Archive for March, 2014

Will You Be Joining Us?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

(On the need to separate assimilation and membership)

Once upon a time, people understood that the way to assimilate into the life of a congregation was to join that congregation. The typical indoctrination process began when newcomers attended the Sunday morning worship service and registered their presence on a pew pad. The act of registration triggered a series of welcome communications from the congregation, and perhaps a visit from a church or staff member. Within several months of the first visit, the newcomer was invited to attend a “newcomer” class, which connected them with staff and church programs. The class almost always resulted in an invitation (actually, an expectation) to join the church. Upon joining, the newcomer was paraded in front of the congregation. It was a well-orchestrated process that helped the newcomer become known to the congregation. Being known was instrumental to being connected, and being connected was instrumental to being accepted and ultimately assimilated.Join Us Button purple

We know at a cognitive level that once upon a time is long gone. We understand that many of the newcomers who explore our congregations are suspicious of membership, but they do want to belong in community. More specifically they want to feel that WE belong to them. They are not interested in being assimilated and becoming just like us; but they are interested in acculturating. (They want to belong to a community that will change itself to receive them, as much as they will adapt themselves for that community.) People want to be known and accepted, but they don’t see what any of that has to do with membership.

We say that we understand these things, but our behavior suggests otherwise. Our behavior towards newcomers is very much about assimilation, not acculturation. Our behavior towards newcomers is still deeply rooted in unstated assumptions about membership, and still deeply tied to our membership processes. How does a person who is not interested in membership get acculturated into the life of your congregation?

Let me offer myself as a case study. In the last year I began attending a new congregation. I believe that my experience of assimilation into the life of this congregation is pretty typical of what many people experience in our traditions.

I attended my new congregation for a period of three months before deciding that I really wanted to invest myself in the life of these people and this community of faith. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here, becoming a member was not appropriate for me. But, I very much wanted to belong.

So I kept up my semi-regular attendance and I met with the pastor, declaring my intention to be a part of the community. He assured me that I could participate fully in the things I wanted to do without becoming a member, and that membership wouldn’t really matter to people. I signed up to have an official nametag made so that I looked like I fit in. Over time I attended all of the available worship services; volunteered to help with housing the homeless; made several tentative visits to a Sunday school class that didn’t fit me well; stood awkwardly in the fellowship area after church hoping that someone (anyone) would talk to me; and generally hung around the edges of the congregation. Two rounds of newcomer classes came and went, but they were clearly linked into the membership process, so I didn’t sign up.

Each week attendance pads were passed around in worship, inviting me to register my presence. The form prompted me to check off whether I was a visitor or a member (no other option). After the first three months it seemed silly to keep checking off visitor, so I just left that section plank. The act of completing the form each week, and leaving that section blank, is a constant reminder that I’m not one of them.

During worship we greet one another during the passing of the peace. During this ritual people often approached me with, “Where have you come from?” After trying to answer that question in a variety of ways, none of which seemed to satisfy the asker, I came to understand that they wanted me to tell them what church I had previously been a member of. People sometimes asked me if I planned to join the church, and their eyes quickly glazed over when I tried to explain why I wouldn’t be joining (TMI… we didn’t really want to know, we were just making small talk and wanted you to know that we have a usual process for how this all works). I never saw or received a church directory, nor did I receive the electronic newsletter, or information about the church budget, or an invitation to participate in the financial stewardship of the congregation. Several congregational meetings were held for “membership” business. I didn’t feel welcomed and didn’t attend.

At the end of my first year I hadn’t formed a single meaningful relationship with anyone in the congregation. It was frustrating, and it was becoming painful to attend worship. I thought hard about moving on, but decided that the church really was a good fit for me and that I needed to try harder.

So, I finally bit the bullet. I signed up for the newcomer class, announcing my intent to stop just short of the act of joining. I realized that my assimilation was going to depend upon getting to know more of the staff and church leaders who could help me connect, and I knew that meeting other newcomers would introduce me to people who had not yet formed solid relationships in the church and might be open to friendship. And I was right! After three sessions of the newcomer class I met enough people that I actually began to feel a little more known, and a little more at home. I was starting to feel connected. But my progress didn’t come without additional awkward moments, of needing to explain why I wasn’t joining the congregation.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to berate my new congregation. I love this place. My assimilation would have been warm and wonderful if only I could have/would have embraced membership. And I suspect many of your congregations would have offered me the same experience. Our cultures of assimilation are deeply embedded with assumptions of membership.

So, what does that mean for all of the people sitting in our pews that cannot or will not invest in membership? It means that they are regularly sidelined and reminded that they are not really one of us. It means that many of them leave us before we ever get to know them, because it is just too hard to find their way in. I know that this is not what we intend. It’s time to wake up and be more intentional about our behaviors and processes.

We have a lot of adaptive work to do in this area!

Farewell Alban

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

PrintToday the Alban Institute officially announced plans for a significant restructuring.The consulting and education programs of Alban are being discontinued as of March 31, 2014. The publishing imprint has been sold to Rowman and Littlefield. You can read the official announcement on the Alban website.

I have been working as a Senior Consultant of the Alban Institute for nine years. At the end of this month, that relationship comes to an end. I am grateful, optimistic and sad during this remarkable season.

Let me begin with gratitude. The Alban Institute has provided me with a significant home base from which to build a consulting, coaching and teaching practice. Alban helped me find my voice as a writer and become a published author. The reputation of the organization has attracted an ongoing stream of interesting and challenging conversation partners, colleagues, clients and dear friends. I have been sharpened and formed in remarkable ways through my affiliation with the Alban Institute.

I am optimistic. I have been anticipating this transition for some time. Last year I transitioned from being an employee of Alban to functioning as an independent contractor. I formed my own L.L.C. and have been operating under the name, Susan Beaumont & Associates, for over a year now. My consulting and speaking year is fully booked for 2014 (although I am still accepting some new coaching clients) and I am currently booking engagements for 2015. I have more incoming requests for work than I can accommodate. Every day I feel blessed to be doing the work that I do, and to work with the congregations and clergy leaders that I have the good fortune to serve. I am confident that my practice will carry on, and unfold in new and exciting ways.

I will continue to engage in consulting, coaching, and spiritual direction relationships; and I will continue to design and facilitate education events, and retreats. I plan to maintain active relationships with other former Alban colleagues, and I look forward to forming new working relationships, with yet undiscovered partners. My books, “When Moses Meets Aaron” and “Inside the Large Congregation” continue to be available through Amazon, other major booksellers, and directly through Rowman and Littlefield. E-book versions are not currently available, but I am told they will be available again soon. I will continue this blog and I will begin a monthly e-newsletter within the next several months.

Finally, I am sad. The Alban Institute has been an important presence on the American religious landscape for forty years. Congregational leaders have looked to Alban as a beacon of hope and good practical wisdom in trying times. The books, the education events and the consultations have strengthened many congregations and shored up countless clergy leaders over the years. I have loved being part of this story, and I am sad that the Alban name will no longer serve as a unifying banner over a community of practice.

In the midst of the business and busyness of transition, I want to pause and register appreciation for each of you that continue to follow my work and support me in this ministry. I am strengthened by your encouragement, challenged by your partnership, and emboldened by your faith.

Thank you!

Could I Pick YOU Out of a Leadership Lineup?

Friday, March 14th, 2014

Warning: This blog post makes blatant use of leadership gender stereotypes. Read at your own risk!

I have led several recent conferences, involving clusters of congregations coming together to explore leadership in large congregations. In these settings there are typically ten to fifteen congregations represented. Each congregation brings a table full of staff leaders.

I often engage in a mind game at these gatherings. (Oh dear, now I’m letting you into my own twisted mindset.) I like to see if I can guess the identity of the “head of staff” at each table, by the first work break of the day. I don’t allow myself to look at name tags or titles. I simply watch the behavior of the table, to see if I can identify the person who has been put in charge.046-wholeader-abc

This is what I’m paying attention to. I’m observing, from afar, the power dynamics at work in the room. Who is deferring to whom? Who seems to draw and command attention? Who seems to be taking the lead in framing conversations and directing workflow? It is not just about who is doing the most talking. It is more about personal presence.

Here is my troubling observation. I have about a 90% accuracy rate with picking out the head of staff at the table, when the head of staff is male. I almost always nail it within the first hour of the conference. My accuracy rate when the head of staff is female is much, much lower. Probably only about 25%! I generally pick out some other person at the table as the authority figure. I’m often surprised later to learn the identity of the real head of staff.

So, what’s going on here, ladies? Is it me; is it you…or something else at work in the room? Am I just terrible at identifying effective female leadership? I hope not. I make my living at developing leaders. I regularly advocate on behalf of female leadership. But, perhaps I have an unidentified prejudice against female leadership styles, one that prevents me from appreciating feminine behavioral patterns? If so, I’m willing to be called out on this.

Here is what I see happening when it is easy to pick out the head of staff. The leader projects a quiet, but certain sense of being in control. She is visibly invested in the conversation of others, making full eye contact, and encouraging full participation through her body language. When he intervenes in the flow of conversation, it is generally to redirect or reframe the conversation, to correct a piece of misinformation that has entered into the dialogue, to offer a perspective that is not being represented in the discussion, or to invite the participation of a silent member. It is leadership behavior that is quite evident from an outside perspective. It is an active set of behaviors.

What am I seeing at the tables where it is not easy to identify the “head of staff”? I believe what I am seeing is a mistaken attempt at collaborative leadership. From an observer perspective, it looks a lot like passivity. And the designated authority figure is often female. I see a meeker, less assuming presence; a reticence about stepping in too quickly, a willingness to let things play out without intervention and course correction. While the assigned authority figure passively waits for collaboration to emerge of its own accord, there is usually some vocal member of the table sucking up all of the airspace, with less than helpful leadership behaviors.

Truly collaborative leaders actively work to build a deep influence reservoir, a solid power base. They use all of the granted and assigned authority available to them. They direct the flow of information, decision making and resource allocation. They hone their personal expertise to deepen the reservoir even further. They cultivate referent power, building a charismatic presence. And then, they use this considerable influence reservoir to create and nurture a culture of collaboration. They dedicate their power base to serve the common good of the congregation. Collaborative leadership requires a very active presence in the organization. It is not at all passive.

Many women have come to see stereotypical male leadership as arrogant. We see it as demanding, authoritarian and self-serving. We are convinced there are better ways to lead. However, let us be careful that while avoiding an authoritarian leadership style, we don’t abdicate the personal power needed to cultivate collaboration. A disempowered leader cannot invite collaboration. We are only free to build a culture of collaboration after we have demonstrated the artful and integrity-filled use of power. We are only free to delegate and share power with others, once we have proven ourselves trustworthy with the use of power.

And now you know, the next time we are in a room together I’ll be watching for an active female presence. Let’s step it up and demonstrate that we can master the artful use of power, without abandoning or compromising our collaborative spirits.

The Leader and the Vision

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Part of my Lenten discipline this year is a study of the Rule of Benedict. I am seeking to integrate the teachings of this 6th century communal rule book with my understanding of leadership in present day congregational life. Sr. Joan Chittister at Monastery of the Heart is my guide on this Lenten journey.

Here is the marvelous nugget from today’s reflection on Chapter 3 (Summoning the Community for Counsel).

“The Abbott (leader) does not need to know the truth,
but the abbott (leader) needs to be able to recognize the truth,
and enable the community to speak its truth
and foster the integration of truth.”

I think this is the essence of spiritual leadership in all faith communities! I’m going to be reflecting on this one for a long time.

Equipping Board Leaders with Behavioral Expectations

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

How does your congregation prepare new board members for their role? Many congregations offer board member orientation, but often the training has more to do with denominational polity and congregational policy, and less to do with the interpersonal demands of the role. And yet, the thing that most frequently trips up the new board leader is a lack of awareness about behavioral boundaries. What are some of the behavioral expectations we should create for our board leaders?equipping_line_managers_to_communicate

First, a board leader needs to understand a fundamental principle of board leadership: Once on the board, you are always a leader. Whether you are sitting in a board meeting, or whether you are worshiping, in fellowship with others, working on a service project, or just hanging out; you are a board leader. You are a model, and you must act accordingly. Furthermore, when you cease to be an active member of the board you will still be seen as a leader of the congregation, and your behavior will forevermore need to exhibit who the congregation is, when it is at its best.

So, what does this actually mean? It means that:

You are always thinking, acting, deciding and influencing on behalf of the collective whole. You do not represent the best interest of any special groups (e.g. choir, women’s group, senior adults etc.) You may have been selected for board leadership because of your capacity to represent a specific kind of viewpoint in the board meeting, but from the moment that you are elected or appointed, your decision making and communication habits must advance the well-being of the whole.

You should seek to model all of the behaviors that the church or synagogue values in membership. Your presence matters. Your prayer life and spiritual disciplines matter. Your stewardship habits matter. Your attendance and participation in worship and church or synagogue programs matter. Your involvement with the community inside the congregation matters, as does your involvement in the community outside the walls of the church or synagogue. You can’t simply engage your giftedness in strategic thinking, fiduciary leadership, or governance, and ignore the other aspects of good membership.

You must learn to speak your truth in board meetings, and then represent board thinking outside of board meetings. When the board is in dialogue about an agenda item, it is important that you actively engage that dialogue; registering all of your concerns, reservations, passion and viewpoints openly with the whole group. The board will do its best work when all members bring the fullness of their viewpoints to the work. You cannot hold back in the meeting in the interest of maintaining the peace, or hurrying along an agenda item, and then complain later that you disagree with a decision that was made. Furthermore, once a decision is made, you must represent that decision outside the room as your own, even if you personally disagree with the outcome.

Board decision making happens in full meetings of the board. We may think about and discuss issues outside of the board meeting, but all decision making happens when we are together as a full board; not in the parking lot, or in hallways, via email, or within sub-groups of the whole.

You must learn to handle complaints from the congregation with integrity. Congregants love to register their complaints with board members. They assume that it is your job to maintain congregational happiness, and to resovle any feelings of discontent that they may feel. They will particularly enjoy trying to engage you in complaints about staff members and other congregational leaders. It is NOT your job to receive these complaints. Therefore, you need a strategy for responding to complaints. Consider this three-staged process.

1. When someone approaches you with a complaint it is always best to respond, “Have you spoken directly with _________ about your concern? If not, I’d encourage you to do so.” (Note that this option does not apply to situations involving abuse or serious boundary violation. We are talking here about run of the mill complaints.)

2. If the person registering the complaint indicates that they are not comfortable going directly to the person with whom they have a complaint, you may take it to the next level by saying, “May I go with you to help you have the conversation with ________?” And then of course, you need to follow up by scheduling and facilitating the conversation.

3. If the person is not comfortable with this second option, you have two choices. The most logical choice is for you to indicate that there is nothing further that you can do with the complaint, and therefore you are not comfortable continuing any further with the conversation. (And then DO remove yourself from the conversation.)

Or, if you believe that the complaint is serious and should be addressed, and you believe that the person offering the complaint is well-intentioned, and has good reason for not wanting to go directly to the person, you’ve got one final option. You can volunteer to carry the complaint to the person in question, with permission to attach the complainer’s name to the message. Going with the name attached is important. We never pass along anonymous feedback. It is not helpful to anyone to be approached with a complaint with the lead-in, “people are saying…” If the complainer is not willing to have their name attached to the feedback, then the conversation is over! There is nothing further that you can do with the complaint.

What other behavioral norms would you add to this basic list of expectations for board leaders?