Hedgehog Drives the Church Bus?

November 22, 2011 — 2 Comments

I just finished Jim Collins’ Good to Great and the subsequent monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors

I’ve been around enough contemporary churches to know that many of their leaders are drunk on business leadership books. Collins is near the top of their list. And though he doesn’t talk much about his religious beliefs, he’s a perennial speaker at Christian leadership conferences like Willow Creek’s Leadership Summit and Northpoint’s Catalyst. This follows a general trend of churches looking to the private sector for models and advice on how to run their organizations.

I’ve written before about my own fascination with leadership texts. Collins does not disappoint. From a leadership standpoint, he has some of the best applied research out there. But just how far does it apply? That’s where a lot of my frustrations begin: the misappropriation of business principles into churches. 

Hear me loud and clear, I’m not saying that such principles can’t be applied in the governance of a church, I question whether or not they should be applied. I’ve no doubt that if a church were to conceive of itself as a bus with a well-reasoned hedgehog at the helm, it would see the kinds of flywheel revolutions Collins describes. Like I said, it’s good stuff.

Allow me to digress into a particular bone or two I have to pick with how I see Collins misapplied, then I’ll come back to this idea of the “oughtness” of applying business leadership principles carte blanche to local churches. First, the idea of Level 5 leaders in churches. Often, a lead pastor at a church will read Collins description of Level 5 leaders and too quickly jump to the conclusion that, due to their pious position, they qualify as one of those leaders. Likely, they’re Level 4 leaders. Most Level 5 leaders in church settings are not paid staff, rather they are what one church dubbed “high capacity volunteers.” Here are the descriptions of Level 5 and Level 4 leaders:

Level 5 leaders have “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will … display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated … look out the window to attribute success to factors other than themselves … attribute much of their success to good luck, rather than personal greatness” (Good to Great Kindle loc. 739-755)

In contrast, a Level 4 leader “catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards” (ibid., loc. 373). Not that being a Level 4 leader is too shabby! But for Collins’ principles to apply to an organization, it must have a Level 5 leader on the bus. Unfortunately, many churches are led by Level 4 leaders. Those leaders will never be able to attain the kind of greatness for their institution about which Collins writes. In the end, they will use the institution to serve their needs (be they financial, egoistic, etc.).

Then there is the relationship of the Leader to the bus. Collins’ second principle (after Level 5 leadership) is that more important than what an organization does, it who is doing it. Great businesses find the best people and the create space for them to be amazing. He calls this getting the right people in the right seats on the bus. Yup. I agree. But here’s where it gets misapplied again by Level 4 leaders. They think that the right seat for them on the bus is the driver’s seat. Nope. Not so. Front row probably, but a Level 5 leader would know that the driver’s seat is not occupied by a person at all. It’s occupied by a hedgehog.

At this point, if you haven’t read the book or aren’t familiar with Collins imagery, I risk losing you. “Hedgehog” is what Collins uses to refer to the core thing that an business is best at doing. It is the convergence of what that business is deeply passionate about, what it can be best in the world at, and what drives its economic engine. Knowing what one’s hedgehog is allows a business the freedom to make quick focused decisions on what to fund and what to pass over. It is the hedgehog, not the leader, that really steers the bus. Level 5 leaders know this because they sit right next to that hedgehog, they know it well, they can see out the windshield at what’s coming up ahead. 

Again, churches tend to misapply the hedgehog concept. And it’s not entirely their fault. That third circle “what drives the economic engine” creates some problems for churches (and nonprofits, in general). They either ignore that circle altogether because profits don’t apply to them, or they fill it with some other thing they can count. 

This is where Collins’ monograph on the social sector is helpful. He address this very disconnect between the business and social sectors regarding profit motive: “The third circle of the Hedgehog Concept shifts from being an economic engine to a resource engine. The critical question is not, ‘How much money do we make?’ but ‘How can we develop a sustainable resource engine to deliver superior performance relative to our mission?‘” (Good to Great and the Social Sectors Kindle loc. 276) This is much more helpful, but it still doesn’t work for me entirely. 

That gets me back to the “oughtness” of applying these things, sight unseen into a local church context. I submit that there is a difference between “success” and “faithfulness.” Sometimes a big difference. We are called to bear witness to the good news that God, in Christ Jesus, is reconciling all things to Himself. If we are to take that seriously, it leaves us very little to measure.

“But Andy,” you may say, “didn’t Jesus tell us to ‘Go and make disciples’ and to ‘baptize them’ and ‘teach them’? Surely those are things we can be successful at doing? Things we can measure”?

Yes, but are our churches really “going”? Most of them are saying, “Come and worship with us on Sunday. Come and be counted in our seats, then we will offer things that you can opt into for teaching, if your schedule permits, and we’ll even baptize you if you’re around on the next Sunday we have baptism.” And they count those things. Fanatically. 

“But what about the parable of the talents, the one where the boss gives three employees money and he rewards the two that give him a return on his investment?” you counter. “Shouldn’t we taking what God has given to us and making it grow bigger?”

Look at it again (it’s in Matthew 25). At issue here was not return or profitability, but faithfulness. The boss didn’t say “thanks for the extra dough!” he said, “well done good and faithful servant.” He didn’t even keep the money for himself. He let the servants have it. The issue with the servant who didn’t get rewarded was laziness. The boss even said to him, “I wish you’d just done something, anything with it. Instead, you totally ignored what I asked of you.” I would wager that if any of the servants’ investments had lost money, they would’ve been treated better than the lazy servant who never tried. It is about faithfulness.

One thing that Collins leaves the reader with in both texts, is the encouragement that building a great organization is no harder than building a good one. I totally agree. But you know what? Building a faithful organization is, because it doesn’t come down to measuring inputs and outputs, programs or attendance, tithes or conversions, baptisms or weddings. It doesn’t even come down to Collins’ “superior performance relative to our mission.” 

Sometimes faithfulness will feel like disobedience. When we’re faithful to that which God has called us, we are often being disobedient to the dominant culture in which we are embedded. The Kingdom of God is referred to as upside-down because it so often is seen through paradoxes: love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, be hospitable to the stranger, visit the infirm and incarcerated. When we do these things, the Kingdom of God is manifest in our faithfulness. That’s hard to quantify. And it’s not really about what we can “do” for God anyway. He is doing the reconciling for Himself, to Himself. We bear witness to that reconciliation. 

One last thing about Collins: if you are in ministry and have read Good to Great but haven’t read the short monograph about its application to social sectors, please do. It is worth the 10 bucks. If you have seen Good to Great on your pastor’s bookshelf, do your church a favor and get him this skinny addition as a Christmas gift. For those who are in non-profits or churches and who are trying to make Collins’ principles work, this monograph is a must. It offers several necessary correctives.

What are your thoughts on faithfulness? Am I way off-base here? 

Anderson Campbell


  • Michael Ratliff

    Andy, I struggle with the same success vs. faithfulness issue. I also struggle with the getting people off the bus. I wonder what that process would look like if we instead applied our understanding (or the Bible’s) of the Body of Christ? Where do people go when we invite them off the bus? (I have to admit there have been a few…) Really, though, how do we help them find their place on the bus and still move forward? Good thoughts which mostly echo mine.

  • Glenn Williams

    #dminlgp #dmingml Wow, there’s a lot to chew on here. One thing I do agree with you on, is that sadly many church leaders are not level 5 leaders. It seems we have become obsessed with turning to celebrity leaders who can articulate great vision and demonstrate great charisma in getting people to follow them, but very soon, many followers become disillusioned when they quickly realize that the humility they saw was not genuine, but false. They are not courageous, because the decisions that should have been made would have made them unpopular. They did not have the drive or the discipline to ‘share’ power with others by building into them and empowering them to be godly leaders for fear they would become a threat to the senior pastor or leader who wasn’t interested in a succession strategy to ensure the longevity of the church, but a CEO position that provided ultimate and unaccountable authority.