Simple Leadership


Six years ago, Eric Geiger and I wrote Simple Church. We were both surprised at the response to the book. It became one of the bestselling church ministry books ever. Indeed, Eric and I today talk about how unprepared we were for the reaction to our book, and wish we had done more to help churches implement our thesis.

Eric and I never expected to work together, but now we serve alongside each other on the executive team at LifeWay. One of our challenges is to make our complex organization simpler, so that those we serve can better understand how our resources will help them and their churches.

The Great Demand

The information age has ushered in information overload. Each new technological offering has the potential to add to our confusion with a plethora of new buttons and gadgets. A Google search begins as a simple act, but the choices for each search add to the complexity.

The world is crying out for simplicity, but most organizations are ignoring the cries. But those organizations that do get it, like Amazon or Google or Apple, will dominate markets and serve constituents well. It’s really hard to believe that Amazon did not exist before 1994; and Google did not exist before 1998. It seems like those behemoth companies have been around forever. They gave us simple and haven’t looked back.

The Dearth of Simple Leaders

Eric and I took the concept of simple and applied it to churches. But every organization needs leaders who can provide simplicity. The complex organizations of today are the dying organizations of tomorrow.

Let’s look at some keys to simple thinking for leaders. My list is not exhaustive, but it may prove to be a worthy starting point. I think it applies to pastors, CEOs, managers, and almost anyone else in a leadership position.

Five “Think” Starting Points

  1. Think “why?” Why does your organization do what it does? Can you communicate clearly in one or two sentences the purpose behind each of your activities? Have those processes or activities become ends instead of the means in which they were originally established?
  2. Think of the end user. Sometimes we lead our organizations to do things because we our comfortable with our processes, systems, or programs. But we need to get ourselves in the minds of the end users. How do they perceive those things we do? As one small example, I am constantly correcting our employees when they use one of our never-ending acronyms. That’s insider language. We need to think about the outsider.
  3. Think “no.” Simple leadership means you are willing to say no to many things. There are countless good things your organization can do. But good is the enemy of great. And complexity is the enemy of success. Do fewer things better.
  4. Think “simpler.” Constantly evaluate and re-evaluate everything your organization does. Those processes or programs that began simple may be moving toward complexity. Indeed, most anything left alone will naturally move toward greater complexity.
  5. Think outside the box. Sometimes moving to simple is as easy as tweaking existing processes. But other times the change needs to be radical. Think of new paradigms and new approaches. And be prepared for the naysayers on most leadership teams who will insist that change is not necessary.

The Simple Revolution

Not too long ago, we accepted complexity. We acquiesced to the car repair shop that kept our car for over a week. We sighed with surrender when we had to spend several weeks researching a topic as we delved through myriads of print volumes. And we even accepted the complexity of computers early in the technology revolution.

No more.

Simplicity is here to stay. Neglecting it will hurt or destroy your organization. Embracing it will bring you victories you never dreamed possible.

What is your organization doing that is complex and confusing? Is your organization too busy for its own good? What “good”  can you eliminate so that you are focused on great?

The world is demanding simple leadership.

Posted on May 7, 2012

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I have shared your blog post with leaders of our local women’s ministry team and will share it with all the leaders in Japan in June. It’s interesting that our international focus the past two years has been Intimacy, Simplicity and Legacy. This short post resonates (and I like make #3 a yes too) and several have said this is great for families too….”Simple Families” in the future? I’m new to your work, have downloaded Simple Church and am reading it now. Thanks.

  • David Bess says on

    Yes, I am one of your doctoral students. Class of 2000.

  • Don McCutcheon says on

    Great word, Doc, as usual!

  • Thom,
    I think your statement “simplicity is here to stay” is dead-on. I do not know how long that statement will be true, but this is a trend that has been building in many areas of life for some time.
    Recently, I even saw a store in a mall (filled with customers, I might add) that sold NOTHING but black and white clothing, shoes, and accessories. Not a single color in the entire store…and people are buying it left and right.
    Churches who use wisdom coupled with simplicity will see positive results by people who are tired of a world that is bombarding them from all directions.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    David –
    I have no involvement in my book’s pricing. You would need to stay in touch with the LifeWay stores for bargain deals.

  • David Troublefield says on

    Another BTW: during the past 5 months, our congregation has distributed to new residents of the community over 300 of your “Simple Life” devotional books we were able to purchase from a few Texas and Arkansas LifeWay stores at 90% off original price (or, for 19 cents each). If we could buy more Simple Life books at that price, we definitely would continue to distribute them along with other gospel-related info shared with new residents . . . (i.e., are there more such books?)

  • David Troublefield says on

    One of 3 primary reasons churches cannot reach the people they hope to or keep the ones they now have: “Low Quality of Ministry” (the other 2: “Normal Attrition/Migration” and “Unresolved Internal Issues”)–specifically because so many things are attempted that none can be done with excellence (i.e., not “simple”). Solution to this one: reduce activities only to what will be discussed at the Judgment Seat of Christ: what gets lost people saved and saved people on mission with God getting lost people saved (also conserves precious resources that might be used later when ministries could be expanded a bit). BTW: none of the 3 reasons above are spiritual, necessarily; church growth has been shown in both the Scripture and since its closing to be spiritual AND administrative.
    The “leadership” thing for me: it’s a function of MANAGEMENT to identify problems (i.e., diagnose current reality), and almost everyone can do it; it’s a function of LEADERSHIP to identify a preferred future, and many fewer are able to do that; it’s a function of MANAGEMENT + LEADERSHIP = ADMINISTRATION to develop prayerfully/cooperatively with necessary others a workable way to go from problems to solutions which can be communicated in such a way that overcoming status quo is perceived desirable, and almost no one seems able to do it (cf. existing problems and their duration as evidence; e.g., 70% of SBC congregations plateaued/declining in terms of their numerical growth). ADMINISTRATION may be taught, however. :-}

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