Leaders Think Systems

When was the last time you felt like you had too much to do and not enough time to do it? What was your solution? Was it to “just work harder”? Or maybe you threw your hands up in despair and just walked away from the pile of working sitting on your desk or kitchen table. The feeling of overwhelm is not limited to work or to your personal life, but it can also infect your ministry leadership.

Unfortunately, many ministry leaders are not equipped to handle the sheer volume of work it takes to lead a thriving ministry. Many ministry leaders have been installed in their positions because they were good and faithful doers. They showed up on time consistently, ministered with excellence, and consequently caught the attention of their pastors because of their faithfulness and availability. But being a doer is vastly different than being a leader.

The job of a ministry leader is not to do all the ministry. The job of a ministry leader is to make disciples who makes disciples of Jesus. The job is more about multiplication of disciples than checking off tasks on a list. But how do you even get around to making disciples when so many tasks are sitting on your list (or in your head)?

That’s why leaders need to think systems.

The goal is not to just work harder or devote longer hours to your ministry. The goal is to develop a system which enables you to make disciples more easily AND handle the crush of random tasks of modern life. But before getting into how to construct a system, let’s back up and answer a fundamental question.

What is a System?

A system is really just a step-by-step process which produces a result.

To illustrate: cooking is a system. It’s a step-by-step process which produces a result. What is the process? It might look like this:

  • Step 1: Look up recipe online
  • Step 2: Get all ingredients out of fridge
  • Step 3: Prep ingredients (chop what needs to be chopped, open what needs to be opened)
  • Step 4: Put ingredients in pan and place in oven
  • Step 5: Take pan out of oven and put food on plates
  • Step 6: Tell your family dinner is ready
  • RESULT: a meal together

Following the process (the steps to cook a meal) produces a result (the meal itself). Or think about your body. Your body is one large system made up of many smaller systems (processes) working together. To type this post, I need my muscular, skeletal, and nervous system all going through various steps to produce the result, this post.

The same is true ministry. Your ministry area is made up of many systems working together…like a body. It’s almost as if the biblical authors knew what they were talking about when they likened the church to a body (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12)! Your ministry area probably has some semblance of the following systems in place, even if you don’t use those words:

  • Follow up system (a process of following up people in ministry who may have missed Groups, etc.)
  • Advertising system (a way of getting the word out about Groups and events, etc.)
  • Record-keeping system (a procedure for making sure you have all the relevant information)
  • Discipleship system (a process for helping the people in your ministry follow Jesus)
  • Leadership Development system (a way to move people along into leadership roles)

How Do I Build Systems in My Ministry?

When you seek to build systems for your ministry, there are three basic steps. You need to first see everything that is going on inside your ministry. Next, you need to work on fixing the dysfunctional systems. Finally, you need to put a “maintenance calendar” in place so that things don’t fall into disrepair.

1. See the (WHOLE) System

The first step in building systems is making them visible. You need to get a picture of the WHOLE Ministry. I like to do this through making a “bubble chart.” Here’s an example of my Youth Ministry system:

Many things in ministry function as a system but are often invisible to us. For example, you may not consciously think how you handle your finances as a ministry, but there is probably a system, a process, behind it. The beauty of seeing the system is that you can begin to see where you need to put in work. It gives direction and purpose.

2. Evaluate Each System

After getting a big picture view of everything happening in your ministry, you can then begin looking into each “smaller” system and evaluating it. You must record what the system actually is and look for flaws. You evaluate your “leadership development system” for example, you might ask these questions:

  • What is the actual process for raising up a new leader in your ministry?
  • What steps do we take to develop a new leader? (Write out: Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, etc.)
  • Where are the breakdowns in our process? Do we even have a conscious process for doing this?

For example, when thinking about your ministry’s leadership development system, it might go something like this:

  • Well, we first just see who’s involved in the ministry
  • Then, after some times, we see who seems to have godly character and some skills for working in the ministry
  • Then, we ask them to help out with this event and if that goes well, we ask them to help out with another event
  • If helping with events goes well, we might ask them to lead a Learning Group if there’s space for it
  • Result: We have a new leader in the ministry

You have just made your leadership development system visible. Now, you may be happy with your current system. That’s fine. Just because evaluate the system doesn’t mean you have to go out and start tinkering with it. Sometimes, good leadership is leaving good things alone. But if you see a breakdown in the system, or if the system is not producing the results you want, you may need to think about repairing it.

3. Repair the System

Once you know where the breakdown is occurring in the system, you can go about repairing it. Let’s take the “leadership development” system. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with the fact that there’s no intentional curriculum you’re using to raise up leaders. So the repair might be to insert a new step in the process: Invite who’s involved into the ministry into a Growth Group for leadership development. So the new system might look something like this:

  • See who’s involved in ministry
  • Make note of those with godly character and skills
  • Ask them to help out with event, if goes well
  • Invite them into Growth Group
  • Commission them as a Leader

Helpful Tool: The Checklist

Repairing a system often happening through something which is incredibly simple to implement, but few of us do: a checklist. I imagine that your eyes have glazed over right now: “A checklist? Really?” Writing a checklist helps you fix your system and get the right systems in place. It ensures that you will do the right things, the right way. 

Atul Gawande, in his book The Checklist Manifesto, offers case-study after case-study about the effectiveness of checklists. You may remember the story in the news of the plane that sucked up a bunch of geese over the Hudson which is memorialized in the movie, Sully. Even though there was catastrophic engine failure, the pilot and copilot safely landed the plane in the Hudson and all passengers survived. How did this happen? The lowly checklist. The pilot and co-pilot had a checklist which covered instances of engine failure, followed it well, and everyone survived. Checklists are how we can repair and improve the systems of our ministries.  

How do I know what to repair? The best place to start is with your most dysfunctional system. Why? Because repairing your most dysfunctional system will give you the biggest improvement of results in your ministry. For example, improving a grade from a C to an A is a massive improvement to a student’s GPA, but improving a grade from an A to a A+ less so. What are the “Cs” in your ministry that you can turn into “As”?

4. Maintain the System

Cars, homes, and even our bodies, need routine maintenance. It would be foolish to buy a car and then never change the oil. It would be disgusting to live in a house and never clean it. It would be hazardous to your health to be born and then never shower, eat good food, or exercise. You need to maintain all different kinds of things in your life, and your ministry systems are no different. 

So how do you maintain the systems in your ministry? It is simple: you must schedule time to maintain your systems. You could schedule time every week to review a system and see if it is functioning properly. Or you could schedule time once-a-month, or once every three months. The exact timing is not necessarily what’s important. What is important is that you are doing “routine maintenance” on your systems.

2 thoughts on “Leaders Think Systems

  1. Pingback: Leaders Plan – Raising Lazarus

  2. Pingback: The Relationship between Projects and Systems – Raising Lazarus

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