Leading a Healthy Church Culture - Lesson 10

Metaphors for the Church

In this lesson, you will explore the assumptions and worldviews that influence church leadership. You will examine how mental constructs affect how leaders perceive their roles and values within the organization. The lesson compares church leadership to various models, such as a football team, a symphony, and a jazz band. The discussion then delves into the machine metaphor, which has dominated organizational life in the 20th century. You will learn how this metaphor has affected the church and the new generation's reaction to this machine worldview. By understanding these perspectives, you can better appreciate the impact of assumptions and worldviews on leadership within the church.

Rick Sessoms
Leading a Healthy Church Culture
Lesson 10
Watching Now
Metaphors for the Church

Lesson: Metaphors for the Church

I. Mental Constructs and their Influence on Leadership

A. Comparing Church Leadership to a Football Team

B. Comparing Church Leadership to a Symphony

C. Comparing Church Leadership to a Jazz Band

II. The Machine Metaphor in Organizational Life

A. Adoption of Machine Language in Church

B. Characteristics of Machines Reflected in the Church

C. The New Generation's Reaction to the Machine Metaphor

  • This lesson covers the importance and characteristics of a healthy church culture, the biblical foundation of church culture, diagnosing the health of a church culture, and cultivating a healthy church culture through prioritizing relationships, creating a safe environment, nurturing spiritual growth, empowering the congregation, and celebrating God's work.
  • You will gain knowledge and insight into the characteristics, and importance of a healthy church culture, how to diagnose and address unhealthy church culture through biblical leadership and communication, and how to cultivate a healthy church culture.
  • You will gain insight into how to lead a healthy church culture by learning about the importance of healthy leadership, building healthy relationships, establishing healthy structures, and implementing healthy practices.
  • In this lesson, the class discusses a fictional case study called "The Shadow of a Leader," which describes the decline of a Christian leader named Dr. Robert Avella, who became obsessed with power and control over time, causing damage to the ministry and losing trust in his team, as they reflect on the early and later stages of his leadership.
  • Through this lesson, you gain insight into the challenges and pitfalls of leadership, particularly when leaders lose focus on their spiritual values, become driven by fear and control, and lack accountability and community support. By understanding these factors, you can recognize and address toxic leadership in various contexts.
  • By engaging with this lesson, you will gain insight into the complex dynamics of power and control in leadership, the prevalence of misused power within the Christian church, and the critical importance of fostering accountability and community to maintain a healthy balance of power.
  • This lesson explores Jesus' unique leadership style in the context of the foot-washing event in John 13:1-17, highlighting principles such as leading from a secure sense of self, addressing the deepest needs of followers, and paying it forward through service to others.
  • This lesson teaches you about the significance of developing a Christ-centered church culture, including the exploration of culture's components and the positive and negative aspects it can have within a church setting. You will also learn about the role of leadership in building a healthy church culture, adapting to change, and overcoming challenges.
  • This lesson provides insight into church culture by examining its components, revealing how assumptions and values impact products and practices, and discussing the importance of addressing these core beliefs and assumptions for lasting change.
  • This lesson examines assumptions and worldviews in church leadership by comparing different mental constructs and their influence on leadership values and roles, while also exploring the machine metaphor's impact on organizational life and the new generation's response to this worldview.
  • In this lesson, you learn the importance of cultivating and nourishing people in a garden model of leadership, comparing it to the machine model, and discovering how various biblical metaphors shape the understanding of the church. Emphasizing core beliefs and values, you realize effective leadership focuses on following Christ and maintaining the right attitudes.
  • You will gain insights into the importance of leadership in creating a healthy church culture, including the role of leadership in setting the tone and creating an environment that fosters spiritual growth, discipleship, and healthy relationships. You will also learn about the characteristics of a healthy church culture, practical steps for building a healthy church culture, and the challenges and obstacles to building a healthy church culture.
  • By studying this lesson, you will gain knowledge and insight into the importance of creating a healthy church culture and practical steps for doing so, including the role of leaders in modeling and promoting a healthy culture, building relationships, developing a shared vision, fostering communication, and encouraging accountability.
  • This lesson covers Luke 5, gleaning lessons regarding Jesus' leadership and the four pillars of Christian leadership, which are relationship, influence, follower potential, and common purpose.
  • As you go through the lesson, you will learn about the four primary handles for developing a healthy church culture, which are stories, rituals, symbols, and power structures, and how they shape the values that become the real values within a culture.
  • By understanding the importance of what we measure, we can determine what is significant to us. Measuring something objectively makes it valuable, while not measuring something can result in losing its importance. The example of churches measuring attendance and donations is used to highlight this point, and the lesson suggests that churches should also measure other important aspects like outreach, discipleship, and community service.
  • This lesson discusses how Jesus prepared his disciples to establish the church, and how his actions and values during his time with them set the groundwork for the culture of the church; you are encouraged to explore the principles Jesus instilled in his disciples by examining specific stories, such as the healing of the demon-possessed man and the clearing of the temple.
  • Learn to lead a healthy church culture by analyzing current values, identifying actual values, and creating a strategy matrix to establish and support desired values using four embedding mechanisms.

This course is one of many taught by Dr. Rick Sessoms. It can be taken as a stand alone course, or as a part of the Christ-Centered Leadership Certificate. 

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Metaphors for the Church
Lesson Transcript

Well, let's move, then, to talk about assumptions, because it is important to understand what our assumptions are, and keep in mind that this, in other words, ‘worldview,’ is a mental construct; it's a mental image. So, if you see in your church, let's say that the leaders of the church see their church as a football team. Let's say that your mental construct, your image of the church, is a football team, what might that communicate? What might you value, and what might it look like? 

Student:  You value the quarterback.

You value the quarterback. He's the highest paid person on the team, usually. What else? 

Student:  You do have to have some variety there. 

Okay, there have to be people that are playing different positions. All right. 

Student:  You have to have some consensus on the play you're going to run. 

Okay. At least somebody is going to call the play, and everybody has to understand what the play is. 

Student:  I think you also value performance. 

You value performance. Let's push that a little further. What's the goal of a football team.

Students:  To win.

To win. Against whom? 

Students:  The enemy/the opponent. 

The enemy, yeah, the opponent, of course. Is there a competition; is there a win-lose within the team itself? 

Student:  We have stars…

Yeah, sure. What's the role of the coach? 

Student:  Inspiration. 


Students:  To put the best in. Win. 


Student:  Train. 

Train. Does the coach play the game? 

Student:  He might call the plays, but he doesn't go out on the field. 

He might call the plays, but he doesn't go out on the field. So, a lot of leaders have an athletic image in their minds when they think of leadership. It's how we frame up, and that mental image is going to create for us what we perceive as appropriate in terms of our view of the collective, okay? That's all this little exercise is about. It's not about whether it's right or wrong, but it's about a mental construct that is affecting what we believe, and it's affecting how we function. Does that make sense? So, it's just an example. 

Now, if we change the image to this, a symphony. What’s the image of a symphony; what are the characteristics of a symphony for you? 

Student:  Harmony. 

Harmony. Okay, there's an emphasis on beauty, the beauty of harmony. 

Student:  Perfect blending.

The blending, okay. 

Student:  There are sections, different groups of instruments. 

What's the goal of a symphony? Is it to win? 

Student:  It’s the performance. 

What about the performance.

Student:  It’s to please. 

It’s to please. We could say it's excellence, right? It's to be superb. Is there competition, you know, in a symphony? 

Student:  Maybe amongst the violinists or whatever. 

Anybody here part of a symphony? I'm not. I can play the radio, but that's about it. But anybody have experience in a symphony? I'm told that there's like first chairs, second chairs, third chairs, right, so, is that a competition sort of a thing? 

Student:  Yes, I'd say it is. 

Yeah. So, there is competition within a symphony – 

Student:  But not during the performance. 

Not during the performance. Okay, good. What's the role of the conductor in a symphony? 

Student:  The role of the conductor is to keep everybody on time, mostly. 


Student:  In a really good symphony, the conductor is keeping the time, first of all –

Student:  And balancing the volume. 

Student:  Yeah, and he notices if anything is slightly off that he would hear because of his advantageous position, and then he can make little adjustments. But also, he or she does sometimes have to work in those dynamics of competition with the players to make sure that if a particular player is very competitive, that they are not trying to outdo somebody else because that could throw off the whole symphony.

I'm glad you know about symphonies. That's good. That's very helpful. So, if a person has a mental construct of the church or the organization as a symphony as opposed to a football team, you see how these things will shift, right? That's important to see. Now, if I change that to this [wording on slide changed from symphony to jazz band]. What's the difference? 

Student:  Well, you don’t have a conductor, usually. 

Okay, you have a leader, right? But how is a leader different in a jazz band than in a symphony? 

Student:  He’s playing, too. 

Okay, usually he plays an instrument, whether it's drums or the horn or whatever. So, the person is a participant coach, if you will. What's the difference between a symphony and a jazz band in terms of its function? 

Student:  You often can do your own thing in a jazz band.

Okay. So, one leader goes and then another leader goes, and you have a basic, whatever they call it, a sort of a base thing. But they kind of go off and do extemporaneous things. Right. 

Student:  But they all blend into the gumbo, as they say. 

Student:  That was good. 

So, again, your mental construct impacts what you perceive as real and what you perceive as legitimate and appropriate. All right. Now, let's go to this one, because this really gets into it:  When I say the word machine, what are the characteristics of a machine? 

Student:  Efficiency. 

Efficiency, 24/7. If I drove my 1993 Honda over here tonight -- it's a great little tool -- but when I got in that thing, I expected it to crank, and if it doesn't run flawlessly, then it either goes in the shop or it goes in the junkyard, you know, it is expected to do 24/7 efficiency; that's part of the characteristic of a machine. What else about machines is true? 

Student:  It's impersonal. 

It’s impersonal. Talk about that a little bit. What does that mean? 

Student:  You do have expectations of it, but you don't argue with it – well you might, actually. 

Have you never argued with a machine? [laughs] 

Student:  You don't care how it feels.

Okay, you don't care how it feels. That's good. 

Student:  It requires maintenance. 

Requires maintenance. Okay. What happens when a bolt gets loose on a machine? 

Student:  It starts making noise. 

But what's the solution? 

Students:  You tighten it. 

You tighten that thing down, right? What's the goal of a machine? Important. What's the goal of a machine? 

Student:  To run smoothly. 

To run smoothly. 

Student:  The purpose for which it was designed.

Okay, so it's productivity, isn't it? Really, at the end of the day, whatever machine you're talking about it’s to produce; that's the goal. When a person is talking about running a machine or being responsible for the machine, what is the role of the machinist? 

Student:  To operate it and keep it running smoothly. 

And what happens if a part goes bad in a machine? 

Student:  Replace it.

Replace it, throw it away. 

Student:  Or throw the part away. 

Throw the part away, get a new part. Is there life in a machine? 

Student:  There are characteristics of life, movement. 

What does that mean? 

Student:  Well, if you define life, it's things like movement...

Is there inherent life in a machine? 

Student:  No. 

No. So, in other words, it has to have either wind from the outside, or benzene, as they call it in India, gas, or whatever. It has to have something from the outside to keep it going, okay? So, there's no inherent life within a machine.

The reason that this mental construct is so very vital today is because the machine was the dominant organizational metaphor of the 20th century. So, that when people talked about organizational life, whether it was IBM or whether it was, you know, Ford, or whatever they were talking about in the 20th century, the dominant metaphor in all organizational studies was that of a machine. They talked about systems theory. Does that sound familiar? They talked about span of control. And even when they talked about people, they talked about human resources, so it's all about machinery. In the 1960s and 1970s, the church fundamentally adopted that language and that mental image, that mental construct of what the church is, effectively. You follow that? And so what does that mean? -- and we'll go back to discussing -- and to just show you what I'm talking about, I was with a pastor who was making some wonderful statements about his church, and he described his church as a well-oiled machine. Have you heard that? So, it's in our very language. So, see, that's where your mental construct, even though we don't think about it, is creating our value system and is creating our products and practices. Now, go back to the machine. What are the characteristics of a machine? Do you see it in the church of the 20th century? What's the goal of a machine? It's productivity, right? We call it fruitfulness. But call it what you want, it's about the end game is to produce. It's to win souls. It's to build bigger churches. That's the end game. You following this? So, what happens when a part of the body kind of goes off the rails, when it doesn't quite work well anymore? What tends to happen within a machine-oriented church.

Student:  You try to fix what's broken.

Student:  It breaks down.

Breaks down. 

Student:  Conflict. 


Student:  It goes to the junkyard.

Goes to the junkyard. Exactly. The person sort of gets sidelined, and you move a new person in. Keep the machine going. You see what we’ve got here? That's what is dominant in terms of the model of the church in the 20th century. The problem is that the generation that's coming up behind me is resisting that machine metaphor, that machine assumption, because they're saying, we really want to be valued as people. It's about the people. It's not about the production; it's about the people, and so they're reacting to this. And that's why in so many places, there's an exodus. There's a book that's just been written by a guy named David Kinnaman -- he's head of the Barna Group – that’s called Exiles. And these are Christian young people, I'm talking young people below the age of 30, that are believers, but they simply are exiled from both the culture and from the church, so they find themselves in no man's land because of this reaction to the machine assumption, the machine worldview that has so dominated church culture in recent generations. This is interesting [picture on screen], can you tell what that is?

Student:  Isn't it an assembly line? 

Student:  Oh, it's probably a church [laughter]. 

Tim, tell us what it is. 

Tim:  That's a rice processing plant. And those are people all dressed exactly the same. And it's along a riverbank in China. And the people are actually the machine. 

So, the people have become the machine, is the point. And unfortunately, we see this in the church as well. The people have become the machine. Unfortunately, there's little life in a machine, and the machine’s wearing out. We have had so much conversation in recent years about the fact that people are tired in the church. And so much of that is because functioning as a machine for a couple of generations, if not more at this point, has led us to a point of meltdown, because the machine metaphor is simply not working for us anymore. 

Student:  You know, I think, going back to that, is one of the assumptions is that measuring success is something that we need to be doing. Like, you know, we measure success on these areas of our lives, well, maybe like church health, isn’t something you measure. Because the reason we measure things is just to compare, to know that we're doing well? And so we want to say, is our church better than this other church, or are we growing as fast? And so, you know, how do we stack up nationally? Are we a growing body, and what’s our giving per capita compared to the national average, because we like to measure and compare? And maybe that's the assumption that measuring and comparing matter, and they probably don't, but that's an assumption that a lot of people have. 

Student:  And yet we still have to be concerned about this accountability because of our example earlier, so we do want to have some sense of evaluation. So, we still need to make sure there is still the sense of humility and connection. 

That's an interesting conversation. We'll get into that more, and at the end of the day, you will determine what the values are of the church, but the process here is simply to help us understand that our assumptions do impact our beliefs, and our beliefs do impact how we function and how we behave.

If I went to this word, how will that change if we began seeing the church as a garden? How might that change our view of the church? 

Student:  It's not a farm, it's a garden.

Student:   It’s doing variation with seasons. 

Okay, so there's the efficiency thing. There are times of fruitfulness, and there's a time of idleness, right? So, there are seasons. There are cycles within any kind of a garden. 

Student:  It takes a lot of tending. 

Okay. In fact, would it be safe to say that the goal, the real function of the gardener, is not productivity, but is tending and cultivating? Is that a fair statement? 

Student:  Farms make money. Gardens are just often an outlet that people enjoy working in their garden; they enjoy the beautiful things, and the fruits of the garden and the vegetables and those things are a benefit, but you probably could go buy vegetables for less money, time and effort and energy than you spend tending your garden. 

Well, you know, I'm not a big gardener, but some people in my family are, and I can tell you that gardeners do care about how many tomatoes they're going to get off their plant. They do care that the bugs don't get the beans, and they do care that the corn grows healthy and that too much water or too much drought doesn't destroy it. 

Student:  But they know those things can happen. 

They know those things can happen. And here's the key. They know they cannot control those things. So, the fundamental role of a gardener is cultivation, not production. That is a huge difference. That's a huge difference. Now, let me go further. Well, let's talk about it together. What else is characteristic of a garden? 

Student:  I'm not a gardener either, but I've enjoyed so many benefits of other gardeners who are so interested in sharing their gifts, not for credit to them -- look how big my tomato is -- but they have something that they can share; to see you enjoy it brings joy to them. 

Okay, so this sense of openhandedness with the garden. Okay, good. Is there life in a garden? 

Student:  You're talking about brotherhood. 

Yeah. There is inherent life within a garden. And that's a powerful metaphor, as opposed to a machine. You see that? In fact, there's a bias towards survival in life. Sometimes just leave a garden alone, and it'll grow. With a machine, you’ve got to tend that thing 24/7. You got to continue to pump gas into it, or it'll stop running. If I don't have enough oil in my machine to get from here home, it'll blow up on the way home. With a garden, the reality is there's a bias for survival; there's a bias for life within a garden. Very, very different metaphor. So, if we changed our mental construct from a machine to a garden, how might it affect our belief system in the church? Because I will go so far as to say this: I believe that the garden metaphor is a much more consistent metaphor with biblical imagery than a machine. 

Student:  Well, just starting out with that assumption, our whole sense of pace would be different. 

That's right. It's not efficiency; it's about recognizing and respecting life and how life develops.

Student:  It’s a long-term vision. Sometimes with a garden, you choose some plants and you plant them; you plant trees, for example, knowing that it'll be 30, 40, 50 years before they make fruit. 

Right. And it's interesting, Paul said one planted, another watered, but who gives the increase? God gives the increase. God’s responsible for production. I'm responsible for cultivation, a totally different imagery, a totally different mental construct of what the church is about.

Now, do you buy that, or do you not buy it? I guess that's the question I want to pose to you at this point. I can't tell you how fundamental a shift this is that's going on, and in my opinion, needs to go on in the church around the world, moving from a mental model of a machine to the mental model of a garden. 

Student:  So, how many business practices do you incorporate, then, in the church? I mean, because that's part of what you're talking about, quality of a well-run business. 

Yeah, and please understand I'm not against well-run businesses. I think that there are certainly elements that we've got to have accountability in finances. I mean, I was stuffing donor envelopes today because it's a reality that we live with in any organization. So, this is not about bypassing those, but it's about starting with the fundamental imagery of what is the church; what is the mental imagery of our collective? Because it will affect what we believe about the church, and it will affect how we practice. 

Student:  So, you have to keep coming back to that kernel of truth you're going to focus on, even when you do say, well, if we're going to have room for more people, we have to have more chairs. I mean, even if we argue the business part of it, we’ve still got to remember why.

Now again, please, I said, and I want to say it again, every gardener that I know is concerned about how many tomatoes they get. It's not that we're not concerned about that, but it's how we go about getting those tomatoes and who ultimately is responsible for getting the tomatoes.

Student: It's like a posture of humility and that we don't control the outcome. 

It's where we put our energy. It's where we put our priority. It's how we frame our responsibility. Because that mental construct is going to affect what we believe about people and about our roles as leaders, and it will affect our practice and our products. Let's take a break.


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