Corporate history – resource or constraint?

Choluteca Bridge, Honduras

Choluteca Bridge, Honduras after Hurricane Mitch.
(Photo widely published but source not credited)

A road to the Honduran town of Choluteca needed to cross a river, so a bridge was built that fulfilled its purpose for many years. But in 1998 Hurricane Mitch dropped 36 inches of rain on Choluteca (18 inches in one day alone!), swelling the river to six times its normal width, destroying the road and moving the river. When the storm was over, the bridge was standing in perfect condition, but with no reason to exist because it connected no roads and spanned only dry land!

The bridge didn’t change, but everything around it did!

As leaders, we must be ever vigilant that we don’t allow our ministries to remain impervious to the constant changes taking place around us! If we do, this picture could easily be a picture of your ministry a few years down the road! One of the reasons why we might not adapt to circumstances is the hold that history sometimes has on us. It is precisely for this reason that Christ gave us his Spirit to guide us after he ascended into heaven. The Holy Spirit enables us to faithfully adapt to an ever-changing world.

Change is constant

Heraclitus wrote 2,500 years ago that nothing endures but change. As long as there is life and creativity, there will be no steady state for our society to achieve. We can never think we have found the immutable formula for ministry success that will endure for the rest of our careers! Many people say “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got,” but that’s not true. Because the world is constantly changing, the truth is “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get less than what you’ve always got.”  I’m sure your ministry was perfectly designed for its purpose years ago, but that is no guarantee that it is still perfectly designed for its purpose today. The world changes, and so must your ministry.

I think most ministry leaders recognize this, because when Don Simmonds gave his plenary speech on organizational change at the 2012 CCCC conference, he asked the audience “How many think their ministries need to change?” and it appeared that every hand in the room shot up!

Also, my job gives me the opportunity to talk with ministry leaders all across the country, and many ministries are either in the process of innovation, re-invention, and/or experimentation, or they want to find out how to do it. There is a groundswell of desire for fresh strategic thinking about our missions and the means of fulfilling them.

Getting comfortable with change

But some ministries seem uncomfortable with change, which is understandable for two reasons. The first is that when results are tolerable or even good, the risk of fiddling with proven strategies is pretty high. The solution is to be in continual renewal and make change a way of life for the ministry, not a special event. Always be evaluating your programs, scanning for new ideas, watching trends, and challenging your assumptions. Anything that is coasting will sooner or later come to a grinding halt. My wife’s email signature file contains a great quote from Walt Disney, Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” You can’t reach your destination if you are only looking in the rear-view mirror!

The second reason why ministries might be uncomfortable with change is that the weight of ‘corporate culture’ and stories of iconic leaders from the ministry’s past can dampen enthusiasm for doing something new and fresh today. The weight of your predecessors and the history of their deeds can be crushing, but it doesn’t have to be.

I have a high regard for my elders and predecessors, so I share the reluctance of others who are attached to their organizational history and don’t want to abandon what a respected former generation created. But there is a difference between respecting and honouring your predecessors and fulfilling your leadership responsibilities today. I find it helpful to remember two things:

  1. Mission is fixed, strategy is not.
  2. History is fixed, the future is not.

I doubt that the people who gave life to your ministry by being innovative and entrepreneurial would be any less so if they were around today. They made wise decisions years ago, and if they were here today, they’d still make wise decisions, although not likely the same decisions as they made back then. That’s because they would examine today’s situation and make decisions accordingly, just as you should. They would look at today’s situation, not yesterday’s!

When you think of the leaders who led your ministry in previous years, the question shouldn’t be “What did they do?” but “How did they think?” Don’t try to imitate your predecessors; be yourself and, with an awareness of the reasons for their success, invite the Spirit to guide you forward using your gifts and talents. R.W. Southern once wrote, “Without the renewing of the Holy Spirit, the incrustations of time come to be valued as the most distinctive feature of the organization and the organization fossilizes.” 1 When tradition is higher priority than function, it’s time to scrape the barnacles off your ministry.

Use history to move forward, not backward!

History is great for inspiration but don’t let it become a limiting constraint. John G. Stackhouse Jr. used his plenary speech at the CCCC Conference, Renewed and Ever Renewing, to mine church history and show the adaptable and evolving nature and methods of the church. Stackhouse quickly ran through 2,000 years of church history, not once but six times! Each time he followed a different track: denominational splits, higher education, spiritual renewal and so on, driving home the point that the church is anything but a static institution.

John told me that too rarely do we draw the inspiration and wisdom we can from history, and the CCCC’s conference was one of the very few times he’s been asked specifically for that perspective. It is a shame to waste the rich resources left by our predecessors in the stories of their lives and deeds.

A Harvard Business Review article entitled Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool, says history has four useful functions:

  1. To unite and inspire people by instilling a sense of identity and purpose [and, I would add, values], and suggest the goals that will resonate.
    • I mined CCCC’s history this year to discern our sense of call, to define our values, and to express our mission in a fresh way that remained faithful with the past.
  2. To put adversity in context and to help heal rifts.
    • I wouldn’t limit this point to contextualizing adversity. History helps contextualize whatever circumstances we are in.
  3. Looking back to plan forward.
  4. A leader’s well-developed, long-range perspective on his or her company may be the only antidote to the pressures of quarterly earnings reporting.
    • Even in the charitable sector, we can fall prey to a focus on short-term results. When this happens we focus on outputs of our programs instead of progress on our mission. The programs are a means to an end. The mission is the end and we need to interpret our program results based not on how well the program works or how busy it is, but on how much it moved us forward in accomplishing our mission.

The New Testament writers certainly modeled how to use history to contextualize the present and find a new way forward. The Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation is a very scholarly examination of the interpretive techniques that governed their use of Old Testament texts.

The one big takeaway for me from the Handbook is that the New Testament authors did not limit themselves to examining direct prophecies from the Old Testament that they thought applied to their times, but broadened their use of the Hebrew Bible to include “the redemptive-historical relationship of the new, climatic revelation of God in Christ to the preparatory, incomplete revelation to and through Israel.” 2

In other words, they looked at the big picture of the overarching meta-narrative of God’s Word to understand his intent and his heart and then applied that to their times. Peter did exactly this when spoke to his fellow Jews and interpreted recent events in light of their own history in order to bring them to Christ.

A final thought about using history as a resource: History provides both positive and negative examples for us to learn from. Think of history as a laboratory where you can observe experiments and their outcomes, assess the conditions that led to success or failure, and figure out what you think will hold true today and what might have different results because of different circumstances.

Do you have any stories to share about how you have used history as a resource in your ministry? I think we’d all benefit from hearing them. Please comment.

The Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available now at your favourite bookseller.”

  1. Southern. R.W. 1970. Western society and the Church in the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin. 237
  2. The author is quoting D.J. Moo from “The Problem of Sensus Plenior” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon. 1986. Zondervan. 191
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