Decision Making

On occasion, I have the privilege of  sitting down with a pastor and helping them process a decision about the next steps for their church. I’m a strategist at heart. Talking through the nuts and blots of an organization, ideally with a whiteboard marker in hand, makes me happy.

Earlier this week I had lunch with a friend and we talked through a church system. After the conversation, I created some notes. I thought I would share them here in hopes they might help someone else.

First, a few disclaimers:

  • None of this is original to me. It comes from multiple sources.
  • It is not fail proof, nor is it “the only way to do things.” It’s just a way to process decisions.
  • It’s ever evolving. Often I will read something, or talk to someone, and gain a different piece of the puzzle.



The great Jim Collins (leadership guru and author of Good to Great and Built to Last) invented a decision matrix called the Hedgehog Concept.

When faced with organizational changes (“Should we do this program or that one?” “How should we change this thing we do?” “Should we add this thing to what we do?”), the Hedgehog Concept provides you a way to evaluate the choice before you.

Hedgehog Concept

The idea behind this decision making system is that there are three qualifications a change must match before it is adopted into the organization:

  1. The change must match what “We offer something to the world.” This is why the organization exist. The new thing must be in line with this circle.
  2. The organization runs on something. Will the suggested change bring more fuel to the organizational engine?
  3. The organization has  decided it will do one thing better than anyone else in the world. Does the change help the organization do that thing better?

When translated into church world, I re-framed the decision matrix a little:

Hedgehog in Church World

The questions re-framed for a church environment become:

  1. Does it line up with who you are? (More on this in a minute.)
  2. Your church is one of a thousand volunteer fueled organizations with similar answers to #1 in your geographic region. Participation of volunteers fuels your engine (they stop coming and you no longer exist). It is important, therefore, to know why people are participating in your stuff over the other choices in front of them.
  3. Finally, it is unlikely you will be the best in the world at anything, especially if you are a small church. Instead as, “What is it we want to be known for?” When people say your name, you want them to say, “Oh yeah. That’s the church that _____________.” And don’t put a program in the blank. Put a personality/characteristic. “That’s the church that cares.” “That’s the church that serves.” “That’s the church that is fighting for the homeless.”



Before you can plug potential changes into our decision matrix, you need to know the answers to the three questions above, but “Who answers those questions?”

It’s different (but the same) for every church. In general:

Hedgehog Who

“What inspires people to participate?” is easy to figure out. Just ask them. Run a survey of the people participating int he program you want to change, or run a survey of people you’d like to participate. Don’t assume you know the answer. People will surprise you.

“What do we do well that we want to be known for?” is a question that will need to be shaped for each area of ministry. For example, while the answer may be “provide dynamic teaching” for the organization as a whole. What “dynamic teaching” is for kids and adults may be different; therefore, the question needs to be a continuing conversation between core leadership and the leaders “on the ground.”

The first one question  – the question of mission, vision, and core values – is the hard one. It’s the one most churches never define, or define too often, or halfway define, or think they’ve defined it when they really haven’t.



The meaning of the words mission, vision, and core values change depending on who you are talking to. Here is how I am using them:

  • Mission – This is who you are. It’s what you’re about. It’s the content of your organizations character. Ideally, over time this doesn’t change. It isn’t a statement. It’s a white paper detailing the dream of who you hope you will become and who you are striving to be.
  • Vision – This is where you are going. At its best, it’s a numeric goal that gets you one step closer to the mission. You should achieve it and then set a new one.
  • Core Values – These are the things that keep you centered. Ask yourself, “What will we not do?” On the flip side of that question is a core value.

There is a fourth word we need to throw into the mix because it is often confused with “mission.”

  • Branding – This is a packaged, concise statement that expresses what the mission is. It is a teaching tool. It is your “Mission Statement.” It should be short and memorable so the congregation can digest the mission in a bite sized way.

For example, the common mission statement I love is: “Love God and Love People.” Many churches say this and think they are done defining their mission, but this is a brand. It tells us nothing of the desired character of the church. The mission is the short book the leadership could write on what that statement represents to them.

The reason we brand is because the mission, that book of dreams about who you will be, is not easy to share. The brand is there so you can express the mission in a simple way when someone asks in passing who you are.

“So what is your church all about?”

“Read this ten page paper. It’s a dissertation on who we are and who we hope to be.”


“What is your church all about?”

“Loving God and loving people.”


The important point is, for the branding to work, you need the dissertation behind it.



Putting the elements in a picture helps us understand how they work together.

How they all work together

The mission and vision serve as the goal. The mission is the ideal. It’s who you hope to become. The vision is the difficult, but obtainable goal. It is how you are measuring your success. A good vision leads toward the mission.

The congregation is on a journey together. The leadership should be out in front, chasing the vision and mission faster than the rest of the people (it’s why we call them “leaders”). The people aren’t close behind, following the leaders examples.

The core values are the “out of bounds” lines. When you cross them, someone needs to blow the whistle and stop the game. There may be faster paths to obtain your vision, but the core values force you to stay on a certain course. They say to the organization, “No. Not that way. This way.”

Over time

In an ideal world, your visions will become road markers as you pursue becoming your mission. You should be able to look back on them as milestones of your journey.



Most churches fail to ever define their mission, or they change it often, shifting with the most popular ministry flavor of the year.

There is no such thing as an absence of mission and vision. When we don’t give one to the people, they assume their own. Typically, they relax into their favorite program. It’s perpetuation becomes the mission. It’s growth the vision. Often this is Sunday morning worship.

“Describe your church to me?”

“We meet on Sunday morning for worship. It’s blend of contemporary and traditional styles.”

“How do you know the church is doing well?”

“When there is more people in the room this week than last.”

No Vision

If the mission and vision aren’t clearly understood by the leadership, a tug of war begins, and in a tug of war, the weak (those with marginalized voices in the shouting match) get hurt first.

Often I’ve seen pastors trying to promote multiple visions at once. They run from group to group say, “Yay! Go and chase that!” Having empowered everyone, they are confused when there is no forward movement.



The second most common mistake is an absence of guiding core values.

Without the core values to guide you (those “We won’t do this, because we are this” statements), you end up wandering around like a chicken with your head cut off. You may accidentally stumble upon the mission, but more likely, you are going to get farther and farther away from it until the mission seems irrelevant.

No Values



Things are rarely clean. Organizations never walk a straight line. The journey is a constant pattern of over-correction.

Over correction

The ideal is to push toward the dream together, allowing your core values to guide when you need to blow the whistle, stop the game, and take a few steps back.


I hope someone out there in the world finds this helpful. As always, feel free to leave questions or push backs in the comments. If you’re near Baltimore and want to talk it through, send me a note. I like drinking coffee with people.


4 thoughts on “Decision Making

  1. I like your thinking. It’s good for churches (or whatever organization) to do some navel-gazing from time to time. But I was curious that your analysis did not include a discussion of what people in and out of the church want from it. You don’t have a space for analyzing the community to figure out what people’s needs are and how to meet those needs. (This includes both the needs of the church’s parishioners as well as those it has the potential to meet.)

    I say this because I’m increasingly skeptical that the local church is or should be the primary organizational unit for Christians. Sure, it’s great that hand-raisers can go to a Pentecostal church and more contemplative types can go Presbyterian on Sunday morning. But it’s absurd that people have to, for example, drive 20 miles to go to a church just because it has a good youth group. Wouldn’t it be better 3-4 small churches in a community combined their resources to produce a neighborhood youth group, led by volunteers from each church? The same could be true of home Bible studies, service activities (e.g. mowing single mothers’ lawns), prayer meetings, etc. As it is, we have many churches competing for the same small group of existing believers, while lots of American Christians don’t even know their neighbors because they are too busy driving to and from church.


    1. Great question about including discussion of people in and out of the church. It comes in two places: answering the question “What fuels your engine?” and in determining your mission and vision. Ideally, “What fuels you engine?” isn’t just asked of existing members, but is asked in way that looks to bringing new people in. Also, as you build the mission, ideally there is conversation about who you are trying to reach. The reason I don’t start with those questions (like other systems do: who are you trying to reach? How will you reach them?) is because if it is not part of your DNA, then you can’t fake it. You either care about people outside of you or you don’t. A decision making system isn’t going to change that.

      I agree that the institutionalized local church has issues. Wendy and experimented with this six years ago. We ran a “small church” in our neighborhood for five years. We called it the Thingy. (Some day I’ll publish a case study on the experience.) The group had its problems (mostly caused by me as the team leader), at the same time, it was a beautiful thing. In the end, no one (our neighbors or ourselves) was ready to accept us as a church yet. Things only evolve to the adjacent possible. The local institutional church is here to stay for at least another generation. (I’m less convinced about the mega-church phenomenon.)


  2. I guess I envision a small church (Soleil Church), with a full-time pastor (Siegfried) and a part-time music minister (Roy), who also teaches music at the local community college and gives private saxophone lessons. Siegfried is also the church secretary, accountant, janitor, and leads several evening Bible studies. Roy is really good as a music minister, but since there isn’t anyone to lead the youth, Roy does that too.

    So on Sunday nights, after the singing is done, Roy takes the 5 teenagers in the church (who are all related) and tries to do the youth minister thing. He’s not really that good at it, but no one else in the church is, either. On the other hand, Soleil has adopted a local nursing home (or elementary school, or sheltered workshop, or whatever) and has a thriving ministry there.

    What if Siegfried and Roy were able to go to the pastor of the local megachurch, and ask if Soleil’s youth could attend the thriving youth ministry there? And let’s say that the pastor of the megachurch knows that he has several members who have a burden for helping with [whatever institution Soleil works with]. Instead of starting a new ministry from scratch, the megachurch pastor could 1) promote Soleil’s ministry and 2) encourage his own members to join in Soleil’s work, rather than unnecessarily starting their own separate one. But this would only be possible if Siegfried and the megachurch pastor have an existing relationship and a shared vision for their city.

    I think back to my own time as a deacon at Oak Park. While I was there, the big thing that was going to save the church was that it was going to attract people from the new Federal City in Algiers. Well, for one, Federal City never amounted to much, but for another, such people as did move to Federal City pretty much all wound up at other churches. In retrospect, I imagine that every church in Algiers probably had its designs on Federal City. But I was not aware of any multi-church effort to reach Federal City; instead, each church wanted those people for its own. Had there been a coordinated effort, even if only at the denominational level, then much good might have been done, with Oak Park making its own unique contributions to this effort, but as it was, Oak Park, at least, got nothing out of it. And in the mean time, OP was failing to reach the new immigrants from across the river in the post-Katrina era.

    I wish that I had known then what I know now, so that I could have offered some more helpful advice; But it’s sad that at a time when churches from around the country were sending people to save New Orleans, a lot of churches in N.O. were more worried about self-preservation than about coming together in the great opportunity that was the post-K era.


    1. Your experience as a deacon at OP makes me sad. I’m sorry that happened.

      Concerning Sieggy and Roy – I think what you are describing is already happening outside of the pastors – especially in the suburbs (not so much in the city…but that’s a totally different conversation).

      When I was leading youth at Valley (much like Roy’s situation except I was the Exec Pastor because no one wants me anywhere near the music), most of the youth that attended our church also attended Young Life (whose staff came primarily from the mega-churches in our area), or the week night ministries of another church, or some other para-church ministry focused on their school. At Valley this made me super happy. My youth had a place to get community that I couldn’t offer. I find the push back more often comes from the larger organization: Why don’t these families just join our church. Andy Stanley’s recent leaked sermon in which he called parents who attend small church “selfish” is a great example of this attitude that “if you aren’t mega, you aren’t worth anything.”

      I do think part of the problem with church collaboration does come down to mission. There seems to be a new divide (over the past few decades) in the American church. No longer do we fight about worship styles. Rather, we fight about attractional systems (church programming designed to draw people into their Sunday morning services) and missional systems (church programming focused on sending their people out into the world). The attractional system, because it holds attendance in Sunday morning worship as one of it’s measure of success, can’t help but be competitive with other churches. Especially since many mega-churches often grow by absorbing the members of smaller or dying churches (something I’ve witnessed and studied which I am happy to debate over coffee). The missional system, on the other hand, tends to become judgmental and look down on the attractional path, therefore becoming competitive as well.

      A deeper problem that isn’t discussed in this post (which I haven’t written about in a while because no one wanted to hear it from a nobody like me) was that our culture has grown anti-establishment enough that programming no longer effectively reaches unchurched people. In the post-Christendom world we continue to drift into, it doesn’t matter how nice your bible study is, without a personal connection to you, your nonchurched friend isn’t coming.


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