This summer I’ve had the opportunity to mentor two youth ministry interns who are working with a small congregation in Alabama. Over lunch this week, some of the church members were discussing the importance of creating the right culture for growth.  One of the men said insightfully, “It’s like something I tried this spring in my garden.  In order to have tomatoes all summer long, I thought it would be a good idea to plant tomatoes two weeks apart, so I made three plantings in hopes that they would produce fruit until the fall.”  “How did it go?” I asked.  He said, “I learned from the experiment that whether I planted tomatoes early or late, they all grew at the same rate once the temperature got right.”  “Today,” he said, “every one of the plants is the same size, regardless of when they were planted.” The story reaffirmed to me something about church culture. Regardless of when the plants were planted, it took a context that was conducive and favorable for growth in order for them to grow. Through the years, I have returned to Max Dupree’s statement about leadership many times: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.” So how is your church temperature, the growing environment? In the book In Pursuit of Great and Godly Leadership, Mike Bonem suggests that the healthy growth of a congregation is directly related to way people interact with one another.
  • Are decisions made from the top down, by consensus, or by the power brokers in the parking lot after the meeting?
  • Do people wait on staff to tell them what to do, or do people feel comfortable initiating things from the bottom up?
  • Is there a sense of authentic community or just a pseudocommunity?
  • When conflict occurs, is it handled in healthy ways, or does it go underground?
The way we answer these kinds of questions will define for us “the horizons of possibility and impossibility” (170-171). We need to learn a lesson from the tomato patch. Get the temperature right and there is hope for a good harvest. Get it wrong, and there will be shallow and stunted growth.  Jesus said, “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).  Or to quote management consultant and author Margaret Wheatley, “There is only one prediction about the future that I feel confident to make. Those organizations who will succeed are those that evoke our greatest human capacities—our need to be in good relationships, and our desire to contribute something beyond ourselves.  These qualities . . . are only available in organizations where people feel they are trusted and welcome.”  The growth of the group always reduces itself to the individual.  Are people loved?  Are they trusted?  Do their ideas and opinions matter?