Church Inertia

October 12, 2009 — 2 Comments

In a recent WSJ blog, Gary Hamel posted about the killer of organizational inertia. His thoughts on the forms of change are well-stated:

In most organizations, change comes in only two flavors: trivial and traumatic. Review the history of the average organization and you’ll discover long periods of incremental fiddling punctuated by occasional bouts of frantic, crisis-driven change. The dynamic is not unlike that of arteriosclerosis: after years of relative inactivity, the slow accretion of arterial plaque is suddenly revealed by the business equivalent of a myocardial infarction. The only option at that juncture is a quadruple bypass: excise the leadership team, slash head count, dump “non-core” assets and overhaul the balance sheet.

Why does change have to happen this way? Why does a company have to frustrate its shareholders, infuriate its customers and squander much of its legacy before it can reinvent itself? It’s easy to blame leaders who’ve fallen prey to denial and nostalgia, but the problem goes deeper than that. Organizations by their very nature are inertial. Like a fast-spinning gyroscope that can’t be easily unbalanced, successful organizations spin around the axis of unshakeable beliefs and well-rehearsed routines—and it typically takes a dramatic outside force to destabilize the self-reinforcing system of policies and practices.

In his post, he applies these views to organized religion, and he lists several inertial forces in the church, including top-down policies that limit experimentation, leadership systems that reward conformance to traditional and accepted practices, and lecture-style formats as opposed to open discussions. While I take issue with some of the specifics of his analysis (he downplays preaching and seminaries), I certainly agree with the spirit of what he writes.

And his remarks about confusing the “what” and the “how” are spot on:

The most extreme version of organizational inertia comes when those within a company are no longer able to distinguish between form and function—when their instinctual loyalty is to the “how” rather than the “what.”

I can connect with the statements about change – chipping away on the trivial while the traumatic looms. I’ve also, at times, lost sight of the relationship between the “what” and “how.” Churches help grow disciples – it’s what the body does. How churches help this process is not first through loyalty to the organization, but rather first through loyalty to Christ.


Sam Rainer

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Sam S. Rainer is the president of Rainer Research and the Co-Founder and Co-Owner of Rainer Publishing.

2 responses to Church Inertia

  1. I think the more choice is to keep the standard of the person that you just love so much that you experienced. And that heading. Linda Evans

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