The Agile Church

September 28, 2012 § 5 Comments

The modern church is typically structured like a 20th-century business, with distinct, mostly autonomous departments focused on executing an agreed-upon “business plan” that changes very slowly over time. The church adds a layer of relationship and prayer, and relies on volunteer labor, but overall mostly matches the model invented by Alfred Sloan at GMover 50 years ago.

The important thing to realize about this model is that it is optimized
for better doing the same thing over and over again — what’s known as
“disciplined execution.”  This is contrast to “rapid innovation”, which
is better done by small, high-performance teams.

For years, management theorists assumed that a single organization could not do both. This split is somewhat reflected in the historic distinction between “church” (execution) and “parachurch” (innovation).

In the last decade, a new approach to managing software projects has
emerged called “Agile“, which has achieved remarkable success at doing both
disciplined execution and rapid innovation. The key cultural values

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

If that sounds a bit foreign to the church, try reading it as:

  • People and relationships over processes and tools
  • Transformed lives over written agreements
  • Glorifying God over fulfilling the Law
  • Responding to today’s culture over following tradition

The critical term is “over”: the items on the Right side are still valued, but are explicitly subordinate to those on the Left.

These aren’t just nice-sounding values; there are very specific structures, practices, and choices (e.g., Scrum) that flow out of (and can help create) this shift in mindset.

Further, there is an ongoing movement called Stoos to apply these practices beyond software to the general problem of organizational management. Interestingly, many of the attributes of “Stoosian” organizations matches what we want to see in our churches:

  • The workers, not the leaders, “own” the work they do.
  • The job of leaders is to articulate the needs and desires of the Customer (in this case, God) in way workers can fulfill.
  • The measure of work is not how much we do, but how much value we deliver to the Customer.
  • Everybody takes responsibility for improving how we do things, not just what we do.

I believe there is enormous opportunity for the church to radically improve how we “delight our Customer.”  Below are some early attempts. I look forward to further dialogue around this issue.

Agile/Scrum in the Church

Excerpt from “Scrum in Church”

The ways we organize ourselves, the structures we create to order our lives, and our work, reflect our deepest theological understandings. How is power understood? Does it flow from on high? Does it emerge from the people? Does it take a completely different configuration? Who benefits? What is most highly valued? What cognitive styles are preferred? What or who is on the margins? What is not seen because it cannot be imagined? Who is not “like us”? How do we treat them?

One of my favorite questions as I enter a congregation is “How does power flow around here?” One answer I’ll never forget is, “Well, it’s sorta like water in a bathtub, it sloshes.” We laugh, perhaps in recognition?

In short, the ways we live, what we do, and how we do them reflect one’s deepest values.

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