Process vs. Procedure

I recently purchased a new printer for my home office. I opened the package, removed all the tape and protective film, inserted the ink cartridges, plugged in the machine, used the installation disc and hooked it up to my wireless network. Piece of cake! The problem was … I couldn’t get it to print anything!

Begrudgingly, I looked through the minimal instructions that had come with the printer, did a google search and, finally, called the help line. The tech person was very understanding, cordial and helpful. As it turned out, I should have installed the ink cartridges after I had plugged the printer into the power strip. Then it would have printed out a test page and I would have been good to go. My problem was that while I understood the process, I had not followed the right procedure.

Today those two words, process and procedure, are often used inter-changeably. However, I want to remind you that “Process is NOT procedure!” The dictionary defines process as “a continuing development involving many changes.” Procedure is defined as “a particular course of action or way of doing something; the established way of carrying on the business.”

There is a subtle but important difference there. To miss it can lead us astray in accomplishing what we need. Too often, we believe that in creating and following procedures (How many of your congregations have Standard Operating Procedure manuals?) we allow the necessary processes to take place. In the end, like my experience with the printer, you can take all the right steps, and still get it wrong!

The key to understanding the distinction between these two terms is found in a phrase in the definition given above. In process, we give attention to “a continuing development involving many changes,” which hints that while procedure is predictable, process is not. Process has to do with the flowing dynamics and forces at play in any endeavor. It leaves room for the unpredictable. Israel Galindo says that process “Respects the serendipity of un-factored data, hidden agendas, mysterious forces, queer cosmic convergences, and Murphy’s Law.”

A proper understanding of process helps us see below the surface of the deceptive orderly appearance of timelines, strategic plans, calendars, and lectionary preaching schedules. It accepts that any endeavor must be open to changes and challenges because of the unpredictable nature of things which are in a state of continuing development.

In my experience, it is the process that gets you there, not procedure. This shouldn’t surprise us too much; it is a great theological concept. “Trust the Spirit,” we say, when we’ve run out of plans or there are no procedures to follow. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” we are reminded.

Procedure can tell us how to pack the bags, but it’s the process that lets us make the journey in a spirit of adventure. Procedure is helpful, even necessary. But it is just a tool, and tools can become obsolete in the middle of a project that is ever changing, ever evolving, ever growing. Paying attention to process will allow us to switch tools when needed.

Perhaps it’s time to take a look at your congregation’s processes and procedures as well as your congregation’s Mission and Vision Statements.

If you would like to talk about how the Presbytery is able to assist your congregation’s leaders or, if you have specific situational questions, please contact me directly.

Bill Beck

Rev. Bill Beck, Healthy Congregations, Strengthening Our Congregations Committee Support