One of the things that I have been reflecting on over my recent break is the respective priority of developing vision and structure in ministry organisations.
Around 20 years ago, Phillip Jensen developed the so-called Uluru church life-cycle model. Now, those outside of Australia may not understand this nickname. Essentially, Uluru is the name given to a large rock in central Australia that has a particular shape – as you can see in the picture. It is akin to what strategists describe as a life-cycle of any organisation (indeed, the same can be said to apply to people).
In 2001, George Bullard published a landmark work that researched the human characteristics that contribute to a church life-cycle. His insights, under God, help us to deepen our understanding of the development of churches, or even denominations.
Bullard identified four core principles. Vision (where are we going?) is about a shared and mutually owned understanding of direction. Relationships (who is going with us?) describe how a church sees new people join and existing people deepen their discipleship. Ministry (How do we get there?) describe ministry programs and activities that embody the vision of the church. And finally, Structures (what structures do we have and control?) are the systems that facilitate orderly decision making.
Downloading Bullard’s full paper is worthwhile to analyse your church or ministry using the life-cycle framework. He breaks up the cycle into 10 stages (from birth to death), with very helpful suggestions for each stage. Of course, it is critical to remember that God is in control of all things, and all human efforts can only happen under God’s sovereign hand.
The diagram summarises the prominence of each of the four different core principles at each phase on the life cycle. A capital letter indicates that the principle is in the foreground. A lower case letter indicates that it has taken a back seat.
At the risk of over simplification, in the ascendency phases, a church or organisation is driven by Vision and Relationships. You can often see this in a start-up or new church plant. The energy is driven by the vision, even if all of the structures have not been worked out. Indeed, in the very early stages, it can be somewhat chaotic. People don’t know who to talk to about what. There is so much happening, and there is the lack of a structure to keep on top of it all. Yet, the energy of the underlying vision, under God, is very powerful.
Conversely, in the decline phases, the drive is Ministry programs and Structures. The focus of energy is in maintaining programs, even if those programs have become disconnected from the vision. Even though the structures run well, vision is now assumed (or not mutually owned nor shared). People say that “we’ve tried that before”, innovation becomes lacking, risk taking dries up, and the status quo sets in.
One human lesson from Bullard’s analysis is the importance of being continually driven by vision. It takes on going energy, because of the reality that “vision leaks”. If you are interested, I have a questionnaire that can be used among your congregation to assist in diagnosing your current stage. The combined perception of where your energy is being deployed can be a powerful diagnostic tool.