Seeing Your Invisible Mazeway


People seldom base their decisions on logic alone, uncolored by other factors. For example, intelligent people in one family are quite comfortable “living on the edge” financially. Equally intelligent people in another family are uncomfortable unless they maintain a large cash reserve at all times.

Anthropologists use the term “mazeways” to describe the powerful combination of (a) ways of interpreting the world, (b) thinking systems, and (c) patterns of behavior that people learn as children and continue throughout their lives. When people say they use “common sense” to arrive at a decision, they got there through a mazeway common to themselves but not necessarily to other people.

Every type of people group-from scout troops to corporations to countries-does the same thing. Built-in outlooks predetermine many of their decisions. Congregations also operate out of and pass on to their next generations of leaders mazeways based on their cherished way of viewing reality. In some congregations, increasing mission and ministry requires replacing old mazeways with new ones. The first step in that formidable challenge is seeing the invisible mazeway.

External Environmental Influences: The economic and cultural ethos of its primary leaders and surrounding community influence each congregation’s organizational anddecision-making habits. Gary Fenton lists five kinds of churches whose external environments create a special type of internal mazeway. [Gary Fenton, “What’s Your Church’s Currency?” Leadership, Spring 1991]

1. Family Business Church. Lovers of thrift, these leaders expect to know all the details of income and outgo in their church. They want to be involved in all decisions, including the opportunity to veto any policy changes. They expect their detail-conscious pastor to provide a variety of services while keeping on top of everything, in the same way they do in their businesses.

2. Entrepreneur Church. Risk takers, many of the leaders started their businesses from scratch and are highly goal-oriented. They are willing to fail but not for long. They chop programs that do not immediately produce. They expect their pastor to present a ministry plan whose results they can monitor.

3. Nonprofit Community Church. Lovers of group process, many of these leaders are involved in university teaching/administration or state/federal government jobs. For these leaders, checks and balances, putting on the brakes with questions and concerns, and lengthy deliberation processes are as important as results.

4. Corporate Ethos Church. Many of its leaders work in large corporations where daily life consists of competing with other units or departments for approval, budget money, and survival. Individual leaders therefore have trouble seeing the big picture. Adversarial turf wars are common. The pastor must continually communicate the big picture to individuals trapped in a variety of little pictures.

5. Mixed Economy Church. Its leaders come from a variety of the above-listed life settings. The pastor needs management
ability, flexibility, and a perception of the influence that each leader’s secular life setting has on his or her insistence regarding how a church ought to make decisions.

Some congregations use other kinds of mazeways. Yet the underlying principle still operates. To a large extent, the decision making patterns of church leaders’ daily, secular lives influence the way their congregations make decisions.

Internal Environmental Influences: In addition to external influences from the secular lives of its leaders, at least seven internal traditions influence a congregation’s organizational and decision-making habits.

1. Church size traditions. Small churches (fewer than 100 in average worship attendance) make decisions in somewhat the same way a family reunion decides next year’s time and place. To be successful, leaders must. synthesize the will of the entire group. The small church has a board, but that board knows it cannot succeed without high sensitivity to the whole family’s will. This often means that someone who is not a board member has more authority than do the elected board members. “What will Aunt Alice think?” sometimes aborts a decision. For the same reason, the small church gives its pastor little authority.

Midsize churches (100 to 300 average worship attendance) make decisions in ways that give more authority to individual groups (committees, choir, adult Sunday school classes, etc.) than to individual church members. While the board seldom allows an individual “Aunt Alice” to override its majority vote, it knows that a powerful lobby by the women’s organization or the choir can reverse its decision.

Large churches (more than 300 in average worship attendance) make decisions in much the same way as corporations. They give the senior pastor (CEO) considerable authority-as long as the bottom-line figures look good (worship attendance, finances, and the morale of staff and members). Large church boards give individual staff persons more initiating authority and “veto power”
than the individual committees (the midsize-church pattern) or the individual member (the small-church pattern).

2. Church Officer Election and Selection Traditions. Congregations in which the pastor has considerable input to the nominating committee can change directions quickly, with minimum conflict. At the other extreme, in some congregations the committees and ministries select their own chairpersons, sometimes under the watchful eye of two or three forty-year-veteran power brokers. That type of church usually exhibits great resistance to change and seldom unifies around sharply defined goals. Altering such
congregations’ mission and ministry directions takes longer than reversing the compass-heading on an ocean liner.

3. The Congregation’s Denominational Traditions. For example, congregationally-governed churches expect a high degree of participatory democracy. Their internal autonomy allows them to make changes without consulting outside authority. Unfortunately, however, this local freedom can also allow bondage to the change resisting veto power of a small minority of local leaders.

In addition to its participatory-democracy mazeway, each congregationally governed church makes decisions by looking
through a mazeway “lens” distinctive to its denominational heritage. Examples:

t Baptist churches (which take great pride in congregational governance) usually refer to the importance of Scripture as the primary authority for decisions, along with a strong commitment to evangelism and baptism.

t Decisions in Pentecostal churches (which also pride themselves on congregational governance) are more likely to refer to the authority of human experience, the Holy Spirit, and God’s will as expressed in “signs.”

t By contrast, when Episcopal churches (which take pride in denominational connections) make decisions, they often
refer to Scripture, reason, and tradition as their authority.

t Decisions in Roman Catholic churches (which also pride themselves on hierarchical authority) usually refer to the long tradition of synods and councils, culminating in Vatican II.

4. The Congregation’s Board Size Traditions. Large boards of 40-80 persons tend to preserve the status quo, resist change, inhibit creative innovation, and stifle membership growth. Small boards of seven to twelve persons are more likely to make quick responses to changing circumstances, reward creative innovation, and facilitate membership growth. Paradoxically, large boards tend to keep churches small. Small boards seem to help churches grow large.

5. The Congregation’s Authority Delegation Traditions. Does your congregation make its major decisions (a) in the
official meetings of board and committees, (b) in staff meetings, or (c) on the sidewalk after church by two powerful lay leaders? Your answer tells you whether the pastor, certain lay leaders, or a particular group defines the appropriate behavior of your church and its pastor. If your church contains numerous kinship and long-term friendship ties, leaders probably make many important decisions at times and places other than the board meetings.

6. The Congregation’s Social Architecture Traditions. Some churches use a formal-rational-written rules decision-making style that relies on documents such as a church constitution and bylaws or the Book of Discipline. Decision-making happens by rules, laws, rewards, and punishments.

Some churches use a collegial-informal group consensus style of decision-making that relies on extensive discussions, surveys, and collecting opinions from adult Sunday school classes and other groups. Decision-making happens through group consensus of what “we” think and feel.

Some churches use a personal-charismatic-heroic style of decision-making that relies on the individual influence of one or more specific leaders. Boards in such churches often include recognized “sages,” whose experience and wisdom people respect.

7. The Congregation’s Action Traditions. Congregations define the word active in different ways. The reactive congregation reacts to the world around it, setting its agenda by current happenings inside and outside the church. The retroactive congregation tends to use nostalgia mentality, trying to repeat old actions when confronted with a new challenge. The “protractive” congregation
confuses discussion with action. Stressing the need to make sure everyone has a chance for input, it may prolong decisions until they become irrelevant. The proactive congregation (a) looks around to see what is happening, (b) looks forward to see what is likely to happen, and (c) risks acting on its educated guesses. [Joseph R. Foster, letter to Herb Miller]

The Bottom Line: Church members, leaders, and pastors shape each congregation’s mazeway. Everything leaders do adds invisible steel girders to a unique “church culture.” This mazeway shapes the behavior of each new generation of members, leaders, and pastors.

Major changes in the community in which a congregation does its mission and ministry sometimes require major changes in
congregational strategy. What happens when the mazeway its members, leaders, and pastors use to make decisions do not permit that change? It is left behind, losing health, vitality, and effectiveness.

Does your church need to restructure its mazeway?