Thrive in change. Defy the trend.

The Battle of Bureaucracy

by | Dec 2, 2014 | Change Leadership | 0 comments

My travels started smoothly in the cold, dark pre-dawn hours. After hugging family members good-bye, I sauntered into the Lincoln, Nebraska airport to catch my flight to Savannah, GA, which would take me to colleagues for the United Church of Christ’s Authorized Ministry in the 21st Century gathering. The trip promised a time of great learning with friends and colleagues and weather 50 degrees warmer than what I was currently experiencing. Woo-Hoo!

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Church ministries, like planes, can be prevented from taking off because of outdated or inflexible policies and procedures

I sleepily boarded the plane, laptop clutched to my chest, for the 2-hour flight to Atlanta, where I should have easily connected to a short commuter flight to Savannah. Just as I clicked my seatbelt and settled into my seat, the calm, if slightly annoyed, voice of the pilot came unexpectedly on the speaker. “I’m sorry folks, but this plane is required to get an official temperature reading from the airport thermometer. That thermometer, which is handled by the National Weather Service, has not worked since last night. They are sending a repair person now, but I expect that it will take at least an hour. Legally I cannot fly without this reading.” Loud, irritated groans came from the assembled crowd. “I’m going to let you deplane so that you can be more comfortable in the terminal.”

Sometimes you have to laugh or you would just cry. Or shout at innocent people. Whichever happened first.

Rebooking insanity ensued. Time and again, the kind, but frazzled, Delta staff gave updates in between the complicated rebooking of connecting flights. For two hours, we received few updates from the tower or the National Weather Service about the repair of that rogue thermometer. What I could surmise from the cryptic loudspeaker announcements and snippets of overheard conversation between ticket agent and crew is this — the FAA requires certain kinds of flights to take only direct readings of the air temperature before taking off. No exceptions. The National Weather Service, which monitors these airport weather instruments, does not keep staff on site (at least not at an airport this small) in case of equipment failure. A contracted repair person, traveling from who-knows-where had to come to fix the thermometer. No channels of communication between the National Weather Service and the control tower seemed to exist, leaving the crew in the dark.

Now, let me pause here to write that I am actually glad for regulations that keep airplanes safe and government organizations that collect data on the weather. I’m no aviation engineer, but I’m guessing that having an accurate read on weather conditions is a pretty important thing when you’re flying thousands of passengers on commercial airlines everyday. As a frequent air traveler, I am grateful to have these safety-insuring systems in place.

What I’m not so grateful for is the utter inflexibility this system has in the face of these mechanical issues. Other planes in the same airport were able to take off on time safely because they were allowed to use a temperature reading given to them verbally (from a nearby location, I’m guessing). Equipment fails. I get that. The problem was having no alternate plans for dealing with changing circumstances for our particular kind of flight/plane.

As I waited impatiently in the rebooking line, I thought our church ministries, like planes, can be prevented from taking off because of outdated or inflexible policies and procedures. I have counseled countless congregations who build walls around burgeoning ministries with outdated bylaws, unwieldy committee structures and layers of bureaucratic approvals. I have had dozens of conversations with flustered church leaders who, at the other end of the spectrum, are part of churches that operate with virtually no policies or procedures to guide them; a practice which also stymies the creation of new ministries with an utter lack of direction.

Good administration provides policies and procedures that keep an organization focused on its core mission, creates clear guidelines and allows for flexibility in light of changing circumstances. Administration should create clear runways where ministries can easily take off and land — not impede them with roadblocks that exist simply for the sake of maintaining control or from having too few air traffic signals guiding their travel.

I may not know everything, but I am fairly certain that God and life can and will throw our churches unexpected challenges. How can our administrative practices ensure that new people are welcomed, new ministries fostered and our churches continuing living into God’s vision for them and their communities?


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