It Used to Work So Well

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Lovett Weems says that a congregation’s success can lead to its demise if the creativity and adaptability that made the congregation vital becomes frozen in place. This irony can be surmounted only if a church maintains dynamic interactions with its constituencies and the surrounding environment.


“It is one of the paradoxes of success,” says Charles Handy, “that the things and ways which got you there are seldom those things that will keep you there.” Familiar patterns recur in unusually successful organizations. Things go well when there is congruence among mission, context, and structure, driven by the passion of people convinced that they are doing the most important thing in the world. But size and time take a toll. New people are further away from the original vision, and now the structures needed for a growing and maturing organization create distance and layers that dampen passion. The momentum of past success continues, often for a long time, so long as the environment is relatively stable. It is when the context shifts that years of living off past success take their toll on an organization that long ago lost its capacity to adapt nimbly. The great leadership author, Max De Pree, wrote, “Success is fragile, like a butterfly. We usually crush the life out of it in our efforts to possess it.”

The fabled Icarus of Greek mythology was quite impressed with his ability to fly so high with wings made by his father of wax and feathers. Success caused him to ignore his father’s warning not to fly close to the sun. The sun melted his artificial wings, plunging him to death in the Aegean Sea. Strength can become weakness, and success, failure. The power of Icarus’s wings gave rise to the hubris that doomed him.

In congregations, success can lead to demise. There are many reasons why such downfalls occur. At some point, the creativity and adaptability that made congregations vital in the first place become frozen in place. They stop being responsive to the changing situation and circumstances in which they function. What at one time was a great strength — clarity about key values, priorities and commitments — now leads to weakness. The church finds itself no longer taken as seriously by others as they always assumed would be the case. They kept playing the same notes while the audience changed. They forgot that the programs and practices they insist on maintaining today originally were new patterns developed to address the particular needs and circumstances of a previous time.

We all know of congregations that have been strong and vital. Yet they continued to do those things that brought earlier success, without attending to all the changes around them. In fact, the temptation, when old ways no longer produce the same results, is to play the old notes louder and louder, thus producing caricatures instead of adaptation. Previous strength becomes the source of demise.

The wisest approach is for churches to stay in dynamic interaction with its constituencies and environment, with those inside the church and those outside. New church plants are far more attuned to what is going on in the community and who the unchurched are than are leaders of existing congregations. Churches must find ways to monitor the pulse of the community so they know when the old ways no longer carry the power they once did.

The temptation, when old ways no longer produce the same results, is to play the old notes louder and louder, thus producing caricatures instead of adaptation. Previous strength becomes the source of demise.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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