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Capacity To Act
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
- Capacity to Act: Creating A Context Of Renewal
- A key to congregational renewal may be found in what management theorist
Robert B. Shaw calls the "Capacity to Act." Perhaps one of the great impediments
to organization renewal and vitality, the Incapacity to Act is a disease which affects all
Why The Capacity To Act Is So Critical
Youve experienced it; so have I! Simply stated, the
"Incapacity to Act" is when an issue never seems to get resolved; and when plans
are made to implement its solutions, we find out that somehow it never got done! Worse, no
one in the organization seems to be able to determine why it hasnt been done,
develop a new solution, and carry it out on their own!
- Especially in people-intense organizations like churches which depend almost entirely on
human resources (members) to achieve their goals, the capacity to act is essential for
vital, healthy congregational ministry. Once a church gets to the point where the people
and leaders in the church are unable to identify and address specific problems, more and
more responsibility falls on the pastor for solutions to the problems.
- As a result, the pastor becomes overburdened with a temptation to
overfunction for others while also risking blameand shameif the solution fails
or is not met with satisfaction by the congregation. Thus the incapacity to act is one of
the hallmarks of a diseased church.
Characteristics of the Disease
- The first symptom is failure to address key organizational problems. Unhealthy
churches, like alcoholics, have developed myriads of ways to fail to address problems.
Some of the most common ways might include
- Denialwe dont have a problem.
- Procrastinationits not that important
at least not yet.
- Suppressionthe problem exists, but the people who know about it are unwilling to
share it with those who can do something about it.
- Complacencythe problem is recognized, but nobody believes it will ever change so
nothing is done.
- Confused prioritiesoverwhelmed by the more urgent needs, the vitally important
issues never get addressed.
- A second symptom is implementation failure. The church knows the problem,
develops solutions, makes decisions, but does not implement the solutions
not effectively. Four types of implementation failure are
- Delivery failure: People just cant recognize a good opportunity to implement when
they see one.
- Derailment: People recognize the good ideas but somehow the idea gets lost in the
process of implementation.
- Investment Overload: The good ideas get implemented but only after investing excessive
time and effort, resulting in burnout and discouragement.
- Replication Failure: Successful ideas are fully implemented in some areas of the
organization, but do not permeate the entire organization.
The consequences of the "Incapacity to Act" are significant. Examples in your
ministry might be when...
- Outreach opportunities go unrealized;
- Resources are used in ways not necessarily focused on the most effective areas of
- Membership dissatisfaction increases as congregation plateaus and declines;
- Morale decreases;
- The congregation becomes less likely to take risks or address ongoing problems;
- The leadership base shrinks but ends up taking on a greater proportion of the decisions
- The pool of potential people to whom to delegate tasks shrinks dramatically;
- Decline in the overall strength of the congregation as measured by worship attendance,
financial receipts, and ministry participation;
- Risk adversity;
- Requirement of an overwhelming body of evidence before making decisions;
- Little encouragement of risk-taking; low tolerance for failure;
- An environment favorable for blaming, scapegoating and other conflict behavior
Causes of Incapacity To Act
What causes this dreaded disease? A number of critical factors seem to cause and
perpetuate this dreaded disease..
Unclear AccountabilityNo one really claims responsibility for the problems or for
developing the solutions. Accountability is so diffused that no one really knows who
really can do what. The results: larger numbers of people and massive amounts of data are
required prior to making any decisions.
- Activity BiasCongregations have a bias toward accepting activity that
"follows the rules," is in accordance with "standard operating
procedure" or thats done for "its own sake" instead of those
activities which emphasize or are directed toward enhanced ministry performance and
results. In short, they emphasize process over results, the doing rather than the final
- Unrealized PriorityThe congregation and its leaders fail to focus on core
priorities and values. Theyre so busy doing so many things and afraid that if they
stop doing anything they are doing, theyll get killed for it. Often, leaders are
pressured to balance and accommodate conflicting priorities so that the net effect is that
the organization is at a standstill.
- Priority StressArises when leaders in the congregation are ambiguous about their
role. Congregational leaders experiencing priority stress can be identified by their
frequent comment, "I dont know what to do, but Im doing an awful lot, and
Ive got so much to do I cant get it all done."
Perceived PowerlessnessThe congregation and its leaders believe they lack the
authority, power, members, and financial resources to be able to make and implement
Over ControlIncreased pressures from the congregation cause pastors and leaders to
feel pressured into high levels of improved performance. With heightened expectations,
pastor and leaders become more controlling and excessively involved in the minutia of the
High Risk-to-Reward RatioThis occurs as congregational members come to believe
increasingly that the outcomes of taking risks to solve problems and implement new
ministries are unclear at best
and make fools out of themselves trying. In addition,
the individual efforts needed may be too high for an ever-decreasing likelihood of
The results: instead of taking bold steps of faith and risk, people engage in activities
that will keep them out of trouble.
- Is There A Cure?
- Fortunately, there are a number of things which can be done to address the Incapacity to
- Establish Very Clear PrioritiesKeep it simple in five or six words or less. After
all, people who understand the congregations goals and how their membership and
involvement relates to these goals are more inclined to give their best efforts.
- Focus On Core PrioritiesThis requires independent judgment to identify which are
the most important and least important priorities.
- Establish Personal and Organizational BoundariesAn essential component of the
capacity to act is the capacity to say "No." Choices must be prioritized
according to an overarching vision and strategy. "No" is the only way to keep
- Gain an external PerspectiveLearn the members real ministry needs and the
needs of those outside the organization. Then compare, analyze, and redevelop ministry
strategies and procedures based on those needs.
- Enlist Visionary LeadersEnlist as many visionary individuals as soon as possible.
These leaders may be either elected or non-elected. Offer training and support to
disseminate visionary attitudes throughout the organization.
- Deploy Visionary LeadersGive them the vision, define their boundaries, then, while
keeping them accountable, set them "loose" to develop strategies and choices to
address one or two areas with the most leverage in bringing transformation in the
congregation. Always set clear-cut lines of responsibility for deployed leaders; always
give them the authority to act.
- Bias Toward ResultsEncourage and support individual efforts on an
organization-wide basis toward clear organizational goals. Applaud risk-taking and make
the rewards for such undertaking larger than the rewards for safe behavior.
- Re-Structure to Facilitate AutonomyStudies have demonstrated that the
high-leverage actions facilitate and support empowerment:
- organizational structure should be smaller, less complex, and less dependent on others
- keep organizational rules to an absolute minimum. Those rules and policies which must
exist should exist only to clearly define how the organization will operate to
achieve its major objectives, goals and visions.
- The engine which will drive the change is empowerment. Empower, empower, empower people
regularly while consistently restating the purpose of the church.
- Provide necessary education and training to enable individuals to respond appropriately
to their opportunity for service.
- The Results?
- Having addressed the key elements of the incapacity to act, the congregation and its
leaders will become more focused on core priorities. They will begin to demonstrate a bias
for results. The people of God will begin realizing a sense of empowerment for
- Second, when people have a capacity to act, there is a greater possibility that a total
transformation of the congregation will occur. Of course, such dramatic transformation is
not without its pitfalls. The "old guard" will certainly defend it and do all
possible to keep those items which reinforce the incapacity to act effective and in place.
- Third, eliminating and reducing organizational bureaucracy which inhibits the capacity
to act will challenge congregations to use the full potential of people within the church
to enlarge, enliven and extend the mission of the church.
- Finally, as mechanistic traditional structures and procedures are replaced with more
flexible, organic forms of organization, the church will more readily reflect, by the
action of Gods working, the vitality Christ intended for it. This vitality spoken of
by St. Paul in Ephesians 4 when he described the healthy Body of Christ, as one in which
"each part does its work."
- The Real Secret
- The real effective power for this capacity to act, however, is not rooted in
administrative techniques, organizational theory, or in the teaching of bureaucratic
gurus. Instead it is found in the realization and application of what really happens when
congregations and Christian leaders recognize what happens when they start seeking the
Kingdom of God first. When such happens, they will inevitably see the Kingdom activity of
God graciously working among them.
- Indeed, concepts such as "empowerment" are essential concepts of the
Gospel-dominated church. The church which recognizes that it has "every spiritual
blessing in Christ" (Ephesians 1:3) responds by aspiring to their
- The Spirit-given ability to recognize and aspire to this calling necessarily results in
"every part" doing its work. It is the individual Christian's "capacity to
act" which builds the Body of Christ as each does its work. The Body of Christ is
glorified as the each individual in it acts as God intends. The Body of Christ--as well as
all the individuals in it--become mature, built up and edified.
- How's Your Capacity To Act?
- What's holding your congregation back? It's probably not God. In fact, it may
be the church's inability to act--and encourage action. Do you have more layers of
bureaucracy than Jesus had? Do you have so many laws, regulations, requirements and
pre-requisites than no one can freely explore their own capacity to act for the Kingdom?
- Are there areas of ministry which are open and available for even those who are not yet
members but certainly demonstrating a commitment to the church? Is there such a
legalistic, critical and judgmental attitude which makes it so that no one dares to act?
Is the church so dominated with conflict that no one dares to make a difference?
- The way to transformation may not be easy. But it is, nonetheless, necessary. Reflecting
on the above, consider the following steps to begin the transformation necessary to
encourage heightened capacities to act.
- 1) Preach Profiles Of Victory:
- The cultivation of the capacity to act starts by preaching ways in which God brought
victory against all odds...just because God's people were willing to trust. Some key
examples are marching around Jericho to destroy it, David vs. Goliath, Sanballat and the
Samaritan's continued efforts to frustrate the Jew's rebuilding of Jerusalem walls. Though
outnumbered, God gave victory to that small remnant.
- 2) Recruit Others "To Make A Difference."
One of the surest ways to tell whether a church is going somewhere or not is to see
what it does with its people. Does it empower them? Does it urge them to make a positive
difference? Does it support them? Does it delegate both task and responsibility?
Ted Turner, the founder of the Cable News Network (CNN), is an outstanding role model
in this vein. He believes in finding terrific people, then getting out of their way.
- 3) Reward the "Movers And Shakers."
Remember, it's not the size of the reward. It's the affirmation--public and private
(but always personal)--that gives people the signal that they are doing the right thing.
Leadership affirmation, especially the pastor's, can perpetuate the positive leadership
that those with the capacity to act need.
- 4) Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!
5) Let Freedom Predominate.
- "Simplification" is another word for "reinvention."
Yet there may be many areas in the church that may merit examination, reinvention, and
simplification. Constitutions, red tape, burdensome policy making processes, and long,
useless and unproductive meetings are just a beginning of the things that need
- Isn't it ironic that some of the largest and most vital Christian
ministries have the shortest constitutions? As John Maxwell would say, "Just a
In the medical world, the patients with the most tubes, needles and monitors are those
that are in the intensive care unit. Many are near death. As the various monitors, sensors
and medications are removed, the patient experiences healing and freedom.
6) Let The Gospel Predominate!
Does your church really need all that intensive care? Or is the church afraid of
freedom? "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!" Paul wrote in
Galatians 5:1. What's hindering your congregation from having the capacity to act in and
because of that freedom in Christ?
Perhaps the greatest hindrance to the capacity to act is in our fear. "Fear
not" is the recurring command of God to the faithful. Given that God has conquered
all fear in the resurrection of Christ, given that Christ has called us not to fear those
who can "hurt the body but not the soul," fear need not cripple us.
Fear need not hinder our capacity to act. Instead, taking the first step of realizing
that faith calls us to a higher capacity to act, God's ministry and working through us may
realize capacities of action we may never have dreamed of.
God's capacity to act is unlimited. How unlimited? Exert your capacity to act in
faith...and find out today!
Thomas F. Fischer
- "Loose and flexible...but disciplined." That's how some leaders described a
church so permeated by the Gospel that it is reflected in it's organization. Ministry Health Article
#228 "Is Your Church Gospel-Driven?"
lists numerous differences between churches dominated by the Law vs. those dominated by
- In the narrow sense, the church in which the Gospel predominates is marked by the
incessant proclamation of Christ's forgiveness, His total victory over Satan, and the
totally undeserved gift of salvation given freely for us. In a wider sense, the Gospel
creates and gives rise to various healthy dynamics which are the fruits of the Gospel's
- The fruits of the Spirit--love, hope, patience, kindness, et al--are but one example.
Loving one another is another. Spontaneity, the expectation of God's working, a sense of
risking for and trusting in God are others. When people have such Gospel joy, they will
sense and respond to the capacity to act. Indeed, they will recognize that their capacity
to act is their greatest service, sacrifice and worship they can return to a loving,
gracious and forgiving God (cf. Romans 12:1).
Those interested in a secular "clinical" discussion of
this topic are invited to read, "The Capacity to Act" by Robert Shaw in David
Nadler, et al. Organizational Architecture. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass, 1992.
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:13 PM