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Seral Succession

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All it takes to start a fire is a little fuel, the right atmospheric conditions, and a source of ignition, perhaps as small as a tiny spark. If circumstances are right, a single blade of grass once ignited can build into an inferno that burns and ravages countless acres of prime forest. Humble beginnings can transmute into raging fire storms, exploding trees, molten sand, and death. The aftermath of such devastation causes one to wince in regret at the horrible and blackened scars left behind where beauty once stood. As unnatural as it may appear it is but another witness of the beauty of the healing and creative powers of God. Most pristine forests have at one time or another been destroyed by fire, but eventually they grow back stronger and more beautiful than ever.  It is a cycle that must be understood.

Seral Succession is an ecological principle in which, over time, the natural biological systems become so developed that they begin to atrophy and bog themselves down. A strong forest becomes weakened and diseased because of the vines, weeds and assorted parasitical vegetations that erode its strength. New growth is repressed and beauty lies dormant because the system prohibits it. Extreme cases may require a controlled burn – an act of destruction – before beauty, order and strength can return. The temporary and painful state of charred ugliness is quickly forgotten once the beauty of a healthy forest burst though.

The same principle applies to agriculture. It is not uncommon for farmers to burn certain fields in anticipation of planting a future crop. Soon afterward the tractor tills the soil and much of the ugliness disappears. As horrible as the blackened field may have first appeared, its memory will be completely erased as spring bursts forth in a display of brilliant colors and verdant growth where once only charcoal and ash had been.

In effect, the fire’s devastation produces healing by burning away the undergrowth that prevents fresh, new vegetation. The ash becomes a natural fertilizer.

The Origin of Organization

Most movements begin with one or a small group of people who devotedly pursue a noble and meaningful vision, purpose or ideal. Success attracts and produces adherents and followers. Eventually people and systems are put in place to support the momentum and gains of success. As success creates even greater demands for support, and finances arrive that enable the addition of people, property, equipment, procedures and such, an organization evolves. Human tendency is to take pride in the growth and accomplishment of the organization. Eventually a successful organization can become an institution. Institutional status creates the capacity for people to reverence the institution more than its initial mission or purpose.

The reverence of an institution is subtle, so much so that it may not be recognizable to those who view it only from within. More and more people, programs and procedures are put in place to safeguard and strengthen the institution. The rally cry for justifying institutional growth always spotlights its mission and purpose, even if its daily actions and resources are devoted away from the same. Systems increase in complexity. Emphasis shifts to ways of tightening control, re-phrasing procedures, and managing programs designed to raise funds to finance the bureaucracy institution. 

This is where the paradox occurs, because eventually more effort, finances and attention are devoted to maintaining the complex and cumbersome institution than to fulfilling its original mission and purpose. At this point the mission and purpose become compromised. They may remain the rallying point for acquiring funds and support, but the funds and support are absorbed by the institution before they are allowed to significantly impact its true mission and purpose. Significant amounts of capital, time and energy is required to maintain the cumbersome positions, travel, perks, programs and structure of any large organization or institution.  

Up until now in this article I have been referring exclusively to business organizations. Studies have proven that the downward spiral of thousands of once great businesses and governments occurred when the costs of doing business demanded more attention and effort than managing the direction, effectiveness, and purpose of the business. Thousands of case studies endorse that those businesses who reached this dangerous cycle were saved only by stringent organizational seral succession. Chrysler, Harley Davidson, Ford Motor Company, and many others survive today mainly because somebody made the right decision to cut expenses, reduce waste, and create a higher quality product at a lower cost to the customer. Otherwise they would have died the premature organizational death, sacrificed to the lean business methods of the Toyotas and Hondas and other global competitors.

Seral succession occurs in spiritual leadership and ministry organizations as well. Programs and infrastructures spring up to support and protect a burgeoning ministry’s success. As deadening organizational undergrowth and complexity develops, it effectively chokes anything new and different that is attempting to break through. What begins as a dynamic expression of the kingdom of God mires in the trappings of human institutionalism. Slowly, inexorably, the focus shifts to refining policy, drawing membership boundaries, delegating authority, entrenching control, and preserving the status quo.

It is at this juncture that life or death of the institution occurs. In order for it to survive and remain relevant, it must be scrutinized for effectiveness and efficiency. Every position, program, procedure, and process must be constantly challenged and critiqued for relevancy and effectiveness. No system, program or position can be allowed to calcify into a sacred shrine or holy cow. Everything must be examined in order to assure that the emphasis remains on the mission and purpose, not on the organization. At the point that more resources are devoted to sustaining an organization than toward fulfilling its purpose the institution is in the process of dying. Its life and strength is being choked from it by the cumbersome undergrowth of non-essential organizational waste and bureaucracy.

Programs that are not self-funding and operating in the black should be either eliminated or re-engineered. Fiscal, spiritual, and performance accountability should be expected from every layer of leadership, regardless of where it exists in the hierarchy or organizational structure. New programs and institutions should be planned in advance to assure that they can be funded and sustained without having to overburden the already burdened constituents. The Bible says in Luke 14:28-32:

28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?

29 Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him,

30 Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

31 Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?

32 Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

When leaders are not held accountable for their decisions it becomes easy for them to lead by opinion and emotion, knowing they will not be questioned or challenged for their actions. In such cases it is not uncommon for them to begin initiatives they really can’t afford, and then expect their constituents to finance them out of their dilemma. This is a practice that has long been perfected in the Federal Government, where accountability is easily camouflaged by complexity and deficits.

It is essential that everyone understand the purpose and reason for an organization’s very existence. There are advantages to being a part of a collective whole, and one advantage is that it makes it easier to do more through the collaborative efforts of many. The key for leaders is to remember that there must be a balance, and never should the constituents be taken for granted or advantage of.

The fundamental truth is that any organizational structure is merely a tool to be used to accomplish a worthy purpose, mission, or vision. It must never become a holy thing lest organizational idolatry occur. If an organizational structure is working efficiently and attaining its goals then keep it and improve it. If it is not reaching the vision or goals then change it, improve, or scrap it if necessary.

Everything about an organization must be subject to seral succession. Difficult questions need to be asked before a blank check for additional spending is awarded simply because it is asked for. Is travel always necessary? Do we really need those expensive mass mail outs? Do we always have to do what we have always done? Do we have to pay for so many travel expenses? Do we really have to spend so much on awards, recognition, dinners, and such at the constituent’s expense? Does that department need to even exist anymore? Why do we need such a cumbersome and slow moving infrastructure? How many expensive and non-essential layers, positions, and committees can we eliminate? Why don’t we identify and eliminate every redundant and wasteful procedure?   

If organizational survival is the pre-eminent focus, then increase the cost of maintaining it and overtax the constituency to finance it. If the survival of the mission and purpose is pre-eminent, then focus attention on eliminating wastes, curbing non-essential costs, and streamlining processes in order to maximize organizational efficiency so it can attain a worthwhile mission and purpose. Historically in government, business, and religion, it is proven that the less the bureaucracy the better.

For a number of years I managed the Value Analysis/Value Engineering and the Continuous Improvement Divisions of a large global manufacturing giant. The people who worked for me were responsible for using engineering and team techniques to eliminate all organizational wastes and non-essential expenses. I had people in sixty-three manufacturing locations on multiple continents. Our purpose was to provide to the customer the best product and the lowest competitive price. Our concept was to free up people, equipment, machinery and floor space to make room for new business. What was the result? By streamlining and minimizing the cost of the organization, and eliminating hundreds of millions of dollars from being wasted, we were able to triple the amount of business and customers.

As an organization wrestles with certain increases in operating costs, the solution is similar. Seral Succession must occur in order for the health of the organization to be restored. Any increases in costs should demand justification, not just partial data to influence the uninformed. It is possible that the absolute worst thing that could happen would be to increase revenue at this time without first eliminating organizational waste and inefficiency. Every non-value adding process, procedure, program and position should be eliminated. What remains should be to achieve one purpose – to facilitate global evangelism. The need is not to increase revenue, but to streamline the organization. Once this is done revenue then becomes more effective.

In his profound book titled Upside Down, author Stacy T. Rinehart writes, “

“As we look back over church history we see that in the beginning of any true spiritual movement, the Holy Spirit is released as men and women exercise faith and courage. God honors the simple, stumbling efforts of His children as they step out in faith. As people move into uncharted territory toward a vision He’s given them, God meets them there.

Yet, when their efforts meet with a measure of success and renewal breaks out, an insidious, counteractive process begins. The underbrush of institutionalism begins to take root. The human tendency is to build an organization around this living, dynamic thing called ministry. Then the surrounding structure becomes a heavy, cumbersome weight that cuts off the spiritual light and nutrients necessary for growth. In this process of institutionalization, people come to rely on human figures at the helm. God’s Spirit is quenched; freedom and innovation decline.

As leaders grow more entrenched, they invest more power and authority in their position. The priesthood of the elite increases and the priesthood of believers decline. An invisible caste system develops, making a subtle distinction between laity and clergy. Laity learns to step back out of the picture, find a comfortable place to sit, and watch the “professionals” at work.

As any ministry takes on an organizational focus, something to protect arises. Assets, property, history, and tradition must be preserved. Eventually the light and life that produced them lie dormant, and it seems that tradition and structure are all that remain. Thus, as institutionalism takes over, reformers of almost any kind meet with resistance and suspicion. They appear to be challenging the unchallengeable.

Suppose we see our role as servant charged with the responsibility and privilege of helping others come into the fruitful expression of God’s vision for their part in the kingdom. Then we may avoid the temptation to build our own kingdoms to which we recruit others with their time and talents.

Of course, if we continue to focus people’s eyes on Christ, we will not be the “Maypole” around which everything revolves. And that may be painful. Yet, in this way, the ministry itself will not calcify into an organizational structure that requires loyalty and protection as it moves further from the Holy Spirit’s leading.”

The opportunity for making the needed improvements to secure a bold and dynamic future have never been greater than today. If we are bold, and our elected officials are provided with a clear voice from the constituents, the impact upon the harvest of tomorrow can be immeasurable.

All it takes to start a fire is a little fuel, the right atmospheric conditions, and a source of ignition, perhaps as small as a tiny spark. As ministers we must be accountable to God and the folks in the pews who faithfully give to support His work. We must be wise stewards.  Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.


Dr. Fred Childs holds a MBA in Business Administration and a Ph.D. in Leadership Administration. He is a pastor, author, leading church and business consultant, and leadership authority.


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