Skip to site content

‘A Beautiful Constraint’

One of the most significant “leadership” books I’ve read in the last couple of years is “A Beautiful Constraint: How to Transform Your Limitations into Advantages and Why It’s Everyone’s Business.”

Adam Morgan and Mark Braden have given us a gift: a beautifully crafted book that is creative, wise and practical.

Morgan and Braden claim that “we sit at a nexus between an abundance of possibilities on one hand, and the reality of scarcities on the other.” Every church leader I know would say “amen” to that statement.

Our restless and questing culture is open in surprising ways to the good news of God’s justice, peace, mercy and love, especially when the people who give voice to that news embody it in the authentic practices of community life.

At the same time, churches wrestle with perceived scarcity of human and financial resources, of creativity and innovation, and of willingness to take risks and venture change. This scarcity is the source of constraints.

Morgan and Braden call these scarcity-imposed constraints “beautiful” because they believe that leaders can see a constraint as “a stimulus to see a new or better way of achieving our ambition.”

Ambition, in this context, is not rooted in pride, but in passion for the achievement of a mission or the pursuit of a noble mission.

In the language of faith, it’s the determination to trust that God can “make a way out of no way.”

The God who feeds multitudes from meager resources can make it possible for us to carry out needed ministries in the face of real constraints.

When determination and commitment meet limits and constraint, the energy of that clash can provide opportunities for us to see ourselves, our churches and our communities differently, and can create a willingness to consider changes we’ve previously been unwilling to make.

The authors suggest that leaders become adept at asking “propelling questions” that hold both the constraints and the mission in tension with each other.

Examples for churches might be: How can we make our church’s identity and ministry known when we have very limited money to spend on marketing and communications?

How can we minister effectively to children and youth when we can’t afford any paid staff to lead those efforts?

How can we make our unused (and expensive to maintain) building an asset for both our church and community?

The key to a propelling question is to include limitation and determination and to refuse to ignore either in our exploration of possible answers.

Holding them in paradoxical connection means that our responses will be practical and implementable because we’ve factored in the constraints from the outset.

“A Beautiful Constraint” offers us another helpful exercise for seeing our possibilities more realistically and hopefully: “Take the six words that are most important to the organization, and articulate what you mean by them: What do we really mean when we say innovation, or marketing, or customer satisfaction, or growth, or consumer insight, or production, efficiency, or strategic partnerships, or operating discipline, or healthy, for example?”

I can imagine very productive conversations in our congregations if we attempted to describe what we mean by cherished terms.

What is worship? A gathering on Sunday mornings? The musical parts of that gathering? A magnet for outreach? An offering to God? Being “lost in wonder, love and praise”?

What is mission or missional? Providing volunteers, prayers and financial support to need-meeting and educational partners? A series of programs and initiatives that a church adopts? Joining in God’s mission of healing creation and reconciling everyone?

What is growth? Is it numerical mostly? If so, which numbers? What and whom do we count? What are other forms of growth? Growth in maturity, in faithfulness, in risk-taking, in love? How are numerical and other forms of growth related?

What is ministry? Is it what “ministers” do? Is it who ministers are? How are being and doing related? Are “ministers” the paid staff or everyone? How are the ministries of everyone and paid staff related? Who is eligible for what kinds of ministry? Why? Why not? How do we prepare and equip ministers for ministry?

What is church? A voluntary association? A nonprofit organization? The body of Christ? The fellowship of the Spirit? How do the various metaphors and images relate to each other? How does the local church relate to the universal church? How – and how much – do denominations and networks matter?

What is salvation? A transaction related to the afterlife? Transformation which affects all of life? A decision or a process or both? Wholeness, forgiveness, freedom? Social? Individual? Because our answer will have many dimensions, how will we describe and declare salvation? How does our view of salvation affect how we understand and practice evangelism?

Conversations about these key words can open our eyes and hearts to renewing our commitment to them. Such dialogues can also broaden our understanding and enrich our practices.

“A Beautiful Constraint” reminded me that constraints are inevitable. Being stuck isn’t.

Guy Sayles is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches, an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared on the CHC blog and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his website, From the Intersection.