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Organizational life cycle

Organizational life can be as unpredictable as the weather, but it is somewhat predictable in stages of development. Like the human life cycle from birth to aging and death, some organizations have a comparable life cycle. Unlike the human life cycle, which moves for everyone through physical stages, the organization cycle is not inevitable. We use this metaphor to help leaders understand what can happen, usually as a result of inappropriate leadership.

To grasp the nature of an organizational cycle, imagine climbing a mountain. As you start at the bottom of the mountain, you begin to climb through the "Infant Stage" then you proceed to the "Growth Stage" and then to the "Prime Stage." As you descend on the other side, you find the "Aging Stage" and then "Dying."

Leaders who understand this potential sequence of change are in a good position to help the organization avoid deterioration. Describing typical stages and understanding how they develop helps leaders increase in confidence and effectiveness.

The Infant Stage.

This stage begins with a dream, vision and opportunity. Almost every church starts with a person, or group of persons, who has a vision. In their mind and spirit they see the potential, visualize plans, and the church is birthed.

The infant church is characterized by strong commitment and purpose. Although they may feel uncertain about the future, the attitudes of those involved are positive and supportive. The young church requires much nurture and attention. Members are interdependent, totally involved and willing to work together. Those who don't share the dream and aren't willing to get involved will leave. The infant organization is action-oriented, opportunity-driven, and vision-focused.

During the infant stage action is more important than opinions. Promotion and recognition comes to persons who produce. The higher the risk involved in starting the church the greater the commitment required. Conflicts may arise over the need for more administration and better management. Leadership and members alike in the infant organization tend to have excessive commitments and overbooked schedules. As the organization strives to grow, its leaders tend to be extremely attentive and responsive to people's needs and complaints. Leaders and members are personable and caring.

Organizational structure at this stage is minimal and informal. Programs and ministries are basic and spontaneous. There are few policies, systems, or procedures, and limited budgets. Management by crisis can become the primary method of operation and this hinders growth. The organization may be highly centralized. There may be no system for recruiting, developing or evaluating volunteers. There are few official titles, no organizational chart, or hierarchy.

Changes are easy and quick to make. There is little resistance to suggestions from a founding leader. Decisions are usually unanimous because each member feels a high degree of ownership in the group. There is a strong focus on experimentation with ministries and ideas. The church isn't large enough to do many ministries so it tends to have a short-term, one ministry orientation. This can lead to an event or activity centered ministry which will hinder development of leadership and people-building processes.

Morale in the group is high while identity and self-esteem are being developed. The excitement however, is tested by the realities of getting an organization going. The church is vulnerable because a little problem can quickly become a major crisis.

The infant stage requires a strong visionary leader who can maintain a high degree of commitment. The leader must maintain control and have significant input into the infant organization. It is normal at this stage that the leader be more hands-on and in control with little or no delegation, but if the work is to survive he must be willing to listen and include people. It is essential that the leader's family be supportive of him and the infant church, and that the larger organization to which the church is affiliated be supportive and provide external intervention and help as needed.

The Growing Stage.

At this stage the church's beliefs, values, goals, structure, and actions become more formalized. The beliefs provide a doctrinal agreement for organizational action. The goals extend the organization's shared dream and the structure organizes the action. In this stage members tend to share a strong sense of mission and purpose. There is a high level of goal ownership by both leaders and members. Everyone feels involved, committing time and resources to the church. Volunteers are easily found. The scarcity of space because of rapid growth is a common characteristic in this stage.

The early phase of the growing stage is marked by excitement. A negative result may be a tendency for leaders and members to become complacent. The new church may be like a baby that gets into everything and has trouble because it is uncoordinated. It may face a severe crisis precipitated by fast growth combined with lack of systems, finances, policies, and structure. Then it may experience a kind of second birth. As it was birthed physically the first time by the founding leader now it is being born emotionally apart from the founder. This second birth is more prolonged and painful than the first.

As the growing stage progresses conflict and inconsistency may become increasingly evident. The conflict arises on several fronts. As new people begin to get involved a conflict between the "old-timers" and the newcomers erupts. This can lead to an "us versus them" mentality. Conflict may build between the founding leader and those who see the need for more control and administration. At this point the church may become like a teenager striving for independence.

During the growing stage changes are suggested from all levels of membership and are easily adopted and integrated into congregational life. As the church progresses through this stage, however, change becomes more difficult. The church's morale and momentum are easily affected by circumstances and short-term successes and failures. Morale begins to suffer toward the later phase of the growth stage as tension and frustration mount over goals, procedures, and the issue of who is in control.

At this stage a founding leader must learn to share control as well as assign responsibilities. Sometimes a leader becomes arrogant and unwilling to allow anyone else to be involved in leadership. He may find it difficult to decentralize the organization and delegate authority because a suitable control system has not been established. Delegation without the proper controls leads to chaos. Leadership style must change from more entrepreneurial to more managerial.

The primary focus at the early part of the growing stage is on people's needs and getting new people involved. Since the growing church is flexible there is quick response to human and organizational needs which accelerates growth. Abnormal development occurs when the church needs administrative systems and policies but the leader still wants to run a one-man show. Another potential problem is that a growing church may get into too many areas of ministry. It may get overextended in both personnel and resources.

In the later phase of the growth stage it is normal that some conflict between decision makers and between the administrative and entrepreneurial styles begins to develop.

Pathology occurs when the conflict ends in a critical loss of mutual respect and trust among with the formal and informal control of the decision-making process. This may result in premature organizational aging. The church may continue running on momentum for a while but it wit never reach the next stage, or its prime.

Moving to the next stage depends on the development of policies and rules on what and what not to do. Leadership must learn to delegate authority not just responsibility. The growth stage may require a crisis to cure arrogance and push the church on to experience maximized effectiveness. The church must be able to focus its energies and resources and find the delicate balance between managing the organization and continuing to take risks.

The Prime Stage.

The prime stage is still on the upside of the life cycle. It extends from about two-thirds of the way up to the peak. This stage is characterized by high visibility for the church. A strong understanding of its common purpose and mission continue to energize and drive the church. It knows what it is doing, where it is going and how to get there. It makes plans and then follows up on those plans. Members are enthusiastic and willing to get involved. New members are exceed and quickly find a place to become involved. The vision of the organization is becoming a reality as the organizational structure and functional systems are working to maximum efficiency. A strong results orientation increases the satisfaction of the members and newcomers. The church reaches out to others, developing its members, and living out its dream in Christian love.

Structures and ministries are now created in response to new needs. Positive and effective delegation begins while new roles and responsibilities are created allowing more people to become involved. The church excels in performance and effectiveness in ministry. As a result it starts new ministries and programs.

To initiate and implement changes is a major responsibility of leadership. New suggestions and proposals are seriously considered. There is a willingness to listen, learn and grow.

Morale at the prime stage is the highest. The church is confident and secure. People feel positive. Because confidence is strong and morale is high goals are easily reached and success is the normal expectation.

Leaders must continue to maintain the delicate balance between creating and managing. It is easy during this stage to get caught into doing what is customary, but forgetting the reason for doing it. This may lead to rigid clinging to something no longer suitable. A method may become more important than the mission it was meant to accomplish. An activity may be maintained and presumed sacred even though it has lost its effectiveness.

In the normal development of the church in the prime stage there will not be enough well-trained people for the ministries. Although there is excitement, momentum and a willingness to volunteer, there are few who have been adequately trained. Training must become a major focus. The greatest challenge is for the organization to stay in the prime stage full of vision and creativity while managing effectively and continuing to train people for leadership. Abnormal development occurs if the church does not redream the dream and allow creative minds to work. The prime stage church feels alive and senses little need. This can lead into a maintenance mode. Since it is easier to administrate or manage than it is to be entrepreneurial the church has a tendency to begin to run on autopilot. Taking risks is replaced by playing it safe. When the church loses its entrepreneurial spirit, it begins to age.

The Aging Stage.

This aging stage is characterized by a decline in the members' understanding of and commitment to the church's purpose. New members do not sense ownership of the church's purpose. They assume others to be responsible, so there is decline in involvement. To compensate for this decline more paid staff are needed.

As the aging stage progresses, the church moves from nostalgia to questioning. In the nostalgia phase the group reflects on and longs for a comfortable past. You know the church has reached this phase when you hear: "I remember when." "We can't do that." "We've tried that and it didn't work."

In the questioning phase, members initially question within themselves, concerning leadership and church problems. Then the questioning becomes more intense as groups begin to discuss problems. At this point, either the organization redefines itself and is revitalized by its dream, or its rate of decline accelerates. A polarization phase develops, characterized by a climate in which members mistakenly view each other as enemies, and conflict erupts.

In the aging stage expectations for growth are lowered. There is little interest in development of new ministries or new methods. The church starts to focus on past achievements instead of future visions. People who follow directions are valued more than people who take risks and demonstrate creativity. The entrepreneurial visionary spirit is lost. Money is spent on control systems, leaders' and members' benefits, and facilities. Emphasis is on how things are done rather than what and why they are done. Procedures and policies are kept in place even though they are no longer relevant. Individuals are concerned about the church's vitality, but the operating motto is "Don't make waves." Changes are viewed with suspicion and met with increasing resistance. Fewer changes are proposed, and no change that radically departs from status quo or disrupts the peace is considered. Congregational morale and self-esteem increasingly decline. Morale tends to polarize with some feeling positive about the church and others feeling very negative.

Leaders face a mounting challenge. As the aging stage progresses the tension between leaders and members builds. There is the increasing awareness that something is wrong but nobody knows what it is. Leaders are frustrated and seek to find answers. In an attempt to bring life the leader may suggest a new program or ministry and begin to implement it. The new ministry is placed into the existing structure of the church and brings some excitement and success, but soon the group is back at nostalgia and aging again.

This cycle is repeated but each time with less excitement and effectiveness. The group moves from enthusiasm to frustration, to apathy and then to burnout. When this happens the leader's credibility is lost. The challenge for such a leader is not just to get a good idea for a new ministry but to redream the dream and somehow stimulate revitalization of the whole organization. The only hope is if leader and people can find a way to return to the birth stage and pray for a new vision.

The Dying Stage.

This fifth stage is characterized by the total loss of purpose and hope. The mission is not understood. As questioning and polarization increase, the emphasis shifts to who caused the problem, rather than what to do about it. There is the assumption that finding the who is solving the what. Conflict, back stabbing, and infighting abound. This polarization leads to either a splintering away or a split in the church. Paranoia freezes the church and everyone is lying low. Focus shifts to the internal turf wars while the unreached and the newcomer are seen as a nuisance and ignored. The church disassociates from its community and the people it should reach and focuses mostly on itself.

Due to the lack of interest and participation, programs and ministries are eliminated. It is difficult to find volunteers with only 10 percent of members doing 90 percent of the work. There is no sense of control, and people are doing whatever they feel is their right. Spiritual growth is nonexistent within the group even though a few individual members may be growing. The church is dying but doesn't know why.

Programs, structures, and ministries are deleted for lack of funds and involvement. The primary goal is preservation and survival. Although there are many traditions, practices and procedures in place, they serve little to reach and develop people and to fulfill the mission of the church.

Changes are nearly impossible. Excuses and rationalizations are made for why something can't be done. While dying is frightening, changing is more so. Any suggested change tends to fuel the fire of polarization.

Morale declines to a deep low. Few have any sense of hope and optimism. No one knows what to do about the problem, but everyone thinks that it is the other person's fault.

Leadership is extremely frustrated to the point of despair by not knowing how to stop decline and the infighting in this stage. Frequently the leader is perceived as the problem which may or may not be the truth. Leadership takes many hard hits in the dying stage, particularly if the primary influencers do not support the leader. If the leader is visionary, creative and aggressive, he will likely not last long in the church or the group. if the leader is passive and maintenance oriented, he may make the patient comfortable while it continues to die.

Few churches or groups ever truly recover at the dying stage. If they do it is because new leadership is able to revive the church with a vision and strategy. This requires also that the remaining members be willing to allow a heart transplant and add new life through new members.

Approximately 80 percent of the churches are plateaued or declining. They are in the aging stage of the life cycle. However falling into the aging or dying stages of the life cycle can be avoided.

  • First keep the vision alive and fresh. Ask God what He wants to do in your church this year. You can't live on yesterday's dream. You can only discover God's vision when you are willing to make the changes necessary to see it fulfilled.
  • Second, avoid spiritual decay. Generally the reason the church moves into the aging stage of nostalgia and question is because leadership gets there first. Our own spiritual lives can become routine and not alive. The Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts kept five priorities. They were committed to: Scripture (Acts 2:42); one another (Acts 2:42,44,46); prayer (Acts 2:42); praise and worship (Acts 2:43, 47); outreach (Acts 2:45-47).
  • Third, avoid maintenance mentality. Don't allow yourself to settle into the status quo just maintaining the program or ministry. Continue to press forward and look for new opportunities to move ahead.
  • Fourth, refuse to become exclusive in ministry and leadership. Intentionally include new members in the ministries and decision making process.

Don Bennett, a Seattle businessman, decided he wanted to climb Washington's Mount Ranier. It's a stiff climb to the 14,410-foot summit, but so many individuals have reached the summit that it no longer merits getting one's name in the newspaper.

For Don Bennett, however, the climb was a remarkable achievement, and papers nationwide carried the news of the first amputee ever to reach Mount Ranier's summit. Bennett made the climb on one leg and two crutches.

Asked to share the most important lesson he learned from his celebrated achievement, Bennett spoke of the team of individuals who helped him attain his dream, and commented, "You can't do it alone."

The same can be said of leading a church through the organizational life cycle. You can't do it alone. It starts with understanding the waterway but requires the insight and wisdom of the Holy Spirit to see through the fog. Accept the challenge, love the people, trust the Lord, and you can navigate the waters of your organizational life cycle with success. (James M. Kouzes & Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey: Bass, 1987) p.23.

Dream. Gives birth to an organization.

Beliefs. Provide a values or doctrinal agreement for organizational action.

Goals. Extend the organization's shared dream and beliefs.

Structure. Organizes the organization for pursuing its goals and advancing its dream.

Ministry. Shows the congregation reaching out to others, developing its members, and living out its dream in Christian love.

Nostalgia. Reflects a wistful longing for a comfortable past----real or imagined---- but the past tends to be more positive in memory than it was in reality.

Questioning. Marks the point of no return for the congregation, organizationally speaking. Either the organization redefines and is revitalized by its dream, or its rate of decline accelerates its slide into disease and polarization.

Polarization. Creates an organizational climate in which members mistake one another for the enemy and fall into conflict.

Dropouts. Result when the dream of effective ministry in this organization dies, and members retreat into inactivity


Dale, Robert, To Dream Again, Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1987

Adizes, Ichak, Corporate Lifecycles, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988 Organizational Lifecycle Described


Dale, Robert, To Dream Again, Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1987

Adizes, Ichak, Corporate Lifecycles, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988 Organizational Lifecycle Described

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