Observation: 'Starfish' Management Empowers Church to Renewal

A picture of a starfish
A picture of a starfish (photo: pixabay.com)
By Li ShiguangJanuary 17th, 2023

Over the past decade, the business community as well as many church leaders, including Chinese churches, have begun to study and successfully use the Starfish model for church planting and general expansion.

In 2006, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, two American MBA experts, co-authored a book called The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations  In their book, they put forward the concept of a starfish organization. The book became one of Amazon’s top ten business bestsellers for that year.

The book divides organizations into two categories: One is the traditional “spider” type with strict hierarchical structures and top-down leadership. The other is the new “Starfish model”, which sports a flat structure and decentralized decision-making. Commentators state that while enterprises in China are still learning to be good spiders according to the Western model, “Starfish” has already demonstrated its great power in the Internet era.

Since the publication of the book, many organizations, especially companies and non-profit organizations, have begun to practice the Starfish model with varying degrees of success. In this process, the church community is gradually recognizing that a church also needs to accept this new management model in order to boost growth.

As early as 2013, a media professional who covers the Chinese church reported that he attended a conference entitled “The Starfish Exhibition” in the autumn of 2012. All participants were leaders from business and non-public organizations. The theme of the conference was inspired by the book The Starfish and The Spider (by Ori Bravman and Rod A. Beckstrom).

He writes that this model is worthwhile for many ministries: “In today’s highly- connected society, organizations that rely on the control of headquarters to operate will find it difficult to thrive. However, Starfish institutions can thrive by decentralizing and spreading their authority to multiple circles capable of managing their own affairs. These circles communicate with other peers, which not only effectively transmits information, but also serve as bridges to other networks outside the organization. These characteristics give institutions the ability to absorb new blood, condense new blood under a common goal through informal channels, and establish their sense of belonging to institutions. These so-called “futuristic” institutions exist today. Driven by social media and timely personnel arrangements, they are flexibly shaping and transforming themselves in response to ever-changing needs in order to achieve their original mission.”

Over the past decade, many Chinese churches in Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and North America have gradually focused on the role of the Starfish model in outreach and growth. Some church members have discussed how the decentralized thinking within the Starfish model has been especially beneficial to the churches in mainland China, helping them to move beyond the patriarchal culture and develop more flexibility in a complex environment.

One pastor, Pastor W., who began to put the Starfish model into practice for his own church renewal and development in the post-epidemic era, believes that the transformation of the Spider and Starfish models is in line with the global trend of churches increasingly recognizing the importance of micro-churches.

He said that the vitality of starfish is very tenacious. A starfish has five horns. If one horn is cut off, it will grow back. If it is cut off again, it will grow back again and the cut horn can develop into a new starfish. This is the kind of vitality that people need to live out as well.

Pastor W. said that the traditional church model is more of a Spider model, a centralized model, while the current re-emerging trend of micro-churches is a Starfish one. The key to the Starfish model is decentralization. In this model, any part of the organization can be like the organs of a starfish: flexible, flat, and completely autonomous.

He compares the differences between starfish and spiders: spiders - a fragile organizational system. The more wisdom and power are concentrated in the hands of a few, the more fragile the system becomes. Starfish though is a “counter-fragility organizational system” emphasizing the decentralization of power and functions as much as possible. In this way, it can effectively prevent the church from becoming too institutionalized. An “institutionalized church” will lose its vitality, whereas becoming a starfish model will maintain the advantages and vitality of a vibrant church.

The specific manifestations of these two modes in church form are:

Spider - one or more churches; one congregation; one or more services; one leader (senior pastor plus council) or a centralized leadership team with a high level of control.

Starfish – a decentralized expression around churches with multiple locations, congregations, gatherings and leaders. The church is a scattered network, composed of many believers, leaders and micro-churches. It is the smallest and most basic expression of the church.

In Pastor W.’s view, the Starfish model can be combined with the model of the early church in Acts: "The Starfish movement is an apostolic movement organized around the mission of breaking through into a new context. It is organized as a network of micro-churches with a common focus."

In an age where everything can be "flattened," the test of control that such a high degree of decentralization can bring to an organization is clearly another source of great concern. He explained that what lies in the middle between flat decentralization and collegiality is the values, vision, and mission that the congregation needs to uphold, and on which more lay people are encouraged to participate. This is more significant than just a handful of clergy.

In this regard, Pastor W. added that micro-churches are indeed decentralized, but it does not mean that they have no center at all. “In fact, we think there must be a center. So-called decentralization is intended to let more believers have the power and opportunity to participate in the service rather than limiting the power to full-time staff.” Pastor W.’s decentralization and encouragement of laypersons to participate in ministry is essentially a return to the early church model of the Apostolic period. Everyone is intended to be a disciple.

“Moreover, it is better if more believers than just full-time staff participate in ministry. Each person has a different vision and each person has a God-given gift. They can be very detailed and thoughtful when involved in ministry." In a microchurch, many things can be done with flexibility and mobility, yet some things must be done in an integrated manner, such as personnel and financial management. These powers cannot be delegated to micro-churches, for that could easily cause very serious problems leading to a division of the church. Likewise, many micro-churches and other churches are organically linked together in order to accomplish jointly the Great Commission.

- Translated by Charlie Li

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