Do you want a community or an organization?

community and organization cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

I’ve always been passionate about community. Pastoring local churches over the years was a 30 year experiment on whether authentic community can be created and enjoyed. By the time I finished my ministry in 2010, I believe I had figured a lot of it out. I even wrote a book about it, Without a Vision My People Prosper, in which I argue that vision and goal-setting works against authentic community. The book is basically an assemblage of my blog posts on the topic. I really didn’t expect it to fly off the shelves because most pastors believe vision and goal-setting is an essential component of a successful church. And most of those who might agree with my hypotheses have left the church and no longer care. So my posts addressing the problem of vision in the church always initiated some heated debate, especially from pastors.

Now that I’ve launched my online community, The Lasting Supper (TLS), I am convinced even more that the things I learned about local community are valuable. The community of TLS resembles in many ways the last church I pastored where we as a congregation experimented with authentic community and succeeded. Now people are calling me to ask how to do community. Apparently I’m now recognized by some as an expert on building community. Who’d ‘a thunk it?

I drew the above illustration to explain the differences between community and organization. The one on the left, an organization with pockets of community, is how businesses, non-profits, and other organizations work that have a certain purpose. A company’s primary purpose is to make money. No matter how noble their publicly stated purpose is, such as populate the world with its products or services, the number one goal is to make money. When you work for that company, that is your job– to help the company succeed and make money. Of course, you can enjoy community within the organization, commonly known pejoratively as cliques, as long as they don’t threaten the company.

The one on the right, in my opinion, is the best model for church communities. That’s if you want community first. I compare it to a healthy family where there are no visions or goals and where they simply live and grow together in the same house. They live independent lives but contribute to the family dynamic when they live and gather together. This was my experience in the last church I pastored which truly acted this way. It was a community that behaved like a healthy family. There was occasional dysfunction but it always worked out. We had a phrase, “authenticity with accountability”, which means you are free to be you but you will be informed when you needlessly hurt someone. We were criticized as being a church where we just sat around “being” rather than “doing”. But that was not true. There was lots of activity because there were pockets of organization. If someone wanted to do something for the poor, or for a certain family in need, or for the children or youth, or for the building, or whatever, then a group of interested members could gather around the project, do it, then dissolve. It worked.

I claim the problem for churches is when they confuse the two models. Many pastors want community (the one on the right), but they want to pastor a successful church (the one on the left). You can’t do both! The confusion will confound and impede community. A church will either be one or the other. If you want to build a successful church, you have to abandon the idea of it being a community. You may have pockets of community within the organization, but the flavor of the church will be organizational. If you want to have a community, then you have to abandon your ambitions for a successful church. You will have pockets of organization, but these will be occasional and provisional and may not even contribute to the success of your church.

I will be writing more on this, but I thought this would be a good summary of my thoughts on community. I hope this helps.

I invite you to join my online community, The Lasting Supper.

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  • disqus_cfBevsr42L

    excellent insight. this really squares up with everything I have observed from within the ministry and even as a team leader and manager. in order for community to develop, the ownership and goals must belong to and originate from the people. A leader can facilitate this, impede it, or make it downright impossible.

  • Yes, organizations will have some kind of hierarchical structure (often top town) with leaders and followers. There will be some “buck-stopping” with arguments from authority. Whatever the CEO says goes. Some community will exist among those within certain levels (within management or among the workers) but it is awkward for community to exist between those that supervise others and those that are being supervised.

    Many churches have this same organization model with pastors, elders, worship leaders and then everybody else. In many churches, there is always an argument from authority (whatever scripture says goes). For some the pastor is the “CEO”. For others there is an “executive board” and the pastor serves the executive board. Other churches may consider the scripture authors as the “CEO” and they serve those authors, Most churches still maintain the “leader and follower” dichotomy but draw the dividing line at different places. The leader may be the pastor, the “executive board”, the scripture authors, or some aspect of the Holy Trinity.

    I agree that a community is radically different in that there is no hierarchy. Each person can contribute on an equal level and not merely as a puppet in which some higher power supposedly flows through them.

  • dougmullin

    Love it, David. My answer is “I want community”

    Community building keeps our egos grounded, because community-building helps us remember that a full and rich life is something bigger than ourselves. Sharing the full and rich live we create with others, modelling a better way of living is one of the keys to moving forward.

    In a organization there has to be some mechanism of “buck-stopping” but it needs to fostered throughout, from the “lowly” to the “prestigious” tasks. We are all able to clean toilets, pick up trash. We are all able to make others feel golden in their work. I’ll be checking out your book in the near future.

    Keep up the community-building, David. My life is richer because of it. Thank you!!!

  • Thanks Doug!

  • I wholeheartedly agree. I believe the “organizational” model worked well for an earlier paradigm. However, since we’ve shifted, the “community” model is far more relevant.

    If you don’t mind the spammy self-reference to my blog, here’s my understanding of the shift that makes this work. (Otherwise, feel free to delete.)

  • Michael E. East

    Organizations can be highly structured and hierachical.
    Communities are ideally communities of equals.

  • “The one on the right, in my opinion, is the best model for church
    communities. That’s if you want community first. I compare it to a
    healthy family where there are no visions or goals and where they simply
    live and grow together in the same house. They live independent lives
    but contribute to the family dynamic when they live and gather together.”

    This is a lovely picture but I doubt that this can be called a Church, which should be centered on the person of Christ.
    Maybe if you drop all rules expect this one, you can perhaps get both for the price of one.

  • Don’t you think community needs something in common?

    I think that churches work because they offer an “Exceptionalism” doctrine in some disquise. That is why those doctrines evolve — either that or guilt or fear models or for good luck or status. But you don’t preach that anymore.

    All to say that if people don’t join for fun, for like-minded friends or for some project, “community” is tough to build.

    I am suspicious that the type of belief system you embrace will ever build significant communities. So instead, focus on locale, hobbies, community support and much more will work, but I doubt your religion will work. Instead, on-line transient “communities” may work but they are very different from p2p communities where you can visit folks when they are sick, cook for them, play with them, and more.

    Just thinkin’ out loud.

  • I disagree Lothar because sometimes some members might question the divinity or supremacy of Jesus or even the historical Jesus, which would automatically exclude them from the community according to your criteria.

  • true online communities are different, but they are evolving. what about gathering around the idea that we are essentially the same, searching for spiritual meaning in the universe, for example, which leaves the definitions of membership really broad.

  • If “searching for spiritual meaning” is a struggle or effort or project for people, it may work. But searchers either find something, tire of searching, or tire of hearing the self-important whining of searcher types. So I’d wager that spiritual searcher groups would have high turn over, few families or break into splintering groups around charismatic leaders.

    I guess Unitarian Universalists can have that quality of mutually supportive “spiritual” community. Any UU up your neck of mosquito country? They tend to cluster in certain social groups, however — here they are almost universally White, middle-class Democrats. So in the end, that is exactly what becomes the club. “Spiritual seeker” becomes the clothing.

  • But then, David, just like “Christianity”, it would then be all about redefining “Church” wouldn’t it? [though on an emotional level I want to agree with you]
    It seems to me that progressives so desperately want to hang on to some of their terms: “Christian”, “Church”, “Spiritual” even though they may be willing to give up “resurrection”, “sin”, “hell”, “Bible” and much more. For what is a castle without flags.

  • Gary

    Well…two out of three I guess…LOL.

  • Sabio, I think you are selling what David is doing a bit short. As long as there is a social background of religiosity, there will be a space for community organized around the idea of being free from using labels and trying to convert others from A to B. This is a different space than atheist or agnostic communities although there is some overlap. It is a community of diverse people (some believers, some not) who have all agreed that all people are of equal value and have a place at the table. If (and it is a big if) human society ever gets to the point where there is no longer a background religiosity, then there may not be a need for these particular communities. Although, I’m not holding my breath on society ever totally giving up all kinds of background pressure to define yourself as something.

  • wanderer

    totally agree.

  • Hello David.
    I don’t know what to think about Jesus divinity and I certainly do struggle with his supremacy.
    I am not saying that a community which is not centered on Jesus is bad, it would be quite silly, and oftentimes those are more Christ-like than conservative communities.
    But I would not call those Churches “Christian” since I hold to the original meaning of the word:
    What would be your own definition of what is Christian and what is not?

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    2013/10/17 Disqus

  • Thanx, Jeff P,
    I think what David is doing is fantastic, actually.
    But I am describing what I imagine will be the flux of such efforts. I am merely guessing, of course. In otherwords: I think David’s group will offer temporary transition for some folks — very good ones at that. But for the reasons I said above, I think it won’t build community in the sense that p2p communities do. But p2p, long-lasting communities are tough, outside of families. ‘Tis the nature of things.

    I think churches often pull it of exactly because of some of the things David protests, unfortunately.

  • Daniel Manastireanu

    I like your diagram a lot, David. It makes one think, which can’t be a bad thing. Most of the times. After 20 years of experience in church leadership and 3 years in ordained ministry, I am actually beginning to have a serious problem with the way we use the word ‘community’. I think the problem is that we are assuming community is a thing; like, a thing we can move about, define, confine, describe etc. I like what Prof. Ralph Stacey (Professor of Management at Hertfordshire Business School) says about leadership and organisations. As a specialist in complexity theory, he argues that organisations are complex systems of inter-connected local interactions, much like the neurons in the brain. There is no single neuron controlling all 10 billion (or so) neurons in the brain. What we have is a network of local interactions of neurons with a population-wide pattern. Apparently it is a mystery how that actually happens, since every single neuron is only connected to a fraction of the whole population (15K to 30K). (If you have iTunes U, check out the Hertfordshire Business School section for more on this.)

    He also is against this idea that ‘vision’ is what defines an organisation, or that it is what a leader’s role is. I think you’d want to listen to what he has to say on that, David. I talk about that a little bit in this article:

    In essence, I think community as a concept is extremely complex and collaborative. I like your circle, David, instead of a square. I wonder, however, if the circle is not too closed and exclusive for defining community. Perhaps that is the limit of metaphor. If we look at it as a complex network of interactions, perhaps we can see that community is more akin to the brain: more mysterious, more majestic, more rejecting of any confining definition. We need metaphor and parable to define community.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful response Daniel. I’ll check out the links.