Archive for February, 2014


Metrics vs. Evidence

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

“When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get [measurable] results with.”-Parker Palmer (on Effectiveness vs. Faithfulness)

I worked this week with a group of 75 United Methodist leaders in Kansas. At one point our conversation turned towards goal setting, and particularly to the importance of naming outcomes and metrics. I argued that we must name what we are seeking to do or become, and we must name appropriate metrics to evaluate our progress. Otherwise, we won’t see much change or the right kind of change.

This has always been a tricky conversation to have with clergy leaders, but it is an especially hot button topic these days. So many congregations are experiencing numerical plateaus, or they are in free fall around membership, attendance and giving patterns. Denominational leaders (or congregants) are demanding measurable growth goals in response, and many congregational leaders feel powerless to meet what feel like artificial and misplaced expectations.

The response from clergy leaders is advocacy for other forms of growth that they see as more important than numerical growth. These leaders posture that we ought to be more concerned with goals around faith formation, biblical knowledge, deepening spiritual practices, fostering faith sharing and growing social justice awareness. These agendas, they argue, are not necessarily measurable and they may not result in church growth, but they are more indicative of congregational vitality.

I am rather suspicious about both sides of the debate. I agree that healthy congregations are generally growing congregations, by some measurable objective. Many who appear to resist metrics strike me as change resistant and fearful of accountability. On the other hand, I am among the first to argue that attendance and budgets are not our best indicators of congregational health and vitality. They are much too limited in scope and don’t take into account the cultural shifts we are seeing around how people participate in the life of their congregations. So, where are we to go with this debate?

This week a wise leader in our midst told us that he and his congregation have dropped the language of metrics from their vocabulary all together. Instead, they are investing themselves in naming the evidence that will indicate success in their change efforts. They are working to describe the observable behaviors that will signal success in their “softer” growth initiatives. They are not fearful of accountability, they embrace it, but they are committed to talking about and measuring evidence that matters to their mission.

This week I also ran across a video of Parker Palmer discussing the difference between effectiveness and faithfulness. It seems to be circulating the web in honor of his 75th birthday. Palmer says, “When we become utterly obsessed with outcomes and results, we keep taking on smaller and smaller tasks, because they are the only ones we can get results with.”

We are living in a chapter of Church history that requires bold and audacious leadership. We can’t afford to waste our energy on small and insignificant work that is constrained by a misplaced interest in measuring the wrong results.

Watch the video and then weigh in on this question: How would a shift away from measuring effectiveness, and a shift towards measuring faithfulness, change the current conversation around congregational metrics?

Don’t Worry. Be Happy.

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

“People are not going to be happy about this,” is the most frequent utterance I hear from congregational leaders preparing to introduce change. What I detect beneath their expressed concern is a deeper worry that people won’t “like me”, if I’m seen as the one imposing this change.

dont worry be happyOur worries about being “liked” point to an unstated assumption we hold about leadership. We believe that a fundamental responsibility of an authority figure is to keep congregants “happy”. Ronald Heifetz, Kennedy School of Government, teaches that organizations select people for leadership roles on the basis of their demonstrated ability to define and solve problems, protect the membership from external threats, restore order and maintain organizational norms. All of this is code language for keeping people safe and happy. We reward our leaders when they do these happy-producing tasks on our behalf.

Unfortunately, these are not behaviors that facilitate adaptation. Adaptive work requires authority figures that are willing to expose the membership body to external threats, so that the organization learns from its environment. Adaptive leaders surface and engage conflict, challenge norms and disorient the membership body, so that people adapt their behavior. Truly adaptive leaders will, at some point, fail to keep their congregants happy. They will fail to meet the expectations of safe leadership that got them appointed in the first place. This is dangerous work, the kind of work that sometimes gets people thrown out of churches.

Effective leaders move their congregations into what Heifetz calls, the productive zone of disequilibrium. This is a zone where people feel uncomfortable enough to examine assumptions, learn from their environment and make needed changes. The disequilibrium is carefully tended so that it does not overwhelm. The losses associated with change come at a pace that people can accommodate. The zone is a meaningful place for the congregation to be, but it is not necessarily a happy place. People are uncomfortable in the zone of disequilibrium.

It is becoming increasingly evident to me that keeping people happy and content has become the default mission of our congregations, contributing to our adaptive inability. Why do authority figures value being liked, over and above being effective? Well, being liked is easier.

Why aren’t we more concerned with whether or not our congregations are presenting people with the opportunity to meaningfully engage the Gospel, over and above being happy? A meaningful life that embraces and spreads the Gospel is different from a happy one.

A study in the Journal of Positive Psychology sought to differentiate the concepts of “meaning” and “happiness” by surveying roughly 400 Americans. It found considerable overlap between the two—but also some key distinctions.

• Feeling good, and having one’s needs met, is integral to happiness but unrelated to meaning.
• Happy people dwell in the present moment, not the past or future. Meaningfulness involves linking past, present, and future.
• People derive meaning, but not necessarily happiness, from helping others. People derive happiness, but not necessarily meaning, from being served.
• Social connections are important to both meaning and happiness, but the type of connection matters. Spending time with friends is important to happiness but not meaning. Spending time with loved ones is more important to meaningfulness.

But we already know these things, or we should. The elements of meaningfulness are core principles reinforced in the Gospel message that we proclaim and hold so dear. Ah, if only we led our congregations, as if we actually believed our own message.

What Can We Expect? (Accountability)

Friday, February 14th, 2014

“We are an organization based on volunteerism, what can you expect? We don’t have money to pay or reward our employees fairly, what can you expect? We are covenantal communities, and as such we are meant to extend grace and mercy to our members and staff, so what can you really expect?”

accountability1In the world of congregations we offer an infinite number of reasons as to why we can’t foster accountability among our employees and volunteers. Most of those reasons don’t stand up under scrutiny, particularly once you understand what accountability really involves.

What is accountability?
Accountability is part of a three-legged stool that must stand in balance to achieve effective organizational performance. The three legged stool includes authority, responsibility and accountability. You can’t achieve one without the equal support of the other two.

Authority is the legitimate right to act in a given situation. We say that someone has authority when they have been vested with the right to make a decision, allocate resources, or assign responsibilities on behalf of the whole.

A staff member or volunteer acting on behalf of the congregation gains authority in a variety of ways. Perhaps they have a job or ministry description that defines the boundaries of their role, and their right to act in a variety of circumstances. Perhaps the head of staff or governing board have publicly stated that the individual has been asked to decide or act on behalf of the whole. Or, a written policy statement might describe who is authorized to act or to decide in a variety of different circumstances. Unless clear authority has been assigned we ultimately cannot create accountability. You cannot hold someone accountable for something over which they have no authority to act.

Responsibility is the duty to perform the task. Some “one” must complete the tasks or action steps associated with the activity undertaken. That someone is the person with responsibility. Responsibility can be assigned or delegated from one person to another, but not without first establishing the authority to act, and not without also setting up the feedback loop of accountability.

Accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. Accountability only works if we have first appropriately assigned both authority and responsibility. We create accountability when an appropriately authorized individual is charged with the responsibility to perform a given act, and then is also affirmed for successfully performing that action, or held liable for their failure to effectively perform the action.

Intentional conversation is the best way to invite accountability.
At its core, accountability is reinforced through intentional conversation. Conversation is the most powerful tool available to us for creating an account-giving culture. Authority is assigned through conversation. The responsibility to act is also established through conversation. The conversation may be verbal or written, but in either case, someone speaks a word and the authority is assigned, a word is spoken and the expectation is established.

Similarly, accountability is nothing more mysterious that an intentional conversation. We set the table for a feedback conversation. We reiterate what the expectations were, along with our feedback on whether the person has met our expectations, failed to meet our expectations, or exceeded our expectations. We offer the appropriate praise, or extend an invitation to close the gap between what we observed and what we expected. That’s it-accountability in a nutshell!

Accountability doesn’t require the presence of external rewards or monetary systems in order to work. Most healthy individuals have a desire to meet expectations around performance. They need to have a clear understanding of what is actually expected. They need clear authority to act. They require feedback that validates their efforts and helps them to see where they may have fallen short, or feedback that affirms that they have met or exceeded expectations.

What about grace?
Congregations are covenant communities. We often mistakenly believe that this means that people should be let off the hook for errors and omissions of performance. I believe that this reflects a weak understanding of both covenant and grace.

We cannot be authentic covenant communities unless we are also accountable communities. All of the biblical examples of covenant that we draw from involve elements of accountability. When covenant is broken or violated, God delivers or asks for an accounting. The original expectation is reiterated. The standard is reasserted. Grace (undeserved mercy) is extended after the accounting. Grace doesn’t negate the need for accountability. It provides the clean slate from which new action can be taken to begin again.

Free to Discern

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

“This is a congregation, not a business.” All too often, right after making this claim, leaders go on to conduct a committee or board meeting exactly as if the church were a business. Oh yes, someone begins by offering up a three minute devotion, followed by a prayer, but then it is business as usual.

group discernmentWe form an agenda. Within the agenda are a variety of problems to be solved, or decisions to be made. In each instance, we frame a problem statement or decision query, name the underlying issues, propose a solution, argue the pros and cons, deal with the outliers, call for a vote, record the outcome and move on. This is decision making.

Increasingly as I work with groups in decision making I ask them what their discernment practices include. I’m usually met with a “deer in the headlights” response to that question. Our leaders have only vague notions of what the differences between decision making and discernment include, and they have no idea how to actually invite discernment in a group context.

Thomas H Green S.J. says, “Many people today express well-grounded misgivings about community discernment, and even feel uncomfortable with the word, ‘discernment.’ It can easily be a polite and pious name for a ‘tyranny of the majority,’ a way of attaching the Lord’s name and authority to what most of the group want, or believe he [sic] must want. If this happens, then, as we have seen, ‘discernment’ becomes a way of manipulating God to agree with our convictions concerning action and decision making.”

Where do we begin to identify the difference between group decision making and authentic communal discernment? We begin with the basic stance of freedom, unknowing, or indifference that underlies group discernment. Group decision making typically involves a cadre of leaders who are each invested in particular outcomes, who come together to iron out and resolve their attachments and differences, to advance the good of the whole. In contrast, authentic communal discernment requires sincere and committed prayers who are unencumbered by preconceived notions and outcomes. To move from deciding to discerning, we must free ourselves from inordinate attachments. We must assume an indifference to anything but the will of God as discovered and named collectively by the group; setting aside matters of ego, politics, personal opinion, and vested interests.

So, how do we invite leaders to adopt a stance of unknowing? We invite them, of course, to attend to their personal prayer lives and to build their personal discernment muscles. But beyond this we must help groups with their organizational detachment process.

Of late, I have been working with some concepts from Otto Scharmer (Theory U.) Scharmer identifies three internal leadership voices that often stand in the way of authentic listening in organizational life. He calls these the Voice of Judgment, the Voice of Fear, and the Voice of Cynicism.

The Voice of Judgment blocks the gate to an open mind. It is the voice inside your head that passes judgment on the people and events surrounding the discussion at hand. When we entertain the voice of judgment we protect ourselves from ideas and thought patterns that might be oppositional to our own point of view. The judgment voice may sound something like this: “This leader doesn’t have any expertise in this subject area, why should I trust her with this important decision?”

The Voice of Cynicism blocks the gate to an open heart. This voice is engaged in the emotional act of distancing. It prevents you from becoming too vulnerable. It sounds something like this: “Nothing will change, we make decisions all of the time that never get implemented. This time will be no different.”

Finally, the Voice of Fear blocks the gate to an open will. It seeks to prevent you from letting go of what you have and who you are. It seeks to protect you from insecurity, from being ostracized, from dying to yourself. It sounds something like this, “Others here are protecting their own best interest. If I don’t look out for my own interests, my area of ministry is likely to get the short end of the stick in the budgeting process.”

I have been experimenting with a journaling process that invites members into prayerful silence, followed by writing from the perspective of each of the three voices. We begin by framing the dialogue topic. Then I invite each participant to adopt the voice of judgment with regard to the topic and to write only from that voice for a period of 5 minutes. We take a momentary rest and then repeat the exercise assuming the voices of cynicism and fear. When the writing exercise is complete I lead the group through a guided meditation, inviting the Divine to help quiet each of the voices. We follow this with a period of silence.

I find that the group has deepened its spiritual maturity having completed this exercise. They are more prayerfully present, and more likely to engage in discernment.