Every organization goes through life cycles. This includes the church. These cycles can be natural or forced, but part of leadership is recognizing them and adapting leadership to them for continued health and growth. Each stage has overlap, but understanding this can help a leader decide how best to lead … which is different in each cycle.
Here are five life cycles of any organization:
1. Birth—This founding period usually involves a few people with a big vision. This is the initial stage where a lot of learning takes place and the organization begins to develop leaders … sometimes by trial and error. Everyone on the team at this point has the potential to become a leader in some area. Having planted a couple of churches, we launched one with one staff member (me), my wife and 20 or so people.
The other was with three staff members, our wives and 11 couples. Each member of both teams was forced to lead areas outside of his or her comfort level, but we gained some of our best leaders that way and several people found a passion they did not know they had. In both church plants, which grew quickly; this stage lasted less than one year.
2. Childhood—A deepening and maturity process begins at this stage, but the organization still has few policies and procedures in place and everything is still “fun,” with the excitement of still being a young vision. New leadership develops and responsibilities spread to new people within the organization. Mistakes are common as the organization figures out its identity.
The DNA of the organization begins to form. The organization begins to recognize its need for more structure. This was a fun stage and time for both church plants. The normal for this stage appears to end in three to five years. (For larger organizations, I assume this could be a longer time frame.)
3. Adolescence—Greater levels of responsibility are handed out to more people and the weight of responsibility spreads within the organization. The organization has had some success at this point and so it begins to take new risks and dream new and bigger dreams. This is a continued growth time and usually full of renewed energy. If the organization is not careful, some of the initial leaders of the organization can begin to experience burnout, and often a loss of power as new leaders emerge.
More developed structure becomes necessary at this point and the organization must begin to think about maintaining growth. Organizations are forced to “grow up” during this stage. It usually happens in the first 10 years, but again, this may depend on the size of the organization.
4. Maturity—At this stage the organization has many experiences of success and some failure and must begin to think through continued growth and health as an organization. The organization needs constant renewal and regeneration to remain current and viable. Leadership has been developed, but the organization begins to plan out succession of leaders.
The structure of the organization is usually well established by this point, but must remain flexible enough to adapt to changes outside the organization. At some point, all organizations enter this phase. All. The goal at this point needs to shift into breathing new life into the organization. (A lot of churches reach this stage and cease to change and grow, often steeped in their own traditions, and this is where plateau begins. Know any who fit this category?)
5. Renewal—This stage almost always has to be forced on an organization. Sad, isn’t it? Either by leadership or for survival purposes, something new must occur or the organization will eventually die or cease to be viable. I am in this stage with a church now. This can be scary for people, but it does not mean the organization must leave its vision, traditions or culture, but it must consider new ways of realizing its potential.
Some will say renewal comes at each stage of the organization’s life cycle and that may be true, but I contend there is a definite stage in a healthy life cycle where an organization improves and almost reinvents itself to continue to experience health and growth.
Another thing to remember is that the speed of an organization’s growth (or the church’s growth) can cause life cycles to complete much quicker. Consider the child who has to face adult decisions early in life and is forced to “grow up fast.” A similar thing happens to organizations.
(These are not my terms. I learned them years ago in a management class. The explanation and application is mine. I realize this is written with secular leadership terms. I have a long background in the business community, but I believe the principles here are directly transferable to the church setting.)