Blog Archives

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 8: There Are New Rules To The Game

Here is the final part of the series. You will see a number of recurring themes here, in what virtually amounts to the book’s own summary of itself.

1. Diseconomies of Scale – small outfits with minimal overheads can bring revolutions. How the church needs to hear that, in place of megachurches, buildings, stipends and so on. I seem to be doing myself out of a job!

2. The Network Effect – adding one more person to the network costs little but adds value to them and the existing network. Assumes greater sharing by new network members – this won’t work if we treat people as pew fodder.

3. The Power of Chaos – standardisation squelches creativity. In a starfish, anyone can have a go. Churches think of newcomers as those who can be fitted into the currently vacant jobs. We don’t start with people and see what they can do and then shape church around that.

4. Knowledge at the Edge – not just from on high but the margins too. (Typically postmodern!) Body of Christ metaphor. God works from the fringes, too.

5. Everyone Wants to Contribute – people join a starfish for this reason. This requires reconceiving received models of church if we are to operate as starfish. Many wouldn’t join us for this reason.

6. Beware the Hydra Response – attacking a starfish organisation conventionally generates a many-headed response. Again, I think of persecution in the early church. As they were attacked in one town, they fled to another and more churches began.

7. Catalysts Rule – they inspire people to action rather than running the show, and they know when to let go. However, if one becomes a CEO, the starfish is in jeopardy. This is a radically different vision for leadership. How easy it is to default to CEO.

8. The Values Are the Organisation – ideology is the fuel of the starfish. In the church we have too easily defaulted to ‘institution’ as the definition of organisation, whether it’s seeing episcopacy as the esse of the church (as in Anglo-Catholic theology), or in seeing recruitment of new members as a matter of maintaining the institution rather than sharing the Gospel.

9. Measure, Monitor and Manage – measurement still happens despite ambiguity, but in different ways. It looks at the activity of the circles, how distributed the network is, the health of a circle, continued participation of members, etc. They are more dynamic measurements than static numbers and harder to quantify. Puts a new light on the October Count for Methodists. How would we go about assessing the spiritual health of our groups? How would we handle the inevitable subjectivity? It would also require sensitive handling when the assessment is negative.

10. Flatten or Be Flattened – the power of decentralisation is causing more companies to flatten or at least become hybrids. Decentralisation looks chaotic, even like entropy, but it is powerful. This sounds like an argument of the ‘You must move with the times’ variety. The real question is whether decentralisation is consistent with Scripture. In many ways it is. We have to be wary of where particular applications contradict Christian theology, whether it is eBay‘s ‘people are basically good’ creed (which they couldn’t completely live with, hence the hybrid with PayPal) or the use of the theory in support of violence (al Qaeda, Animal Liberation Front). 

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 3: How Do You Tell A Starfish From A Spider?

OK, here’s part three of my summary. As before, my comments are in red.

1. Is there a person in charge? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. There is more to come later in the book about ‘catalysts’ and ‘champions’ in starfish organisations. Later I shall offer some thoughts as to how consonant such people are with biblical faith.

2. Are there headquarters? Yes = spider and classic traditional church approach. Definitely consistent with Old Testament faith, less so with New Testament, notwithstanding the rôle of Jerusalem in Acts 15.

3. If you thump it on the head, will it die? Yes = spider and although this would be true of centralised churches, especially where there is also a high dependency upon the leaders (including the local ones), you might argue this wouldn’t have happened in the apostolic churches, and hasn’t happened in persecuted churches in recent decades. Not that too romantic a picture should be painted, even of more decentralised churches, given Paul’s statement in Galatians that before his conversion ‘I was destroying the churches’ (softened to ‘I was trying to destroy‘ in some versions). But Jesus saw the church as indestructible.

4. Is there a clear division of rôles? Yes = spider. Does that make churches which practise clear delineations on talents, offices and spiritual gifts spider churches? However, the priesthood of all believers is most definitely starfish on this basis. It depends whether we are stressing equality or diversity.

5. If you take out a unit, is the organisation harmed? Yes = spider. How does this relate to Paul saying, if one part of the body suffers, all suffer? We feel the pain, but are we harmed? ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,’ said Tertullian – was he expounding a starfish church?

6. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? Concentrated = spider, distributed = starfish. Most churches concentrate it in specialists like me. However, there is sometimes a co-dependent conspiracy on this one. Not only do we ‘specialists’ like to be the ‘experts’, congregations sometimes like us to be also, even when we passionately want to distribute knowledge.

7. Is the organisation flexible or rigid? Flexible = starfish, rigid = spider. Most of the church is the latter. This expresses a lot of the tensions commonly felt at ‘grassroots’ in the church, in contrast to the hierarchies. I’ve come across it in ecumenical churches where there is huge frustration that failure to agree by ‘the top brass’ (revealing description) hinders local work. It’s the same with Fresh Expressions.

8. Can you count the employees or participants? Yes=spider. Methodism is particularly obsessed by this, with the ‘October Count’, now renamed ‘Statistics for Mission‘. You can’t help wondering about that newer name: it is a form of branding to give it a respectable label, given the dislike of many ministers for the process? Counting numbers of people has positive and negative examples in Scripture: King David holds a census out of pride and a curse falls on the people, but on the other hand the Acts of the Apostles seems very interested in numerical growth. Note comments about ‘measurement’ happening in a different way in the final post of this series.

9. Are working groups funded by the organisation, or are they self-funding? Former = spider, latter = starfish. I find churches to be a mixture of both. Most stuff is self-funded at a local level, making us a bit more starfish-like, except that with anything major we have to jump through various hoops set up by the hierarchy. Particularly large projects will include applications for grant funding, and that increases the spider content. One interesting factor in Methodism is the issue of trustees. The local Church Council members are but the ‘managing trustees‘ of the property for wider Methodism who technically own the building, yet the primary responsibility for maintenance rests with them.

10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries? Former = starfish, latter = spider. This is a difficult one in church life. Formally, we tend to be spiders, with different committees reporting to the Church Council, with churches reporting to the Circuit, and so on. However, when we get down to a small scale, especially with church decline, we can be more direct in our communication, because we have become more informal and closer in proximity to each other.