By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
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 organizations…including churches.
 You’ve 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 hasn’t been done, develop a new solution, and carry it out on their own!
Why The Capacity To Act Is So Critical

 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 blame—and shame—if 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…

  1. Denial—we don’t have a problem.
  2. Procrastination—it’s not that important…at least not yet.
  3. Suppression—the problem exists, but the people who know about it are unwilling to share it with those who can do something about it.
  4. Complacency—the problem is recognized, but nobody believes it will ever change so nothing is done.
  5. Confused priorities—overwhelmed 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…at least not effectively. Four types of implementation failure are…
  1. Delivery failure: People just can’t recognize a good opportunity to implement when they see one.
  2. Derailment: People recognize the good ideas but somehow the idea gets lost in the process of implementation.
  3. Investment Overload: The good ideas get implemented but only after investing excessive time and effort, resulting in burnout and discouragement.
  4. Replication Failure: Successful ideas are fully implemented in some areas of the organization, but do not permeate the entire organization.
Long-Term Results

 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 ministry;
  • 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 and responsibility;
  • 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 increases;
 Causes of Incapacity To Act

 What causes this dreaded disease? A number of critical factors seem to cause and perpetuate this dreaded disease..

  • Activity Bias—Congregations have a bias toward accepting activity that “follows the rules,” is in accordance with “standard operating procedure” or that’s 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 product.
  • Unrealized Priority—The congregation and its leaders fail to focus on core priorities and values. They’re so busy doing so many things and afraid that if they stop doing anything they are doing, they’ll 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.
    1. Priority Stress—Arises when leaders in the congregation are ambiguous about their role. Congregational leaders experiencing priority stress can be identified by their frequent comment, “I don’t know what to do, but I’m doing an awful lot, and I’ve got so much to do I can’t get it all done.”
  • Unclear Accountability—No 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.
  • Perceived Powerlessness—The congregation and its leaders believe they lack the authority, power, members, and financial resources to be able to make and implement important decisions.
  • Over Control—Increased 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 congregation.
  • High Risk-to-Reward Ratio—This 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 achievement.

    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 Act.
  1. Establish Very Clear Priorities—Keep it simple in five or six words or less. After all, people who understand the congregation’s goals and how their membership and involvement relates to these goals are more inclined to give their best efforts.
  2. Focus On Core Priorities—This requires independent judgment to identify which are the most important and least important priorities.
  3. Establish Personal and Organizational Boundaries—An 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 that focus.
  4. Gain an external Perspective—Learn 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.
  5. Enlist Visionary Leaders—Enlist 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.
  6. Deploy Visionary Leaders—Give 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.
  7. Bias Toward Results—Encourage 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.
  8. Re-Structure to Facilitate Autonomy—Studies have demonstrated that the high-leverage actions facilitate and support empowerment:
  1. organizational structure should be smaller, less complex, and less dependent on others to act;
  2. 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.
  3. The engine which will drive the change is empowerment. Empower, empower, empower people regularly while consistently restating the purpose of the church.
  4. 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 ministry. 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 God’s 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 it’s 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 “before-the-creation-of-the-world” calling. 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!

“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 simplification.
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 thought!”

5) Let Freedom Predominate.

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.

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?

6) Let The Gospel Predominate!

“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 the Gospel.
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 working.
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).

 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

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.

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