Book Review: Leading Turnaround Teams, by Gene Wood and Daniel Harkavy
The church is not a business. Yet the fact that pastors and seminarians are routinely barraged with books that promise growth based on business principles testifies to the triumph of the corporate mindset in America—and sadly, in many American churches. As those entrusted with the care of the church, we must diligently dig up the underlying assumptions informing our practices and beliefs, and scrutinize them under the light of God’s Word. Gene Wood and Daniel Harkavy’s Leading Turnaround Teams is in great need of such careful excavation and biblical accountability.
After Wood’s success with Leading Turnaround Churches (2001), the pastor of Grace Church in Glendora, California, brought his friend Harkavy along for the sequel. Harkavy took his experience from owning a company that “coaches” corporate executives to start Ministry Coaching International. He describes his calling to this project in this way: “In 1999 God had laid on my heart the desire to take the business coaching systems and skills that we had developed at Building Champions and offer them to pastors” (23). Here we see the fundamental failure of this book. Though the authors claim to realize that “the dissimilarities between a privately owned business and a local church are greater than the number of similarities” (120), they consistently apply the corporate model to the church.
The book is built on seven chapters—the seven “C-crets” of church turnaround success: convictions, commitment, courage, competency, choices, changes, and characteristics of excellent teams. Harkavy then inserts four chapters of “coaching” helps at various points along the way. Harkavy’s concept of “coaching” is similar to mentoring. However, instead of simply meeting with a more experienced pastor, Harkavy emphasizes the church leader’s personal contribution to the endeavor through writing goals, action plans for himself, time-management, etc.
Before we get to a few helpful aspects of this work, we will clear out some of the freight carried in by its dependence on business parallels.
BUSINESS FREIGHT: WRONGLY APPLYING THE CORPORATE MODEL TO THE CHURCH
When church leaders scour the business world for wisdom on how to run the church, what they find inevitably reflects the corporate worldview. The practices work in the business world because they accomplish what businesses set out to do. However, as Wood acknowledges, the church has vastly different goals: “The bottom line (dollars) is the ultimate key indicator in a for-profit business. The purposes of the church (evangelism, edification, education, exaltation) should drive its decisions” (132). Here are three ways the corporate mindset underlying Teams endangers the faithfulness of the church:
Lack of Concern for Biblical Ecclesiology:
Wood and Harkavy neglect the Word of God as the foundation of their instruction. Their fault is one of omission, not commission. Their lack of biblical emphasis does not appear to be intentional. To their credit, they never discount the Bible’s instruction as out-dated or ineffective. If pressed with the biblical evidence presented below, they would likely agree. However, in this book they downplay clear biblical teaching for the sake of what works in three unfortunate ways.
Here Wood correctly embraces a higher view of membership than most. He says, “Turnaround leaders understand the need to begin building a healthy team by receiving into membership those who are aligned with the convictions and commitments to their local church” (107). These words are encouraging, but Wood’s motivation is not; instead of trustworthy biblical reasoning, Wood builds his case on pragmatic considerations. He provides a “checklist of people who should not join your church”(107), which includes eight categories, such as “Those who are not Christians” and “Those who do not plan to have a ministry in your church”—no scriptural support is included. The reader is left asking why the authors have chosen these particular characteristics to evaluate perspective members.
Later, they claim, “When leaders begin to accept that their church is not for everyone, their church begins to become inviting and attractive to more” (108). An increased draw is a great effect, but not an adequate cause for the practice. What will the church do if limiting who can join according to the authors’ checklist doesn’t seem to be doing the job of bringing folks in? Will they adopt another method? The church which is motivated by results and not God’s direction given in his Word will find itself on the slippery slope of just looking for the next thing that works.
Wood has divided his church into three types of groups: the celebration, which focuses on worship and has no limit to the number who attend; the congregations, which focus on learning and engage 20-200 people; and cells which focus on intimacy and have less than 15 in a group. Speaking of the Sunday morning celebrations, Wood says, “I have often shared with our people that ‘I do not come to church on Sunday morning to have fellowship with them. I come to have a corporate encounter with the God of the universe’”(155). He has a valid point that the worship service is primarily vertical, directed Godward, and not horizontal, focused on those around us. But those two elements should not be separated—Wood himself seems to realize this to some degree as he admits that his encounter with God is “corporate.” He goes on to say, “Many find the larger the crowd the more meaningful the worship. One reason may be that there is a degree of anonymity in a crowd which permits us to momentarily forget ourselves” (155). Wood argues that a larger crowd is more meaningful because it adds a degree of anonymity—however, anonymity is exactly what the gathering of the church body should not create. Should the ear be ignorant of the eye’s existence? To love each other, we must know each other. Fulfilling the multitude of “one another” commands given to the church in the Bible should not be divorced from the gathering of the congregation in worship, and restricted instead to small “cells.” Love for one another should characterize the church (including the public assembly!); “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Later, Wood declares, “A church must stop thinking of itself as one big happy family and understand that congregations and cells will meet the needs which were previously met in one worship service” (156). Considering the wealth of family imagery in the New Testament, Wood is making quite a claim. And considering the fact that both “church” and “congregation” are the same word in Greek, Wood’s semantics divide two ideas which the Bible always keeps together. The church is a congregation. You can have one church, and thus one congregation, or many congregations, and thus many churches—but you cannot have both and be what the Bible presents as a church.
Wood believes our contemporary larger-church context requires a corporation’s CEO/board model. In some ways, this appears to be simply an issue of semantics. He says, “Because we use the expression ‘CEO’ does not mean that we must imbibe the negative qualities too often associated with corporate leadership (power, status, money, corruption, manipulation, etc.)” (165). Though Wood only seeks to promote the positive qualities (strong leadership, organization, etc.), avoiding the negative connotations is quite difficult to accomplish—they are often embedded and denouncing them is just not enough. Frankly, if we call the pastor “CEO,” we lose the direct and obvious reference to passages that refer to the role of the pastor, thus distancing ourselves further and further from the plain model provided in Scripture. This is a dangerous trend.
In terms of elders, Wood never refers directly to his “board” as one composed of elders. In fact, he sets a false disjunction between the pastor and this board: either the group is egalitarian and unable to lead effectively, or the pastor/CEO has authority over the board so that the church can be led efficiently. The concept of the pastor as “first among equals” is not even held out as an option. He justifies this superiority of the pastor/CEO by denying the universal biblical assumption of a plurality of elders (164).
Wood attempts to carve out room for his views on church leadership in the face of the biblical evidence by claiming, “We too quickly extract the first-century reality and impose it on our contemporary larger-church context” (164). Once Wood has discarded the Bible’s instruction on church polity, he looks to the corporate world for wisdom. In choosing against the inerrant Word of God for what sells the most stock, he has done his readers a disservice.
Dangerous Emphasis on Product
In his coaching tips for change Harkavy claims, “We are all in some form of business. . . . Your business is the greatest business of all; you are taking care of people’s eternal destiny. Your product lasts forever. There is no business like it!” (186) There’s no business like the church because the church isn’t a business at all! A production approach to ministry requires quantifiable results. Thus you get Harkavy’s question: “What is your single most critical goal or objective for the year? Is it a baptism goal, an attendance goal, a decisions goal or a monetary goal?” (93) Are those our only options? This emphasis on numbers is a siren song singing the praises of growth. But the theological and ecclesiological sacrifices it tends to require can leave a church as spiritually ugly as the sirens themselves.
Dangerous Commitment to Efficiency
In a business, any inefficiency steals from the profit margin; Teams applies a similar calculus to church leadership. Harkavy writes, “The church is paying you a wage. Are you spending time doing things that you could offload to volunteers or to individuals who would be happy to take this work for a fraction of the wage?” (94) On the one hand, this question is helpful to ask—but the wage/work equation behind it is dangerous when applied to those who labor in the church. If a pastor begins to believe that his wages are based on his production, then he may wrongly focus on producing what is quantifiable to the neglect of what is not. Thus, numbers will grow while holiness decreases. Though the pastor must be accountable to the church’s budget, he should never let that commitment conflict with his ultimate accountability to God.
Though we must be careful of importing ideas from a largely a-biblical institution such as the corporate world, some lessons can be learned. Teams provides a few helpful insights. First, Wood’s chapter on convictions is the most useful in the book (and also the least business influenced). He maintains that a pastor’s conviction must be founded on his understanding of Scripture. With that foundation in place, he must prepare himself for assault by asking himself, “What are you willing to be fired for?” (31). He must stand by those convictions, firmly believing, “Leadership cannot be a popularity contest. If a pastor desires to be liked more than he longs to see the local church move on to effective outreach and development of God’s children, he simply will not be able to withstand the assault that comes with a turnaround” (51). The conviction-driven pastor must also realize, “Since there will be no turnaround without bloodshed, the pastor must be wise in choosing where his blood is spilt” (44).
Second, the authors’ emphasis on efficiency is not all dangerous. Harkavy asks, “The real question is, Are you investing your time into what the church needs you to be doing in order for the body to grow and people’s lives to be changed?” (93). Systems to improve efficiency are not wrong, and as Teams displays, “Systems are needed when we want to improve efficiencies, when we want to have consistent outcomes, and when we want to adhere to specific standards” (207). Thus, pastors should not avoid organization, but should seek instead to submit that organization to God’s Word, carefully analyzing unintended freight it may carry along with it.
Third, Teams helpfully reminds pastors, “To build effective churches there is a crucial need to develop ownership from the team of leaders and eventually from the entire congregation” (9). Leaders should lead in such a way that the congregation actually follows, instead of passively observing. When considering the formation of the team of leaders, the book instructs churches not to look for a staff consisting of clones of their pastor, but one which complements his strengths and weaknesses like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle (126). This is sound advice.
Wood and Harkavy encourage church leaders to remember, “God loves his bride the church. His plan is for his bride to prosper and flourish. His plan is for you to lead with no fear” (75). But how will she prosper and flourish? And how should we go about leading with no fear? God’s plan for his church has not been revealed to us in good business practice, as Wood and Harkavy often assume—”the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor. 3:19). Direction for the church should be found in the Word, not the The Wall Street Journal. Teams would have been far more effective if they had simply remembered that Christ’s plan for his bride is to “sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:25).