The “Business” of Church can Corrupt the Church

I struggle to hold 3 aspects of the Church in tension – the Community, the Cause and the Corporation. These 3 C’s (I was first exposed to this triad in the 1990’s) each reflect some aspect of church life in the western world.

We love the Community – the people of God, the called out ones, the ekklesia, the family of God. Relationships matter and our triune God is first and foremost a relational God.  Many people think of this “community” when the word “Church” comes to mind.

Then there is the Cause – the Kingdom-building mission of God for which we give our treasure and talent, our very lives. This cause – often described by the great commission and great commandment – frames all that we do and how we express it in the world. We love the cause, we sacrifice for the cause, and many have spilled their blood for the cause (and Christ himself led the way for us).

Then there is the Corporation – the structure, resources, strategies and leadership responsibilities. Depending on church models and approaches this can include everything from policies and governance to strategic planning to fundraising. It can involve management and HR issues, office space allocation, rental costs, equipment and technology, real estate, classrooms, parking lots and playgrounds.

While the Community and the Cause can present challenging issues and concerns (some of them massive), I believe that the hardest part can be this “Corporate” aspect. And when you add money to the mix (salaries, budgets, campaigns, benevolence, stewardship, perspectives on debt, and so on) it can get downright oppressive!

Corruption can creep in to any church that misunderstands the complex nature of the “Corporate” aspect of Church. Yes, some very small, simpler group-based models where 30-40 people are the church may offer some exceptions. (Though I have seen churches this size split over what I would call the “Corporate” aspect of what they did — or did not — pay attention to, namely $$).

Mismanagement of staff and volunteers, well-meaning but ill-conceived funding strategies, wide ranges in compensation packages among staff, personal and biblical misunderstandings about debt, and hierarchical leadership models that oppress rather than empower others are some of the big problems.

Every leader must pay attention to this aspect of “Church” and must wisely enlist a team of people who can, in community and for the cause, address this with integrity, humility and authenticity. 


Where do you see challenges here? How can we handle this well without inadvertently damaging the community and abandoning the cause? 

Willow Creek Reboots Connection Strategy

I sat in on a meeting at Willow Creek last week while Bill Hybels was casting some vision for the church’s new connection strategy…helping people find a place of friendship based on where they sit on weekends, then inviting them to connection events and gatherings.

It is not a new strategy; many of you have used this for decades with a twist or two in the method. And some of you will remember we taught this for years to group life to point leaders, encouraging them to “Leverage Your Auditorium” as a strategic step for connection.  But some churches are still missing an opportunity to connect people at weekend services.

While this remains an “attractional” strategy (connecting people who come to the campus versus going into the community), it is a ripe opportunity each church has to connect with people who are already sitting there.

As I listened to the talk (1 of 4 vision Bill is doing for core leader teams) I had a flashback to my arrival to Willow in 1992. We were laser-focused on making disciples as the central part of our mission at that time.  There was much fruit in those days that came from the hard work of hundreds of disciple-makers led by Mark Weinert, Don Cousins ( , Judson Poling ( , and many others using a group-based discipleship model. It was a whole-team effort with a clear strategy to support it.

Our challenge was how to get more people into the process and make group life more accessible for those who had trouble finding a group. So we focused on the one thing you absolutely must do in disciple-making; connection.  As we wrestled with the right wording for building a church filled with group life, our team leader asked: “What is our infinitive? To grow…to disciple…to reach…to develop? What is it? How will you being your mission focus. Because it will become the central purpose of our mission in the first phase.”

What is your infinitive? What a great question!

After much discussion we made a decision. Our infinitive would be…


Why? Because you cannot make committed disciples without connection. You can certainly try. Especially if you have a definition of “connection” that is less than personal and relational. Yes, there are non-relational strategies used in closed or persecuted countries, but you can bet there is not one follower in these countries who thrives by being alone. Discipleship requires People-ship. (A word from the Donahue Lectionary of Community-building!).

Our mission for the group life ministry at Willow in 1992:

To connect people relationally in groups of 4-10 people for the purpose of growing in Christlikeness, loving one another, and contributing to the work of the church, in order to glorify God and make disciples of all nations.

I did not hunt through old folders to look that up. I did not need to…I have it memorized, ingrained in my head from the beginning. TO CONNECT.

If you do not connect people, you cannot disciple people. Period.

…and he chose the 12 that they might be WITH HIM and that he might send them out to preach… (Mark 3:14)

So today…21 years later…Willow Creek is re-focused on a workable connection strategy so that people who arrive unconnected can find a relationship. Such a strategy must be about more than just filling seats at services. There must be an overall disciple-making strategy, equipped leadership, empowered people based on gifts (not just ministry slots to fill on campus), and movement beyond a come-and-see outreach focus to a missional go-and-serve/love/gather strategy off-campus.

You need a comprehensive approach, and I can help you process that change if you want to chat about that.

Remember: You cannot stop at connection…but you cannot start without connection.

To reach out to the many disconnected, pass-through people (visiting a couple weeks and out the door a few weeks later), it will provide an essential first step along the path.

What are you doing to leverage your auditorium or worship center for connection? Do people feel welcome, known, and cared for during their weekend experience at a service? 

Are We Fighting Against God?


Your Arms Too Short to Box With God” was a gospel music theatre production in the late 70’s based on the Gospel of Matthew.

In its gritty, direct way the phrase captures the tense drama in a scene from the book of Acts.

After hearing the good news of forgiveness and joy in the life, death and resurrection of Messiah Jesus, people found faith, hope and freedom. But the religious elites and power brokers of the day became jealous (Acts 5:17), and put the whole thing on lockdown, attacking the apostles.

Why? What’s wrong with good news?


Bad news sells. Look at the first 10 minutes of your evening news. Fires, murders, rapes, gang violence, and political corruption (vote early, vote often, as we say in Chicago!) flood the screen.

Bad news stirs up fear…Good News serves up freedom.

6 Shifts Happening in Your Organization

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

6 Shifts Happening in Your Organization image of change ahead


Your organizational culture is shifting – are you prepared to lead in these new realities? The following video discusses the 6 shifts happening in your organization and how you can engage these shifts in your leadership role.










I get to speak with and work with organizations and institutions whether they be larger churches, businesses educational institutions; I’ve observed these institutional and organizational movements over the last few years. Many have been written about, some of already taken place, some are emerging. I’d like to talk about a few of them and maybe some implications for your leadership related to those.


The first is from a focus on the organization to focus on the organism. You see that now with less focus around all the little slots and things that relate to the organization as something in and of itself to be maintained and more emphasis on what is happening inside the culture of where we work or where we minister or where we live. What’s happening with the people, what’s happening with emerging ideas and systems and the integration of those things? So it’s more organism oriented the culture itself the vibe that is coming from within that if you will than around maintaining the organization or putting too much emphasis on the structure of the organization.


That leads to a second one which is instead of being institutionally, driven being institutionally supported. The institutions important but what’s the role of the institution? Is it to drive everything and pass everything down or is it to support emerging ideas, new leadership developing, new teams, new formats, and new engagements? I use to have this mantra still do but for many years the structure serves the people, the people don’t serve the structure and so what we’re seeing is more of a shift to moving structures that can accommodate what’s happening within the organization, so to speak, or for the organization’s mission and shaping the institution to support people versus to make them support the institution.


That’s related to another one I’ve observed and that’s obviously the move from out more of a hierarchical to a flatter structure. I don’t think we’ll ever be totally flat in many institutions and organizations. I don’t want to be overly idealistic about that but I think there definitely is a movement away from strict oppressive sometimes hierarchies where power is centered in only a few and the many are just left as implementers. And you’re going to see a flatter leadership as we become organic as we continue to become more are shared in resources and in other strategies that we have. And frankly a younger emerging leadership corps desires that and I think you need to accommodate that. Another one is what I would call a shift from content to value. In other words it’s not just our message and what we think about it and how we deliver it, but what value we bring and what are the underlying values behind that? It’s more important for us to understand as a working culture, what are the core things at the heart of who we are verses simply what’s the message we’ve given, always given, how do we keep giving it, how to get the same message to more people? There’s truth in some of that and a need for some of that but what are the underlying values behind the message? People need to hear that and be motivated by it. It’s also the sense of a movement from an event to a lifestyle. Whether you’re in business or non-profit or whatever, this is particularly true in I think a lot of ministry situations but it’s not limited to that. Where the event for example in a church, the Sunday service or in a business, the sales transaction perhaps it’s not all about just the event it’s about a lifestyle. In other words we don’t just gear up to present something we’re trying to become something and as leaders and as an organization the emphasis is on how are we living out these values and beliefs that we have?


Another thing I see is a shift from creating just distribution channels, again core product or ideas being disseminated, to what I would call missional hubs, where ideas are being generated all around the organization and out in the culture so that we’re not just a centralized group finding more ways to create more distribution channels, that’s valid when we have a quality product or service, but it’s how do we create more hubs that are themselves generating product and ideas so it’s not always all coming from sort of central base.


And finally, from being more silo to being more integrated. I think we’ve seen that across a number of kinds of institutions and organizations instead of it’s just sales and marketing and distribution and R&D and so on in the corporate areas. Or in education where we just have administration and then there’s faculty and then or the disciplines I teach history you teach science or you teach theology, we don’t talk to each other. That’s breaking down to where we see more integrated aspects because educationally, developmentally we need the integration of ideas, we need to expose people to one another so more and more cross-functional teams, more ad hoc teams, more conversations around the lunch table from people from various disciplines helps each of us grow and develop in our leadership. The implications of these shifts are, as I mentioned, I think a flatter leadership, people who are more relational in their leadership, more able to build teams and connect with them. I think in general people who are more interested in modeling the values than simply disseminating again the information. So I think for us as leaders whatever my organization or institution is I need to embody that first and foremost. It’s more important that I live in the world of being what I am advocating not just doing some things around the principles and values.


And finally I think that we’re seeing ideas come at the core of leadership not just mandates and control and management but ideas. That’s the ideas for the future that will drive the future organization, the future institution.


So these are some of the things I think in our leadership which as it becomes more collaborative the more shared, not without authority, now without power, but I think these movements and shifts demand that kind of leadership.


I’m interested in what you think about these 6 shifts happening in your organization. So let me know, as I work with leadership teams and teach and do conferences I understand that these shifts are happening and I’m trying to help leaders and engage those things.


What are you doing to engage these shifts?


I’d be interested in hearing from you. So have a great day!



Your Life Story: True Self or False Self?

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

The man awaiting the verdict in the courtroom was a Yale Law Professor, owned several Picassos, drove a Rolls Royce, flew private jets and lived a life of an eccentric multi-millionaire Wall Street Investment Banker. Some would say a dream life.

“But he hit a brick wall when he bought the Biltmore property,” Phoenix reporters say. The mortgage was $17,250 a month, interest only. So, to pay for it, Michael Marin created a scheme. He set up a raffle, selling tickets at $25 a piece, to raise the $1million needed to pay off the home. The proceeds for the raffle were supposed to benefit a center for children in crisis.

In reality, the home was $2.5million, and the $1million mortgage was bogus. But the story is stranger. In 2009, the luxury home burned to the ground, and using scuba gear in his bedroom and a ladder, Marin barely escaped the smoke and flames. “I just happened to have the gear in my room and used it to breathe oxygen.” Local news even carried the amazing escape on the evening television broadcast.

Fire fighters arrived to find a man in scuba gear standing outside his burning home. But soon investigators discovered it was arson, his attempt to collect insurance money. He was arrested, and now in 2012, his trial had come to a tragic close. Watching the courtroom video, reporters describe what took place.

Upon hearing the guilty verdict, Marin dropped his head into his hands in despair. He then slid his hands up and appeared to place something in his mouth….and he took a drink.

He began to convulse at first lightly. But quickly it grows more violent. His attorneys called for help.

Marin hunched over, slowly collapsing to the ground as others rushed in to help. Someone asked for someone to call 911 and several people ran to help him…He was later declared dead.

I watched the courtroom video and wondered how this man arrived at this point.  How did he live this way? Why did he die this way? And then I understood something.


I am Michael Marin—and so are you.

To be certain, the facts and idiosyncrasies are different. They are likely much less bizarre, but no less toxic. If we look closely into the mirror we will find a lot of Mr. Marin staring blankly back at us – perhaps more than we care to admit.

Marin created a false self, a life designed to impress, intimidate and control others. He manipulated people, circumstances, resources and his environment to keep that false self alive.

And so do we.


Robert Mulholland, in his book The Deeper Journey, challenges us to discover our true selves and to die to the false self, especially the religious false self.

Our religious false self hides its fear behind a wall of activity. Our religious false selves can be as frenetic in our religiosity as secular false selves are in their performance-oriented attempts to authenticate their identity and value. A welter of worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, accountability groups, fellowship meetings, retreats and workshops often enable us to calm our fears and assure ourselves that our religious identity and value is secure.

Like Michael Marin we are afraid of God and exposing our true self. We want the world to believe we are something we are not, that we are holier, wiser, more spiritual, courageous, faith-filled, righteous, correct, etc.  We really want to be that person because we think God wants us to be that person – and we fear that others need us to be that person.

But being that person is so draining, demoralizing and shallow. Going deeper means letting go and putting to death the façade, the expectations of others, the moralizing of self-righteous pundits. It means, as Mulholland says, “being in God for the world” instead of “being in the world for God.”

It means being free.


More than ever we need people who are free to be what God made them to be, not what they think they should be or even want to be. We need people who see their true selves in partnership with the true God. To see God in all his unpredictability and mystery, wild and roaming the earth inviting us to join him in a kingdom-building adventure where we are fully alive.

Michael Marin did not die in that courtroom. He died years earlier, when simply being Michael who was not good enough for the world, not good enough for him.  It happened when he chose to be alone with his false self instead of being fully alive, at rest in God.

The false self must die. It must be disconnected from the life support systems that keep it breathing.


It’s time for us to pull the plug.

Small Group Advanced Training, Coming to a Town Near You!

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

Small Group Advanced Training, Coming to a Town Near You!

I am excited to share with everyone that I am taking my Small Group Advanced Training on the road! I will be offering one day conferences that are designed for strategic ministry leaders and their teams in the group life arena.

This training is targeted at you and your specific leadership challenges.  Small Group Advanced Training will help you:

  • Diagnose Specific Ministry Challenges and Barriers
  • Formulate Strategic Next Steps
  • Start the Process of Creating a Focused Ministry Plan
  • Cast the Group Life Vision Clearly and Compellingly
  • Align Group Life with the other Ministries of the Church
  • Clarify Your Role and Responsibilities

The process combines teaching, team time, planning and interaction so that your experience is optimal and your take-home value is maximized.

Email me if you would like more information.  Space is limited, but we are still adding more training locations and additional dates.  I look forward to serving you and your team!

Currently scheduled Small Group Advanced Training Dates:

  • Thursday, June 7, 2012: Zionsville Presbyterian Church (Zionsville, Indiana) 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
  • Wednesday, June 13, 2012: Austin Stone Community Church (Austin, Texas) 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 14, 2012: Fellowship Bible Church (Dallas, Texas) 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.



Confronting Meeting Killers

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

The Wall Street Journal May 16 (Section D1) had some great stuff on Meeting Killers. Four styles that can kill any well-intended meeting were described.

  1. The Jokester

    Assault with a deadly punchline. This member cracks jokes often, especially when not appropriate. I find these people are usually nervous and need humor to break the tension. When they are challenged personally, or asked to look deeper into their own life or soul, they get sarcastic and side-track the conversation.

  1. The Dominator

    First-degree nuisance. The person tends to be a narcissist and believes the conversation revolves around their ideas. Has to have the last word…and the first word…and lots of words in between. I find you have to confront this person or pull them offline at a break and review the ground rules – unless it is your boss. Good luck with that one.

  1. The Naysayer

    Premeditated negativity. Waits until consensus is almost reached and then drops the bomb. A real David or Debbie Downer type who makes Eeyore look like a Pep-rally leader. It is good to run stuff by this person before meetings and get buy-in when they are off guard. Limits their impact at the meeting and you can say, “That’s interesting – a few minutes ago you were pretty excited about this. What changed?”

  1. The Rambler

    Death by boredom. Takes the long way home…and always gets lost. Here is where you have to jump in and say, “Jim can you take the next 30 seconds and summarize your thoughts?” or “Let’s land this plane before the airport shuts down.”  Use the 3-minute egg timer in the middle of the table if needed. And leverage the group to provide feedback.

Good meetings are the result of good leaders and solid ground rules. Review these regularly, set a tight agenda, and try doing some shorter meetings standing up, and do the follow up on email.

Strategies for Developing Leaders

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

There were many Leadership Development approaches and models at The Lobby gathering in San Juan Capistrano. Intentional, consistent engagement with rising and potential leaders is still the core. A leader needs vision, time, someone who listens deeply, regular feedback, a place to process failure, and a laser-like focus on goals to shape a leader.

Here are some strategies and approaches to recruiting and developing leaders.

1)     Just ask.

So often we forget to make a simple, direct ask. “Join me” and “Can you help me?” and “I want you to enter a leader development process” are simple ways to call people into leadership. No begging, no dancing around. Just ask with clarity and boldness.

2)     Provide short-term experiences.

Give people a place and an opportunity to lead – even if they fail. But shorter experiences are ways to identify areas for growth and catch failure sooner. Sometimes we do not even need to tell them “this is training” but rather just give them a leadership experience.

3)     Apprenticing.

This tried and true approach is as old as history itself. Take someone under your wing, or place them with a solid leader. Give them a little leadership under the supervision and coaching of another leader and people will thrive. They gain confidence, get a good taste of reality, identify growth opportunities and have a laboratory to lead in without all the responsibility for the outcomes.

4)     Use online Resources.

Get a group of rising leaders in front of some good content (DVD or online) and then let them process and practice. Process the content and make sure it is understood, then form a leader development group and practice the skills together.


So choose a method or two and get going. There are no silver bullets in leadership development – just provide consistent engagement, real life experience and quality feedback. And watch the leaders emerge!

Top Qualities of Successful Entrepreneurs

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

Top Qualities of Successful Entrepreneurs

So you want to step out on your own, or build a company from scratch, or launch a new non-profit, or plant a church? It is likely you’ve got that entrepreneurial spirit. Awesome…but do you have the essential qualities successful start-up leaders say you’ll need to break through?

A WSJ article on March 19 lists the results of a survey of successful entrepreneurs. Here are the top qualities they listed in order of importance:

  • Vision
  • Passion
  • Drive
  • Integrity
  • Innovation
  • Risk-taker
  • Resilience
  • Pro-activeness
  • Relentless customer focus
  • Ability to team
  • Flexibility

When asked, “Where did you pick up the capabilities needed to be successful?” they responded as follows (also in order of importance):

  • Experience as an employee
  • Higher education
  • Mentors
  • Family
  • Co-founders
  • Secondary education
  • Colleagues
  • Senior executives/board
  • Friends
  • Investors

First, it is no surprise that vision, passion, and drive are at the top of the qualities list.  You have to have your start-up in your gut, not just in your head. By itself, an idea is worth very little. But an idea that is developed, tried, refined, funded, and desperately needed will go a long way. The person who can move an idea into action, and works hard pulling others together with integrity and passion, will turn it into something transforming.

When it comes to an innovative idea, you cannot just see it – you must see it through!

And second, it is no surprise that experience (rightly evaluated and understood) combined with formal and informal learning environments, is our best teacher. Formally, classroom instruction can broaden our intellectual horizons and sharpen our abilities to engage and defend ideas. Informally, mentors, family members and our co-founding partners bring their experiences – successes and failures – into contact with ours.

The takeaway? Discover what is in your gut and go after it. Stick with it through failure and disappointment. But never do it alone, because you’ll need others to learn from and maybe cry with. Be relentless about the quality and usefulness of your product, service or mission. Become a voracious learner, and invite others to join your team in the grand pursuit of your life-changing vision.

And watch what happens! We all might be very surprised!

Facing the Development Challenge

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

This is how I guide leaders and teams to work toward organizational outcomes, bringing personal leadership strengths in sync with group or team processes.

Whether working with an individual or an organization there are some common issues that must be addressed to get the team moving in the right direction and the leader focusing on the right stuff.

Here’s my 5-fold approach for moving forward to achieve results. Each has a “takeaway” recommendation so a leader can act with focus.

The Development Process

1) Name Reality: Using guided discussion with core teams and leaders, and some basic assessment tools we will identify leverage points that drive progress. Barriers to progress can be identified clearly, so that leaders know how and when to engage the challenge. A clear, honest picture of reality is the starting point for meaningful and lasting change.

2) Prioritize Investment: How a group or team allocates resources depends on what “drivers” are most likely to produce results. We do not ignore weaknesses and broken parts of the strategy. Instead we focus on what seems to be working and what has the highest capacity for leverage. Time, talent and treasure are precious commodities. Are you deploying them wisely?

3) Catalyze Movement: Rather than wait, I focus my energies to catalyze movement within priority areas as quickly as possible. This is not like building an automobile. This is an organism—it is fluid, flexible and dynamic. By catalyzing limited, focused movement we can determine the impact on the whole, and discern where to bring additional energy or redirect resources. Get the right things moving in the right direction as soon as possible.

4) Guide Process: Change cannot be managed. But, like electricity, it can be channeled and guided, measured and adapted. As strategies for movement are put into play, we will navigate their impact, funneling successful results into greater overall impact. Leaders need coaching and guidance to navigate change.

5) Cultivate Feedback: You must create feedback opportunities all along the strategy pathway. Rather than wait until the full impact of guided change takes place, feedback loops are utilized throughout the process, ensuring that leaders are wisely fueling the pace, level and scope of the change. Timely feedback that informs meaningful next steps helps a leader refine the process, reset the target and execute the strategy.