A camel is a horse designated by a committee


I came to Western because I felt deeply called to this place and because I had a lot to learn.

What I mean by the latter is, I never thought I would be an Associate. I spent my first seven years of ministry as a solo and I never thought I could be an AP. I assumed that I would be miserable from not preaching every week (I’ve learned to deal with that by writing more) and I worried that would drive the Head of Staff to drink (so far, so good on that front…I think…). But as I talked to different churches about HOS positions for myself, they wanted proof that I could be on a multiple staff. So, here I am.

One of the most valuable things I’ve gleaned from Western is what to do about dysfunctional committees. Kris Thompson, the head of Calvary Women’s Services, and the HOS have been teaching me about this. Here are the three most important things that I’ve learned from them:

(1) Committees work on a bell curve. This comes from the HOS’ MBA training. In a large business, the employees work on a bell curve. In churches, our committees often do.

Which means, most of the time in a healthy organization, there will be a high-functioning committee, a low-functioning committee, and the rest of the committees will be somewhere in between.

Once I understood this as a normal phenomenon in most organizations, I quit thinking of it as “those blasted people on that darn committee” (okay, maybe those weren’t the exact words that I used…), and began thinking of it as “this is the committee that is going to need a bit of extra energy and work this year.”

I roll up my sleeves, and I know that there will be at least one that will need some extra tender lovin’ care. And, I can even begin to forecast which one is going to be a challenge in the coming year.

(2) Name the problem. When you can identify it (which can take a really long time), say it out loud. Put it on the table. No more dancing around the elephant like it’s not actually in the room. (This one’s huge with the sex scandals, isn’t it? No one likes to talk about those out loud… I know I don’t.)

When we hide the problem, or ignore it, we end up with blockages. It’s like a digestive system with all kinds of scar tissue. Nothing can pass through it. And then we’re miserable.

Yet, just as a proper diagnosis helps tremendously in GI situations, naming the problem also goes a long way in clearing it up in a church. After all, we have a great deal of power over something when we can name it.

(3) Change the culture of the committee. Kris is a master at this. She becomes ruthless at recruiting. No more letting the same exhausted people slide into that meeting for the next ten years. She is always working on new blood. She plugs in the best, brightest, most gifted, and energetic people that she can find.

And it works. Once there are new people around that table, the burnt-out ones often leave, and even if they don’t, it changes the culture. She also pushes us to preach about things (stewardship, Christian education, etc.), so that the larger church culture changes.

So what are your secrets? What do you do with those darn committees?

the elephant stunt’s by Banksy


11 thoughts on “A camel is a horse designated by a committee

  1. It seems that when I think it’s time to change a committee, I somehow become the chair! The Education Committee of my church happened to be the one I was assigned to when I replaced an elder that left. It’s where my energy had already begun to focus.

    I kept suggesting website changes, and now I’m heading up a complete overhaul of the site!

    I have worked so much with committees but rarely been a part of any as a volunteer, so I have a different perspective. One committee I worked with was getting so bogged down that we did a complete restructure and asked people where their talent and passion was. We got the right people in the right places and efficiency and morale improved almost right away.

    Change is always going to happen, and when the committee’s we work with don’t change (members or methods) it becomes much more tedious.

    BTW – Kris was my first youth group leader! That has been many years ago though….

  2. One thing that I’ve discovered while serving a small church (that, when I started, had 13 committees for roughly 100 members — Aargh!) is that sometimes if a committee seems to be defunct, it might just need some time to lie fallow. Don’t try to plant or harvest, just let it lie. It can be painful for the members to feel “unproductive”, but that time of inactivity can also be a time to really build up a passion for the work or the specific calling that they originally had. Or, they simply recognize that the work they used to do is not a passion anymore and that makes it easier to let it go quietly into the night.

    thanks for tackling this topic.

  3. I want to say that committees are evil and instituted by Satan to tempt us to feel that everyone has a say, but that wouldn’t be proper. Good post, I’m sure there is a lot about committees that I still need to learn. Since my church did away with committees and started task forces do the same rule apply?

  4. Very much what you describe: figure out which one needs the most love in the coming year and back that up with recruiting and attention. I didn’t know the bell curve theory, that’s very helpful!

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  6. I never heard the bell curve theory of committees before; that is very helpful and certainly descriptive of my experience here in my first call.

  7. I like what you said about the bell curve…

    and I never thought I’d be an associate either… if I had your attitude, maybe i’d be doing a little better.

  8. Rob, that’s definitely the problem with complaining about stuff in church. I always do that to people who want something. “Great idea! Now you’re in charge!”

    John, thirteen committees and a hundred people?? Oh no. What were they all doing? Did you have the change the replace the mulch in the front lawn committee? But it brings up a great question: What should the committee to member ratio be? And how many committees should one pastor be responsible for? It’s soul-sucking as a solo to go to all of them.

    I bet Alban has something written on this. I love using Alban, because they say a lot of things that we already know, but I can say, “According to Alban’s research,” and it sounds so much better than my whining voice…

    At Western, they have no facilities committee. Something breaks and we fix it. No arguing or wrestling. It’s done. It is SO nice.

    Brian, how does the task force thing work? I’m assuming that you only meet when you have to. Does it happen that way?

    I’ll tell John (the HOS) he needs to put the bell curve into an article, or book, or something…

  9. Wyldth1ng, this is one of my favorite Banksy’s. He usually does graffiti. The elephant’s supposed to represent poverty, from what I’ve read.

    I think we have another artist in common. I love Magritte. In seminary, I wrote a term paper on your avatar, relating it Galatians 5. Thank God I had a prof who was strange enough to actualy give me a good grade on that one…

  10. Well, task forces….as you know in the first month of my ministry at the Palisades they overhauled their entire system of governance. So, I didn’t know the old system and was thrown into a confusing new system. The previous minister put it together with the help of a couple of members. It has mystified most of the church members and I have functioned as interpretor in chief. It was suppose to streamline everything, but that is not exactly what happened. Not what I would have done, but was out of my control. So, we keep tweeking it to make it work. There are less people, but this has increased the workload on those few individuals. It has been hard trying to convince them to give away the work to others in the church. When they see the long list of responsibilities given to each task force, they feel like they own it. Worst some have just given up on particular tasks. It is difficult to just watch them fall by the wayside, but I agree with what John said earlier about leaving things undone. If they can’t keep the church going, then I would be going crazy picking up the slack.

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