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Do you know what normalization of deviation means?

It’s when something is sub-par, but we decide it’s good enough. We say it’s the best we can do. After awhile that sub-par “good enough” becomes the norm. The deviation is normalized.

It’s what happened to the Challenger Space Shuttle, according to Diane Vaughn. The O-ring risk was deemed to be acceptable. The ice factor was within an acceptable range. Until the unacceptable happened.

It happens in our churches, too. Sometimes doing the best with what we have means that we tolerate things left undone, we accept things poorly done, and we overlook things that are shoddy.
And then it becomes normal.

My daughter and her husband visited a church like that a few weeks ago. This little church wasn’t set up to make visitors feel comfortable. They didn’t collect their contact information. The nursery workers didn’t have good baby practices. The well-meaning believers in that church will never hear that what was normal to them was not attractive to a new, young family.

You can take a stand against “good enough ministry” in your church with a simple practice adopted from the business world: writing down how things should be done.

The Guide to Better Processes for Church Leaders

1. Language that Can Help You

You can already drop “normalization of deviance” into a conversation, but here are more terms you should know:

  • Business Process – a set of instructions for carrying out a specific task.
  • Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) – the old-school jargon that introduced us to writing down how things are done.
  • Best Practices – the method that is superior to alternatives because it produces a superior result.
  • Good operating practices – a management term that gets specific to industry: good agricultural practices, good manufacturing practices. I guess there would be good ministry practices, too.
  • Workflows – how work flows from one task to the next. One person may be responsible for all the tasks in the workflow, or the workflow may move across the team.
  • Runbook – an IT term that describes the compilation of routine operations and procedures. It allows another operator to manage the system. The Marines calls these “turnover papers.” They allow one Marine to replace another and continue with the same quality.
  • Checklist – a short, clear process to ensure that key tasks are accomplished and communication is good.

Now you know the lingo, but more importantly you can see that it’s normal to write down the processes that make up what the organization does.

2. 4 Reasons Church Leaders Resist Business Processes

If you are skeptical about this idea, you might connect with one of these reasons:

  • For some leaders this is ministering outside your giftedness. You think big-picture, not details.
  • Others are theologically wary of anything that sounds like business practices because you believe that church should be Spirit-led. Spirit-led and business are antitheses that makes you uncomfortable.
  • Processes take away expertise and authority because if it’s written down others can do it. You may find process checklists unsettling.
  • Or honestly, you’ve just never thought about it and don’t know how to do it.

The book of Proverbs suggests that leaders “Look to the ant” and learn from its practices of carrying out workflow (Proverbs 6:6-7). If Solomon were alive today, I think he’d suggest we “look to the business world” to learn a few things as well.

3. What Happens When a Church Leader Embraces Processes

There are massive benefits to you, your church, and your city when you get committed to writing down the processes for the tasks that get done regularly in your church:

  • You don’t have to personally do everything. If it’s written down, you can trust someone else to do it.
  • You can know it will be done right because the best way to do it has been thought through.
  • People who come to your church will get a consistent, excellent experience.

You already have workflows and processes in place at your church: how the bulletin gets prepared, how the money is handled, how you write your messages. Take it to the next level! More written workflows will make your church better.

4. How to Write Process Workflows

Here are two ways to write a process checklist. And several ways to keep improving.

1. Write down what you’re doing, as you’re doing it.

Write down everything you do. Double check that you didn’t leave anything out. Then have someone follow your process to uncover steps that you forgot to write down or were unclear.

This often applies to admin tasks like preparing curriculum for the children’s ministry or the music for the band and vocalists.

2. If the process involves a number of people, they should write it together.

Call a meeting, get a whiteboard, and work together to write down the steps. Use post-it notes to write down each step so it’s easy to move them around and add more. Ask someone to type it up and send it out for another look by everyone.

You may do this when you’re working on the worship planning process or managing events like weddings and funerals.

Gaps and communication glitches will become obvious when you write the process down. Do your best to add missing steps, but don’t obsess over perfection. Process documents are meant to be used, improved, and updated.

5. How to Keep the Processes in Use

Organization experts call these process checklists are called “job aids.” In the last millennium they would go in an SOP binder and sit on the shelf in an executive’s office. Technology has made it feasible for our process checklists to be living, useful documents that help our churches have good operating practices.

Here are 2 ways to use technology:

1. Use your church’s intranet to post the process documents so staff and leaders have easy access.

2. Use an app to make it easy for people to have access to use and update the processes. Here are a few I recommend:

  • Workflowy. It’s good for outlining.
  • Evernote. Enough said.
  • Trello. Set up a board for each process.
  • Process St. They are all about processes.

6. A Few More Pointers:

1. You should write a process for something if you do it more than twice.

2. Ownership is a key driver in successfully capturing work processes. The people who do the work should write the processes.

3. Process checklists should be clear and brief.

Atul Gawande in The Checklist Manifesto found that if it takes longer than 60 seconds to read the checklist, people won’t pick it up. If it’s too detailed, they won’t follow it. If it’s too elementary or too confusing, they won’t bother.

Industries that face life and death, like airlines and first responders, are good at checklists and processes because people die if they make a mistake. We face life and death in our business, too, of a spiritual nature, so it’s urgent to make our processes better in order to make our churches better at reaching our communities for Christ.

Now What?

Take two minutes right now to move forward.

  1. Think about who should help get this checklist writing project going.
  2. Email, Slack, text, or call to set up a meeting.
  3. Read 7 Steps to the Church of your Dreams for more on how to write processes.
  4. Check out my ebooks on Healthy Church Systems to learn processes that would make your church attractive to newcomers.


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K. B. Tidwell

commented on Mar 17, 2019

Excellent, relevant article! I got quite a few useful pointers from it, and I'd like to suggest that OneNote by Microsoft be included in your productivity apps list. I moved from Evernote to OneNote back in 2015, and I'd encourage everyone to at least examine it. Wonderful, very capable app for planning everything. That said, I also use Trello every single day both in business and for personal life. The planner's dream!

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