Over twenty years ago Jim Dethmer wrote an article that I continue to see play out in churches today. He described the church as having three primary dimensions: Community, Cause and Corporation. Each dimension is found in Scripture and represents how a body of believers is to function. Often the identity and culture of a church can be defined by the emphasis it places on each dimension.
In Philippians 2:25, Paul calls Epaphroditus his brother (community), his fellow worker (corporation), and fellow soldier (cause). To Paul, Epaphroditus was all three identities, and churches, staff and individual members can be all three as well.
Why is this important to you as a church leader? Because they are key sources of church and individual member identity, values and even conflict. For example, when you are in community with someone, then you interact as a family. When you are in a cause together you serve as an army. When you are in a corporation together you work as a business. Understanding how these three dimensions are vastly different from each other, that people have natural preferences, and how to appropriately focus on and balance them is a key to developing a healthy church culture.
The Differences in Community, Cause and Corporation
The metaphor for the church as a community is that of family. As a church family we value loving, caring, fellowshipping and mutual support. We think of and refer to each other as “brothers and sisters” in Christ. We rally around the weakest and those most in need. We laugh together, we cry together, we celebrate victories and we comfort and encourage each other during losses. We eat together, retreat together, serve together and do life together. A church with a healthy community has the relational glue that builds trust and serves as a magnet to engage people in the mission. And, we desire a pastor shepherd to nurture, feed and care for us.
The metaphor for the church as a cause is that of an army. The Bible uses military metaphors that portray us as soldiers engaged in a cause, to go and make disciples. There is a battle to win, an enemy to be conquered and prisoners to be set free. We value those who are most committed and sold out to the cause. Being an army conveys we are volunteering for a mission bigger than ourselves and give selflessly of our time, talent and treasure. We focus on recruiting and equipping committed, competent and courageous soldiers. In the army the roles are hierarchal, so we need a general or commanding officer to lead us in our quest to save the world and grow God’s Kingdom.
The metaphor for the church as a corporation is that of a business with co-workers. The church is a family with a cause but is also an institution with staff, officers, deacons, elders and committee chairs. As a corporation we value systems and structures than insure the orderly allocation of resources so that we might fulfill our mission with excellence, effectiveness and efficiency. Bylaws, committees, budgets, performance reviews, accounting, organization charts, strategic planning, and processes are valued means for advancing the mission and stewarding the resources of the church. As a corporate culture we value good managers and wise administratively gifted leaders who are highly productive. And, we need a boss, director, or chairperson to lead us toward greater effectiveness and efficiency.
The Importance of Balance in Community, Cause and Corporation
Virtually all church leaders as well as church members have a natural bias toward one or two of these dimensions. Often a strength in one results in a weakness in another. Seldom does any one person embrace community, cause and corporation in a healthy balance. Most who have served with me would say I have a passion for the corporate culture, a strong cause component, but could use some work on the community dimension.
What is true for individuals is true for the church as a whole. Rarely does a church have all three dimensions in a good balance. This can lead to a variety of dysfunctions.
If a church and its leadership are too community focused it can lead to an inward focus, lack of strategic direction and an inefficient and ineffective use of resources. As a church ages and becomes more relationally connected it is prone to lose any sense of forward movement and ultimately fails to have adequate resources to meet needs and accomplish objectives. Ingrown churches can spend more time fighting with each other than joining together in a common cause.
When a church and its leaders are oriented more toward the cause, the danger is that people will feel used, manipulated and leave a wake of hurt and burned out bodies. Passion for a cause can drive leaders to use, abuse and create guilt in staff and volunteers. People are reduced to what they do and how productive they are rather than for who they are. Personal callings, passions, needs and emotions are ignored for the “greater good.” The drive to “do for” God is prioritized over “being with” God and soon people are engaged in more activity than their being with God can sustain. Finally, a leader’s zeal for mission and vision can overextend church resources and result in an end justifies the means mindset.
If a church and its leaders are inclined to prioritize the corporation dimension of the church, they risk being a highly organized well-oiled machine that is spiritually dead, robotic and formulaic. Red tape, delayed decisions and a reliance on processes and systems rather than prayer can characterize an overemphasis on this dimension. The emphasis becomes on maintaining and keeping the doors open with little discussion of mission and vision. The church becomes over-managed and under-led.
These significant differences explains why church conflict often stems from staff and congregations who value and prioritize different dimensions of church life.
Striving to Make it Work
The danger for church leaders is to gravitate to one dimension to the exclusion of the others. To ignore any dimension is to risk failure as a leader. A leader must know how and when to wear each hat and how to keep their church wearing all three hats in balance.
On an individual level it is important to know and work in the dimensions where you are naturally strong, and compensate and collaborate in the dimensions where you are weak. If you are naturally more community oriented, surround yourself with cause-driven staff and volunteers. If you are more cause-oriented, work through small groups and deacons to build the community dimension. If you are disinclined toward the corporate dimension, find leaders who are gifted administratively.
The reality is that all three identities have value and purpose for the local church. Scripture bears witness to all three dimensions. A healthy church is a community of biblical relationships that march strategically towards God’s vision with the accountability and structures that manage resources and people with excellence, effectiveness and efficiency.
Therefore, leaders and churches must be willing to embrace and be intentional in developing each dimension. We have to give attention to all three dimension and keep in mind when we are planning and making decisions how they might impact community, cause and corporation.
If the dimensions of community, cause and corporation don’t exist in a healthy dynamic tension, or are disproportionate in a church culture, the conflicts, problems and dysfunctions are predictable.
Posted on May 23, 2017