The Importance of Alignment

In my experience (and perhaps in yours), church is often an exercise in herding cats. Lots of well-meaning people—gifted and motivated. Lots of opportunities that call to different people and to different degrees. Everybody heading in their own preferred direction. Compassionate chaos. Earnest pandemonium.[1]

Without focus, a church doesn’t need to be a “team.” We can each “do our own thing,” go about our individual business, without reference to each other and without regard to what anyone else might be doing. We are associates (i.e., we go to church together, we share space and resources) but we are not a team.“Teams” have a common, shared goal (e.g., get the ball across the goal line … sell 1000 widgets this year … transform lives into the image of Christ). “Teams” encourage everyone to move in the same direction and contribute towards the same end.

Marathon runners are associated with each other (they are involved in the same race, they engage in the same activities) but they do not constitute a team. In fact, they are competitors. In a relay race, on the other hand, runners have to work together, coordinate handoffs, and determine position in the relay based on individual strengths and weaknesses. They are a team and the needs of the team supersede individual preferences.

Commitment to a “common cause”—a solid consensus among church members to work together by pursuing a particular focus and direction—is  needed for a team to form. Something as simple as identifying a mutual focus allows individual members to work together and develop dependence on each other.

The Silo Problem

If you have any experience with church, you’ve probably bumped into the “Silo Problem.” Everyone lives in his or her own ministry or area of interest and rarely interacts with, much less actively cooperates with, members in other areas of interest.

In churches affected by the silo mentality, elders meet (often without the staff) and discuss agenda items that may or may not touch on themes being pursued (for instance) in the church’s small groups or youth ministries. Preachers plan sermon series independently of any programs being developed by the deacons. The youth minister sets the theme for summer camp based on the latest book he’s read rather than a core theme being preached on Sundays or prayed about by the elders. The examples of this sort of silo mindset could multiply.

The point is that the various roles and ministries in siloed churches have little interaction with each other and require no cooperation to accomplish individual goals. Each ministry, each group, exists in a world of its own. In fact (in siloed churches), there often develops a “turf mentality”: this is my ministry, these are my themes, this is my responsibility, and you are not welcome to intrude here.

Commitment to a “common cause” helps—but does not solve—the problem of siloed ministry. Everyone in a congregation can be fully committed to a shared direction and focus and still operate in a relatively autonomous manner.

In this model, there is an organizing theme, a goal towards which everyone is working. So, for instance, everyone can be on-board with the focus of “fostering transformed lives.” But the elders pursue this by teaching and modeling spiritual disciplines, the preacher does so by preaching and teaching on the Beatitudes, the youth minister talks to his kids about the core gospel, and the worship minister builds services around the fruits of the Spirit. Common cause (transformed lives), but disparate means, uncoordinated plans, isolated ministries.

Moving towards Cooperation

The only cure for the silo mentality is an overarching, deeply valued commitment to “cooperation.”

Cooperation: working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit; joint action; willingness to work with and assist.

“Cooperation” is the level at which we develop confidence, not only that church and its members are focused on the same end, but that the end is most effectively reached when we use common means, support other ministries with our own, and enjoy the kind of cross pollination from which synergy grows.

Two key terms are at the heart of cooperation: alignment and synergy.

Alignment involves the members of a team not only agreeing on a common focus (a mutual “end”) but also aligning their ministries to use common means. In our example, “fostering transformed lives” is the “common cause” on which our team is focused. But how do we foster such living?

Imagine your church, after careful study and intense prayer and heated discussion, has reached the conclusion that living “in the Spirit” is a critical and first step towards transformation. The church sets a theme for the year: Growing in Christ by the Power of God’s Spirit. Now the church has not only a focus (fostering transformed lives) but also a common theme (the Holy Spirit as a prime means for reaching that goal).

  1. The elders decide that half their meeting time this year will be spent praying for and talking about a more intimate relationship with the Spirit, a greater openness to the work of the Spirit in the church, and a deeper awareness of our need for an indwelling and powerful Spirit. Further, they commit themselves to visiting with every member of the church during the year for the express purpose of encouraging them to rely on the Spirit’s transforming work in their lives.
  2. The preacher decides to preach about the Spirit throughout the year, drawing from John’s Final Discourse to explore the promises Jesus made about the Spirit to his disciples.
  3. The youth minister sets the theme for summer camp this year on “The Friend you can Trust.” (Teaching during camp will explore the Paraclete Passages in John. Evening devotionals will revolve around songs, readings, and testimonials about the Spirit in our lives. Memorizing the names of the Spirit will be one of the key activities for the week.) He also plans a Wednesday evening class on biblical characters who either submitted to or resisted the leading of the Spirit.
  4. The minister in charge of small groups writes curriculum for the Spring and Fall that promotes discussion about practical ways of living more fully in the Spirit (e.g., praying in the Spirit, building a Spirit vocabulary).
  5. You’re probably catching on by now.

This is the essence of alignment. It’s not just that a church team has agreed on an end (fostering transformed living) but that they’ve agreed to cooperate on the means (in the above example, the Holy Spirit). There is alignment in the various ministries and with the various roles in the church. Everyone is talking about the same thing. Everyone is singing off the same page.  “How do we foster transformed lives? Well, one way is to teach people the importance of an intimate relationship with an indwelling Spirit whose primary work is to transform us from the inside out.” All the members and all of the church’s ministries are aligned.

Alignment makes real synergy possible. (And this is the part where cooperation moves from being a polite thing to do to a necessary characteristic of congregations.) The elders visit every small group and encourage their quest for more intimacy with the Spirit. The youth group give testimonies after camp to what they’ve learned about the Spirit—testimonies that are doubly effective because the whole congregation has been thinking about and studying the Holy Spirit that year. The preacher goes into Children’s Worship to talk about the Spirit to kids who have just been singing and learning about him. Every leader and minister, every ministry area, is constantly on alert for how to encourage the work of others and how their own work can be enhanced and reinforced by what others are doing.

The preacher realizes he probably won’t change lives with a 30 minute sermon once a week. He needs cooperation from elders, small group leaders, the youth ministry, etc. to maximize his impact and to accomplish the business God has entrusted to him. By working together, by focusing their ministries in the same direction and for the same purpose, by pounding on the same themes and teaching the same ideas and cooperating for the common good, something greater than the sum of the parts develops … a synergy within the church as a team that is more powerful than anything individual members could do separately.

That’s what alignment can do for a church. That’s how alignment takes a general statement of mission, a commitment to focus, and narrows it down to a single emphasis that allows a church to cooperate and find synergy in bringing its full weight to bear on a lost world.

[1] This article was extracted from a series I did on “Developing Trust in Church Leadership.”