Archive for November, 2009

360 Reaction

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

plasmaClergy often have a difficult time getting genuine feedback on their leadership style. Some members of the congregation just want to shower love on their pastors. These people offer platitudes and compliments that are at best benign, and at worst misleading. Other members want to deposit all of their dissatisfaction at the feet of clergy, so they dish out big servings of criticism and critique. What’s a clergy leader to do, to get meaningful, growth producing feedback?

 I often challenge senior clergy to engage in a facilitated process of 360 degree feedback. When done well, facilitated 360’s provide a safe, open and healthy environment for clergy, their staff and their lay leaders to talk about effective leadership.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Center for Creative Leadership  to become certified as a facilitator of their Benchmarks 360 instrument.  In order to become certified I had to personally experience the tool. So, I invited 5 of my peers, my supervisor and 3 other colleagues to provide me with feedback on 16 dimensions of my leadership style. All of their work was done online and they were promised anonymity (with the exception of my supervisor).   I decided to pay close attention to my own reaction to the feedback process so that I could better coach clergy leaders on their reactions. Here’s what I noticed:

 Day 1: I’ve been trained in how the instrument works and I’m getting ready to receive my own results. There is an anxious pit at the bottom of my stomach. Once I take this report into my hands and open it, there is no going back. I will no longer be naïve about my leadership style. What people really think about me is going to be there in black and white.

 On Getting the Results: I open the front page…Phew, the overall results are strong. I can relax. This isn’t going to be a disaster.

Day 2: I’m feeling good about the overall ratings and start to engage some of the more subtle nuances…and now I’m getting disturbed. I’m pretty sure I know who said that about me (even though we’re told not to try and guess who said what). Some of the more subtle feedback is not stuff that I really want to hear. In fact, I think that some of this stuff isn’t valid at all. These people don’t know what they are talking about and some of these categories just don’t apply to my work. I’m prepared to dismiss big chunks of the feedback.

Day 3: Okay, on further reflection this does seem pretty valid and I can even imagine the circumstances that some of my colleagues called to mind while answering these questions, but I’m a little angry with them for thinking these thoughts of me.

 Day 4: Acceptance. I begin to imagine conversations that I might have with my colleagues to get clarity on this feedback. And I’m beginning to imagine developmental steps that will help to strengthen my leadership presence. I like my colleagues again, and I’m grateful for the risk they took in giving me honest feedback.

 In retrospect, the whole experience is like a mini-grief process. There is loss in letting go of a previous self-image, followed by denial, anger and finally acceptance that leads to something more.  Note to self: remind clergy leaders to allow 4 days to let the feedback sink in before taking action.

Photo Credit: dmmaus

Lame Duck Leadership

Monday, November 23rd, 2009


“I don’t want to stay a day longer than I ought to.”

“I don’t want to be a lame duck”

These are the two most frequent concerns I hear expressed by clergy leaders who are thinking about retiring or leaving their post. Quickly, the conversation moves away from the first question and onto the second. It’s not unusual for me to enter a congregation and have two independent conversations on the same day. First, the clergy leader approaches me and says, “I’m thinking about retiring (or moving on), but I can’t discuss this with any of my lay leaders because doing so will make me a lame duck leader.” A lay leader approaches me and says, “Many of us are wondering what the pastor’s retirement plans (or vocational plans) are, but we can’t ask her for fear that she’ll think we want her to leave, or that she’ll become a lame duck leader once the conversation begins.” Consequently, nobody speaks about a looming departure and the anxiety level of the congregation builds.

So, what does it mean to be a lame duck leader, and is it a relevant concern for clergy leaders in the large congregation?  I think most of us look to models of political leadership when we think about the lame duck syndrome. We envision the leader in their last year in office when everyone is jockeying for power in anticipation of a change in administration. The incumbent has no hope of bringing about any change of substance. People disconnect from the incumbent in preparation for new political alliances.

I haven’t seen much evidence that lame duck leadership is a problem for the large church leader. Clergy leaders who stay fully engaged in the life of the congregation and who remain powerful in the pulpit seem to keep their leadership authority until the moment of departure. The senior clergy leadership role has a hugely prophetic and visionary component, and people seem to respond well to both of these components of clergy leadership as long as the clergy leader demonstrates vibrancy and commitment. If the clergy leader disengages, then lame duck syndrome kicks in.

Actually, I see more of a lame duck issue when a retiring rabbi or pastor fails to speak about a retirement that is inevitable. Sometime around the age of 62 the congregation begins to actively wonder when their clergy leader is planning to leave. (I know, this is age discrimination, but it’s palpable and real). As soon as the wondering begins the leader has entered the world of lame duck leadership. People begin to pull back out of fear that their leader will leave them unexpectedly and without a good succession plan in place. Out of that fear people begin to detach.  Leaders maintain a much stronger authority base when they: actively plan for retirement, communicate a clear message to the congregation that succession planning is in place, offer an assurance that a retirement date will be announced at the appropriate time, with ample time allowed for smooth transitions. With these kinds of open communication and assurances, lame duck syndrome can be put to rest.

What kinds of experiences have you had with lame duck leadership issues? How far in advance of departure can and should a congregation know about a clergy leader’s departure? How can clergy leaders and lay leaders have better conversations about this?

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk

Special Offer

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

This week, in honor of the blog launch, Alban is offering my book at a special 30 % discount. You can order your copy at  the Alban online bookstore.


Am I Spending My Time Right?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Part of my consulting practice consists of individualized coaching sessions with senior clergy leaders who are interested in shaping their leadership roles more effectively.  At some point in every coaching relationship the question inevitably arises, “Am I spending my time the right way? How do other leaders of large congregations spend their time?” 2471143585_c16d0aec8a

 In response to the question I typically offer my proverbial (but not always helpful) response, “It depends…”  It depends on what size congregation you lead. There are different size categories among large congregations and each requires a different emphasis in pastoral leadership. It depends on what your personal passion and strengths include. It depends on how large of a staff team you manage and how many other clergy leaders are available to tend to the worship and pastoral needs of your congregation.

I have noticed that the people who pose this question are often operating with an unstated assumption about time management. The question asker assumes that if they get the allocation of time right, they will have enough time to get everything done. I have yet to meet a clergy leader who has enough time to get everything done.  At the end of the day you have to decide if you are doing the appropriate things (the things that only you can do by virtue of your role as head of staff). At the end of the day you have to decide whether or not the things that you are tending elicit enough of your personal passion to keep you fully engaged as a pastoral leader.

Most clergy leaders feel that they don’t get enough time to tend the creative and spiritual side of life that keeps their preaching effective. To that end I often encourage clergy to be more thoughtful about how they structure the beginning of their week, to keep time open at the beginning of the week for creative reflection on scriptures and sermon topics. Too many leaders fill the beginning of the week with purely administrative tasks, and try to save the end of the week for their creative/reflective time. Then they hit the end of the week and they are too exhausted to be creative, or they lose that time to pastoral care emergencies.

 I’ve noticed that some of the more effective pastors are stricter about scheduling creative and spiritual time slots throughout the week. Check out Matthew Phillips reflection on this over at the Duke Divinity Call and Response Blog.

Photo credit: davebushe

Are you In or Out?

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Reading Festival 2007 message board 2 by TheeGoblin.

In the past month I’ve been in three different congregations who are all grappling with some version of the following question; how do we keep track of where and when our clergy staff is working? Everyone becomes defensive when the question is raised.

Clergy staff takes offense. In the posing of the question it seems that someone is accusing staff of not working hard enough or long enough. In response, clergy often reiterate long held positions about clergy life. “This is a calling, not a job. We work ridiculously long hours most days and we are expected to be available to the congregation at all hours of the day and night. Having some flexibility in when and where we work is a minor trade-off for the personal sacrifices we make on behalf of the congregation.”

Congregational leaders and heads of staff take offense on the other end of the argument. “Clergy leaders are employees of the congregation. The congregation has a right to know when and where its employees are working. The head of staff needs to know where each staff member is at any given point in time, in order to effectively coordinate coverage of the church office, hospitals, and unexpected pastoral care emergencies. It’s a matter of good stewardship and accountability. Some people abuse the system and unfortunately that means that we have to create better methods of keeping track of everyone.”

This week one wise pastor I spoke with pointed out the generational component in this struggle. Older members of the staff team and the congregation have a different kind of psychological contract about ministry. For older generations of ministers, work happens best within the context of a church building or hospital, where people can engage one another face to face. Home life is tended primarily by a spouse with significant time at home. Personal life and church life don’t interact on a daily basis. Ministers go into ministry with a clear understanding that it’s a profession that requires a lot of personal sacrifice.

Clergy leaders under the age of 40 are usually partners in two career working families. The clergy leader has significant household and family responsibilities to tend to in addition to their daily church responsibilities. The best ministry work of the week often happens from home, where the clergy leader is uninterrupted by the busyness of the office and where technology provides a virtual office environment. These leaders believe that the congregation has a right to expect a fair days work, but the congregation doesn’t have a right to expect the whole family to sacrifice itself.

This dialogue seems to be a classic illustration of the kind of challenge that leadership guru, Ron Heifetz, refers to as an adaptive problem in his book “Leadership on the Line”.  Adaptive problems are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. They require experimentation, new discoveries and adjustments from numerous places in the congregation.

Case in point: the three congregations who have shared this dilemma with me are remarkably talented congregations who solve many technical problems on a day to day basis. If the answer to this question were easily solved through the application of some simple time keeping mechanism, they would have fixed the problem by now. Adaptive problem solving requires that we resist simple technical fixes to the problem and engage instead in reframing our dialogue, so that we can better understand the dilemma and allow creative new approaches to emerge. So, instead of asking the question, “How do we keep track of staff,” why not frame questions to invite deeper learning:

  • Is the nature of the employment relationship different for ordained clergy than it is for other salaried or hourly employees? Is so, how is it different?
  • What does an “accountable relationship” between congregation and clergy look like?
  • What do we consider a reasonable work week for our clergy staff?
  • What hours/days of the week does a congregation have a right to expect an accounting of?
  • Is the number of hours worked by clergy in the accomplishment of their work an important thing to keep track of? Why?

This is what we believe

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Censorship (Ben Heine) by Ben Heine.

Denominational systems often do the hard work of articulating theological statements for their member congregations. Any congregation that falls under the leadership of a Bishop is likely provided with a clear cut statement titled, “This is What We Believe”. We can read these belief statements and know that long labored hours went into the careful articulation of how we understand our relationship with God.  (See UMC, ELCA, PCA)

I’m working with a congregation that has adopted a new strategic priority aimed at claiming a clearer and deeper articulation of the congregation’s belief system, along with a more public proclamation of that faith identity. (They operate with a congregational polity and are part of a denominational system that invites them to work out their own theological identity.)

The leaders of this congregation are engaged in productive and healthy conversation about who has the right to “approve” the final document on behalf of the congregation.  Is this clergy work, committee work, board work, congregational work or denominational work? The senior minister clearly believes that this is his work to do and he does not want to be censored by lay leadership, but lay leadership wants a voice. Doesn’t the congregation belong to them and shouldn’t they have a say? How should this all come together? At the end of the day, who has the right to declare, “This is what we believe?”

Photo Credit: From Ben Heine at

I’ll Help (Volunteer Staff)

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Raising a hand by osungam.

Last week I met with 43 pastors and rabbis and spent 3 days focused on the challenges of staffing and supervision in congregations. It was a marvelous time of mutual learning, conversation and experience sharing.  I always walk away from these events with incredible respect for clergy leaders and the rich set of circumstances (code for challenges/messes) that clergy leaders find themselves managing on a day to day basis.

Every year as I prepare to teach this event (offered by Alban under the Label “Stepping Up to Staffing and Supervision”) I ask participants to submit real life case studies that we might work with to explore the basic elements of  supervision. Each year I expect that I have “heard it all” when it comes to dysfunctional staff team stories. And, each year I am surprised at the new manifestations of dysfunction that emerge from the collective experience of the group.

This year I was interested in the number of challenges that clergy leaders shared relating to volunteer members of their staff teams. I suppose it is a logical manifestation of the difficult financial times that we face. More and more congregations are relying upon volunteers to do work on the staff team that used to be done by paid professionals. Significant dysfunction can emerge on a team when a volunteer operates outside the boundaries of good staff team behavior, especially when a clergy leader feels that they can’t address the problem because the person is “only a volunteer”.

Here is what I want to put out there as a theory of volunteer staff management. Accountability is not dependent upon the act of giving and receiving payment. Accountability happens in mutual conversations that involve setting expectations and boundaries and offering consistent feedback. And so it follows that:

  1. The definition of  “staff team” should not be limited to “those individuals who get a pay check from the church”. The staff team are those individuals who contribute regular, scheduled hours to the work of the church; who interact significantly with other staff to bring about ministry; and who are expected to personally own the mission of the congregation on some level. By virtue of this definition, there may be some people who get paid by the congregation that are not really staff . Possible examples might include hired  nursery workers and some property/custodial help. You probably also have some unpaid workers who really are staff team members by virtue of their consistent time commitments and staff interaction patterns. Possible examples might include regular office volunteers and volunteer administrative assistants.
  2. In order for the staff team to remain healthy, volunteer staff members must be subject to the same performance management practices as paid staff members.  They should have a clear supervisor, a written job description, and a regular performance evaluation. They should participate in a meaningful way in some part of the weeklystaff meeting to maintain their alignment with other staff members.
  3. We should fire volunteers who consistently fail to meet performance expectations  in the same way we would fire  paid staff members who consistently fail to meet performance expectations.

The Shadow Side of Collaboration

Friday, November 6th, 2009

"Shadows on your side" by Quevillon.

I’m working in a congregation that has one of the most remarkably collaborative staff teams that I have encountered. Every member of the team is eager, willing and able to help every other member of the team. There are no artificial boundaries between the important spiritual work of some staff members and the more mundane administrative tasks of others. All work done in the interest of the congregation is equally valued. Everyone pitches in where needed, and no one bad mouths any other member of the team. Even in the midst of a staffing assessment, where members were interviewed one on one and guaranteed anonymity, the staff members didn’t speak negatively of one another. There are no turf wars. Sounds like nirvana, or does it?

As I spent more time with this team I began to notice several disturbing phenomenon. Staff members collectively reported spending more than a quarter of their time interfacing with one another. It takes time to be highly collaborative and this team began to realize that they are sometimes investing in relationships with one another to the detriment of their individual ministries.  It also became evident, as I watched this team, that their boundaries with one another were so porous that individual performance management was virtually non-existent. In other words, people helped one another so frequently that it had become impossible to identify and hold poor performers accountable for problems in their area of responsibility. This staff team seemed particularly exhausted to me. With no solid role boundaries in place, everyone was responsible for everything and the team ran itself ragged trying to maintain excellence in every area of ministry, not just their own.

Every area of performance strength on a staff team has a potential shadow side. Over-reliance on any performance competency generally leads to under-reliance on other needed competencies and the shadow side begins to emerge. Too much team collaboration is not necessarily a good thing.

Photo Credit: From Quevillon at