Five Things to Consider Before Inviting Visitors into the Boardroom

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Inclusion, transparency and trust are important values for many congregations. To promote these values, congregations often adopt open board meetings. Members who do not serve on the governing board are welcome to attend the board’s meetings. They may or may not be allowed to weigh in with their opinions. Are open board meetings a good idea? Under what circumstances?

A variety of options exist for opening the board meeting to visitor participation. It is important to note that in each of the following scenarios only elected board members are permitted to vote.

Some congregations open the entire board meeting to visitors but ask the observers to watch and listen in silence. Occasional closed door sessions are held, where all visitors are asked to leave the room so that more confidential agenda items can be discussed.

Other congregations open a portion of the meeting to hear from any non-board member on any topic. Then the meeting is closed and visitors are asked to leave the room.

Still others invite only those outsiders with insights pertinent to a planned agenda item. These visitors typically arrive at the beginning of the meeting and stay through their scheduled discussion topic. Once the pertinent agenda item is finished the visitor is expected to leave.

What is the impact of having outsiders in the boardroom? There are at least five factors to consider before deciding to open or close your board meetings.

 

The Size of the Group Matters

The ideal sized decision making unit is between five and seven individuals. In a group of five to seven people, every participant can track the opinions of every other person. Every voice can be heard. The group is large enough to foster diversity but small enough to prevent silent factions.

Most governing boards are already larger than seven members before visitors are invited. We must bear in mind that each additional person in the room exponentially increases the challenges of open communication and decision making.  This is true even when the visitors are not allowed to vote or comment. Interpreting body language and imagining the viewpoints of silent participants is all part of the communication challenge.

 

The Quality of the Work Matters

The primary work of many governing boards involves sharing reports about what has already occurred and seeking authorization for upcoming activity. If this is the primary work of your board- you won’t be inhibited by the presence of non-board members. There isn’t much that outsiders can do to enhance or inhibit rubber stamp board work.

However, if you would like your board to be more strategic and generative, reconsider the presence of visitors.  Strategic work involves examining congregational identity, clarifying core values, naming targeted outcomes, and aligning resources. Generative work involves noticing changes in the environment, challenging paradigms, and re-framing ministry.

Strategic and generative work requires bold and imaginative thinking. Board meetings should serve as safe spaces where leaders can brainstorm outlandish ideas before narrowing in on a specific course of action. Board leaders shouldn’t have to worry about what a visitor might take away about an idea that is only half formed.

 

The Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence of the Visitor Matters

The work that takes place in the board room ought to represent the best and brightest thinking of the congregation. Hopefully, we assemble boards made up of emotionally and spiritually mature leaders. We should only invite outsiders into the board room who have the capacity to enhance our conversation.

Sometimes, the people who show up in response to open invitations are not our best and brightest. They may have an individual axe to grind. They may be attracted to the board room as a vehicle to exercise power and control. They may simply be seeking something to do, or a way to connect.

When you decide to incorporate non-board members, consider the emotional and spiritual maturity of people that will be in the room. Their presence includes them in the dynamic, regardless of whether they speak during the meeting. A silent meeting participant won’t necessarily remain silent once they leave the room. They may take their end of the conversation into the parking lot or onto social media.

 

Every Voice Matters, But Not in the Board Room

Every member of your congregation is a child or God and of equal inherent worth. Every member of the congregation has equal voice on issues that come before the congregation for a vote. However, not every voice belongs in the board room.

We are all gifted in different ways and called to serve differently in church life. Those who are gifted in the work of governance, policy and strategy are called to serve as board members. We should authorize them to make decisions on our behalf and then hold them accountable in accordance with our by-laws. We shouldn’t micromanage their monthly meetings.

Members who have not been authorized to serve as board leaders should not have unlimited access to board conversations. They should apply their skills and abilities to areas where they are most gifted.

 

There are Better Ways to Promote Trust

There are better ways to engender trust, transparency and inclusion than randomly inviting members to witness or influence the work of the board.

The research of leadership professors, Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith (1997), identified four organizational traits associated with trust: vision, empathy, consistency and integrity.

Our governing boards will be trustworthy when their work produces clarity of vision, when the actions of the board demonstrate empathy for the membership base, when the board makes decisions that are consistent with the core values of the congregation, and when board decision-making brings about moral order. If the random inclusion of non-board members detracts from these conditions, then inclusion works against trust.

Want to enhance the culture of trust, inclusion and transparency in your congregation? Be more intentional, and perhaps more restrictive, about who gets invited into the boardroom.

 

(Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds, May 2017, Norfolk, England. Flickr)

Don’t Just Talk About Mission-Act With Passion!

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Congregations waste precious time forming mission statements that fail to inspire action. Writing a mission statement produces clarity, but rarely generates energy. It’s time to move beyond mission and start focusing on the passion that compels us to make a specific difference.

We often think of an individual as having a vocation and an organization as having a mission. Religious organizations have both a mission and a vocational calling. They are related to one another but they are not the same thing. A mission explains, but a vocation inspires.

Mission vs. Vocation

The mission of an organization defines the work undertaken by the organization. It describes why we do what we do. Our mission is our reason for existence.

Most religious organizations derive their mission from Scripture. This may sound blunt, but the mission of any Christian congregation boils down to some version of “Bring them in, transform them through the Gospel, and send them out to change the world.” Does every congregation really need to craft their own clever spin on this?

Alternatively, an organization’s vocation is its path of authentic service to the world. A manifestation of the divine spark within. An awakening of the God-given gift of the institution. The fundamental yes from which everything else in the organization flows. Perhaps theologian, Frederick Buechner, said it best, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When you ask a struggling congregation about their vocational identity you are likely to get a response like this, “We are just one big family. We are a group of people that love being together. We are here to serve the world.” Struggling congregations are rarely able to describe their specific work. Sadly, the warm and loving feelings they ascribe to themselves rarely extend to anyone beyond a core group of insiders.

When you ask a thriving congregation about its vocation you are likely to hear something like this, “We have a heart for walking with people as they deal with their addictions. Our pastor has a professional background in addiction recovery and many in our congregations are themselves in recovery. We find ourselves particularly drawn to serving the homeless within our community, many of whom are struggling with issues related to substance abuse and addiction.”

Thriving congregations understand their broad part in spreading the Good News and in loving and serving others. At the same time, they are clear about the specific ways they are called to engage those broad mandates in their local context.

The Heart of Vocation

In Holy Conversations, consultants Alice Mann and Gil Rendle pose three questions that lie at the heart of identity. A congregation has vocational clarity when it answers these three questions: Who are we? Who do we serve? What are we called to do or become next?

Who are we (the identity question)?

Congregations, like people, bear unique fingerprints. Who we are is a function of our unique demographic; education level, affluence level, racial and ethnic profile, beliefs, core values, giftedness, limitations and passions.

Who we are is also formed by where we have been, by our history. Understanding the trajectory of our past clarifies our present. Our identity is shaped by our success, failings and shortcomings. Our limitations are as unique as our strengths and they help to clarify the work that may not be ours to do.

Who do we serve (the context question)?

We live in time and space. This season in ministry is unique. Clarifying vocation requires an understanding of how our context is changing.

There are many ways to think about the constituencies that we serve. Certainly, we serve the people who show up and include themselves in what we do. We can also include the neighbors in the places where our people live and work. And, we might include those we serve with our mission and outreach efforts. These geographies may overlap but they may also be quite distinct.

Of all the constituencies we serve, which constituency group(s) are we called to make a difference among in this season? Where is the greatest unmet need that we are uniquely situated to address?

What are we called to do or become next (the purpose question)?

The discernment of vocation requires an act of faith; a declaration of what God is doing in our midst here and now.

Our vocational calling emerges at the intersection of three circles represented by identity, context and purpose. Our identity has many components, but one piece of our identity has significance in this season because of our unique context. Similarly, we may serve diverse constituencies, but a subgroup is more relevant in this season because of who we are and how we feel called. When clarifying vocation, our task is to articulate what lies at the intersection of the three questions.

Three Oaks Community Church feels called to reach the unchurched thirty-five-year-old male who thinks that religion is irrelevant, and to transform that individual into a fully devoted follower of Christ.

First Church feels drawn to serve the families of children with special developmental needs. The congregation has embraced all abilities inclusion in worship and education. This is their gift to the community.

Cherry Hill Church is in a predominantly Muslim community. The congregation regularly hosts interfaith dialogue in the city, helping the community embrace its multi-cultural identity.

Vocation is a journey of discovery. We cannot manufacture it. It is a gift, given and discerned. When we gain clarity about our vocation we unleash energy and excitement in the life of the congregation.

Stop Worrying About Worship Attendance-Thrive Instead!

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

For a long time, clergy have taken credit when attendance rose and felt guilty when it fell. Most people assume that the best measure of a congregation’s spiritual vitality is the headcount at weekly worship. But some congregations have begun to think beyond that metric and focus more broadly about how their ministry transforms lives. As a result, they’re finding new ways to think about worship, vitality and effectiveness.

What if worship attendance is no longer the best measure of the spiritual vitality of a congregation? What if it never was? Can a community that is declining in worship attendance still be a growing and thriving congregation?

Clearly, if worship attendance is declining along with every other benchmark indicator of health, a congregation is not doing well. However, some congregations are making the following observations: “Our budget is growing, our average pledge is increasing, membership is growing, and our programs are thriving. We haven’t lost members. People are simply worshiping with less frequency than they used to. How much of a problem is this? What kind of a problem is this?”

Stating the Problem

Let’s begin with the assumption that declining worship attendance is a problem. An adage by inventor and business leader Charles Kettering reminds us, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” The way we frame a problem either limits or empowers our diagnosis and idea generation. An effective problem statement follows several rules of thumb:

  • Avoid problem statements that are either too narrow or too broad. “People aren’t coming to worship as frequently as they used to” is a simple and direct statement, but it doesn’t indicate what’s wrong with low attendance. On the other hand, observing that “There is a 20% decrease in attendance among millennials who grew up in the church and claim to be believers,” may be too narrow to help frame a larger conversation about the health of our worshiping community.
  • Don’t create a problem statement that includes implied assumptions or solutions. “The problem is that we need to offer more worship options and venues.” Or, “The problem is that people today like more contemporary musical styles than we offer.” Each of these problem statements sends us chasing down rabbit holes before we fully understand the issues at hand.
  • Don’t confuse symptoms of a problem with the problem itself. Simply stating, “Worship attendance numbers are down 10% from the same time last year” describes a symptom, not a problem. What condition does declining attendance point towards?

There isn’t a universal problem statement that applies to all congregations struggling with declining worship attendance. The statement you frame must address the specific issues relevant in your context. One congregation framed its problem statement this way:

“We are a congregation with a reputation for excellence in traditional worship. Average worship attendance is down ten percent from last year. Some of the people who are no longer worshiping with us now attend neighboring congregations that offer contemporary expressions of worship.”

Discovering the Root Causes

Once we have crafted a problem statement we turn to examining the causes of the problem. We can’t craft solutions until we better understand what is driving behavior. It is too easy to blame trends in the larger culture and to identify possible causes outside our control. We need to dig deeper.

Declining attendance may be an indicator that something is wrong, or it may point to an emerging unmet need. It could be that worship feels less relevant to people, so they attend less. It could mean we are more mobile as a culture or that people have more options to be elsewhere Sunday mornings. It may be a sign of how pressured people’s lives feel. Does it mean our people are less committed to their faith or their congregation? Does it mean our spiritual vitality has decreased? We don’t know until we research and ask.

One congregation discovered that many of their young families were skipping worship because the Sunday morning experience at church separated family members. The adults stayed in worship while the children attended Young Church and Sunday school. Young families were staying at home to create much needed family time.

Once leaders understood this, they resourced young families with worship materials that could be used at home. Those gathered in communal worship prayed for those worshiping at home, and vice versa. The church also initiated a “children in church” service once each month. Families stayed together in church on those special Sundays.

Invention or Innovation?

Once the problem has been articulated and the root causes have been clarified, we are ready to move into the generation of possible solutions. A mistake that many leaders make at this stage is failing to differentiate between invention and innovation.

Innovation theorists Peter Denning and Robert Dunham define an invention as the creation of a new idea, artifact, process or method. We invent a new worship service with a different musical style. We add a worship service on an alternative day of the week. We channel new resources into technology.

Innovation, on the other hand, focuses on the adoption of new practices. Invention is important, but creating new ideas is fundamentally different from getting people to adopt them. If you want a new thing to succeed, you must focus time and attention on getting people to commit to the new practices.

In the church that provided resources to young families for worshiping at home, the educator on staff made home visits to help families access and use the resources. She asked participating families to evaluate the resources and collected stories of home worship to share with the congregation. All this helped with adoption of the invention.

Finding Better Metrics

Increasingly, congregations are finding new ways to tend the spiritual vitality of the congregation. These new practices may or may not impact weekly worship attendance. If we continue to place all our emphasis on counting bodies in the seats on Sunday morning, we’ll miss opportunities for innovation. If we evaluate our clergy leaders only or primarily on what happens inside the sanctuary, we’ll miss other measures of vitality.

The relationship between worship and vitality is complicated. There is certainly some correlation between the two, but we need to be careful not to presume causation. We need to foster innovation and encourage progress that may not reflect itself in who shows up to be counted.

This article was originally featured at congregationalconsulting.org on 3/20/2017.

Making Space for Middle Ground

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

We are a nation divided and those divisions are creeping into congregational life. It grows increasingly difficult to hold an ideological middle ground in politics, theology, or leadership. Pastors climb into pulpits fearful that a simple sermon topic will be interpreted as a political statement. Decision-making is heavy-laden with ideological spin, making it difficult to set a direction.

Polarization is the division that occurs when a complex community falsely divides itself into sharply contrasting groups. Opposing sets of opinions or beliefs are used to foster a we/they mentality that forces people to declare their “side.” We don’t have to accept polarity as the new status quo. There are specific things we can all do to encourage the re-emergence of a healthy middle ground.

Signs of Polarity

A healthy congregational hosts a broad spectrum of thought. Outliers with extreme viewpoints are regarded as quirky and perhaps even endearing. The presence of a strong middle ground means that no one is too far removed from another with a similar ideology. There is someone near me in perspective who connects me to others beyond my reach, thus bridging ideological gaps. The ideology of the next closest person is a comfort to me, and they stand between me and those I find too extreme.

When polarization happens, we lose the middle. Some of the people who represented a safe buffer between extremes move into the extremes. Others who stood at our ideological center grow alarmed by the polarization and step out or silence themselves. They become bystanders to the dialogue instead of participants in it and we lose our mediation zone. We/they thinking begins to emerge. We lose our ability to separate people and problems and “otherness” becomes the problem. We focus on personalities rather than issues. Reality gets distorted and exaggerated. We begin defending ideologies instead of seeing one another and working together to resolve our differences.

Ten Things You Can Do

Restoring an ideological middle ground is key to addressing polarization. Here are some simple (and not so simple) steps that leaders can take to foster the return of a healthy middle ground.

1. Stay spiritually grounded. It is critical to remain non-anxious and connected to your spiritual source. Fear, driven by the reactivity of the congregation, cannot be your guiding force. You must have a bedrock Source that guides your behavioral choices and your personal decision making.

2. Maintain a sense of humor.  Healthy leaders and organization can laugh at themselves. Humor disappears as an organization polarizes. Use humor appropriately and invite others not to take themselves too seriously.

3. Regulate your own responses. Be clear about your own feelings. Don’t let your personal emotions cloud your perceptions and opinions. Use “I” statements to clarify your feelings and to let others know how their behaviors impact you.

  “When you approach me at the end of the worship service with a critique of my sermon, I feel ambushed and disrespected. In that moment, I am trying to make connections with every member of the congregation. I can’t properly respond to your ideas in that setting, and your ideas aren’t yet fully formed. I would prefer to hear your ideas later in the week, after you have had a chance to think through your concerns and I have space to receive them.”

4. Focus your energy on health, not dysfunction. We are often tempted to focus our time and energy on people behaving badly, trying to cajole or force them into better behavior. People who are unwilling or unable to make good behavioral choices rarely respond well to pleas or coercive efforts.

Your time is better spent with the disengaged healthy bystanders, the people who say and do nothing because they don’t know what to do in the face of heated debate or bad behavior. Help the healthy people figure out an effective way to engage. Invite the healthy players to stay engaged with you on middle ground and ignore the dysfunction as much as possible.

5. Help people clarify needs, not positions. As polarization intensifies, people make statements that are positional and extreme. “If you preach one more sermon on that topic, I am out of here.”

When people take a positional stance, help deescalate their position by focusing on the underlying needs. “What is important to you in a sermon? What draws you to worship each week? What is important to you about your relationship with me as your pastor? How is the sermon topic that I choose related to those needs?”

6. Challenge behaviors and ideas, not motives or worth. It is easy to make assumptions about the motives behind positions, and to project clusters of other beliefs based on what we have heard. “If you believe this, then you must also stand for that.”  

In healthy organizations, people attribute good intent to one another. They don’t categorize and label one another. They ask for clarification of ideas and intent, and they give one another the benefit of the doubt until clarification is provided.

7. Paraphrase the idea of others before responding. When you hear an idea or accusation that alarms you, pause before responding. Commit to paraphrasing first what you heard from the other before weighing in with your own opinion or response. Ask the other if you have properly heard their idea before suggesting an alternative idea. Ask others to engage in this same practice.

8. Stay in your own skin. Do not speak on behalf of others. In a polarized community, people like to speak on behalf of the group they perceive as theirs.  “Others are saying…”  When people speak on behalf of another, simply remind them to speak their own truth.

9. Start with what is possible.  A return to healthy dialogue sometimes seems impossible. We can’t imagine a pathway forward that takes us from where we are to restored community. You don’t have to visualize the entire path towards restored health. Get people to commit to one small step together. Success with that one small step will begin to restore trust and will shine light on the next helpful step.

10. Pray for one another. It is impossible for a community that is praying for one another to stand in long term opposition to one another. A genuine stance of prayer invites empathy, compassion and reconciliation.

Our national discourse is not likely to calm down anytime soon. People will look to the church to provide respite from this turmoil.  People need the church to model a better way of living with diversity. Your leadership presence has never been more relevant. Ask others to commit to these ten behaviors with you so that church remains a haven, a place where differences are explored and celebrated.

 

Stop Making Small-Minded Decisions

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

We are living in a liminal season, a time betwixt and between an old order that we understood and a new era not yet defined. We are anxious and disoriented. When we are anxious it is hard to think expansively. Anxious leaders often take large issues and define them narrowly, making small decisions about consequential matters.

Deciding small things provides the illusion that we are in control. However, small-minded decisions will not help us to adapt, learn and grow. Now more than ever, we need the whole-hearted practice of spiritual discernment to enlarge our leadership responses.

Case in Point

Trinity Church is in a liminal season.  The congregation has just begun a new pastorate with their first female clergy leader.  Many are excited about this new era of leadership while others remain reticent. With this transition the congregation is experiencing a shift from authoritarian to participative leadership. Additionally, denominational leaders are in debate about marriage equality and gay ordination.  The congregation is also politically divided over the results of the recent election cycle. Everyone is on edge about how to make decisions in this environment.

Amidst this larger turmoil, city officials have approached Trinity with a rental request. The city is proposing a lease arrangement for thirty church parking spaces to be used by city employees during the workweek. Trinity has the space to share but they aren’t sure they should. The increased traffic may place wear and tear on church property and could inhibit some of the midweek ministries of the church. Also, Trinity just learned that the city offered a better leasing arrangement to the church across the street.

The first inclination of the governing board was to make this a simple face value decision.  Should the parking spaces be leased for the money offered? This framing of the decision led to a controlled conversation about offer, acceptance, value and fairness.  After two-hours of debate, the board was prepared to reject the offer. It simply didn’t make financial sense.

This was a fine conversation, but was it the right conversation? The challenge before the board is larger than a simple fiduciary question about rental space. The parking proposal hosts a broad range of issues related to the congregation’s relationship with its city, its neighbors and its mission.

The board had full authority to make this decision on behalf of the congregation. However, before taking a final vote the leaders at Trinity decided to move out of decision making mode and into a discerning mindset.

The Lost Art of Discernment

The practice of discernment is an ancient spiritual practice that many congregations have forgotten, or perhaps never knew. Most governing boards rely exclusively on group problem-solving to engage their work.

Ruth Haley Barton defines discernment as the ever-increasing capacity to “see” the work of God in the midst of the human situation, so that we can align ourselves with whatever God is doing. Discernment is a quality of attentiveness to God that, over time, develops our sense of God’s heart and purpose in the moment. In communal discernment, we move beyond the personal to see what God is up to within the collective whole.

Decision making is largely an intellectual process. We define, analyze, evaluate and determine. Discernment is an activity that connects heart, head and spirit. As such it is more robust and leads to greater innovation.

Group discernment is guided via a carefully crafted process, one anchored in prayer and stillness, grounded in guiding principles and steeped in listening. Discernment moves toward choice, but only after the application of careful spiritual disciplines.

 

Reshaping Deciding into Discerning

Trinity located their discernment within the governing board while seeking input from the congregation. They decided to allocate four weeks for the discernment process. At the end of that time, in the absence of consensus, they would vote and a simple majority would rule.

Discernment began with careful framing of the topic. Discernment topics are typically framed more broadly than decision making topics. Trinity leaders chose to define their discernment topic as follows: “How is the city our neighbor?  How is the city related to our mission?”

After framing, leaders took time to shed preconceived outcomes and biases. Through prayer, reflection and journaling, leaders set aside their convictions, personal histories and agendas, opening themselves to however the Spirit might lead.

Next, the discernment was grounded in important principles and core beliefs. Leaders looked at the history of the congregation and the city. They told stories about prior problems and opportunities with city leadership. They identified the core values of the congregation and how those values ought to inform this choice. They identified and weighed competing values. The considered their overarching mission. They sought the wisdom of scripture.

Discernment requires an intentional period of listening. At Trinity, congregants were invited into the conversation. The board hosted a town hall meeting where constituents were invited to weigh in on the discernment topic. Through the listening process a deep loyalty between the city and the congregation made itself felt. Leaders sensed a yearning for more connection with the community and its leaders.

Next, Trinity identified four viable options for moving forward: accept the offer as presented, reject the offer outright, counter the offer, or offer the parking spaces at no cost to the city. Each option was steeped in prayer and the group chose a spiritual discipline to evaluate viable alternatives. Trinity chose the Ignation practice of examen, using consolation and desolation as their guide.

Finally, the board moved towards closure. Every member of the board registered their level of support, objection or indifference to each alternative. Consensus emerged. A vote was only taken to make the choice official in the minutes of the church.  Board leaders chose to accept the offer with a caveat defining specific access hours, to protect drop off and pick up at the church daycare. The decision was tested through rest and prayer before it was communicated to the congregation and the city.

Liminal seasons are frightening but also exhilarating. Something new is often being called forth that cannot be attended through simple decision making. The process of discernment invites us beyond the narrowness of our decisions and into the expansive possibility of a future more fully grounded in God.  

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.

 

Remaining Non-Anxious in Anxious Time

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

f296f98f-e13d-4304-b061-964fc6394179I’ve been watching and listening to pastors these past few weeks. They are bone weary. I can hear it in their voices and see it behind their eyes. It is challenging to marshal a calm and steady presence in the midst of our national political turmoil.

In the weeks ahead our leadership bodies will be making many of the hard decisions that come with wrapping up a calendar year. Many of you will be negotiating final decisions about the budget, staff raises, mission and program funding for a new year. These are difficult conversations to navigate in the best of times. These are not the best of times. How will you bring your best non-anxious self into these conversations and call that non-anxious presence forth in the groups that you lead?

A Steady Presence

We have long been taught that a non-anxious self is a critical leadership stance in the midst of anxiety.  Good organizational leadership requires someone who is non-reactive, thoughtful and steady-particularly when the things around them are spinning out of control.

Edwin Friedman, in Generation to Generation, calls this stance “leadership through self-differentiation”.  A differentiated leader takes non-reactive, clearly conceived, well- defined positions that seek to define the leader as the “head”, distinct from but committed to relationship with the body.

Peter Steinke in Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times calls it the non-anxious presence. Steinke describes this presence as a steady and calm way of being that acknowledges the anxiety, but does not let the anxiety drive behavioral choices.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in Leadership on the Line call it holding steady. Holding steady is about learning to take the heat rather than fleeing or retreating back to the status quo. It involves focusing attention on hard issues and letting those issues ripen.  It requires the ability to observe and learn from resistance and factions that emerge.

It is one thing to describe this kind of leadership presence. Embodying it is an entirely different matter. How do we offer a non-anxious leadership presence when we feel shaken to the core? How do we help an anxious leadership body engage in tough conversations when the environment feels so precarious?

Wonder: The Antidote to Anxiety

Wonder trumps anxiety. We cannot be filled with wonder and remain anxious at the same time. Wonder is the ability to feel amazement, admiration and curiosity about something. Wonder invites our best, most creative thinking. Wonder connects us with God. So how do we move from anxiety to wonder?

Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, speaks of three internal voices that stand in the way of wonder; the voice of judgement, the voice of fear, and the voice of cynicism. In anxious times these voices dominate our thinking and reasoning and they keep us from engaging our best, God-centered selves. In times of anxiety we must learn to release these voices.

The Voice of Judgment is intellectual.  This is the voice in your head that knows many things and has already reached conclusions about decisions at hand. It likes to label things “That approach is flawed and won’t work.” “He won’t support my idea because he is risk averse.” The voice of judgment tries to seal off the mind and protect the status quo. It shuts down creativity.

The Voice of Cynicism is born of mistrust. This is the voice in your head that is skeptical and certain that everyone is out to protect their own self-interest and violate yours. “He’s never supported any of my ideas and certainly won’t support this one.” “Just try to get the governing board to approve that idea!” The voice of cynicism tries to protect the heart from becoming too vulnerable. If I close myself off to the possibility of cooperation and success, I won’t be disappointed.

The Voice of Fear seeks to prevent us from losing what we already have. This is the whiny voice in your head that is certain you are in danger of losing ground. “Let’s just quit while we are ahead” “If we don’t raise this money, our very future is in jeopardy.” The voice of fear gravitates towards extremes. It shuts down the open will by keeping us in grasping mode, which works against the spiritual stance of surrender.  Grasping at what you are in danger of losing keeps you from experiencing God’s abundance.

The voices of judgment, cynicism and fear run amok in anxious times. They cultivate a closed mind, heart and spirit. They fight against wonder. If our desire is to adopt a non-anxious leadership stance then we need to release these voices.

Releasing the three voices begins with acknowledging their existence. At least initially, we have to create some space to attend to the voices as they express themselves.

Create a quiet space to reflect and attend to your inner thoughts. Sit with a blank sheet of paper. Think about a specific issue or decision that you are facing. Attend to each of the voices one at a time, with regard to that specific issue. What is the voice of judgment saying in your mind about the specific decision at hand? Write the musings of the voice down on the paper in front of you in stream of consciousness fashion. Don’t argue with it or filter it, just write it.  Then ask the voice of judgment to be silent for a while so that you can hear from the voice of cynicism on this matter. Again, give this voice free reign for two or three minutes recording everything it says to you. Finally, invite the voice of cynicism to remain silent while you listen for the voice of fear. Record any and all thoughts that fear expresses to you.

Once the journaling exercise is complete, read through the thoughts that have been expressed simply acknowledging their presence. And then, in whatever way works best for you, release the voices. You may want to symbolically fold and put the paper away or shred it and throw it away. You may want to pray to be released from the constraints that the voices represent. Or, you may want to simply sit in silence and listen to the voices retreat.

On the other side of judgment, cynicism and fear lives a state of wonder, mystery and possibility. “What wants to emerge here? What is likely to happen next? How can we bring the best of ourselves to the decision at hand?”

The anxiety in our culture is not likely to diminish anytime soon. Our leadership presence does not need to be captured by it. I pray that each of you, and the leaders that you lead, will find your way towards wonder in the weeks and months ahead. May God be with you in this.

Pay and Performance: What’s the Connection?

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

money-peoplePayroll expense is the largest line item in the budget of most congregations. When the budget is tight we often turn to payroll expense to balance the budget because we simply don’t have many viable options.

However, we have to ask ourselves if this annual payroll dance around budget time harms our employees. How does the recurring budget dialogue about pay increases (or lack thereof) impact our employment relationships? Does the debate hurt employee motivation or the ability to hold employees accountable for good performance?

Money matters in the relationship that we have with our employees, but perhaps not in the ways you assume.

Does Money Motivate?

Research shows that money does not motivate in employment situations, except when the tasks of the job are purely mechanical.  Contrary to longstanding organizational belief, linking pay increases to performance has negligible impact on motivation, and in some instances actually reduces motivation. (TED Talk: Dan Pink on The Puzzle of Motivation

The absence of 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 the employee feels that he is being unfairly treated. However, if an employee finds their 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.

Does Money Help to Create Performance Accountability?

Accountability is the obligation that an employee has to account for his or her performance, or lack thereof.  Does pay help to strengthen accountability in our relationships with employees? It does to the extent that pay maintains utility in the employment relationship.  

Employment relationships are basically utilitarian in nature; the exchange between employer and employee must prove useful to both parties. The employee offers something that the congregation values; a set of skills, and the time and energy to apply those skills to tasks and processes that the congregation deems to be important. In return, the congregation offers the employee something that she values: pay, benefits, opportunities for growth and advancement, the opportunity to work for a greater good. This is utility.

As long as both partners in the employment relationship find utility in the relationship, accountability around performance remains strong. An employee is responsive to an accountable conversation in a relationship with utility. If the employer doesn’t provide what the employee needs, or vice versa, the relationship loses its utility. When this happens, accountability is diminished.

When an employee values money in the employment relationship, then decisions about pay impact accountability. If money is not particularly important in the employee’s relationship with the congregation, pay does not foster accountability.

What Matters Most about Money?

So, money doesn’t really enhance motivation, and it may or may not impact performance accountability. In what ways does money really matter in shaping our employment relationships?

Fairness Matters: Pay matters as an indicator of fairness in the employment relationship. Creating pay structures so that co-workers perceive fairness in the workplace is important. When employees feel unfairly treated in matters of pay they will take action to restore fairness. The actions they take may not be helpful to the congregation.

According to behavioral psychologist, J. Stacy Adams, employees seek to maintain equity between the inputs that they bring to a job (time, effort, skill, loyalty, commitment) and the outcomes that they receive from it (recognition, responsibility, sense of achievement, praise, pay).

Employees continually evaluate their perceived inputs and outcomes against the inputs and outcomes of other employees. When an employee feels that the outcomes they receive from the job don’t match their inputs, or when they perceive that others have a better balance of inputs/outcomes, the employee will seek to restore equity.

To restore equity, the employee may seek to renegotiate the terms of employment. If this fails, they may reduce their energy or loyalty. They may also seek to negatively influence the inputs and outcomes of their fellow employees.

Justice Matters: As religious organizations we frequently advocate for those who are marginalized or taken advantage of by society. To maintain integrity, we must be certain that our employment practices are “just” as well.

We are not being just when we fail to pay a livable wage. It is not just to pay employees below what the market says they are worth. We promote injustice when, in an effort to avoid rising health care costs, we break full time positions into part time positions that don’t carry benefits. In these situations, our walk does not match our talk and our behavior demoralizes our employees.

Appreciation Matters: Most employees equate pay increases with appreciation. “If you are providing me with a pay increase, you must value the work that I do. When you fail to give me a pay increase you are devaluing me.”

We must handle our annual conversation about payroll increases in such a way that our employees feel appreciated. When we can’t rely on money to communicate our appreciation, we need to be authentic and creative with other appreciative techniques.

Employees are not likely to feel appreciated if they learn about their pending pay raise in a group setting, or from someone other than their supervisor. They don’t feel valued when everyone receives the same increase regardless of effort. They don’t feel appreciated when the payroll increase is the first thing slashed during the budget dialogues.

The relationship between pay and performance is complicated. This year, as you make decisions about staff payroll increases, don’t forget the conditions that actually impact ongoing performance: accountability, fairness, justice and appreciation.

Have We Failed?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

635944741686261514734284120_success_failure_directBarb shared her decision to end the day trip ministry. “I simply can’t organize these trips anymore. We began this ministry to address the loneliness and isolation of older adults. It’s been wildly successful in terms of participation. People love going on these day outings and enrollment fills up immediately. But our funding source is drying up. I can’t find anyone to succeed me in leadership, or even to help with the organization of the outings. I’m tired of carrying the load alone. I guess the ministry is going to end when I step down. If I had been a better leader, I would have found more money and a successor.”

Barb’s comments reflect an unstated assumption at work in many faith-based institutions. A successful ministry is a sustainable ministry, one that goes on indefinitely. To sustain something is to keep it in existence, to supply the necessities that ensure continuity, to uphold or defend an ongoing practice. There is inherent value and worth in sustainability. If we value something we must do everything within our power to see that it is sustained. When something is not sustainable, it has failed or is failing. Right?

Wrong. This assumption invites us to tell a troubled story about any ministry that ends. We talk about the parts of the ministry that don’t work in order to justify the ending. The ending is announced and the ministry slips quietly off into the sunset. The leader of the final chapter bears a silent shame. “I wasn’t good enough to keep it afloat.”

We are living in an era where many things we have done in the name of Church are no longer sustainable. Does this mean we have failed? In an era of institutional decline, linking sustainability with success and unsustainability with failure is problematic in three ways:

  • We avoid sunsetting programs. To pull the plug is to label the thing a failure—or even worthless—when it is still important to some. So, we don’t evaluate or ask hard questions of the ministries that we do sustain. Is this the best use of our resources right now? Does this ministry still align with our mission, core purpose, and values?
  • We don’t learn from our experience. Failure feels painful. In order to avoid the pain, we dismiss the experience as quickly as possible. We miss a tremendous opportunity when we don’t carefully consider why a program is ending, or what we have to learn about the changing conditions around the program.
  • We stop innovating. Innovation happens best in environments where experimentation and failure are normalized. It has to be okay to fail. When sustainability becomes a core criterion for success, we avoid starting new things.

What Makes a Ministry Sustainable?

On some level, every organization must be sustainable. If we cannot afford to cover our overhead expenses over time, we will cease to exist and won’t be able to support any ministry.

However, under the umbrella of a sustainable organization we should be free to experiment with programs that may or may not be individually sustainable. We need to be able to innovate, reflect, learn and adapt. We can’t do these things without some better language about sustainability. There are at least four types of sustainability that we ought to regularly consider:

  • Economic sustainability: This approach to sustainability seems to get the most attention, maybe the only attention, when we are talking about the viability of a program or ministry. Will the program eventually pay for itself? If not, will we have the funds to sustain it on an ongoing basis? These are important questions, but not the only questions related to sustainability.
  • Leadership sustainability: What kind of leadership presence will this program require? How many staff and volunteer hours will be devoted to its sustenance? What kind of leadership succession plan do we have for this program? Is more than one generation of leadership likely to support this ministry with time and talent?
  • Social sustainability: What difference will this ministry make in the world? What environmental condition does this ministry seek to resolve or improve? How will it improve lives and which lives will it improve?
  • Mission sustainability: How does this ministry promote the unique mission of our organization? Does it draw upon our unique strengths and passions? Does it meet the needs of a constituency that we are meant to serve? Is this what God is calling us to do or become in this season?

When a program satisfies all four types of sustainability we should certainly include it in our portfolio of ministries. When a program fails to satisfy any of the four types it should clearly be discontinued. The tricky landscape to negotiate is when a program satisfies several categories but fails to satisfy others. Then we need to have thoughtful conversations about whether the program should end.

Learning from our Endings

When the decision is made to end a program or project, we need to learn all we can from the ending. Rather than letting the program quietly disappear in the hope that no one will be upset, we need to stop, reflect, learn and adapt. This is how healthy organizations grow and thrive.

Ask yourself these questions: When the program was first begun, what condition in the world was it was meant to address? How has the original condition changed? What impact has the program had on this condition over time? How have resource requirements shifted over time? What outcomes did we experience then and now? Which forms of sustainability are no longer viable for this program? How can we celebrate the success we had? How can we honor the leaders who have served? How might we talk about the legacy created? How does the end of this program ensure other new beginnings for this organization?

It’s time to examine the assumptions that you and your organization carry about sustainability, success, and failure. A program is not a failure because it ends. It is only a failure when we ignore the powerful invitation to reflect, learn, adapt, and innovate.