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The United Methodist Church is Just Like Microsoft (And Why That’s a Bad Thing)

The big news out of the tech world, recently, is that Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer, is retiring a few years earlier than expected. Many analysts aren’t surprised, though. Friend and colleague, Jeremy Smith, led me (through a conversation we were having on Facebook) to a great August 2012 Vanity Fair story about the decline of Microsoft and their “lost decade,” under Ballmer’s leadership. Particularly insightful was the part of the article Jeremy highlighted that deals with Microsoft’s culture of “Stack Management.”

What exactly is Stack Management, you ask?

Basically, after becoming hugely successful, Microsoft moved from a startup culture of creativity, talent, and innovation to one mired in bureaucracy and competition between employees. The culture had become so bad that employees stopped innovating and working with one another, because they were all fighting to be at the top of the “stack” when performance reviews came around. Those at the top were rewarded with raises and promotions and those at the bottom were demoted or let go. The worst part was that getting a good performance review wasn’t even achieved through hard and innovative work, it came down to those who cozied-up to the supervisors the most. This is the Microsoft that exists today.

During our online discussion, Jeremy’s concern was that if we lose guaranteed appointment, then this type of management system may quickly fall into place as a way to efficiently exit ineffective clergy.* I slightly disagree with him, however. I believe the system is already in place, and though it may be unintentional, is a reality and a byproduct of our dysfunctional institution. Ultimately, Jeremy’s bigger picture prediction is a realistic one: in our push for more “best practices” and a stronger corporate stack management-esque culture, we risk accelerating the cycle of decline until we’ve exhausted viable churches, competent clergy, and resources, because people will be afraid to take risks in starting new ministries and revitalizing existing ones. Those frustrated by a system that encourages mediocrity and playing it safe will simply leave.

You see, as “good” appointments become scarcer and scarcer, many clergy have developed a scarcity mentality. Why be connectional and why help out your colleague across town when you need to hold on to everything you have, and what you may potentially get, to show growth in worship and membership so you can get bumped up the ladder to a church that can pay you more?

To continue the parallel with Microsoft, think of those pastors that have been legitimately successful in the past or at least comparatively more successful than other pastors in their conference; many of them end up in management (conference staff, board/agency staff, or cabinet members) and push the same methods of achieving success that they had, and hold others to the same standards of success that they had (well this is how I did it in 1985, it should work for you too!).

We’re not that different from Microsoft, we’ve created a culture of distrust and non-connectionalism. Management stifles innovation at every turn and the rank and file works in competition against each another instead of cooperatively with one another.

We need a new paradigm: we need a system with incentives that reward cooperation, creativity, risk, and innovation. We need a system that rewards discipleship formation and world transformation. That’s what will drive long-term, sustainable, world changing growth. That’s what will help us to be the people who God has called us to be.

How do we begin to break down the stack management paradigm? How do we free-up our creatives and innovators to transform our denomination to look more like what God’s kingdom on Earth, fully realized, should look like?

*I’ve argued that before we start firing people (if we ever lost guaranteed appointment), we need to re-train all of our clergy. We’ve had a couple generations of clergy trained as administrators and managers, so most clergy are doing exactly what the system has trained them to do. We need clergy trained to be church planters, entrepreneurs, and missional evangelists.

This post originally appeared at Rethink Bishop.

About the author: Rob is the co-founder and current co-pastor of City Square Church, a new and innovative United Methodist faith community in downtown Phoenix. In his years of experience in spiritual formation and creating active and engaged communities, Rob has become an expert at connection and networking. He now uses these experiences, along with technology and social media, to bring others together around creative ideas and events that aim to inspire innovation and bold leadership.

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