Friday, August 17, 2007

When great is the enemy of success

I was at a church planting conference recently where I was placed in a team of peers and given a task to perform. It was a practical exercise in teamwork and leadership. At one point, when we were struggling to move from planning to action, someone said, “Good is the enemy of great.” He was quoting the first sentence of Jim Collins' book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. Many pastors, including me, have read this book.

Earlier that day we had been told that 80% of new church starts fail. With that fact in mind I had an epiphany, “Great is the enemy of success.”

Willow Creek and Saddleback stand as models for the “great” church. Many pastors and church starters want to get their churches to that level. In fact, megachurches and their pastors have much in common with great companies. However, megachurches are rare and pastors and church starters who are merely "good" become disappointed and give up.

Typically, a talented church planting team is placed in an area into which large numbers of young families are moving. In one particular case, it was expected that a new church start would attract close to 300 people on the launch date and double in three years, launching other church starts at that point. The church failed before the five-year mark even though they had $500,000 in outside funding, three full-time staff members (and their wives), and every modern gadget found in church today.

On the other hand, other new church starts in the same area survived the five-year mark. The difference (according to a study by the Center for Missional Research) might be expectations. Church starters who expect to be leading a large church within a certain amount of time tend to fail at a much higher rate than those who were committed to serve in a given location regardless of size or financing. Those who are satisfied with "good" succeed at a higher rate than those who expected "great."

Great is also the enemy of success when we over plan and fail to act. “Analysis Paralysis” is how one colleague liked to put it. Successful leaders have a bias toward action: “Ready, fire, aim.”

Some planning is needed but every question cannot be answered in advance. Plan what you want to do, and then take action. Be flexible enough to make adjustments as you go. Missional churches are able to take advantage of ministry opportunities as they arise and that requires a sense of urgency. Urgency that leads to action generates excitement in the congregation and the community and creates momentum.

“As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” John 9:4 (NIV)