If you and I spent an hour together over coffee here in Nashville, there’s a great chance that somewhere in the conversation that dreaded “S” word would come up. My kids have a great time making fun of me about it (and even take bets on how long it will take me to say it). They’re right. It’s almost impossible for me to talk about the things that matter most without pulling the word “system” out a few times.

For years, the Ministry Architects team has been helping people build sustainable ministries by taking a uniquely systemic approach. Like the 11 or so systems of the human body, every ministry is made up of a complex system of systems that determine its overall health. And though most churches typically do well at pieces of each system, most fail miserably at becoming a healthy, collaborative community of multiple systems working in concert.

Most people agree that, at least on some level, systems are important. Maybe they’ve read a little Ed Friedman or they’ve studied a little Bowen theory. But, if tasked with naming the specific systems required for sustaining a healthy ministry, so many leaders default to saying they’re ethereal and abstract. They’re unlistable, if you will.

Our experience is quite the opposite. We believe the systems required for sustaining a healthy ministry are very specific. And definitely able to be named, created, and attended to. Through our work with thousands of ministries and churches across the country, we’ve compiled a list of the essential systems every church or ministry organization needs to be sustainable. Hopefully, this quick introduction will get the conversation started and prompt more and more ministries to have a much clearer picture of what healthy systems might look like.

I’ll introduce them simply with a name, followed by a one-sentence description.

  1. The Database System allows us to stay appropriately connected with the many different kinds of people connected to our ministry, so that we don’t communicate the same way with the lifelong member family as we do with the 15-year-old from Des Moines who visited the youth lock-in three years ago.
  2. The Program Calendar System ensures that we are not simply reacting to the most urgent demands but are also building a rhythm into the work we are called to do together, establishing a steady drumbeat for delivering consistently well-executed programs that participants experience as well worth the time invested.
  3. The Preventative Maintenance System builds the ongoing maintenance of our ministry, attending to all of the behind-the-scenes needs. 
  4. The Communication System pulls together the multiple streams of communication (both from the ministry and to the ministry) into a coherent, strategic, integrated message that actually produces desired results. 
  5. The Volunteer System provides a congregation with a hernia-free process for recruiting, equipping, and dispatching volunteers into roles that are life-giving for the volunteers and make an impact for the cause of Christ.
  6. The Visioning System defines for a church where it wants to go and provides benchmarks for how it hopes to get there.
  7. The Hospitality System establishes clear processes to ensure that every person visiting a church or a ministry experiences a surprisingly welcoming environment, as well as consistent, comfortable follow-up contacts, appropriate to the DNA of that ministry.
  8. The Staff Development System provides a healthy eco-system for the paid staff of a ministry to thrive in their ministries, sustain their own emotional and spiritual health, while at the same time, staying highly engaged and productive in their positions.
  9. The Momentum Events System builds implementation teams that pull off effective, well-attended events, free of frustration of franticity and volunteers working at cross-purposes.
  10. The Financial System maximizes the generous investment of donors through faithful tracking and expenditure of funds, moving expressions of need, and meaningful expressions of gratitude.
  11. The Innovation System points a ministry in the direction of its future, welcoming outside the box thinking from a generation without a long history in the organization.
  12. The Compliance System ensures that all legal requirements related to the church are ministry are met, including background checks, payroll filings, licenses, etc.
  13. The Integration System links together the various departments and ministry efforts to remove silos and ensure the healthy, appropriate integration of the generations and the varied strands of ministry.
  14. The Missions System keeps the ministry always looking beyond the goal of its own survival and looking toward fulfilling its mission in the world.
  15. The Discipleship System identifies explicitly how the varied efforts of a church or ministry work together to deepen and strengthen the faith of those involved.
  16. The Growth System provides an intentional process for outwardly focused communication designed to connect with and engage those not yet a part of the organization.
  17. The Facilities System ensures the faithful maintenance of any space utilized by the enterprise, including capital improvements and on-going maintenance.

In the average ministry, what I find absolutely amazing is that these systems are almost always assumed but seldom built. The predictable result has been frustration, sideways energy, and volunteer-and-staff burnout at epidemic proportions. I have to wonder how many emergencies and crises in the church could be drastically reduced (or avoided all together) if churches simply took the time to invest in these systems, rather than expect them to be magically present without any deliberate effort.

As I often confess when I teach on Sustainable Ministry, systems are, of course, not the treasure; they are the clay pots (II Corinthians 4:7). But as long as our desire is to faithfully steward the treasure of the gospel through our organizations, we will need these systems, these jars of clay, to help us.

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Mark served as the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee for 28 years. Though Mark resigned his position as youth pastor in 2014, after a year away, he plans to return to First Presbyterian as a volunteer associate pastor.

Mark is the author of a number of books, including Sustainable Youth Ministry (IVP, 2008), Family-Based Youth Ministry (IVP, Revised and Expanded, 2004) and 2011 releases, Before You Hire a Youth Pastor and The Indispensable Youth Pastor (Group Publishing), both co-authored with YMA Vice-President, Jeff Dunn-Rankin.  Mark served as the General Editor for the 2013 release,  Letters to a Youth Worker (CYMT, 2013).  Mark and his wife, Susan, co-authored a marriage book (with their good friends, Robert & Bobbie Wolgemuth) entitled  The Most Important Year in a Woman’s Life/ The Most Important Year in a Man’s Life (Zondervan, 2003). Their marriage book has recently been re-released as two separate gift books, one for the bride and one for the groom, called What Every Bride Needs to Know, and What Every Groom Needs to Know. (Zondervan, 2013).

Mark serves as the chairman of the board for the Center for Youth Ministry Training, a two-year residential, masters-level, youth ministry training program based in Nashville. He also serves on the Alumni Board for Princeton Theological Seminary.  Mark is a presenter for Homeword’s “Understanding Your Teenager” seminars.  And in addition to partnering occasionally with popular Christian musician, Mark Schultz, Mark is a frequent seminar speaker, training youth leaders at both the Youth Specialties’ National Youth Workers Convention and the Simply Youth Ministry Youth Ministry Conference.

Mark lives in Nashville with Susan, his wife of over 30 years, and they have three grown children: Adam and his wife, Sara, Debbie and her husband, Trey, and Leigh. Mark and Susan have three grandchildren, Parish, Nealy and Liam.