Flexible Systems


My thinking about systems has been turned on it’s head over the years.

I used to think that a great leader builds solid, indestructible systems. Build a good system and your people will thrive. I used to think that systems were like lattice-work that allow vines to grow. Stability.

But stability can backfire.

A stable system forces people to focus on execution. It’s a script. They read the script, memorize the script, perform the script. Everything gets focused on the script. But what happens when the script is no longer relevant? What happens when the script doesn’t apply? What happens when the ministry attempts to jump beyond the context for which the script was written?

Stable systems are fine. But stable systems require you to be constantly present, constantly creating and constantly making corrections. The stability of the system can serve as an anchor if God opens up a narrow-window opportunity.

No, the systems I want to build need to be flexible. They need to be able to bend and twist and leap as the situation demands. They need to fit around the shoulders of my teammates like a cloak, to fit them perfectly and well even though they’re different from each other and different from me.

Here’s what this looks like in the real world. I have 8 Groups that I’m responsible for at Crossway Church. Now, I know that there are a ton of Group curriculums out there, written by professionals and packaged in shiny packages. But what would a Leader do with a shiny curriculum? Execute. They would feel like they needed to get through the curriculum. They wouldn’t feel confident to adapt and tweak and customize. They would miss opportunities.

So, how did I build a flexible system? I wrote my own curriculum. I’m an InterVarsity guy and we love writing our own stuff (for good or for ill). But what this allowed me to do was to downgrade and break up the packaging. The get a print out, not in a folder or anything. They also get a copy over email. And every week I send them notes reflecting on when I led this session, showing them how I adapted and customized it.

My leaders feel tremendous freedom to adapt the curriculum. The system is flexible and it’s working. They lean into their unique gifts. They shift things so that they better serve the group of people who gather in their Groups. They take advantage of the opportunities that God gives them. And I couldn’t be more proud.

In order to make flexible systems work, you need two things:
  •  Leaders you can trust
  • A clear, compelling vision

The drive toward stable, rather than flexible, systems often comes from a distrust in the team. The stability movement allowed people with little training or gifting to accomplish great things. Execution is easy. But couldn’t we accomplish something more?

Stable systems also make sure the work happens even if the team isn’t motivated. The stability itself removes the need to be compelled by the vision. The vision becomes “to execute the system.” And a good leader can make sure that execution happens. Carrots and sticks make sure the job gets done. But could we accomplish something more?

Leaders who trust their teams, admire their teams, have great confidence in their teams can set them free to become leaders themselves. Flexible systems reflect this confidence. When I build a flexible system, I’m communicating to my team members that I trust them to know when to adapt and contextualize and leap. And I’m blessed to have a team that I trust.

And vision, vision clarifies the What and the Why but doesn’t necessarily clarify the How. We will plant ministry at these community colleges because we want every student to have access to the gospel and to a thriving Christian community and because they don’t currently have access on campus and because we think that Jesus cares about these students. I have no idea how we will do it. No one has done it before. Not like this.

That’s why we need flexible systems. I need to create space for the team that I trust to figure out answers to the questions I don’t even need to know yet. If I create too much stability and solidity, they won’t be able to flex as we learn more about the environment. And if they can’t flex, we’ll fail.

What has been your experience with systems? Do you prefer stable or flexible systems? How do you build them?

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