Archive for January, 2017

Raising the Lowest Common Denominator

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

We’ve all been there. Stuck on a committee, task force or board that began with great promise but fizzled into dysfunction. Brought down by one member of the team who is unwilling or unable to participate productively in the work of the group.

Sometimes, the incapable member sits quietly and isn’t disruptive. Even this is disappointing because we lose the diverse viewpoint of one who was meant to contribute.  In the more typical scenario, the problem player throws up roadblocks to the work. People eventually grow weary of dealing with troublesome behavior and settle for any outcome to end the misery.

What can we do to raise the bar so that our boards, teams and committees do not settle to the level of their lowest common denominator?

Choose More Carefully

Our recruiting practices often exacerbate the problem. We get sidetracked with filling required slots rather than choosing healthy and talented people to lead. We emphasize the values of inclusion and diversity to a fault. We let anyone with an expressed interest occupy any role. Frankly, we are desperate to find people who will serve. A warm body who volunteers gets an enthusiastic response.

Careful selection always serves us well, especially in a period of institutional decline. A few quality leaders will always produce better outcomes than a bevy of warm bodies who are not equipped to decide or lead. This is true even when we are trying to incorporate diversity and honor inclusion.

  • If your church is declining in size, reevaluate your board and committee structure to make certain that it is right-sized for today’s work. This will allow you to make more judicious leadership choices from among your available membership body.
  • Don’t extend open invitations to serve on boards and committees. When we ask for volunteers we are bound to select those who raise a hand or step forward. Those who volunteer are sometimes not the best candidates. Make the selection of leaders a careful matching of skills with the needs of the mission. Ask for those with interest to submit their names for consideration in a transparent vetting process.
  • Make emotional and spiritual maturity a selection criteria. Passions and skills come in all shapes and sizes. Not every member of the team is equally equipped for every aspect of the team’s work. Emotionally healthy individuals are self-aware. They will determine when to assert their voice and when to submit to the leadership of others. Spiritually mature leaders work hard not to let personal agendas drive decision making.

The leadership structure of the church should never become a dumping ground for those who aren’t allowed to lead elsewhere in our culture.  Our mission is too important to settle for poorly chosen leaders who are unable or unwilling to participate productively in our work.

Empower the Healthy Players

First Church formed a task force of six people to consider adding a new worship service. Five members of the team were innovative, bright thinkers, well suited to the task. The sixth member, Andrew, refused to accept the basic premise that anything needed to change in the church. He resisted each new idea before it was explored. During every meeting, he stopped action by challenging the work process of the group.

At first, each time that Andrew offered resistance the team stopped to make certain that Andrew felt heard. They carefully re-examined both task and approach to ensure Andrew’s understanding and buy-in. But Andrew never bought in.

Eventually, the innovative players on the team quit offering new ideas. In the interest of inclusion, they yielded the floor to Andrew’s diatribes. The healthy players attended meetings less frequently and in the end the recommendation that was brought back to the board sought to preserve the status quo.

There are several things a team can do to ensure that the productive voices on the team hold sway and that the dysfunctional voices don’t run roughshod over good process and open dialogue.

  • Establish behavioral expectations up front. Determine how agendas will be formed, how information will be shared, how reservations are to be expressed, and how decisions will be made. Then act in accordance with those expectations.
  • Appoint a facilitator so that it is clear who is to officiate the meeting and balance the voices in the room. Without a clear facilitator, no one feels empowered to step in and set things right.
  • Clarify outcomes and manage your work per an agenda, with time frames assigned to each part of the work. A directionless meeting is a petri dish for the proliferation of dysfunctional behavior.

Clarity of roles, process and behavioral expectations will always make room for healthy voices and curtail the interruptions of less than healthy participants.

Move Around the Obstruction

Too often, we bounce back and forth between trying to convince and then control the obstructionist. We let them stop action while we work to bring them on board. Or, we try to make them behave well and coerce them into submission. Neither of these approaches is particularly helpful.

Players who are unwilling or unable to engage productively won’t be cajoled into better behavior. And it often takes too much energy and leadership capital to remove a volunteer from the team and deal with the aftermath of that choice.

There is a third way. Oftentimes, you can move around the problem player. When it becomes clear that a participant is obstructing, simply acknowledge their reservation but declare the group’s intent to move forward.

In the example above, the team could listen to Andrew’s reservations the first few times to make certain that they understood any legitimate concerns. However, once it became clear that Andrew was obstructing progress, any team member could simply say, “Andrew we have heard your concern, but right now we are going to focus our conversation on _______.” Then the team needs to ignore the problem behavior. Most of the time behavior will stop if it is acknowledged and then ignored.

Innovation and quality group work is core to the survival of the Church. We cannot afford to let recalcitrant or troubling behavior by one team member drag down the whole. Careful attention to our recruiting practices, establishing healthy behavioral norms, and simple conversational techniques for moving around obstructions can help any group work more productively.


What Can We Expect, When We Pay So Little?

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

© ‘Stopping On A Dime’| Flickr | JD Hancock 2009

Healthy employment relationships require accountability. Accountability involves setting clear expectations, providing ongoing feedback, and inviting employees to step it up if performance falls short of expectations. This fundamental cycle of communication seems easy enough to grasp, in theory. In practice, many of us demonstrate a failure of nerve when it comes to holding church employees accountable. We grapple with whether we can expect much from our employees, especially when we pay them so little.

This is not an article about fairness or justice in our compensation practices, although we certainly ought to be striving for equitable pay practices and a livable wage. This is an article about the role that money plays in employee motivation and performance accountability. Many assume that money is a required component in creating accountability. We expect to use money as a reward or to take it away as a form of punishment. In fact, money has little to do with performance accountability.  Here are four reasons why:

  • The mission of the congregation is worthy.
  • Employment relationships are utilitarian in nature. 
  • Money is not the most important motivator.
  • Good employees value mutual accountability.

These factors mean that churches can hold their employees to a high standard of accountability—higher, even, than employers that pay more for comparable work. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

The mission of the congregation is worthy.

A congregation’s mission is important in the lives of its employees, congregants, and community. If this is not true for your congregation, then you have bigger problems than accountable employment relationships. If we have clarity about our mission, and clarity about the contribution that each employee makes to our mission, then we should never be embarrassed to invite accountability. It should be a privilege to work in service to the mission.

The average congregation in the United States devotes 49% of its annual operating budget to payroll related expenses. For most of us, this is the single largest line item in our operating budget. Our payroll dollars are the primary resource available to us for the pursuit of mission. We cannot afford to waste the precious resources of the congregation on employment relationships that don’t work. Good stewardship demands accountable employment relationships.


Employment relationships are utilitarian.

Both the employee and the employer must experience usefulness in the employment relationship. If they don’t, the partnership doesn’t work long term. The employer offers a combination of things the employee values: pay, benefits, the opportunity to do something meaningful, the opportunity to work towards the greater good, and the opportunity to grow and advance. In return, the employee offers something the employer values: time, talent, passion, energy and loyalty. Money is only one of many factors that provide utility. So long as the employer and employee value what is offered and accepted, there is utility and a meaningful union. When utility is lost, either because we no longer offer something that the employee values, or because the employee no longer provides what is needed, then something must be renegotiated or employment should end.

If an employee accepts the initial terms of engagement, then the supervisor can assume that there is enough utility to sustain an ongoing relationship. From that point forward, accountability is critical for maintaining utility. Expectations should be continually updated and communicated. Feedback needs to be regular and consistent. The employee needs to be willing and able to close the gap when performance expectations are not met. The employer needs to be willing and able to provide opportunity for growth.

Some congregations are experiencing declining budgets. We are reducing the size of our staff teams or we are asking people to forego pay increases.  We owe it to our employees and the congregation to be forthcoming about the changing utility in employment. We cannot simply ask people to do more with less. Nor should we accept lower levels of performance in exchange for lower levels of pay. We should have frank and honest conversations about the mission and ministry we can support with the payroll dollars available. The utilitarian nature of the partnership needs to be transparent to all.

Money is not the most important motivator.

Research shows that money does not motivate in employment situations, except when the tasks of the job are purely mechanical. Contrary to longstanding organizational beliefs, linking pay to performance has negligible impact on motivation, and in some instances, reduces motivation.

The lack of an adequate salary may keep a person from accepting a job, and it may cause enough dissatisfaction for an employee to leave a job, particularly when he feels unfairly treated. However, if the employee finds her level of pay basically satisfactory, money does not lead to higher levels of motivation.

Rather, motivation is produced by managing the more intrinsic side of the employment situation: greater autonomy, the mastery of an important skill, the ability to work in service to a larger good, etc. We strengthen these intrinsic motivators through accountability conversations, by gaining clarity about what is expected, offered and received.

Good employees value mutual accountability.

Over the years, the Gallup Organization has interviewed more than one million employees of various organizations about what they value in their work. Searching for patterns across organizations, Gallup identified key factors that provide strength in employment relationships. The most important factors include: a clear set of expectations, ongoing recognition for a job well done, a supervisor that cares, regular encouragement, feedback about needed improvement, and opportunities to learn and grow.

These elements of a good working relationship are also the elements of an accountable working relationship. Good employees value clarity of expectations and ongoing feedback about their effectiveness. They long to be given the chance to step up their performance, to learn, to grow and to contribute in meaningful ways. You may not be able to pay your employees at the top of the pay scale, but when you create an accountable environment, all involved in the mission of the congregation grow and thrive.

Many of you are beginning a new budget year. In the next weeks, you will be finalizing salary levels for 2017. These are important decisions that impact perceptions of fairness and equity among your employees. Bear in mind that the salary conversations are important, but they are not the same thing as accountability conversations. Accountability happens all year round and it has little to do with how much you pay.