Archive for January, 2011


Waiting for Staff to Retire

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I often find myself in conversations like this one with a senior pastor.

Pastor: “I need help thinking about the configuration of my staff team. I’m currently trying to work around 2 key positions that aren’t appropriately staffed right now. There isn’t much I can do in the moment because I’m waiting for these 2 people to retire, but I want to be ready to do the right thing once these two individuals do decide to retire.”

Me: “How are you engaging the dialogue with these two individuals around their retirement decision?”

Pastor: “I’m not. I’m waiting for them to decide what they are going to do.”

The problem with the “wait and see” approach to the retirement of others is that it places the overall effectiveness of the staff team in the hands of a few individuals. In most of the situations that pastors bring to me for discussion, the individual that is deciding the fate of the staff team through their retirement decision is not performing effectively.  The head of staff stands by and does nothing out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, or out of a fear of creating division or risking a law suit. It seems easier to wait it out than it does to engage in conversations that have the potential to go very badly.

I believe that the most effective way to stay engaged with employees around their retirement decision is to be absolutely clear with them about role expectations. We shouldn’t freeze the expectations around a role to match what the person used to do when they were first hired, or to match what the individual is capable of doing now. We should be absolutely clear with all of our employees about what their current role requires of them, and we should provide clear feedback about how they are performing against those expectations.  This applies to all employees; those who have just begun their careers as well as those that are approaching retirement. Regular conversations about how the role is evolving, what skill sets they are expected to demonstrate, and ongoing feedback about how the employee is performing in the role, will provide the employee with the accurate information needed to make a good retirement decision.

What often happens in place of honest feedback is that the role is gradually diminished over time to accommodate the level of work that the employee seems willing and able to engage effectively. As the role is diminished, others around the employee work extra hard to pick up the slack and overcompensate for the underperforming person.  This isn’t fair for anyone, including the employee who is approaching retirement.

The decision about when to retire should be up to the individual, but only if the employee is effectively engaging the role. If an employee is no longer interested or able to meet the changing needs of the congregation, it is time to get honest. Most people are not interested in staying on in an employment situation once they realize that they have become a burden to the system. We can celebrate years of fruitful ministry and still be honest about what is required in the here and now.

Photo Credit: jimbeauphoto

The Invisible Family

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Recently, after speaking to a group of pastors about clergy roles in the large church, I was approached by a senior minister who said, “I’m surprised that you didn’t talk about the unique family dynamics that occur for clergy leaders of very large congregations, you know … the invisibility factor.”  I stood there looking rather dumbstruck for a few moments because frankly, I didn’t know what he was referring to. 

The senior pastor went on to talk about how differently the stress of family life manifests itself in the large church. As he talked I began to recognize the phenomenon that he was describing. I had encountered the issue before in other congregations with other clergy leaders; I just hadn’t heard it referred to under the label of invisibility. I immediately recognized the phenomenon as something real and profound for clergy families in large congregations.

In the small to mid-sized church the pastor and his or her family learn to live in a fishbowl. Everything that the pastor’s spouse and children do is subject to the intense scrutiny of the congregation, which places incredible pressure upon the family system. Most clergy families become oriented to life in the ministry through this fish bowl kind of environment. It becomes a way of life. They are accustomed to being known and watched by everyone in the congregation. The pastor’s spouse learns to view himself or herself as a partner in the ministry and is often treated as the “first spouse” of the church family. Many clergy spouses in the small to mid-sized church are viewed as equal ministry partners alongside their ordained spouse. They function as unpaid clergy leaders. For better or worse, they tend to be vocationally identified with their spouse’s role. Some clergy spouses thrive in the fishbowl and others wilt under the scrutiny and the expectations.

Clergy family life in the large church is a different kind of experience.  In the very large church the pastor’s family assumes a cloak of invisibility. The senior clergy leader who occupies the pulpit in the large church is a persona; everyone knows or feels like they know the preacher. It’s difficult for the primary preacher in the large church to go out in public places without being recognized. He/she is always on display; being watched from a close distance by those who occupy the pews on Sunday morning.

At the same time, the preacher’s family is having a very different kind of experience.  Few people recognize or know the family of the senior clergy leader, unless they appear at the side of the clergy leader. For many clergy families, being able to step out of the fishbowl is a welcome relief. Life feels a little more normal without the close scrutiny that comes from being known as the pastor’s significant others.  In other families, the loss of identity can be devastating. If a clergy spouse has vocationally identified with the role of clergy spouse, the loss of identity can result in the loss of validation. Suddenly, the clergy spouse is not the significant other when attending church functions. The clergy leader may be sharing their experience of church life more intensely and directly with other clergy leaders on the staff team, and not with the spouse at home. The spouse begins to feel unimportant to the ministry and left out. It seems like the ministry has become centered around “the pastor” and not at all about the family.  I’ve even heard some leaders talk about the confusion (and hurt) that takes place within a marriage when newcomers to a congregation assume that the male senior clergy leader is married to the female associate clergy leader, simply because they occupy a shared vocational space.

The fishbowl dilemma and the invisibility dilemma represent polar anchors on the same continuum of clergy family life. Each end of the continuum hosts its own set of problems. What kinds of adaptations have you and your family had to make as clergy leaders in a large church context? Which part of the continuum feels most comfortable to you, to your spouse, and to your children?

Photo Credit: T_Squared

Role of the Executive Team

Friday, January 7th, 2011

An ideal sized governing board in the large congregation is 5-7 individuals. A group of this size can effectively engage strategic decision making. Many congregations simply cannot imagine reducing the size of their governing board to 5-7 individuals. Either the operating culture or the congregation’s polity system do not support a streamlined decision making group. Congregation members may be too distrustful of the small board, believing that it couldn’t possibly represent the best interest of an entire congregation. In these congregations an executive team is often formed within the board structure, to facilitate more effective decision making and to help the board maintain a focus that is more strategic and generative in scope.

The executive team may consist of the senior clergy leader, the executive clergy (if such a role exists), the board chair, the treasurer (or other financial office) and one or two other central board figures. Executive teams may meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, depending upon the work that they do on behalf of the congregation. Executive teams can promote good governance when they focus their time in the following ways:

Triage: One of the primary ways that an executive team can promote good governance is by triaging the various topics that are slated to come before a board. The team looks over all of the slated board issues and determines which topics can be effectively delegated to other decision making bodies in the congregation. By keeping an overabundance of fiduciary items off of the agenda the executive team can help the board stay more strategically and generatively focused.

Framing: Once the ET has determined that an issue does belong on the board’s agenda they can work to frame the issue in a way that will encourage strategic and generative conversations about the topic. They can determine which part of a conversation belongs to the board, and then they can frame the topic in such a way that the board’s time is well used in service to the decisions which must be made. Similarly, the ET may entertain some dialogue around important topics before bringing the issue to the board so that only those elements of the topic that are relevant to the board’s decision making are brought to the board. In other words, the ET strains out irrelevant or misleading data so that the board conversation stays more focused on the truly critical issues at hand.

Decision-Making: Some congregation’s delegate specific types of decision making to the ET. The most common decision making that occurs within an Executive Team is the time-sensitive issue that must be acted upon in between regularly scheduled board meetings. When the ET makes a decision on behalf of the board it is critical that full disclosure of those decisions be communicated back to board members in a timely manner.

• Deciding what to place in the “consent” agenda: A consent agenda, sometimes called a consent “calendar,” is a component of a meeting agenda that enables the board to group routine items and resolutions under one umbrella. As the name implies, there is a general agreement ahead of time by a board on the use of the procedure. Issues that are packaged together in a consent agenda are distributed to board members ahead of their regularly scheduled meeting for preview purposes. At the meeting, items in the consent agenda do not warrant any discussion before a vote. Unless a board member feels that an item should be discussed and requests the removal of that item ahead of time, the entire package is voted on at once without any additional explanations or comments. Because no questions or comments on these items are allowed during the meeting, this procedure saves time. Those items removed from the consent agenda by a member of the board can be discussed more fully before being acted upon. The Executive team can pre-sort the issues up for inclusion in a board meeting and determine which items can effectively be included within the consent agenda.

Large congregations that make effective use of an Executive Team often find that over time the board needs to meet less frequently. As the ET becomes more effective at triaging, framing and decision making on behalf of the board, board members come to accept and expect strong leadership from the ET. Board members appreciate the need to meet less frequently and appreciate that when they do meet they are engaged in more productive conversations that truly benefit the life of the congregation. Some congregations, after working effectively with an Executive Team over time, come to realize that the ET has become the governing board and that the larger governing body is actually an advisory group to the ET. Once this awareness takes hold, the congregation may be ready to reduce the size of their board to 5-7 individuals and eliminate the Executive Team.

Photo Credit: Zebra Huddle

Too Few Women

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

In this video Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, talks about why such a small percentage of women make it to the top of their professions.  I believe that the lessons she shares are applicable to, and prophetic for the world of congregations.

The pulpit in the large congregation, for better or worse, represents the top of the vocational ladder for clergy leaders.  We can argue that serving a large congregaton shouldn’t automatically be the ultimate vocational target for clergy leaders, but in many ways it is. And I think that we’d all agree that there are too few women leading our largest congregations.

I am regularly asked to speak at gatherings of senior clergy leaders from large congregations. There are still remarkably few women in the room. I’ve also noticed that the women who are present are seldom as vocal as their male counterparts. Sandberg challenges us to sit at the table and keep our hands up, a metaphorical way of referring to a need for stronger female leadership presence.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing that Sandberg talks about are the studies that have been done on the relationship between success and likeability in leadership. There is a strong positive correlation between success and likeability for men. Unfortunately, success and likeability are negatively correlated for women in our culture. This is particularly discouraging for the future of female leaders at the senior clergy level. How is a woman supposed to endear herself as the beloved pastoral leader of a large congregation, and still be considered a successful organizational leader? If we have to choose between projecting a likeable image or a competent image, we lose as candidates for the large church. The effective large church leader must be perceived as both likeable and successful.

Is this a lost cause? What have you learned about projecting an image that is both likeable and successful?

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