Archive for December, 2009


Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

As we approach this holiest of seasons, and as we reflect upon the meaning of a year, I’d like to Bless the Space Between Us with these words from John O’Donohue.blessings

As this year draws to its end, 

We give thanks for the gifts it brought,

And how they became inlaid within,

Where neither time nor tide can touch them.


We bless this year for all we learned, 

For all we loved and lost, 

And for the quiet way it brought us,

Nearer to our invisible destination.


Thank you for being a reader of this blog. I appreciate your attention and your participation. Blessings and Peace to you and your families. I’ll meet you back here in the New Year.

‘Tis the Season

Monday, December 21st, 2009

booksIt’s that time of year again. While all of you are scrambling to create magnificent celebrations of Hanukkah and Christmas my consulting practice slows down considerably. I have time to breath, reflect and …yes, clean out my book shelves. Several years ago I made a commitment to myself (and my spouse) that I wouldn’t add any more books to my household without eliminating others. And so, each year at this time I undergo a ritual of combing through my books, saying goodbye to some, rediscovering forgotten treasures, and making room for books I’ve yet to discover.

Recently, someone asked me to put together a reading list: my top ten recommended books for the leaders of large congregations. The annual purging process seemed like a good time to take on that challenge. So here goes; this is my top 10 list! Some of these are newer books and some are proven oldies. All of them come from the disciplines out of which I teach and consult: strategic leadership, change leadership, board development, and staff team leadership.

1.  Becoming a Strategic Leader. Richard Hughes and Katherine Colarelli Beatty, authors. San Francisco, CA. John Wiley and Sons, 2005. This is hands down the best book on Strategic Leadership that I have read. It breaks the art of strategic leadership down into strategic thinking, strategic acting and strategic influence, and provides the reader with very helpful diagnostic questionnaires to think about strategic leadership in their own organization.

 2.  Beyond Megachurch Myths. Scott Thumma & Dave Travis, authors. San Francisco, CA. Jossey Bass, 2007.  I know it’s a little risky to put this one on the list. I am NOT advocating that large mainline churches pattern themselves after the megachurch, or aspire to become megachurches. I am suggesting that we have a great deal to learn about the future of the large church in American by the important work that Thumma and Travis have done in this book.

 3.  Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards.  Richard Chait, William Ryan, Barbara Taylor, authors. Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, 2005.  The authors of this book make some very meaningful distinctions between the fiduciary, generative and strategic work of a board. I find that the material translates very well into congregational life.

 4.  Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss, author. Herndon, VA, The Alban Institute, 2009.  My colleague has written an incredibly insightful piece of work on the balance between the governance work of the board and ministry work of the staff team. Any leader who has been confused about how to promote clearer boundaries and more helpful collaboration between staff and laity needs to read this book.

 5.  Holy Clarity: The Practice of Planning and Evaluation, by Sarah Drummond, author. Herndon, VA, The Alban Institute, 2009.  The large congregation supports a proliferation of programs and the continual generation of new ideas, while seldom making the painful decision to end anything.  In this book Sarah takes an honest and hopeful approach to program evaluation. She lays out a clear theology of evaluation and a practical set of evaluative tools that the large church leader will find helpful.

 6.  Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations, Gil Rendle and Alice Mann, authors. Herndon, VA, The Alban Institute, 2003.  The book focuses on helping the congregation address three key questions: Who are we? Who is our neighbor? And what is God calling us to do or become?  The reader will develop a well rounded understanding of what strategic planning is all about, and will also have access to very practical tools for guiding strategic discernment in the congregation.

 7.  Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, authors. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2009.  Immunity to change explores how individual beliefs, along with collective mindsets in the organization combine to create a natural but powerful immunity to change, and then it teaches you key leverage points for unlocking the resistance.

 8.   Taking Your Church to the Next Level: What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Gary l. McIntosh, author. Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Books, 2009.  Gary’s newest book does a marvelous job of blending church size theory with church life cycle theory. He introduces some new terminology for understanding congregations with average worship attendance between 400-2000 and reexamines some long standing assumptions about size, growth and health.

9.  The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky, authors. Boston, MA. Harvard Business Press, 2009.  Think of this book as a practical application fieldbook that explains how to engage Heifetz’s theory of adaptive leadership on a day to day basis. You can read it cover to cover all at once, or delve into on an as needed basis.

10.  When Moses Meets Aaron: Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations, Gil Rendle & Susan Beaumont, authors. Herndon, VA, The Alban Institute, 2007.  You didn’t really think that I would create a top 10 list and not put my own book on it, did you?  Issues of staffing and supervision seem to be at the top of every large congregation’s issues list. This book is a comprehensive handbook on staffing and supervision that blends the best of corporate practice with careful theological reflection.

What good reads would you add to the list?

It’s All in the Details

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

detailsWe find ourselves in the midst of a season that holds both darkness and light in holy tension. During this season we seek to honor the paradox of a promise already delivered, a promise unfolding around us, and a promise not yet fulfilled.

 There is another tension that I often hear clergy leaders talk about at this time of the year. It is the tension between honoring the mystery and ministry of the season, and honoring the administrative detail that it takes to bring this season to fruition in the life of a congregation. That administrative challenge is especially pronounced in the world of the large congregation. Just this morning I read two blog entries from large church leaders who are trying to keep their focus on the sacred while tending to administrative overload. Susan Sytsma Bratt writes about Administration and Advent over at Fidelia’s Sisters and Jan Edmiston writes about the same topic at A Church for Starving Artists.

 Both authors suggest that the best way to get through the season is to deal with the administrative detail (or better yet to delegate it to someone else) without losing sight of the mystery. Both entries imply that there is a better body of work to be done that focuses on celebrating the sacred in the season, if you can keep the administrative detail from overtaking the mystery. I don’t disagree with their call to a balanced perspective during this most confusing of seasons. I honor the struggle. But I do disagree with their theological approach.            

 In the large congregation clergy leaders generally devote more than 40% of their time to institutional caretaking (i.e. administrative detail). A healthy approach to leadership cannot minimize or dismiss this portion of the role as somehow less worthy than the remaining part of the role, without diminishing the overall worth of the work, or the spirit of the person doing the work. We have to find ways to reconcile the sacred and the mundane, for ourselves and our congregations.

Carl Dudley, a pastor and professor who has been a longtime student of congregational life writes, “Through the lens of congregational studies, every act of administration is permeated with the motives and consequences of ministry.” Carl would not make a distinction between administration and ministry.

In All For God’s Glory: Redeeming Church Scutwork, Louis Weeks talks about how contemporary leadership of the congregation requires the exercise of creative, theological imaginations to frame administrative tasks. The church leader who plows through the administrative detail in the hopes of getting to the “real” part of ministry is inevitably diminished as a leader.

During this holiest (and busiest) of seasons, my prayer for you is that you will recognize the mystery and ministry within the details. I hope that you will find blessings in the administration itself, and that the mystery of the season will permeate every aspect of your leadership self. Peace.

Flagship Church Label

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

flagshipAs a consultant entering a congregation I’m often informed (warned, actually) that the church I’m entering has flagship status within the denomination. Denominational leaders will tell me. Congregants will tell me. The staff team tells me.  I’m never quite sure what the label is meant to convey. What are people urging me to appreciate, or to be careful about? Is it that I’m supposed to stop and recognize the exceptional abilities of the people and the place? Am I supposed to be more appreciative of the mission and ministry? Do the traditions run deeper? Or are people just warning me that this congregation will be so different from anything I’ve encountered that I need to take care not to screw it up?

Where does the flagship label come from, and is it at all useful in our lexicon of classifying congregations?

In the most traditional sense a flagship is the lead ship in a fleet of vessels. The flagship is a temporary designation that is awarded to a ship by virtue of the fact that it is the largest, fastest, newest, or most heavily armed vessel in the line up. The flagship typically carries the commanding officer of the fleet, and carries the commander’s flag. In time, the flagship metaphor has crossed over into common parlance to signify the most prominent or highly touted of a class of something.

 I have noticed a common set of characteristics (both good and bad) that show up when I’m working in a congregation that has classified itself, or been classified by others, as “one of our flagship churches”.  These congregations bear an incredible capacity for excellence. They are resource rich with highly talented staff teams. Clergy leaders from these congregations often go on to become Bishops or Executives within their middle judicatories. Flagship churches are generally regarded as pillars within their communities, offering some of the finest social justice and outreach ministries. Their board members are movers and shakers within the world of business and non-profits. Some think of themselves as resource congregations for other, smaller congregations in the area. However, few of the programs created by a flagship church are reproducible in a smaller church context. 

 In other ways the flagship label is an albatross around the neck of leadership. The perceived affluence of the church creates the impression that there are more than adequate funds to sustain the place. In fact, flagship churches often have great difficulty sustaining their operating budgets because everyone assumes that “my money isn’t really needed to keep this place afloat”.  Flagship churches tend to be prideful places, bearing a sense of arrogance about their own self-importance. Smaller congregations both admire and despise them. Flagship churches seem to have a lot to lose, in terms of prestige and reputation. Consequently, I notice that they are more resistant to change and much less flexible than other large congregations. Leaders become fearful that a failure of any sort might cause a fall from grace. Flagship churches seem to have an exceptionally difficult time processing and learning from failure.

 Bottom line: I think the term has outlived any usefulness that it may have had in helping us understand the uniqueness of our largest churches. I think it’s time to find a new label that embraces both the capacity and the responsibility of our most resource rich congregations.  Any thoughts on what a more useful label might be?

Board Oversight

Friday, December 4th, 2009

oversight Under the best of circumstances, lay leadership and staff leadership in the large church seem to have a difficult time finding a workable approach to board oversight of the staff team. Board leaders often fluctuate between being too hands off (not paying any attention to the activity of the staff team) or being overly involved (stepping into the micro-management of the staff team.)

 Here are some helpful oversight practices that I’ve seen boards employ:  

  • The creation of a personnel committee that generates good employment policies and documents those policies in an employee handbook.
  • The articulation of clear expectations about what board leadership expects in a performance management system for its staff team (i.e. job descriptions, annual performance reviews, etc.)
  • The articulation of clear expectations about what principles need to be honored in salary administration
  • Annual or semi-annual reports from the personnel committee, satisfying board members that the annual cycle of performance review has taken place, and that required salary administration guidelines have been satisfied.
  • An annual cycle of review, systematically inviting key staff members to meet with the board for mutual ministry review of functional areas. These ministry reviews are not performance evaluations of staff. They are dialogues between clergy and lay leadership about how various ministry areas are developing or performing.
  • An annual process of goal setting with the Senior Minister, and an annual performance review of the Senior Minister by some meaningful sub-body of the board.
  • Setting policy and clarifying expectations with regard to pastoral succession planning.

 Following are practices that I’ve seen that are not helpful  for board members in the large congregation:

  • The hiring/firing of any staff member other than the senior minister, unless specifically invited into a particular situation by the senior minister.
  • Preparing, reviewing or administering performance reviews for anyone other than the Senior Minister.
  • Setting individual goals for staff team members, other than the Senior Minister.
  • Meeting one on one with staff members without the Senior Minister present, in an effort to make certain that staff members are being treated well.
  • Serving as a complaint board for members of the congregation who have gripes about the staff team.

For a great resource on the coordination of staff and board leadership check out, Governance and Ministry, by Dan Hotchkiss.

Photo Credit: Lynn Pernille

A Little Humor

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

The Alban consulting table engages in pretty regular email dialogue about resources that congregations might find helpful. A round of emails flurried about these past two days regarding the topic of strategic planning,  as it relates to building and space usage. In the midst of some very serious dialogue about the topic my colleague Dan Hotchkiss forwarded this gem. I thought you might enjoy it as much as I did!

We don’t need a strategic plan