One of the enduring problems facing strategic management and leadership within the religious community is the lack of tools available to describe and predict the behavior within churches and religious organizations. For example, if we know churches are likely to experience periods of stability alternating with instability, we do not know when either will occur or what the outcome will be. Therefore, it is improbable to predict the impact of the lack of proper planning, i.e. church policies and procedures, volunteer training, and risk management education. The fundamental problem is churches evolve in a dynamic way over time as a result of complex interactions between their denomination, the community, ministerial staff, and congregational membership.

This article is written to those who are interested in the vulnerability of directed church, plus church risk management issues, and have a desire to explore chaos theory and complexity theory on the premise how strategic policies and procedures can influence group behavior, but also how positive behavior in turn can alter the internal structure of the organization to avoid events that lead to a crisis ultimately effecting the ministry of the church. It is the promise of finding a fundamental order and structure behind complex events that explains the author’s interest in these theories and their application to a successful church organizational structure.

Chaos theory, which is the study of dynamic systems, promises to be a useful conceptual framework that reconciles the essential unpredictability of various industries with the emergence of distinctive patterns.1 Chaos theory is defined as, “ the qualitative study of unstable aperiodic behavior in deterministic nonlinear dynamical systems.”2 One of the major achievements of chaos theory is its ability to demonstrate how a simple set of deterministic relationships can produce patterned yet unpredictable outcomes.3

Based on the aforementioned definitions we can draw several conclusions about the characteristics of chaos theory and its applicability to the modern church organization:

  • The church organizational structure is dynamical, which means it changes over time.
  • The behavior of the system is aperiodic and its instability means it does not repeat itself. It continues to evolve.
  • 3. Although the chaotic behavior has applications in several disciplines including physics, economics, and philosophy, it is highly sensitive to initial conditions, a result commonly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (church tradition) yield widely diverging outcomes for chaotic systems, rendering long-term predictability impossible (nonlinear).
  • 4. Church organizations are deterministic, meaning their future behavior is fully determined by their initial (traditional) conditions. This is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos.
  • 5. Although chaotic behavior is complex, it can have simple causes.4 Thus the lack of proper planning and the failure of church leadership can lead to chaotic results.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; when a small change at one position within a linear system occurs, it can result in reoccurring differences to a larger state (a domino theory). Additional events leading to chaotic results is the lack of conducting adequate background checks for volunteers working with children, inadequate 15 passenger van defensive driver training, incomplete (or non-existent) records of vehicle maintenance, and the loss of financial accountability to name a few. The lack of due diligence and the failure to make appropriate decisions for the safety and security of the organization, based on irreconcilable visions of management-rational and quasi-mechanistic decisions on one hand, unexpected and disorderly on the other, develops into a new paradigm for church management. It is a fact many church goers want to conduct church in the same manner they were accustomed to 40 years ago expecting the same results.

Ministry has changed, culture has changed, neighborhoods and towns have changed yet the only thing that has not changed is the word of God. Change is inevitable.

The Church Organization as a Chaotic System

By understanding the concept of chaos theory we can surmise how deterministic chaos can be found when there is the simultaneous influence of counteracting forces. As an organization the church sits on the edge of chaos by not pushing the organizational system toward stability and order which includes the forces of planning, structuring and controlling the environment of the ministry.6 There will be some forces that will push the system toward instability and disorder: the forces of innovation, initiative, and experimentation. It is when these forces collide a highly complex situation is created: a disorganized and chaotic organization.

When confronted with an uncertain church environment, congregants, if forced to change their traditional habits can, in retaliation, select from its options a transfer of membership, selection of new leadership, or failure to participate in church activities. Whenever change occurs the membership must see value in change before they will embrace the change. Weick and March suggests activities which are not directly connected with the organization’s mission are a means to improve its capacity of response to complexity and to changing conditions.7 As Weick has suggested, it is frequently preferable to let organizations discover for themselves the types of organization they are best adapted to. Simplistically the church must decide what kind of an organization it will be i.e.: missions, evangelistic, family focused, or children and youth centered. As neighborhoods change the church must consider its mission based on where it is planted, the needs of their mission field, and the talents and gifts of the fellowship.

Change can be good if it is well accepted and embraced. Change requires organized leadership.

The church today needs social order and stability to be prepared to achieve its mission as an organization. As Daft and Lengel put it, “in response to the confusion arising from the environment and internal differences, organizations must create an acceptable level of order and certainty.”8 Order is necessary, for achievement and success, to enable the organizational leadership to position themselves within the church structure to create the conditions conducive for successful ministry decision making. Miller and Freisen conclude that momentum, i.e. continuity and stability of change in strategy, corrective structure based on past experiences, organizational culture, political coalitions and the existence of formal programs, can be “very costly when it protracts an orientation that has proved to be dysfunctional.”9

Past victories do not guarantee future success!

Chaos is also more likely when the system variables follow different periodicity patterns and are coupled with each other, a condition which is frequently met in organizations.10 Perrow in his study of “normal accidents”, stresses the fact that complex systems tend to develop behaviors of their own. As a consequence, he states internal crises are more the result of complex, tightly coupled relationships than the outcome of inadequate individual human actions. 11

Movement Toward Chaos

Based on definition and mathematical research we have seen that a system evolves from one state to another through a process of period doubling when the coupling between various values changes. It is reasonable to assume that organizations are subject to similar counteracting forces which follow various periodic patterns and contains the seeds of chaos. It is clear that chaos theory will furnish solutions to problems posed by complex systems within the church that is descriptive of complexity. The contributing factors within a church organization which can develop into a chaotic behavior are:

  • A Change in Direction of the Purpose of the Church
  • A Change in Separation of Leadership and/or Membership
  • A Change in the Basic Foundation of the Church Structure
  • A Change in Methodology to Reach the Community
  • A Change of Standards and Implementation of Policy and Procedures
  • A Change in Church Authority, Doctrine, Purpose, and Leadership
  • A Change in Reputation of the Church in The Community
  • AChange in Emphasis of Ministry
  • AChange in Tradition

This leads to the first set of propositions:

Proposition 1. Church organizations have the potential to become chaotic.
Proposition 1a. The greater the number of counteracting forces within the church structure, the higher the probability of chaos.
Proposition 1b. The higher the number of forces with different periodic patterns, the higher the rate of chaotic instances.
Proposition 1c. A small change in one variable has an unpredictable large impact on the systems success.

The Influence of Complexity Theory

Complexity theory has been used extensively in the field of strategic management and organizational studies. It has successfully been used to understand how organizations or firms adapt to their environments. Thus, as a church organization, we can surmise complexity theory would treat such an organization as a collection of strategies and structures that has evolved over time. When the organization shares the multitude of properties of other successful complex adaptive systems, within the church organization consisting of a smaller number of relatively simple and partially connected structures, the church is more adapt to their environment and will survive to some degree.

Within the chaotic systems are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) existing between the system (the church) and the agents (staff and membership) acting within it. In such a system the level of constraints means all agent behavior is limited to the rules of the system. When viewed from a complexity theory perspective, futures thinking, and more specifically strategic, linear planning is fundamentally hopeless. For example, Tetenbaum identifies seven current trends that help explain why the opportunities of complexity theory has fallen on fertile ground: technology, globalization, competition, change, speed, complexity and paradox.12 Is the church overlooking opportunities to meet the needs of their environment, community, and global ministries?

In a recent email correspondence with Dr. Charles Perrow, he made this statement to my inquiry on complexity theory and the church:

“ The church should be the first to clamor about greenhouse gas emissions and what they are doing to humanity. I am sure that organized religious makes pious announcements, but I have not seen any mobilization of their flock to fight the big polluters. The Christian religious certainly should be talking about trashing God’s greenery and all His creatures. They should make sure their investments are not polluting organizations.”

According to Perrow the church (as an organization) is not addressing future issues.

Complexity Theory revolves around the interaction of elements working within a system, in this case the interrelationships of the church. Therefore, Complexity Theory would seem to represent an explanation for how a system can generate output greater than the sum of its parts. In other words when closed systems (lack of communication and future planning) degenerates towards disequilibrium chaos always rules eventually, and whether right or wrong, chaos will prevail without an internal structure. Complexity Theory starts with chaos. The lack of internal controls and planning can result in events that can lead to trauma and disarray affecting its members. When a church incurs a shooting incident resulting in death on their campus it may be a result of the lack of proper planning and coordination within the system.

At NewLife Church, located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, shots rang out and the church went into lockdown and every church in the city went into high alert. The security team at New Life had been increased after word of a deadly shooting near a church in Arvada (YWAM) earlier that day.14 During a recent telephone interview Pastor Brady Boyd stated,“We had a very detailed plan in place that we put into effect immediately,” to evacuate people. Chaos became the norm after the shooting event occurred. Boyd stated that, “when things happen, it exposes cracks that are hidden underneath the surface.”

The key to strategic management, ironically, would seem to lie in creating conditions under which unpredictable self-organization can be rendered predictable. For example, what looks like a random act of directed church aggression may not be random at all. Complexity provides a lens through which to observe activities in organizations 15> and, for the discerning organization, it should reveal the greatest weaknesses of the organization. From a complexity theory perspective, organizations under certain conditions, exhibit normal and predictable results. However, under uncontrolled circumstances, they will behave strangely, where predictability is overlooked and chaos becomes dominate. Chaos may also present opportunities for self evaluation and improvement.

According to Carl Chin, 64% of the violence at a church occurs outside the church facility.16 Why do these events occur? According to the National Safety Council the statistics speaks for themselves as 17% is intimate partner violence, 28% is personal conflict, 19% robbery, 10% gang related, and 26% is random selection. Since 74% of church violence occurs outside the building, this should promulgate an effort to establish church safety and security plans in the parking lot to stop violent acts before it enters the facility. This is an example of future planning.

Marion and Bacon 17 stipulate three elements to complexity:

  • First, non-addictive behavior emerges from interactive networks-the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Second, the emergent behavior exhibited in a complex system is unpredictably related to underpinning causes.
  • Third, complex behavior occurs in the nebulous region between predictability and unpredictability: the edge of chaos. For the church organization, the ability to identify the “edge of chaos” would appear to be an advantage. In the context of future thinking, complexity theory provides an avenue for anticipating change emergent properties and results.

From a risk perspective there are two questions each church should ask itself regarding the complexity of ministry:

1. “What can go wrong?”

• What can go wrong with a food bank ministry?
• What can go wrong during a youth choir trip?
• What can go wrong on a senior citizen shopping excursion?
• What can go wrong if the church lacks a safety and security team?

2. “If the church finds itself in court sometime in the future…what actions should be taken to protect the church today?”

• What Policies and Procedures are in place for financial accountability?
• How does the church train the many volunteers serving in the youth program?
• How thorough are the background checks performed on each volunteer in the children’s program?
• Is the Church incorporated?

Based on the discussion above the second proposition can be made:

Proposition 2. Complexity theory suggests that systems are vital and creative when they are at the edge of chaos.
Proposition 2a. It shows how the behavior of complex systems results from the interactions of many agents at multiple levels following simple rules.18
Proposition 2b. As complex systems, organizations are sensitive to their environments and should respond to these environments.19
Proposition 2c. Complex systems are, to a great extent, self-organizing but that self-organization is the outcome of the interdependencies among individual agents following their own set of rules.

Complexity Theory as a Solution to Church Strategic Management

The church, or any non-profit religious institutional system, is a complex organization moving, by its own creation, toward chaos.

Complexity theory can contribute to the integration of implementing solutions, due to the lack of strategic planning, for the church organization in multiple formats. Implementing and applying strategic solutions can best be understood by relating them to the local church organization. It is important churches develop a formal emergency preparedness plan in the event of an unexpected occurrence I.g. earthquake, tornado, flood, fire, an intruder, sexual misconduct, and natural disasters. Most churches have not implemented, nor considered, such a future planning process. Thus, it is vital the organization plan for and implement a strategic safety process and procedure plan in the event of an unexpected occurrence.

It is also imperative the church membership establish leadership positions to design strategic processes to determine areas of potential weaknesses within the organization i.e. financial accountability, building safety, security, transportation, and youth activities that are susceptible to accidents, injury, and abuse. These futuristic plans should be a coordinated effort between the agents (Pastor, Deacon, Elders, Trustees) within the organization at multiple levels. As a ‘complex adaptive system’ the agents should be sensitive to their environment (ministry needs of the church) and respond to the potential dangers as a result of or lack of due diligence.

If an organization has never attempted to design and implement a strategic plan of managing potential order, or disorder, they have by their own volition made a decision not to address these issues. This deterministic strategy is placing themselves, and the organization, on the edge of chaos.

But why are church organizations so inadequately planning for future traumatic events?

First, there are the inevitable human failings of cognition, motivation, organizational designs, and the unpredictable environment church organizations have to work in. This is referred to as organizational failure per se, as when volunteers, workers, and leadership fail to do their jobs for whatever reason, or the jobs make demands beyond their resources.20 Often we find the demands of ministry leadership and volunteerism is beyond the capacity of understanding required to implement safeguards within the system. Organizations are hard to run; people do not always do what they are expected to do. They become so enthralled with the church side of ‘church’ they often overlook the business side of the organization. The church leadership often reflects diverse, conflicting external interests and conflicting internal interests. Information and knowledge is often insufficient, and the environment is often hostile and always unpredictable. Thus, we find an ever-present problem of prosaic, mundane organizational failure.21 Unfortunately, there is not a vast industry of consultants, colleges, or universities that have devoted time and resources in the study of church organizations and establishing a connection between chaos theory and complexity theory for organizational enhancements.

Another internal source of organizational failures (which can be related to the church organization) is what is referred to as executive failures, where top management and leadership make deliberate, knowing choices that do harm to the organization and/or its membership.22 By not making a decision to be pro-active in reducing risks, the leadership has made a decision to do nothing which, ultimately, can lead to irreparable harm. When organizations with disaster potentials have accidents, or near accidents, and many lives are threatened or lost, the response has been to blame the operator (Pastor), or perhaps the organization (Deacons, Elders, Trustees), and particularly its lack of a “safety culture”. Why such failures? It is possible it is because the leadership at the top (Executive Pastor, Business Administrator, Deacons, Elders, Trustees) have other interests on their mine, or they have a mindset that either it couldn’t happen to them or they have a liaise-faire attitude toward their leadership position and responsibility (it is someone else’s responsibility). This points toward an executive failure if the leadership fails to accept the role of responsibility in minimal safety and improvements. Ultimately the responsibility starts at the Pastoral level and filters down to staff, volunteers, and membership.

The failure to ignore warnings of pending disaster which their own inexperienced personnel determined as irrelevant can lead to a chaotic environment. Leadership should also recognize the limitations of their personnel in the preparation and planning for futuristic events. And heed the warnings from other incidents which have occurred across the nation some of which could have been prevented by proper planning, evaluation, and forethought. The remedy in failing to recognize such warnings should be to replace the failing leadership.


Chaos theory and complexity theory, and its concepts, can be a lens through which to observe activity within organizations. In this study it is the church, and related religious organizations, that draws our attention. By their own design, and with some suggestive evidence, socially based systems like church organizations can thrive on the edge of chaos with some limitations. It is reasonable to conclude these organizations are non-linear and dynamic when considered as a system. Complexity thinking rules out forecasting for the future, thus most religious organizations are not prone to planning for any future event that may evoke harm to the organization. It is not within their realm of thought processes to plan for traumatic or violent episode prevention. As one church staff person stated, “…they don’t teach us church risk issues in seminary…I am not prepared for the business side of church.”

The key point of scenario planning, after all, is to diminish the uncertainty that the future presents. Church leadership is so enthralled in the religious aspect of ministry they overlook the practical, day-to-day business decisions relevant to planning and innovation. The fact that unexpected events might materialize unexpectedly or emergently is irrelevant.

From a theoretical approach, thinking about different alternatives remains a better approach to encouraging innovation than trusting in emergence or an immediate quick action, made in the midst of an unexpected emergency, which in itself requires an analyst to predict the likely outcome of the decision.

For an example, if a church van accident were to occur it is impossible to recreate years of maintenance records on a church 15 passenger van after the accident occurs. If an injury or death were to occur the National Transportation Safety Board will require the organization to immediately submit all maintenance records, driver training logs, driver recruitment programs, medical records of the driver as well as driver training programs during the investigation. If the organization cannot present these records it is impossible to recreate such information after the fact. The courts consider this type of action a ‘lack of due diligence’ which equates to negligence.

It is also fundamentally assumed that the future will be an emergent dominion, when plainly the system in question might not be operating under the conditions required for emergence to occur, namely the edge of chaos. As for whether the conditions within an organization are ripe for emergence is a subject for detailed discussion. The future of the church might well depend on the butterfly effect which some within the organization may consider an insignificant variable, but it could also be a pivot point upon some macro condition like the necessity of conducting background checks on those volunteers who work with children. When one event occurs, it will have a domino effect on other parts of the organization. If there is a church van accident whereby a youth member is killed as the result of a lack of care, custody and control, the ramifications will spread throughout the organization resulting in a lack of trust and families will leave the church, new families will not want to be a part of a church where a child was killed, tithes will reduce as families leave the church, the reputation of the church is tainted, etc.

Let us not fall within the trap of complacent maladaptation discarding a theory we might consider unworthy. Complexity and chaos theory is the reminder that non-linear and dynamic systems can exhibit chaotic properties within an existing organizational structure. We must recognize how patterns may emerge from the apparent randomness of complex interactions. The unanswered question is whether complexity and chaos is a metaphor or a ruse. This article argues that futures thinking is necessitated on the fact that accidents, violent acts of aggression, internal theft of an organizations funds, and other unforeseen events could have been eliminated by futures planning implementing church policies and procedures to address each potential unforeseen event.

The forces of change favor the emergence of a new form of order and stability. Current chaos and complexity demand change. These changes can become an organizational instrument which creates conditions to prepare for the unexpected future. Disorder gives the church an opportunity to explore new ways of conducting business and facilitate adaption to the unknown demands of the future. Furthermore, order is a means to create a new approach to management and establish the ability to confront the seemingly impossible challenge of achieving a mission without knowing the final outcome. Chaos is a strange attractor, and a consequence of chaos contains the seeds of establishing a new stability within the church. It becomes an organizing force.

Complexity theory and chaos theory reminds us to remain flexible and prepare for the unexpected, and if the result is indeed one of self-organizing complexity, we can accept our role realizing we can alter the course of these emerging theories.

Bill Gothard stated it well, “Our first response to adversity should not be to remove it, but allow it, to reveal to us our greatest weakness.” Words well spoken.

About the author: Michael B. Russell, MA, MBA, DSL, MLIS is a 30 year Licensed Consulting Agent in the Religious and Non-Profit sector conducting seminars and workshops on current liability issues facing these sectors. He holds a Masters in Communication and Research from the Fullbright College, University of Arkansas; an MBA from the School of Business and Technology, Webster University, St. Louis; and holds an earned Doctorate in Strategic Leadership from Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia. He can be reached at or 479-268-4471



Click here for the list of Endnotes for this article.

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