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How to harness the power of chaos in your ministry

| by Steve Lawson

In The Starfish and the Spider(2006), Rod Beckstrom and his co-author Ori Brafman explore what they call the “unstoppable power of leaderless organizations”using the metaphor of the starfish. When you pull off the arms of a spider, it dies. In contrast, if you rip off the five arms of a starfish, you’ll get five new starfish. This happens because starfish have decentralized nervous systems.

Beckstrom & Brafman summarize their view toward innovation using a rule they call The Power of Chaos: “Starfish systems are wonderful incubators for creative, destructive, innovative or crazy ideas. Anything goes. Good ideas will attract more people, and in a circle, they’ll execute the plan. Institute order and rigid structure, and while you may achieve standardization, you’ll also squelch creativity. Where creativity is valuable, learning to accept chaos is a must.” Chaos should not be tempered with structure; it should be harnessed with ideology.

The emphasis of this article is to decentralize decision making within the church. Rather than one supervisor (usually the overworked senior pastor) trying to make sure everyone isn’t falling behind and dictating what can and can’t be spent, the responsibility and authority is pushed out to each department or ministry team.

According to Richard Daft (2007), decentralization is believed to relieve the burden on top managers, make greater use of employees’ skills and abilities, ensure that decisions are made close to the action by well-informed people and permit more rapid response to external changes. And in the church, that translates to more people reached with the gospel.

Structured chaos

Effective structures provide the stability an organization needs to successfully implement its strategies and maintain its current competitive advantages while simultaneously providing the flexibility to develop advantages it will need in the future. Structural stability provides the capacity the organization requires to consistently and predictably manage its daily work routines while structural flexibility provides the opportunity to explore opportunities and actions that the organization will need to be successful in the future.

Many organizations, especially churches, need to find that balance of structural stability and flexibility. One place to look for inspiration is Google. Google's intent is to remain flexible and responsive. In terms of day-to-day activity, Google's approach has better described as “structured chaos” (Brown, 1998). The company's goal, according to Shona Brown, is to determine precisely the amount of management it needs -- and then use a little bit less. Google engineers are encouraged to take 20 percent of their time to work on something that interests them personally (aka “the 20 percent rule”). This means that if you have a great idea, you always have time to run with it. It is their philosophy that people work better when they’re involved in something they’re passionate about, and many cool technologies have their origins in 20 percent time (Bick, 2007).

While many church leaders certainly identify with the word “chaos” when it comes to their jobs, few would say that is intentional. Fewer still can even fathom having a spare minute, let alone spending 20 percent of their time on something outside of the urgent issue at hand. I submit that this is true, not because of the demands of the job, but because of the demands on the leader. If we are going to learn to thrive in the midst of chaos then we will need to take another look at how we view our job.

We are going to have to adjust our expectations if we are truly going to decentralize authority. We will have to be OK with others taking the reins and making mistakes. We are going to have to give up control, and instead focus on instilling our organization’s vision and values into others. If we do this, then over time we will discover those leaders that rise to the top that can carry the vision and do the job without the need to be managed. Then, maybe we can institute our own “20 percent rule.”

Transformational leadership for the next generation

In a recent issue of Leadership Journal,Sam Rainer (2011) writes that “Millennials don’t reject the idea of authority, but they have redefined how authority is exercised. They tend to follow leaders who operate in a transformational capacity – and ones who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Rather than telling followers what the big picture is, these leaders allow followers to help create it…These leaders must be authoritative without being authoritarian, decisive without being dominant.”

Rainer goes on to say that “in this environment, equipping and mentoring become more important than directing. Structure is looser, and what structure remains is not an end, but a means of helping people become disciples. Leading the members of the next generation requires a commitment to serve alongside them, not issuing directives from above them.”

According to Galbraith (2000), most design efforts invest far too much time drawing the organization chart and far too little on processes and rewards. Structure is usually overemphasized because it affects status and power, and it is most likely to be reported in the business press. However, in a fast-changing business environment, structure is becoming less important, while processes, rewards, and people are becoming more important.

Transformational leaders have a clear vision of the future state of their organizations. This vision should be simple, understandable, beneficial, and energizing. The compelling nature of vision is that it touches the experiences of people and pulls them into the life of the organization. However, vision isn’t the leader’s personal possession. A transformational vision grows out of the needs of the entire group and is claimed by those within it. Although leaders play a large role in articulating the vision, the emergence of the vision originates from both the leaders and the followers (Bennis & Naus, 2007).

If we are going to see the church rise up and begin to take its place in fulfilling the great commission, then we must enable others to take ownership of the ministry of the church.  That will mean allowing them to make mistakes.  It will mean more time.  But we must engage the people.  Ephesians 4 makes it very clear that it is the leader’s job “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church.”

The power of messy and chaotic

Imagination Ltd., Britain’s largest design firm, is an example of an organization based entirely on teamwork. Imagination puts together a diverse team at the beginning of each new project it undertakes. By having employees with a wide range of skills, the company is able to put together a diverse team to provide each client with a new approach to its design problems. They are deliberately nonhierarchical; only four people have formal titles, and on most project teams, no one is really in charge (Fishman, 2000). This is a company that has taken the departure from bureaucracy to a whole new level.

Decentralized organizations appear at first glance to be messy and chaotic. But when we begin to appreciate their full potential, what initially looked like entropy turns out to be one of the most powerful forces the world has seen. They could quite possibly become something that even the gates of hell cannot prevail against.



Beckstrom, Rod & Brafman, Ori. (2006). The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Bennis, Warren & Naus, Burt. (2007). Leaders – Strategies for Taking Charge. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Bick, Julie. (October 21, 2007) The Google Way: Give Engineers Room. New York Times

Brown, Shona. (1998). Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos. Harvard Business Press.

Daft, Richard L. (2007). Management. Mason, OH: Thomson-Southwestern

Fishman, Charles. (April, 2000). “Total Teamwork: Imagination Ltd.” Fast Company

Fishman, Charles. (April, 2000). “Total Teamwork: Imagination Ltd.” Fast Company

Gailbraith, J. (2000). Designing the global corporation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lashinsky,  Adam. (October 2 2006) Chaos by design. Fortune Magazine.

Morgan, G. (2005). Imaginization: New mindsets for seeing, organizing and managing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Rainer, Sam. (2011). Next Generation Needs; Leading Millennials requires exercising a different type of authority. Leadership Journal (Summer 2001). P. 49.

Steve Lawson

A former business owner and church planter, Steve is now writing, speaking and conducting emotional intelligence and leadership seminars. Steve holds a Doctor of Strategic Leadership, an MDiv and an MBA. Steve and his wife Karen live in Greenville, Texas.

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