Hierarchy or Equality among Church Staff? This May Surprise you.

Many businesses, and churches as well, are minimizing overt hierarchy arrangements in favor of more equal staff relationships. Open space offices have also become popular while at the same time org charts seem to have largely disappeared. I believe I understand one reason why: trust in institutions and leaders has dramatically dropped. As a result, leaders have created open space office arrangements, focused more on teamwork through groupthink, and deemphasized staff pecking order. I know one mega-church where nobody has a private office and a team collaboratively develops every sermon. I know of another church that changed a senior pastor led leadership model to a model where three pastors co-lead: a teaching pastor, a ‘lead’ pastor, and an executive pastor. But has creating more open space settings, focusing more on ‘we’ versus ‘I’ in productivity, and downplaying reporting relationships by eliminating tools like org charts actually hindered progress? Recent research may indicate that might be the case.

First, some interesting trends. Susan Cain in her excellent book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Talks too Much notes these facts.[1]

  • 70% of today’s employees work in an open office plan.
  • Office space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.
  • The amount of student cooperative learning (students learning from each other in small groups) versus traditional teacher directed learning is rapidly growing and is preferred by a majority of teachers.
  • The growth of collaboration has been seen in such diverse areas as Linux, the open-source operating system, and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created by whomever wants to contribute

What has happened from this move toward more open space and collaboration? It might surprise you. Cain provides several facts that indicate the result has not always been positive. [2]

  • Reduced productivity.
  • Higher staff turnover.
  • Higher stress levels among workers.
  • Fewer personal and private conversations among colleagues.

And what about minimizing hierarchical relationships? Recently two Stanford School of Business professors studied whether people favor hierarchical relationships over equal (egalitarian) ones.[3] They performed five separate experiments to gain insight into how prevalent and useful hierarchies are in social relationships.They discovered these insights about hierarchies.

  • They are easier to remember than equal ones.
  • People actually liked them more because they could remember them.
  • Attempting to make relationships equal often resulted in those relationships not making sense at all.
  • Outsiders had a more positive view of a company with a more pronounced hierarchy.

So, should we re-introduce rigid chains of command in our churches and ministries? Should we give everybody a private office? Probably not. But the proverbial “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” would certainly apply here. I’ve made a few suggestions below.

  1. If you lead a team with an open space format, be sure to provide alone time and private space. Allowing staff to periodically work outside their offices.
  2. If you’ve removed the org chart from employee training and manuals, ask your team if re-introducing it for clarity might be helpful.
  3. Make sure roles and relationships are clear. Ask your team if they believe they are. Make changes if not.
  4. When you use team brainstorming, start by giving your team members alone time to do their private brainstorming before convening as a group. Group brainstorming is not as effective as we think.[4]

What has your church or ministry done with org charts and open space offices?


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[1] Susan Cain, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that talks too much (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), pp. 75-77.

[2] Ibid, p. 84.

[3] Larissa Z. Tiedens and Emily M Zitek, Building Organizations that Work, http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/research/Building-Organizations-That-Work.html, accessed 1/12/12

[4] Cain, pp. 87-88.

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