Too Many (Church) Projects

The September/October edition of the Harvard Business Review contains an article entitled Too Many Projects.  In it, authors Rose Hollister and Michael D Watkins organize the reader to consider ways on how to deal with initiative overload.  At the outset, they quote Michael Porter, who said, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Too Many Projects got me thinking about that same issue in the Church.  Oftentimes, churches have prepared and participated in projects that go way beyond the spiritual and sacramental, and delve into the social, political, financial, educational and so forth.  And while the latter are all very important matters, sometimes churches can “lose their way” and find themselves trying to be all things to all people and in effect become useless to everyone because of a lack of focus.

The writers suggest that leaders need to be aware both of the impact that new initiatives have on the organization, as well as being able to recognize when some initiatives have long run their course.  Either way, they note, the result is burnout.

Churches are well cautioned also to be aware of those two extremes, knowing what new and current initiatives will truly enhance the mission and vision of the Church, and what initiatives, despite their long-standing status, have already completed their mission.  Burnout is real in churches too – of staff and volunteers and certainly of depleting budgets and other resources.

Churches that are not successful, that is, in growing a congregation, serving the community with vibrancy, or are just having issues with a balanced bottom line, will do well to take some time to reflect, evaluate and change – with the latter for most congregations being the most challenging usually.

The mission and vision in most Christian churches is usually centered around three legs:  (1) bringing people to God, specifically, understanding God in the person of Jesus Christ.  In some denominations, that understanding is experienced by the celebration of meaningful worship and the sacraments. (2) Additionally, that experience of God usually contains a significant effort and reading and praying with the Scriptures – all an effort at better understanding God’s inspired Word so as to better understand God.  (3) The final part usually centers around some type of service, especially of the poor and vulnerable.  Some have characterized this schema as: “to gather, to nourish and to send out.”  Usually, that’s it in a nutshell!

Too Many Projects notes seven causes of initiative overload.  We will highlight four here, adapted here to churches:

1.  Impact blindness

The number and cumulative impact of the initiatives that are added to the work load can easily overwhelm church ministers and volunteers.  Being able to identify, measure and manage the human cost of new initiatives is essential.

2.  Multiplier effects

Churches can be complicated places, with people presenting their own needs and agendas to ministers and church leadership.  Having passion about a potential new initiative is essential, but being aware of what else is going on in the church is also essential.

3.  Unfunded mandates

Usually everything has a cost – human, material or financial.  Sometimes, great new initiatives are commenced without someone having taken the time to secure the resources to move the initiative forward.  Even in Churches things have a cost.  Proposing new initiatives needs the prior step of analyzing the cost.

4.  Band-aid initiatives

Some projects are launched to provide limited fixes to significant problems, and the result can be a proliferation of initiatives, none of which may adequately deal with root causes.  Churches, like businesses, need to take the hard look at initiatives. Band aids, by definition, only work for a short time and are ineffective for long term needs.

Churches, like companies, that are experiencing initiative overload need to take a step back to reflect.  Having a clear vision and mission, and measuring all (new) initiatives against those strategic components is not only a good idea, it’s essential for success.