119 – Introducing the Church as a Learning Organization
Jim said, “I prayed to receive Christ 18 years ago. I joined a church because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. But nothing happened, and I pretty much went on with life as before. Then, about three years ago I really started to grow. Now my family is clicking. I love life. Christ has become very real to me. I want to learn.”
In speaking further with Jim, it became clear he had no idea that the church was supposed to disciple him to be a Godly man, husband, and father. He literally thought it was up to him to figure it out!
Evangelism without discipleship can be a cruel hoax. It’s like asking someone, “Do you want to become an accountant?” with no plan to train them. If they said “yes” and started doing what accountants do, they would create accounting nightmares wherever they went. It’s the same when we ask, “Do you want to become a Christian?” with no plan to train them.
A central mission of the church is “to make disciples.” The Greek word disciple literally means “learner.” When used in conjunction with Jesus, the term disciple came to mean “an adherent to the person and teachings of Jesus.” The church is by definition intended to be a learning organization. A lot of research has been done to describe an effective learning organization, although not much of it has been applied to the church.
Peter Senge, a pioneer in learning organization theory, notes the life expectancy of a major company is roughly half that of a human (Senge, 1990a). Churches also tend to stagnate, although they often stay open. Even those that continue to “grow” often do not do a great job at producing disciples (only 16% of men in churches are involved in a discipleship process). Is that normal? Is it necessary? How do organizations that flourish, flourish?
The collapse of a church or organization doesn’t usually happen suddenly. Instead, small problems—that could be easily resolved when caught early—are not addressed. Eventually these problems become systemic and unsolvable. Leaders unwilling to confront problems and adapt to a changing environment predestine their organizations or churches to eventual mediocrity or outright failure.
A leader often sweeps small problems under the rug hoping they will “go away” because he is afraid of “rocking the boat.” Ironically, these problems do not usually go away, but rather they come back with such force that they put the survival of the organization at risk. True learning organizations don’t hide from problems. Instead, in the words of Jim Collins (2001, p. 86), “confront the most brutal facts of their current reality while retaining faith that they will prevail in the end.”
This article briefly introduces three factors that help build effective learning organizations. While retaining a Biblical priority and worldview, we can also learn a lot from God’s “common-grace” wisdom given to secular thinkers that can help us (the church) be more effective in our core mission of “making disciples.”
Transformational Top-Down Leadership
Research bears out that top-down transformational leadership is possibly the most important element to implement organizational learning (e.g., Argyris, 1994; Bennis & Nanus, 1985; Garvin, 1993; and more).
For example, a case study found two hospital CEOs getting very different results. One CEO’s effort to implement a continuous quality improvement program (“CQI”) was successful because he fulfilled the role of transformational leader and gained support of his senior management team. He became a champion for the organizational learning model, and after two years was able to build consensus about its importance to the future of the hospital.
In a second hospital, the same CQI initiative was led by middle management, but senior management never embraced CQI, and the program was not implemented. The transformational CEO followed a top-down approach, which began with a clear and steady message about the strategic significance of CQI. He was able to change the culture, structure, and strategy of the organization by proceeding at a deliberate pace over several years (LeBrasseur et al. 2002).
If the church gets back to its roots of making disciples, it’s clear a transformational leader will point the way. God calls pastors and other leaders to shepherd his flock and help bring each person to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:11-16).
Getting people to participate in the learning process is also central to real discipleship. Successful organizations enlist the brain power of people at all levels to identify opportunities and solve problems. How can the church get people excited about learning?
Here’s how Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, did it. Welch knew that the people closest to the work knew it best, but they often felt disempowered to solve problems. He started the GE Work-Out program – “town meetings” of two or three days that included 40 to 100. These meetings helped transform GE into a learning organization. The effectiveness of getting everyone involved can be seen financially (GE’s market value increased by over $450 billion during Welch’s tenure), but an anecdote from a middle-aged appliance worker is even more telling: “For 25 years you’ve paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well—for nothing” (Welch, 2001, pp. 182-183).
Instead of just having staff and leaders tell people what to do, how can your church more effectively engage members to identify opportunities and solve problems for their families, businesses, and the community?
One factor that’s essential to engage people in discipleship is psychological safety. In a psychologically safe organization, people feel secure to honestly talk about how they think and feel. They also believe it’s not the end of the world if they make a mistake. Organizations which permit mistakes are likely to have more receptive employees.
Thomas Watson, Sr., the founder of IBM, summoned a young manager to his office after he lost $10 million in a risky venture. The young manager slinked into Watson’s office and said, “I guess you will want my resignation.” Watson reportedly replied, “Resignation! You can’t be serious. We just spent $10 million educating you. You’re not going anywhere!” Whether it happened or not, as this story became part of the company folklore of IBM, it sent a powerful message that the company didn’t punish people for taking risks and making sincere mistakes (Garvin, 1993, pp. 86, 91).
Does your church allow – and even encourage – members to take risks for the kingdom? What happens when ideas don’t work? What happens when they do?
The church was created by Jesus to be the ultimate learning organization through “making disciples.” Spend a few minutes in prayer and ask God if you can help your church do a better job of making disciples. Of the three concepts in this article, which do you think would be most helpful to your church efforts in making disciples? What would have to happen for these changes to take place? Share this article with other men, and together make a commitment to build the kingdom and fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission.
Argyris, C. (1994). Good communication that blocks learning. Harvard Business Review, July-August 1994, 77-85.
Bennis, W. & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders. New York: Harper Perennial.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York: HarperBusiness.
Garvin, D. (1993). Building a learning organization. Harvard Business Review, 78-91.
LeBrasseur, R., Whissell, R., & Ojha, A. (2002). Organisational Learning, Transformational
Leadership and Implementation of Continuous Quality Improvement in Canadian Hospitals. Australian Journal of Management, 27(2), 141.
Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.
Welch, J. (2001). Jack: straight from the gut. New York: Warner Business Books.
Business leader, author, and speaker, Patrick Morley helps men think more deeply about their lives, to be reconciled with Christ, and to be equipped for a larger impact on the world. David Delk is the President of Man in the Mirror © 2003. Patrick Morley and David Delk. All rights reserved.