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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  • Thom Rainer says on

    Thanks Traver. I’m glad you could join us. Best to you in your theological education.

  • Randel Trull says on

    You have a good memory!

  • I recently discovered your site when our church linked your “Five of the Most Difficult Challenges for Pastors” article to Facebook. I’ve really enjoyed the articles so far. Number 3 on the list reminds me of a lesson from a Bible study I recently participated in.
    I’m a student at Pensacola Theological Seminary getting my M.Div. My teacher, Dr. Karl Stelzer, said our lesson for that day was on priorities. He said, “We must set aside that which is good and better for that which is best.” There are so many things that we’d like to be doing, but like you said, we need to do fewer things better.
    Great point.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    David and Randel –
    I am sure you two are my former doctoral students. Greetings! (I hope I’m right.)

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Josh and Randel –
    You both have great points. In fact, you have Eric and me working toward some responses in our future work. Thanks for the help and questions.

  • Randel Trull says on

    I emailed excerpts of your blog to the pastors in my association. I asked them what they would need in order to simplify the processes in their churches. The response was, “We need examples of where it has worked.” Some pastors had made attempts to simplify that backfired. Looks like some “how-to’s” and “here’s how’s” are needed.

  • I was one of the many who read and was impacted by your book. Thanks fellas.
    I have an issue though with #3. Could you combine the end goal of #3 of not having your organizational and leadership spread to many competing options with #5.
    Could we think “yes” and protect simplicity?
    Is it possible to push back with that yes with encouragement and a possible connection to someone already doing something similar inside or outside of your church?
    As a pastor I don’t want to do everything but I don’t want to stand in the way of someone’s ministry.

  • Thom Rainer says on

    Thanks folks. I’m sitting next to Eric Geiger right now. We are talking . . .

  • Jim Craig says on

    I was talking to a friend about the change in the church belief and presentation structure during the last 30 years and this looks like an interesting book.
    Programming hasn’t worked – simplicity sounds great!

  • Pat McDannold says on

    How invaluable this book would be. In a time of information overload and ever changing technology we as a society are overwhelmed. No segmant has gone unaffected from our corporations, churches, familys, and individually. People long for and are demanding simplicity. Life is so complex now that it is something that has to be taught. Unlike generations before us for whom it was a way of life. I believe it is possible to live simply in our global society.I think if this concept were implimented in our churches and even further into families and individually it would revolutionize how we think and live. We all need to take stock and ask ourselves why we do what we do. Let’s work toward simplifying how we worship, raise our families, and how we think!

  • Robert McGillary says on

    I second David’s motion. PLEASE write this book. I’m ready to preorder 25 copies.

  • David Bess says on

    Sounds like the makings of another book!

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