I like airplanes, and given the amount I travel that is a good thing. Seeing these incredible machines–aluminum and composite monuments of human ingenuity–makes the agony of most American airports almost bearable. (My genetically tanned, ambiguously ethnic appearance must scream “al-Qaeda!” I get patted down more than Donald Trump’s hair on a windy day.)
Modern airliners, as one author put it, are “the most complicated machines man has ever built.” But they are still regarded as the safest form of transportation. There are over 20,000 commercial flights every day in the United States. If you were to drive rather than fly one of those routes, you would be 65 times more likely to be killed. Perhaps more surprising, since 1980 the number of airplanes, flights, and passengers has doubled, but accidents per year have been declining. Flying is five times safer now than 30 years ago.
How is that possible? There are many factors that contribute to air safety, but a significant one is redundancy. Modern airliners are engineered so that everything necessary for flight has a back-up–engines, control systems, computers, fuel lines, hydraulics, even the pilot. As a result no single failure should cause an aircraft to crash.
The brilliance of redundancy was displayed in 2010 when a Qantas A380, the world’s largest passenger jet, experienced an “uncontained engine failure.” One of the airplane’s four engines violently exploded in flight sending metal shrapnel through the wing and fuselage. (I’m guessing what the passengers experienced at that moment would be called an “uncontained underwear failure.”) You can watch a video of the incident online.
The A380 was severely damaged. The engine was destroyed, numerous control systems had been cut by the flying debris, fuel was leaking, flaps on the left wing were inoperable, and the landing gear damaged. Still, the pilots were able to fly for almost two hours before landing safely. Redundancy saved the day.
This lesson from civil aviation may be relevant for the church today.
Many churches, both large and small, seem to engineer their ministries around the antithesis of redundancy–singularity. A single leader becomes the focus of nearly everything that happens, and I’m not just talking about on Sunday morning. I’ve seen some churches become paralyzed when the senior pastor is on vacation or even just out of the office. He is expected to provide guidance on every decision, every committee, every tiny detail of the church’s life and ministry.
When it comes to the daily operations of an organization, many of us can recognize the dangers of singularity and say, as Jethro did to Moses, “What you are doing is not good.” (Exodus 18:17). But what about the issue of singularity on a longer time horizon? For example, I suggest watching this video of John Piper and Tim Keller discussing their churches’ succession plans. Keller shared how Redeemer Presbyterian is establishing a redundancy of leadership so his eventual retirement won’t send the church into a tailspin. Redeemer is “engineering” multiple congregations, multiple leaders, and multiple teachers.
At the time the video what shot, Bethlehem Baptist, John Piper’s church, didn’t yet have a plan. If Piper’s critical role in the ministry suddenly failed or became vacant, it may have put the whole organization in jeopardy. (Since the video was made the church has executed a transition plan that replaced Piper with another senior pastor, but Bethlehem Baptist did not restructure their ministry toward greater redundancy like Redeemer.)
The danger of singularity is increased by the recent trend toward video-based multi-site congregations. Rather than mitigating the risk of having a single teaching pastor, it actually compounds it by making more people and congregations dependent on one person. Now if that one pastor leaves or “fails” many more things are put at risk.
But whenever I’ve discussed this inherent danger with those operating video-based multi-site systems they invariably mention the efficiency and effectiveness of their model. Who can disagree? Utilizing one highly gifted person to impact thousands of people in multiple cities is unquestionably efficient. And trying to operate a multi-leader, multi-teacher, multi-congregation network is very complicated–as Tim Keller admits in the video.
But who decided that efficiency and effectiveness were the highest values for ministry? Building airliners with multiple engines, fuel systems, computers, and flight controls is very complicated. And all of those “redundant” parts add a lot of weight to the airplane. More weight results in burning more fuel to move it through the air. Burning more fuel costs the airlines more money to operate the airplane. Those higher costs are transferred to passengers in the form of higher fares. It might be possible to build a very inexpensive airplane with only one engine, one pilot, one computer (powered by Windows 7), and charge only $9.99 per passenger–but would you want to fly on it?
Engineering a ministry for redundancy is not efficient, but that shouldn’t stop us from investigating its other benefits. Consider a story Leadership Journal published back in 2008 about team-based leadership structure with no senior pastor, no superstar singularity. The church leadership team admitted the model had inefficiencies, but the redundancy also created stability.
At one point, one of the church’s pastors was facing a rough season in his marriage. The rest of the team decided the best way to care for the couple was to give the pastor and his wife time away from the church to focus on healing. One of the other pastors said, “If he had been the senior pastor, the church couldn’t have handled the crisis. the entire church would have been handicapped by his inability to lead and shepherd during that season.”
The redundancy built into the church’s structure allowed both the pastor’s marriage and the church to maintain stable flight. The team recalled the entire time as “really healthy.” The pastor’s marriage was strengthened and the church didn’t falter.
Realizing the church can survive, and even thrive, for a season without them might give more pastors the courage and honesty to seek help for themselves or their marriages. But if the entire system is built on the premise of singularity rather than redundancy, it may keep more pastors in denial about their needs or reluctant to share their problems. In short, singularity may be more efficient in the short run, but redundancy may keep more leaders serving and thriving in the long run.
Maybe if the church learned a few lessons from the aviation industry we wouldn’t see so many pastors and congregations crashing and burning. And with a great many Baby Boomer-led megachurches facing transitions, the risk may only be increasing. So many of these large churches were engineered on singularity–one very dynamic leader/teacher at the center of the ministry. How will they transition? How will they re-engineer their ministries? Will singularity continue to be the risky norm? Or will more congregations come to embrace the wisdom of blessed redundancy?
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