Archive for March, 2011


The Village Elders

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

All congregations are faced with decisions that can be made by a small leadership body (the governing board, the staff team, a committee) and decisions that must be taken on by the collective body. In the small to medium sized congregation, when full congregational decision making is required, a church-wide meeting is scheduled and a significant percentage of total membership shows up.  In the large congregation, leaders are continually frustrated by the small percentage of members that turn out for a “y’all come” meeting. It’s not unusual for a congregation with membership exceeding 2000 to have only 120 people show up for a congregational meeting where important decisions are being made.  Why is this? I believe that the answer has something to do with group threshold limits, and the number of people who identify themselves as the “village elders” at any point in time. Let me explain.

The full leadership body of the church is a self identified group of leaders who feel “responsible” for the overall well being of the congregation.  This typically includes members of the staff team and board members. It also includes an inner ring of leaders who are not currently serving in either of those capacities, but still feel a strong sense of leadership responsibility for the church. This group informally functions as the “village elder” body, keeping a watchful eye on the direction of the congregation.  It’s not an officially appointed body, and membership seems to self adjust over time. However, the size of the group always remains rather constant; somewhere between 75-150 people.  This seems to hold true regardless of the size of the total membership body.

Why doesn’t the informal leadership group ever grow larger than this number, even in the very large congregation?  Humans are known to have a cognitive upper limit to the average number of individuals with whom they can form cohesive personal relationships. That limit, known as Dunbar’s Number, is around 150 people.  Having enough memory space to remember people’s names and faces is not enough to manage 150 relationships. It is about integrating and managing information about the constantly changing relationships between individuals within a group.  When a group grows larger than 150 people, members of the group lose their ability to track relationships, and the group loses its capacity to function well as a community.

I would argue that in the large congregation the leadership body is always subconsciously reforming itself around the Dunbar limit. The leadership body must be able to think of itself in some cogent way as members of a single community. This requires that people know one another well enough to communicate around important congregational issues.  In response to this natural group dynamic, leaders are continually stepping into the informal village elder group and removing themselves from the village elder group, based on life circumstances.

In a medium sized congregation, if 150 people show up for a congregational gathering it represents a significant percentage of the membership body. In the large church it may represent less than 10% of membership.  The small percentage may be interpreted as a sign of apathy, but it’s really just the village elder system organizing itself to fulfill an important leadership role on behalf of the congregation.

How does this compare to your lived experience?

Photo Credit:  The Earth Tribe

Large Church, Small Board

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

I’ve heard this question recently from several of you.

Q:  I’ve always heard that the governing board of a congregation should grow smaller as the church becomes larger. Why is that? Is there an ideal size?

 A:  Effective boards in every size congregation must tend to three types of work: fiduciary (tending to the stewardship of tangible assets), strategic (working to set the congregation’s priorities and seeing that resources are being deployed in accordance with those priorities) and generative (problem framing and sense making about the shifting environment of the congregation). See Chait, Ryan and Taylor,  “ Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards for more about these definitions.

In the large congregation many of the fiduciary responsibilities of the board are better delegated to others. The board can never abdicate its responsibility for fiduciary oversight, but it can rely on board committees and the staff team to do much of the fiduciary work on its behalf. As congregations grow larger governing boards must increasingly focus their time on the strategic and generative work of the congregation, if the congregation is going to thrive. This type of work is best accomplished by smaller decision making bodies, with specific skill sets in strategic leadership.

The board of the multi-celled congregation (200-400 in weekend worship attendance) is often consumed by fiduciary work. The staff team is not yet large enough to assume the full managerial responsibilities of the church, and lay leadership is still actively involved in the management of ministry. Governing bodies in this size congregation are often representational in nature, consisting of the people who are doers and managers of the ministry alongside the staff team. Much of the monthly board meeting is wrapped up in planning for and reporting on ministry management. This board often needs to make special provisions for strategic planning work, outside of the context of their monthly meetings.

The governing board in the Professional sized congregation (400-800 in weekend worship attendance) is intuitively drawn towards a more balanced focus between fiduciary and strategic work. The largest struggle of the board is figuring out how to be more strategic and generative on a regular basis. The staff team is becoming highly specialized and is better able than the board to tend to operational management. The board must avoid micro-managing the staff.  Congregations in this size category feel the need to reduce the size of the board in order to move away from reporting out/operational management and into more strategic and generative work.

Healthy congregations in the Strategic size category (800-1,200 in weekend worship attendance) have generally learned some things about delegating the fiduciary work of the board, in service to more time spent on strategic and generative work. The governing body in this congregation has typically been downsized to create a more nimble decision making body. The voice of the staff team is represented by the senior clergy leader and the executive pastor. Other professional staff members attend board meetings only when invited, to evaluate or reflect upon a particular aspect of ministry that rests within the staff member’s sphere of influence. 

What size is the right size?  A group trying to engage in effective strategic decision making faces two key challenges. The first is the management of communication. The second is decision making accuracy.  Generally having more people in a group will increase the likelihood that someone will have the information needed to make the decision and someone will propose a correct choice or solution. However, more people produce more opinions that have to be communicated and discussed. This makes the management of communication process more difficult, which ultimately ends up reducing decision making effectiveness.

The difficulty of managing communication within a small group is roughly proportional to the number of possible social interactions within the group. With two people there is only one possible social interaction.  With three people there are three possible two-person interactions and one three way interaction for a total of four possible interactions. The number of possible social interactions begins to explode in groups with more than five people. 

Most of us cannot imagine reducing our governing bodies down to 5 individuals, but the closer we can get to that number, the more effective our problem solving will be.  Larger groups require skillful leadership and formal structures in order to function effectively. Formal structures, such as parliamentary procedures, work by deliberately stifling many of the possible social interactions.  Unfortunately, this can also stifle creativity which is critical for strategic and generative work, and it also insures that most decision making will be dominated by the most politically influential individuals in the room, whether or not they have the best ideas.

Executive Assistance

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Many of the senior clergy leaders I encounter are overburdened with administrative detail that they can’t figure out how to delegate. The common battle cry is, “It’s just easier to do it myself.” Many administrative assistants report having excess time on their hands, but they can’t get their clergy leaders to give them more meaningful work to do. What’s going on here? I suspect that many clergy leaders can’t figure out how to effectively work with an executive assistant (EA) because no one has ever taught them how to do so. When I encounter a high functioning clergy/admin team I often ask them what the key is to their good working relationship. More often than not, the clergy leader tells me that the executive assistant trained him in how to work effectively with an assistant. Let’s face it. This is not one of the skill sets that we learn in seminary.  And it’s not necessarily intuitive.

The good EA often knows how to diplomatically wrestle work away from the senior clergy leader that could more effectively be done by the EA. A good assistant is fierce, but appropriate, in guarding access to the senior clergy leader. A good working relationship between the senior clergy leader and her executive assistant saves the clergy leader valuable time. But the relationship can be so much more than that.

The effective EA functions as an extension of the senior clergy leader.  People will often regard a conversation with the EA as a point of contact with the pastor. Good EA’s provide an invaluable pastoral care function, listening compassionately and making careful decisions about who needs to see the senior clergy leader and who can be directed elsewhere.  Through the use of basic listening skills the EA often communicates the presence of the pastor, without the pastor actually having to be present.  A good EA is invaluable at triaging situations and figuring out when to intercept someone who is simply looking for help and doesn’t know where to find it. People learn to respect the fact that a message delivered to the EA is as good as a message delivered to the pastor (maybe even more reliable!)

Here are some of practices that seem to contribute to an effective working relationship between clergy and their executive assistants:

  • Be absolutely clear about the lines of responsibility and authority. What responsibilities can the EA assume without needing any involvement from you? In what situations do you need to be consulted before a decision is made? In what situations can the EA make a decision and simply inform you after the fact?
  • Meet daily to review your calendar, review your to do lists, establish priorities and communicate around deadlines. Make your wishes clear about how you would like him to handle situations anticipated on that day.
  • Have your assistant attend all staff meetings so that she understands key issues, workflow and the expected timing of things.
  • Give your assistant authority to process your inbox and your email inbox.  Your assistant should be able to go through your physical and your email inbox to cull out the garbage, identify and process the routine stuff and forward only those things that need your personal attention.
  • Train your assistant to handle all routine correspondence. An assistant armed with the knowledge of your policies, your preferences, your style and a few good templates can handle routine items. You can maintain control, if needed, by personally signing everything before it goes out.
  • Listen to your assistant. A high functioning assistant will often have a better feel for the pulse of the congregation than you do. He will know who needs attention, a personal contact, or how to best approach a potential conflict scenario.

Think of your executive assistant as a manager, not as clerical support.  The EA in the large congregation is a powerful position with lots of decision making authority. Your EA should function as an invaluable member of your team.

Photo Credit: kogakure