Archive for August, 2010

Am I Good Enough?

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Can I supervise someone more gifted or more knowledgeable than I? This question came to me in the form of a potential case study submitted by a participant in my upcoming 3 day workshop on staffing and supervision.

Many a supervisor has failed at the act of supervision by convincing himself that he is not qualified to supervise someone more gifted or talented that he. The question itself reveals a flawed assumption about the task of supervision. Supervision is not primarily about teaching or training someone to do their job more effectively. Often we do provide some training along the way, but that’s not the primary task of supervision.

Supervision is about setting performance expectations, and providing feedback about an employee’s performance against those expectations.  Supervision is about aligning the performance expectations of the collective staff team so that the team takes the congregation someplace meaningful with its collective efforts. We do this by creating clear expectations about what each role entails and by setting annual performance goals.  Then we provide ongoing feedback about how someone is doing in the role and an annual review of performance progress.

As a supervisor it is NOT your responsibility to teach employees how to perform better in their roles. It’s the employee’s responsibility to figure out how to become more effective in the role. Your role is to make certain that you’ve clearly communicated your expectations and your impressions about how they are doing compared to your expectations.  Your job is to support and encourage their growth, not to take responsibility for the growth.  You can provide these elements of supervision even if the person is more gifted or skilled than you are in a particular area of ministry.

The biggest area where I see pastors fail in this regard is in the supervisory oversight of musical professionals. We convince ourselves (and some or our musical staff enjoy contributing to our downfall in this area) that we couldn’t possibly supervise a minister of music or an organist because we don’t know as much as they do about music. You really don’t need to know much at all about music to provide effective supervision to a musical professional. Your role is to establish performance expectations with regard to how the music department is run and to establish clear expectations about worship leadership outcomes. Most heads of staff are infinitely qualified to set performance expectations in these areas.

A good supervisor of a gifted staff team member does not let herself become intimidated by the employee that she supervises. An effective supervisor affirms the giftedness of the employee, nurtures the development of those gifts, and makes it absolutely clear how those gifts are to be deployed in service to the larger mission of the congregation.

Photo Credit: Pouch Designs

Handling the End Run

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

The phone rang late on Friday afternoon. I answered to the voice of an exhausted coaching client who needed help thinking through a “personnel issue”. He warned me that the situation would require some explaining and then launched into a ten minute description of a series of entanglements that involved the head of staff, a youth minister, the business administrator, an executive associate minister (who supervised the youth minister), and a much respected key lay leader. The story ended with an irritated head of staff that had been drawn into a situation that should not have involved him, a disempowered executive minister who was being accused of not managing his direct reports, a confused business administrator who had never been consulted on an area that was key to his role, and an angry lay leader who felt that his contribution to church life wasn’t being appreciated. Did you notice who was left off of the confused outcomes list?  Yep, the youth minister…who seemed to stand at the middle of the confusion, without having experienced any of the bad side effects of his own poor decision making.  That was my first clue that the scenario being described to me was a classic staff end run.  A major player in the scenario was pursuing decision making through unauthorized channels of decision making and his choices were creating mayhem in everyone else’s area of ministry.

An end run on the staff team occurs when one member of the team seeks to avoid a difficult situation, or seeks to build a personal power base, by circumventing normal decision making and/or supervisory channels. Sometimes it’s done intentionally and manipulatively and sometimes it’s done in ignorance, but it always ends in multiple players on and off the staff team feeling confused, disempowered and angry. The particular scenario that was described over the phone had all kinds of unique twists and spins in plot, but the basic story line is as old as dirt. A member of the staff team chose to take his case to a member of the congregation, instead of handling the issue within the staff team where it belonged.  The lay leader and staff member formed a power base that left the business administrator and supervisor out of decision making. Ultimately, the consequences of the scenario ended up looping back around into the lap of the head of staff, who had to figure out how to respond without undermining the authority of the employee’s supervisor.

What’s a supervisor to do when their employee pulls an end run and undermines their authority?  What’s the head of staff to do in an effort to restore balance?

The first step is a preventative one. Every staff team should have a behavioral covenant about this kind of behavior. There should be a clear statement about keeping decision making inside authorized decision making channels.  Furthermore, the head of staff should lead his or her staff team in dialogue about where the boundaries lie. A team can practice by imagining case study scenarios that illustrate the subtle distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate decision making influence.  

Once the incident has already occurred, the employee needs to be confronted about his behavior. And, he needs to be confronted by his supervisor. The supervisor needs to describe the inappropriate behavior(s) in very concrete terms. Stay away from broad labels and statements of judgment like, “You weren’t being a good team play”. Those statements aren’t particularly helpful. Be very specific about the behaviors.  For example,

  • A decision about a fundraising initiative was made without consulting your supervisor or the church business administrator.
  • A lay leader was encouraged to go directly to the head of staff with his complaints, without engaging other members of the staff team who were more appropriately equipped to have the conversation.
  • Pieces of conversation that took place within a staff meeting were inappropriately shared with a member of the congregation.

Once the problem behavior is described, go on to describe what a more appropriate behavior would have been. If this behavior is occurring for the first time, then a simple conversation between the employee and the supervisor is probably enough. You may want to ramp up your response if this is recurring behavior, or if the employee refuses to acknowledge their own actions.  The head of staff may want to sit in on the meeting between the employee and the supervisor to communicate his support for the supervisor through his presence. If the head of staff is in the room it’s still important that the supervisor remain “in charge” of the disciplinary session with the employee. The head of staff should never engage in disciplinary behavior on behalf of a supervisor. In effect, this reinforces the end run behavior that you are trying to eliminate. If the employee knows that his manipulative behavior can trigger a response from the head of staff he may continue to undermine his supervisor’s authority.

Failed Strategy Execution

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

I’m frequently asked to consult with strategic planning teams as they formulate their process for self study and strategy formation.  In my first meeting with church planners some version of this question inevitably surfaces. “What assurances can you give us that we will actually execute the strategy that we claim during this self study period?”  Following the question is typically a long recital of the congregation’s past failures in executing strategy. Congregations are pretty good at having conversations about planning. They are not as good at executing the strategies that they plan. Why is that?

Strategy formation is one thing. Strategy execution is another. Here’s my “top seven” list explaining why large congregations fail at strategy execution.

  1. Claiming too many strategic priorities.  Look over your congregation’s latest strategic plan. How many initiatives does the plan include? If it’s more than 2-3, it’s too many! Many large congregations create plans that cover the full distance between their present reality and the church that they hope to be when the full reign of God arrives on earth. In five short years they aim to close the gap between their present reality and a vision of their best selves. When leadership claims too many strategic priorities they may as well decide not to do any of them. Too many claimed priorities allow every leader (staff and lay) to pursue whatever they feel most passionate about in the moment, all under the guise of having fulfilled the strategic plan. The congregation loses focus when this happens. 
  2. Not learning to say NO. This reason for failure is closely linked to the first. Once a leadership team has identified their priorities they need to learn to say NO to good ideas that just aren’t in alignment with the claimed direction. This is really hard for large congregations to do. Good ideas and the capacity to bring them to fruition abound.  We want to honor the spontaneity of what may be a Holy Spirit moment. We want to embrace a vision of empowered lay leadership. The challenge is to create a planning process that honors the movement of the Holy Spirit in the plan itself, and honors the passions of the laity in the formation of the plan. If we engage an effective planning process we can feel more comfortable with our “No” because there is a more urgent “Yes” within the plan.
  3. Housing the ownership of the plan someplace other than the governing board.  The governing body of the church is the only body that can effectively own and oversee the plan. A committee of the board can’t really do it on the board’s behalf, because the committee doesn’t have the decision making authority of the full board. The board engages in decision making that takes the congregation away from its strategic focus because they are not as fully immersed in the plan as the committee is. The staff team can’t do it. It’s the job of the staff team to operationalize/manage the plan, but not to provide oversight. The senior clergy leader must have firm ownership of the plan but her role doesn’t have the scope of leadership authority to keep the entire congregation focused. This task belongs to the board. 
  4. Absence of articulated goals, strategies and metrics. Many congregations, as they formulate their strategic plans, pay a great deal of attention to defining the identity of the congregation in the form of a mission statement, vision statement, core values and strategic priorities. They pay lesser attention to translating that strategy into operational goals that can be observed, evaluated and measured in some meaningful way. If the plan hasn’t been “operationalized” it’s likely to fail. The plan needs to be detailed enough so that all of leadership has a shared understanding of “what we will look like if we have executed our strategy effectively.” 
  5. Failing to incorporate the strategic priorities into the performance goals of staff members.  Each member of the staff team should have perfect clarity about what their role is in the execution of the strategic plan in any given year. The collective performance goals of the staff team, if accomplished, should significantly advance the plan.  Staff members should not be allowed to set their own performance goals without consideration of the strategic priorities of the congregation. 
  6. Failure to sunset programs that no longer fulfill the congregation’s mission.  I’ve never engaged a planning process in a large congregation that didn’t surface a need/desire for more programming.  Large congregations love programming and they are always convinced that the way to be more effective in engaging their mission is to offer more/better programs.  Staff teams in large congregations are dying for want of some good program pruning. There is an outer limit to how many programs any given congregation can support with resources and/or participants.  Leaders need to develop a discipline for deciding which programs will end in service to emergent programs that better serve the missional identity of the congregation. 
  7. Failure to allocate resources in accordance with the plan.  In addition to carefully focusing the resource capacity of the staff team, leaders also need to focus the capacity of operating budgets, building usage and administrative support. The day to day decision making that is driven by an operating budget, the allocation of admin staff, and the scheduled use of the building should reflect the strategic priorities identified in the plan. If there isn’t alignment at this level, the plan is likely to fail.

Photo Credit: Greg See at

Measuring Size and Complexity

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Life changed in unexpected ways when my husband and I had our third child. Becoming first time parents had been jarring. We expected life as we knew it to disappear upon the arrival of that first child, and although we were stressed by the transition we were more or less prepared for the turmoil. The arrival of the second child was almost a non-event. He fit easily into the lifestyle that we had established after the arrival of the first and life was humming along pretty smoothly within six weeks of his arrival. The same could not be said with the arrival of the third.

I suppose I expected some kind of economy of scale in raising children. The second child had been so easy to fold in alongside the first that I expected the arrival of the third to feel even easier. I was not prepared for the adaptations that I had to make with his arrival. Our third had a very mild mannered temperament, so it wasn’t that he was a difficult baby. It was just that having three children under the age of six required life style adaptations that snuck up on me unexpectedly.

Life with three was just more complex on many levels. The vehicle that we drove wasn’t big enough to hold three in the back seat, so we needed to switch over to a mini-van.  Much of the baby equipment that we had purchased or received with number one (swings, strollers etc.) were only designed to last for two children, and so they needed to be replaced.  When my husband and I took the kids out as a family unit we were very aware that the children now outnumbered the adults. The kids seemed to realize this as well, and they took full advantage of it. When I took them out alone it became painfully obvious that I had only two hands and there were three of them. Their naps never lined up at the same time, and so finding a time when everyone was awake to go places become difficult. Finding time when they were all three asleep so that I could get things done was equally a challenge. For a while, I felt like a prisoner in my own home until I adapted new processes for coping with the additional complexity of the third child’s arrival.

This deep sense of disorientation is typical of the kind of unrest a congregation experiences when it bumps into the outer threshold limits of its leadership systems. Everything seems to be sailing along smoothly and then suddenly, and rather arbitrarily, it all starts taking too much energy to sustain.  There is loss of momentum, a loss of energy, loss of efficiency and loss of focus.  The difficulty in hitting transition zones in the life of the church is that the cause of the disorientation is not immediately evident. It’s not as clear as saying, “Well, we’ve just added a third child into the mix.”

Understanding the capacity limits of congregational systems is not simply an exercise in numbers. For decades now Alban has used the average number of people in weekend worship attendance (adults and children) as an indicator of the real size of a congregation. We’ve long understood that membership numbers are pretty meaningless indicators of size, because of how loosely membership rolls are managed. Most congregations do some level of attendance tracking on weekends and so those numbers are available. Furthermore, the average number of people who show up to participate in the worship life of the congregation is a pretty good indicator of the size of the active congregation, the part of the congregation that is likely to place demands on the leadership systems of the church. So, average weekend attendance is a good starting place to benchmark the size of the congregation, but many other factors also need to be taken into consideration.

Increasingly, I’m discovering that attendance numbers don’t fully reflect the organizational complexity of large congregations, and may not be the best indicator of church size.  Other factors include:

  • The size of the operating budget. Budget size shapes staffing capacity. The larger the staff team, the more programming that the congregation can sustain. More programming produces greater complexity.  Congregations that are able to support higher operating budgets (either because they are located in areas of affluence, they have endowment funds, or they have unusually generous congregants) will demonstrate the organizational attributes of a much larger congregation than their attendance suggests.
  • Mid-week Ministries.  Increasingly, large congregations are offering mid-week ministry opportunities. Congregants who find that they are too busy on weekends to attend worship may participate actively in the life of the congregation mid-week. Their participation in mid week programming places demands on the leadership systems of the church but isn’t reflected in average worship attendance.
  • Building size and function. Large congregations generally operate complex campuses or physical plants. When these buildings are actively used throughout the week the stress on the operating systems of the congregation is increased.  Staff members must tend to the needs of the building and the needs of the people using the building. This adds to the complexity of managing the congregation without a commensurate increase in the size of the worshipping community.
  • Affluence and second homes. Congregations that are located in affluent communities often discover that they have lower weekend attendance patterns than their less affluent counterparts. Affluent families often own vacation homes, or have the means to get away on weekends, which takes them away from the worshiping life of the congregation. Although these people think of themselves as active participants in the life of the congregation, and although these people place demands on the leadership structure of the church through their participation, they don’t show up in worship attendance figures.
  • Affiliated non-profits. Many large congregations operate 501(c)3 organizations in the form of pre-schools, day schools, social service organizations, family life centers etc.  These organizations operate with their own budgets and governance structures, but their attachment to the large congregations increases the complexity of managing the church itself. Again, none of this complexity shows up in a weekend worship attendance number.

So, what is the correct way to measure the size of a congregation? I don’t have an easy answer. Weekend worship attendance is only a starting place, and for many congregations it is the definitive measure. However, when any of the above extenuating circumstances are present I believe that you need to let the leadership systems themselves tell you what size category the congregation is actually functioning as.  What type of leadership style and focus is the senior pastor using, and does it seem to be working? How the staff team is organized; are there multiple reporting layers and sub-teams within the larger staff team?   Where is the board’s focus? Based upon the leadership behavioral patterns of the church you can begin to articulate what size congregation the congregation really is, and from there you can figure out if all of the leadership systems of the congregation are in alignment.

I’m curious. What factors do you consider when you evaluate the real size of your congregation?

Reluctant Leadership

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

This past week I led a leadership retreat for a group of denominational executive leaders. We used the theme of narratives to explore the shape of leadership they are providing in this difficult chapter of Church life. I loved hearing them share their stories of call and vocation. On the opening night of the retreat many of them shared the stories of how they were drawn to their current positions of leadership. I was struck by the number of stories that were presented under the genre of “reluctant leadership”. As I listened I became aware of how often I heard some version of this story. “I didn’t really want this job, but apparently God wanted me to do it, because the job just kept coming after me.”

As I was discerning my own call into ministry I remember my family pastor telling me, “If you can do anything else in life and be content with it, do the other thing. Ministry is only something that you go into, if you can’t not do it.”  He was cautioning me that ministry is hard work, and often unrewarding; something that you only do if God pursues you relentlessly, like the Hound of Heaven. That’s how you know if you are really called.

Since that night of storytelling with the executive leaders, I’ve been thinking more and more about this particular kind of storyline. I hear it a lot in my work, and I’m trying to figure out why so many church leaders are drawn towards telling their stories from the humble, reluctant leader perspective. I suppose it’s entirely possible that the “reluctant leader” is the primary person that God does target to lead God’s church. But, I’m suspicious. Certainly we have the biblical examples of reluctant leaders we can reference. Moses resisted his calling several times before God simply told him to get over it. Most of the disciples were humble fisherman before being called out to become ministers. Still I wonder. There are other strong biblical leadership stories to draw from. What about Nehemiah? Here’s a leader with a strong dream and no visible system of support for getting it done. Nehemiah had to undertake incredible initiatives to claim the vision that God had given him, to get people to come on board with his plan. He was not a reluctant leader. He was a strong leader with a heart, mind and passion for his work. Paul was passionate and persistent about his work, both before and after God’s call on his life.

Why are so many of us drawn towards the image of the humble &reluctant leader, and not drawn to the image of the inspired, impassioned leader with a dream?  I’m aware that my own vocational story can be told from either perspective, and I most often choose to relay it through the lens of humble reluctance.  Does this say something about me as an individual, about our culture, or about the times that we find ourselves in?

Here’s the bottom line. If I am a humble, reluctant leader then the primary means by which people will measure my ministry is through my faithfulness. They will admire the fact that I gave up an easier path in my determination to be faithful to God’s call on my life. They won’t really expect much from me, other than my faithfulness. On the other hand, if I tell my story through the lens of the gifted and called, passionate leader with a vision for something more for the Church and the determination to pursue that call, then I had better be prepared to deliver something substantive. It’s a lot safer to be reluctant and humble in our leadership narratives, than it is to be bold, passionate and persistent.

Would it make a difference, in this chapter of church life, if we reexamined our vocational stories and more carefully told the part of the story that focused on our pursuit and passion for ministry?  Might we energize our congregations in some different ways? I wonder.

Personnel Committee

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

The personnel committee has the potential to be one of the most helpful or most dysfunctional committees at work in the life of the congregation. The personnel committee serves the governing board of the church in an advisory capacity on issues related to personnel administration. It does not exist to manage the interface between staff and congregation (that is the work of the board) and it does not exist to provide managerial or leadership oversight to the staff team (that is the work of the senior pastor).

Responsibilities to Embrace

An effective personnel committee recommends policy on human resource (HR) management to the governing board. The board adopts or amends the recommended policies as it sees fit. A personnel committee should recommend policies and expectations related to:  the creation of job descriptions, performance feedback practices (including the annual performance review), salary administration practices, benefits, professional development, leave and sabbatical taking, equal employment opportunity, professional misconduct, conflicts of interest, record keeping and any other misc employment policies needed to comply with applicable state employment law.

Once policy has been adopted, it is the role of the personnel committee to satisfy the board that the church is in compliance with established policies. This is where many personnel committees get themselves in trouble, by over-investing in the governance responsibilities of the board or the managerial responsibilities of the head of staff. The specific level of involvement to insure policy compliance will vary depending upon the size of the congregation. When the staff team is large enough to include an HR Director, the personnel committee limits its oversight role to a cursory review of job descriptions, performance evaluation forms and salary recommendations, in a manner that insures compliance with stated policies and outcomes.

In smaller congregations the personnel committee may be invited, by the senior pastor, to more actively assist in the performance management process by: helping to write job descriptions, conducting salary surveys with outside organizations, advising on difficult personnel matters, and sitting in on disciplinary conversations with employees. It’s critical to bear in mind that a committee who has been invited to engage in these HR activities does so at the discretion and invitation of the senior pastor or head of staff. The committee should never presume to initiate these activities of their own accord, as doing so would threaten to undermine the senior pastor’s authority as head of staff.

In some traditions, the personnel committee may also be asked to participate in the annual performance review of the senior pastor. It’s important for the governing board to maintain overall responsibility for the performance evaluation of the head of staff, and the alignment of head of staff’s goals with congregational goals. The personnel committee may serve as a conduit in orchestrating the data gathering or in hosting the conversation, but should never take on overall responsibility for the evaluation itself.

Pitfalls to Avoid:

Neither the board nor the personnel committee should ever be responsible for the performance evaluation or goal setting of employees below the senior pastor level. The governing board is responsible for the performance evaluation and goal setting of the senior pastor. The senior pastor is responsible for the performance evaluation and goal setting of his or her direct reports, and all other supervisors are responsible for the performance evaluation and goal setting of their direct reports.

Personnel committees who imagine that they exist to advocate for the best interests of the staff, or protect the best interests of the congregation, often find themselves embroiled in hotbeds of triangulation (gossip). Personnel committees should only make themselves available to receive reports of potential employment policy violations. Any complaints about staff team performance need to be lodged directly with the employee in question or their direct supervisor. People who want to complain about the leadership of the senior pastor should be redirected back to the senior pastor to express their complaint. The only exception to this rule is a complaint that involves a potential professional misconduct issue. An established process for reviewing the ministry of the senior pastor will eliminate the need for congregants to use the personnel committee as a random complaint board.

Personnel committees should avoid the practice of meeting one on one with employees just to check in and see how things are going. These practices tend to undermine supervisory relationships on the staff team, by inviting employees to vent their displeasure with their supervisor. Most of the input received in such meetings is not appropriate fodder for the personnel committee, but must be resolved through the supervisory relationship.

Photo Credit: Bladewood at