Historically Used In an Exclusive Sense, This Blog Aims to Explore What God's Up To Inside & Outside the Institutional Church

“How the Mighty Fall”

An article from FT.COM by Stefan Stern reviews Jim Collins’ “How the Mighty Fall”, an analysis of the “arc of tragedy” that failing companies experience with five key points on the arc or stages through which most doomed businesses pass. The most recent and dramatic case is Toyota but many other companies, large & small could be included, from Enron to the real estate bubble – I can’t help but think about churches and ministries as well.

According to Collins, first, is the “hubris born of success.” At this stage, “people begin to believe that success will continue almost no matter what the organization decides to do, or not do.” Hubris is followed by the “undisciplined pursuit of more.” Big gets confused with great. In this phase, not enough of the right people are sitting in the key seats. Core values get neglected. “This strains people, the culture and systems to the breaking point.”

After that comes “denial of risk and peril.” Bad news is discounted or explained away. “Rather than confront the brutal realities, the enterprise chronically reorganizes.” The penultimate phase involves “grasping for salvation.” Panicky moves – maybe a big acquisition – are made. Last is “capitulation to irrelevance or death” – which requires no further explanation.

Decline is like a disease that develops in small stages – “harder to detect but easier to cure in the early stages, easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages.” The worrying thought for business leaders is that you can look healthy on the outside, but in fact be near to collapse.

The lesson is: never be seduced by the glowing story people may tell about you. Critics will probably exaggerate on the downside, too. The chances are that your business is neither as brilliant nor as awful as people say it is. The same rule applies to chief executives. They are rarely geniuses or morons, merely something in between.

Success in business is never guaranteed, in spite of the enticingly simple promises made by some of the titles on the airport bookshelves. Mr. Collins is at pains to say these days; even those companies that, in his view, completed the journey “from good to great” had no right to claim the label of greatness indefinitely. In “How the Mighty Fall”, he offered this warning: “Every institution is vulnerable, no matter how great. No matter how much you’ve achieved, no matter how far you’ve gone, no matter how much power you’ve garnered, you are vulnerable to decline … Anyone can fall and most eventually do.”

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Is everything destined to the fate of corporate entropy & collapse? What Collins doesn’t address or at least is not mentioned in the review is what may be part of the cause of this “arc of tragedy” – the loss of the centrality of the organization’s mission. The original purpose of the organization is lost and is replaced by something else. – The pursuit of power, monopoly and control, more real estate, or unlimited profits. Often the reason for its existence becomes the aggressive perpetuation and expansion of itself.

I take notice when I walk into a business and see the mission statement on the wall for all to see. Such clarity, if it really is aggressively maintained by all who work there is in stark contrast to most congregations who are unclear or un-agreed about their mission beyond keeping a building open on Sunday mornings and being friendly. If knowing and maintaining purpose is essential for business survival, how much more is it for those who have been entrusted with the most important mission of all, God’s very own?

Secondly, with the loss of God’s mission as key motivation for our existence, much of the church has succumbed to the same ideology of rapacious growth and unlimited consumption (measured by the “3 Bs” – bodies, bucks & bricks or customers served, offerings received and real estate maintained) that is responsible for the local, national and international debt crisis, ecological destruction, current economic chaos and boom & bust recessionary swings. In trusting in what is essentially “another gospel” the church has been unfaithful to the truth. To the extent churches have trusted in other methods for statistical success, like the “chariots and horses” of substance-less branding and endorphin driven experience-based staged performance, rather than the inherent power of the good news to transform people and God’s promise to build his ecclesia, the church has been guilty of idolatry.

When God’s very own people are faithless with his promised power, abandon his truth and idolatrous in their pursuit of growth it should be no surprise that the mighty fall. It is not fate or unpreventable tragedy. It is the logical outcome and consequences of the path that has been pursued as well as the judgment of God to turn us around. However, God’s eternal purposes for his people and creation are not defeated by our own ineptitude, hubris or failures – “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21). For that reason, the Psalmist prays “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Psalm 138:8).  The end result will most likely not be what we had originally envisioned or planned but will be his work and to the praise of his glory.

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