Innovators, Joiners, Programmers and Organizers

Rev. David Schoen, who works in the national UCC offices in the area of church vitality, gave me an interview in 2010 in which he outlined the way churches grow and die through their life cycle.

In the early life of a new church, the people attracted to the project tend to be innovators and creative thinkers.  “Let’s dream of something,” they say, and they help shape the character of the new venture.  The next wave is the joiners.  “Let’s be part of something,” they say.  These are not necessarily pioneer types, but people who want to form relationships in the new system.  After that, the next wave of participants are program people.  “Let’s do something,” they say, and they begin to put programs into place that express the character or mission of the ministry.  Finally, there are the last level of participants, who see the whole structure and say, “Let’s organize this.”  These are structure people who like to form committees and plan procedure that makes the whole system work.

All these types of people are needed to develop a new ministry.  But as the ministry grows, the needs and desires of its members change.  In the inevitable life cycle, a plateau comes when the culture of a church has been established, relationships are formed, programs are in place and become more routinized, and the structure of operation is established.  At this point, the innovators who first came may get bored and want to innovate something new.  If the system is healthy, new innovation will create a new cycle of change and growth. However, if a church resists change, the innovators will be the first to leave and find new ways of innovating elsewhere.  The second group to leave will be the joiners who have lost some of the relationships they first came for.  The program people will eventually discover there’s no one left to do programs for and they too will leave.  The last group left will be the last ones who came: the structure people.  Their job is to keep the institutional ship afloat, and Schoen says it is common for a dying church to have in place rigid structures that no longer work for the existing membership.

I don’t think things happen exactly this way in every circumstance, but it would be worth considering your own setting: who has left your church in recent years?  Who is still there, on the fringes?   What kind of personalities are leading the system?  Are they joiners? Innovators? Organizers?  While the church needs all these kinds of people, it will suffer if it only has some of them.  Understanding the personality types that are driving your ministry may give you an indication as to whether your congregation has the potential for more vitality or may be headed toward further decline.  Fostering the leadership of some different types of leaders might be a way to help the group change direction, starting with openness to the leading of the innovator.

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