How to Break Through When Community Building At the Masjid Level Stagnates


This article is the 2nd in a series about Masjid leadership in the digital age and draws from the book Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World. To stay up to date on all new articles published here, please join our email list.

John Maxwell’s Law of the Lid states than an organization will never outgrow the capacity of its leadership. If you have low capacity leaders, you’ll be stuck with a low capacity organization (and talented members stuck there will eventually leave). If you have high capacity leaders, you'll have a high capacity organization (and attract talented members).

“Leadership ability is always the lid on personal and organizational effectiveness. If a person’s leadership is strong, the organization’s lid is high. But if it’s not, then the organization is limited. That’s why in times of trouble, organizations naturally look for new leadership. … When a church is floundering, it searches for a new senior pastor. … The relationship between leadership and effectiveness is perhaps most evident in sports where results are immediate and obvious. Within professional sports organizations, the talent not he team is rarely the issue. Just about every team has highly talented players. Leadership is the issue. It starts with a team’s owner and continues with the coaches and some key players. When talented teams don’t win, examine the leadership.” -John Maxwell

It is common to see communities go through an establishment phase with the building of infrastructure and institutions. Once built though, many struggle to attract new congregation members. Maxwell says, "a stagnant church leader stunts the growth of the church."

Sports provides a unique insight into this phenomenon. A head coach of a team can develop young players and take them from a losing record to a deep playoff run. The first time this happens, it is a huge accomplishment. If this happens 2 or 3 times in a row without breaking through to a championship or conference title, then it starts to feel like the team has hit a wall. The coach took the team from bad to good, but someone else with a different skill-set is needed to take the team from good to great. For NBA nerds, look at the Warriors transition from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr, and what the Raptors are now attempting after firing Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey.

Expectations change at different stages of an organizations life-cycle. As the title of the famous Marshall Goldsmith book says - what got you here won’t get you there.

The leadership challenge for the masjid is figuring out how to articulate a vision for the future while also getting new community members engaged with that vision.

At a basic level, this starts with open conversations. Dialogue is required to understand what people are looking for from the institution of the masjid. Yes, the ultimate purpose of a providing a place to pray will never change. When funds are raised under the banner of building a community, however, then a different set of expectations will come. What does community building look like? What does being part of a community feel like in practice? What worked to build the community in the past won't work to build the community of the future.

Without this open dialogue and connection, organizations will become progressively insular and lose their vitality. Bridging the generational divide (as outlined in the previous post) will mean changing approach on how things may have traditionally been done. Ultimately, it boils down to adaptability.

Is our organizational structure flexible enough to bypass some of the bureaucratic red tape that has accumulated over time? Are project specific ad hoc groups more successful than standing committees? Are we willing to experiment and find out via trial and error? How do we involve people in ways that fit their personal interests and skills?

When things have been done a certain way for a long time, or the same group of people have been in leadership for a long time, a particular culture embeds itself. Maintaining status quo will often take precedence over engaging newcomers. It becomes harder for people to get involved and thus develop relationships with community members.

Leadership will always say they want to grow, but the actions indicate wanting to keep things the way they are. This is natural, as sometimes there is a loss of intimacy in community relationships. People will be nostalgic for the good old days when it was a small group of families praying in an apartment. That's natural. Keeping an organization alive and thriving requires a shift in mindset to stewardship for the future.

Growth requires accepting a new phase in the life of a community. The vision must progress from a small group of leaders to being distributed amongst a larger group of members. This engages people, increases diversity, and introduces new talents to the organization. That increase in leadership capacity, in turn, raises the lid on what the institution can achieve.

The process for doing this is not clear cut. It starts with dialogue - actually listening to what people want. Once that is identified, the organizational structure that exists must be rethought in a manner that will enable more engagement. In some cases this means existing leadership may have to accept that they helped make the masjid good, but someone else may be needed to make it great. Find a way to usher them in and help the community reach a new stage of growth.

The next post in this series will discuss how a masjid should focus its inreach and outreach efforts in the social media age. Please make sure to subscribe to the email list so you don’t miss any updates.