Let Monkeys Run The Zoo… NOT!

     I was young when I heard the lecture. Years later, I thank God for the wisdom I gained in just over an hour. It resulted in much disciplemaking and church planting in coming years.

I learned two new terms that day, “ossified,” and “laissez-faire.”

A Common Problem

     The speaker, a denominational leader, complained that the group had become ossified, a word describing a rare (in human bodies) condition where soft tissue turns to bone. It is not so rare for Christian organizations to solidify, becoming resistant to change.

     He put ossified leadership at the left end of a spectrum and laissez-faire leadership at the other. This is where top-down, or centralized, interference is held to a minimum. Hardened structures got a “1” while monkeys rated a “5.” He described five as “the monkeys run the zoo.” His suggestion was that we find a place of balance somewhere in the middle. Balance is boring. His talk caused me to lean toward the right. Monkeys do certain things better than zookeepers.

A Place For Zookeepers

     Before you go all nuts on me, let me explain myself.

     Zookeepers have their place and purpose, but monkeys are best at procreating more monkeys, caring for their infants, managing monkey societies and even grooming one another. That day I chose to lead from the right side of his diagram rather than the middle and certainly never from the left. I chose to become a zookeeper who would know how to mind his business while the monkeys took care of their own affairs.

     l point to that day as the beginning of the Hope Chapel “movement,” though it would be another six years before we started the first church. Did you notice the use of the word, “movement?” Ossification ultimately prevents movement of any kind. We plant churches that plant churches. This means that I must trust someone that I don’t know because I trust someone who trusts them.

The Starfish And The Spider

     Many years later I read “The Starfish And The Spider: The Unstoppable Power Of Leaderless Organizations.” You probably know the concept–cut the five legs off a starfish and you get six animals–each part growing a new animal. Do that to a spider and it dies. I’d rather be a starfish than a spider.

     True leaderless organizations are hard to find (the word “organization” suggests that someone is in charge). No one knows who obtained the Napster software, releasing it across the internet as eMule. This person is anonymous and their product spreads without their involvement–people share the software (and pirated music), person to person. Since they are hard to find, let’s give them a six on a scale of one-to-five. ISIS, on the other hand gets a five. Ebay is probably a four, since they set a few rules then let everyone go at the business of selling and buying on their own. I’d give Hope Chapel a five–we did nothing but toss out some values, strong relationships and an example. We don’t even use the name, “Hope Chapel,” for most of our churches.

Cut ‘Em A Little Slack…

     As to leaderless church multiplication movements, the Holy Spirit provides true leadership. However, too often, we zookeepers get in his way. The goal isn’t to turn you into a starfish or a laissez-faire leader, but maybe you could move one degree higher on a scale of one-to- five. Each of us leads from our unique gifts and skills while often using polity and program to control the gifts and skills of others. If you loosen your grip and cut your people some slack they might surprise you by doing more and better than could ask or think.



5 thoughts on “Let Monkeys Run The Zoo… NOT!”

  1. Nicely written and not just theory either. I know because I am a leader at a faith community twice removed from Hope Chapel Hermosa that has no programs outside of serving the intellectually and physically disabled at five locations in Austin Texas. We exist because the person Ralph trusted to take his place when he left Hope Chapel in California trusted me. Today, decades later, I am passing on to others the philosophy of ministry of a person that I hadn’t really gotten to know when I started out. However, because relationships are foundational to the process at Hope, I not only I picked up the “how tos” regarding ministry— I also picked up a friend along the way! (Ralph)

    1. Thanks Jimi, If we were all uptight we’d miss the productivity of people like you. And it’s people like you that keep ministry innovative and interesting. Thanks for the comment!!!

  2. Ralph thanks for the wisdom, humility and truth in your post.
    Albeit on not enough occasions over the years our encounters have always left a directional and empowering golden deposit in my life personally.
    Thank you!
    Wayne Magee

  3. Randall T. Ishida

    So Ralph are we (church) aiming to be a “hybrid” of the starfish (decentralized) and the spider (centralized)?
    The decentralized leader is not the “boss” but a peer or “catalyst” .. is this not what the church “should” be ? But-
    Can we be totally decentralized or are we better suited to be a hybrid of the starfish and the spider organism since churches have councils (which they should have) that steward.
    So, are we leaning toward decentralization in the Pastoral staff while keeping some semblance of a centralized business model in order?
    A decentralized leadership group flows down to equip more to serve Jesus and use the gifts of the Spirit for sure… it will take time to change the “culture” and “mind set” of large “catch and hold” to “catch and send out”.. churches.
    Some wise Chinese philosopher said, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step” (paraphrased).


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