Lessons from the DMV

Recently I spent three hours waiting to get a new driver’s license at the local Department of Motor Vehicles. It was a busy day at the DMV, but nothing out of the ordinary. There were teenagers coming in with their parents to get their learners permits, young couples with kids who had just moved to the area, older adults who had to retake the vision test, lost cards, the works. There were people of varying ethnicities and economic levels. The collected body of people gathered in that room came was about as diverse a gathering as one would ever see in this small town, yet we all had one thing in common…the wait. Although there were many people who were trying to be in a hurry, there was simply no way. We could do nothing except sit in our neatly arranged, uncomfortable plastic chairs, waiting to hear a bell and see our number pop up in red lights on the wall in front of us. So I waited. However, rather than swearing, followed by heavy sighs of frustration (the chosen way to occupy time by the person sitting in front of me), in my waiting I chose to occupy time by observing the way this office worked. The office was one large (not large enough) room that had been divided into four sections to accommodate the different functions of the DMV. There is the photo area, the paperwork area, the testing area and, of course, the waiting area. When you enter through the main door, there is a check-in desk and one of those machines, the kind they use in delis and places like that, where you tear off a number to get your place in line. Except here you have to know to walk past the check-in desk to the main area of the room where there is another number machine that you have to go to first because the other machine is for only for the photo line. The number from the second machine is the umber you need first because it gives you your place in line to file your paperwork and pay your fees and take your test. Then (and don’t even think about trying to grab a photo line number before you have filed your paperwork…seriously) the waiting begins.

I don’t need to describe every detail of what I observed to make the point that a few simple changes could have made all the difference, but I will describe what I view as the problem, and then suggest a few simple changes that could greatly improve the service at the DMV. The problem is actually quite obvious. They have three people doing paperwork and only one person taking photos. It is simply impossible for the man working the camera to keep up. He was, as were all the employees, actually quite efficient at his job. The photo process takes about five minutes per person (I timed it), which means he is able to help 12 people in an hour. The paperwork process generally takes about the same five minutes. However, since the paperwork people are helping three times as many people, one need not be a mathematician to understand why the wait becomes so long. The root of the problem is quite obvious. The system simply doesn’t meet the needs of the people it is trying to serve. There are lots of ways the system could be changed to increase productivity. For example, setup the room in a manner that follows the flow of the process. Distribute the necessary paperwork at the check-in desk so it can be filled out and ready to go once your number is called. Add a camera and printer to each work station so that all steps can be completed at the same time, eliminating the second line and that infernal number machine.

This is not intended to be a rant against the DMV (although I could go on…THREE HOURS), but the experience, I believe, shares some parallels with the challenges we face as pastors and church leaders. The problem at the DMV wasn’t people and it wasn’t lack of proper tools to do the job. The problem was that they have a system that doesn’t work. There may have been a time when this system could have accommodated people appropriately. Now, the county where I live is one of the fastest growing counties in Pennsylvania and there are more people driving than at any other point in history. The world has changed since the DMV’s system was developed, and the system has not been reformed to accommodate it. According to the Barna Research Group 80% of all adults ages 20-30 say that their religious faith is an important part of their lives, yet only 31% attend church in a typical week, compared to 4 out of 10 of those in their 30s (42%) and nearly half of all adults age 40 and older (49%).1 The world is changing and as leaders in the church we had better stand up and pay attention, lest we wind up like the DMV, with something everyone needs, but no good way to deliver it.

Much has been written on the shift that is happening in our culture, so I will not rehash that here. I will simply say that we are living in a time of transition. It is a time where people are shifting from a predominantly modern to a postmodern way of thinking, living, and interacting with the world. This shift is changing the way people are hearing and experiencing the message of the gospel, which positions the church and its leaders in a place of great challenge and opportunity. The challenge is not that the world is changing. The world is always changing. The challenge is that change itself is changing. Change generally occurs in ways that are predictable and continuous (on a logical continuum). “Continuous change develops out of what has gone before and therefore can be expected, anticipated, and managed.”2 The existence of the DMV is the perfect example. There was a time when there was no Department of Motor Vehicles because there were no motor vehicles. It eventually became quite predictable that the automobile would become a common mode of transportation, thus the DMV was born. However, there are periods of history that transform a culture forever. I would argue that we are living in such a period, one where change is discontinuous and unpredictable. Things are happening, but we have no idea where we will land. All we know is that the world will never be the same as it was. Formerly effective methodologies and systems no longer speak the language of the dominant culture. “In a period of discontinuous change, leaders suddenly find that the skills and capacities in which they were trained are of little use in addressing a new situation and environment.”3

As pastors and church leaders we are trained within a particular system. If we are part of a denomination we must follow the process defined by the larger institution of the church. It is a process that teaches a broad essential skill set for pastors, with a primary focus on theological foundation and development. The point is not to critique the process. The point is simply that because we are living in a discontinuously changing world there are potentially additional or alternate skills that need development. The situation requires cultivation of new leadership capacities. Alongside the standard skills of pastoral ministry, leaders need resources and tools to help them cultivate an environment for mission.

Eddie Gibbs describes a new kind of leader in his book "Leadership Next"; one that operates under the mantra, “Low profile, low budget, low maintenance.”4 On the surface it may simply look like “slacker mentality” leadership, but in reality it is a style of leadership that operates with pointed intentionality. In older models of leadership, the leadership structure is often hierarchical. The pastor/leader is CEO of the his/her company, the church. This is effective in the sense that everyone always knows where decisions will come from. The buck stops with the pastor. This model, however, often leaves the pastor in a position of lonely leadership. It is also true that in this changing world people are less interested in being led by an absolute authority. They instead prefer the opportunity to interact with information and make their own informed choices. A low profile leader moves out of the spotlight and works from the sidelines. “This stance actually strengthens their leadership position because it broadens their contacts and expands their influence. It also keeps them tied in in with more people – helping them fight loneliness and the temptation to engage in unethical behavior.”5

Low budget, does not mean low quality. An unavoidable factor in the development of Churches today is the excessive cost of resources such as land and buildings. A hundred-year-old congregation that has long since burned their mortgage can, for a time, operate outside of a missional mindset and at least survive. I’m not convinced that our goal as leaders in the church is to help congregations survive a little longer, but that is a whole separate issue. To be a low budget leader simply means that churches, “Will have to be habitually creative with their finances. And, when a work of God experiences a windfall, it should be used wisely for maximum impact.”6

Finally, “Low maintenance reflects vision, shared values and, most importantly, trust. Suspicious and insecure leaders are prone to empower others with one hand while taking it away with the other. They constantly interfere through micromanagement.”7 I have worked with a supervisor who was the antithesis of low maintenance, and it not only affected our relationship, but his overall ability to effectively lead the congregation as well. Over time I observed that very few of his interactions were not somehow related to the church. His conversations over meals, and with his spouse usually focused on church activities or congregation members or the budget or lack thereof. This was true of our interactions as well.often shared how she would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about “church things.” This could be labeled as “workaholism,” but as I reflect back on the experience “workaholism” does not really capture it. Micromanagement is a much more accurate descriptor. He called it “teamwork,” but there was no sense of collegiality. His style, more often, actually undercut team development. Tasks that had been trusted to congregation members or myself would often get done by the pastor during his late night hours or on weekends before we had a chance to complete them. There were several instances when frustrated volunteers quit doing what they had volunteered to do because they felt like they were not needed.

I do not pretend to know all there is to know about navigating this difficult time of discontinuous change as a leader in the church. I do know, however, that as leaders we must be committed to learning and understanding the necessary skills to guide a congregation. God is up to something big. The world is becoming drastically different than it has ever been. While it is difficult to know where things will land, I can’t imagine a time in history more exciting to be a leader in the Church.

1 Barna Research Group; Available at http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=BarnaUpdate&BarnaUpdateID=149; Internet; Accessed 11 December, 2007.

2 Roxburgh, Alan J, and Leadership Network (Dallas, Tex.). 2006. The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World. (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass), 7.

3 Ibid., 9.

4 Gibbs, Eddie. 2005. LeadershipNext: Changing Leaders in a Changing Culture. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 107.

5 Ibid., 108.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Lessons from the DMV

  1. Great essay!
    Just yesterday I read a great article by Craig Van Gelder who said “For all its challenges, postmodernism presents the church with a tremendous missional opportunity. By learning to minister from the margins, the church will rediscover the true power of the gospel.”

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