Nimbleness trumps consistency

I must have Beijing on my mind. But if you can stand a sports metaphor, church management is more like a basketball game than a gymnastics exercise.

In the gymnastics exercise, the athlete works with a known and unchanging context, such as parallel bars, rings, a mat of specified dimensions. The challenge is to develop a routine and then to practice it again and again, until it is perfect. Success arises from consistency.

In a basketball game, ten players are given a ball and told to go to it. Yes, there are rules and some desired flows. But the realities of a game are surprises, unexpected outcomes, and unpredicted behaviors. The context changes constantly. A rigid game plan guarantees defeat. Victory goes to the nimble, to the team that can read a dynamic situation, adapt to it creatively, and then adapt the adaptations.

Church life is like a basketball game. It is constantly changing. New personalities emerge, new needs arise, plans go astray, people behave oddly, and what worked yesterday comes up short today. It is highly stressful, and many retreat into plan and tradition. But success goes to those who can read the dynamic and fluid context, hear the unexpected need, see failure and learn from it, see the impacts of outside developments and adapt to them, and do all of this in an open, transparent manner that allows the other players to adapt as well.

Rather than devote significant energy to long-range planning, church leaders should focus on team formation. The plan is unlikely to survive reality. The team is what makes a difference.

For example, if the defense in basketball changes suddenly from man-to-man to a zone defense, opposing players immediately shout, “Zone! Zone!” And they adapt their play. Name the reality, rather than trying to channel it through a plan.

In church life, we know that things change when, say, a person dies. People change their schedules, decide to carry in food, send cards, attend services. This is what I mean by nimbleness. Apply this principle now to all of parish life.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.