With these answers in mind, we build our design.
Note: In the previous post, we covered the Church Engagement Model. For example, suppose you’ve been operating from a church model that assumed (see question 7 above) most people in your community like and trust you, your church, and Christians. In that case, you’re now faced with a brutal reality. With this information, you must recycle your life cycle by rethinking and remodeling your ministry model to incorporate what’s true today.
All strategies are created for current realities. When the current culture evolves, our models become antiquated. What we learn in the discovery space must be integrated into the design phase.
All this leads us to the most challenging of the steps: DELIVERY.
Designing a new approach takes a lot of work, especially for founders and those who’ve worked within the model for years and years. Over time, how we do it becomes more important than why we do it (I.E., this is preeminent in the Preservation Phase). But, considering a new strategy is one thing. Agreeing to implement is much, much tougher.
Execution is the difference between what is today and what could be tomorrow. All the planning in the world is for nothing if the plan isn’t implemented. This is why most “strategic plans” collect dust on shelves. Talk, and documents, are cheap, right?
Implementing your new strategy to recycle your church means fighting against what the organization is designed to fight for. Namely:
- The status quo,
- Current clarity, and
Effecting implementation requires leaders to manage the steps of change while leading the stages of change.
You can read more about these strategies here:
Also, leading change is perhaps the most challenging leadership skill to develop. I’ve been and led through numerous changes in the marketplace and ministry. To help leaders, I created a framework for Leading People Through the Process of Change. It’s available in my Your Leadership Toolbox Course.
If a church cannot adjust during the Maturation Phase, all is not lost but dangerously close. The longer any organization stagnates or declines, the more difficult it becomes to recycle the cycle. Not that a strategy change is simple for a mature organization, but it’s certainly more straightforward than what we find in the following phases.
That’s a lot of information! But I hope it helps you as a leader understand how easily success turns into decline if the life cycle is allowed to continue.
In our next post, we’ll evaluate our last great hope of a turnaround.
Until next time,