Disappointed in Your Followers? Try Cultivating Awe!

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Every leader has experienced this frustration. You put your best leadership vision and energy foreword but you are met with an uninspired response. You hope for a reaction that is lively, expansive, generous and creative. Instead, your followers are unimaginative, scarcity-minded and inwardly-focused. What’s a leader to do?

Turning the tide might be easier than you think. Emerging research shows that simple experiences of awe unleash brain power, enhance generosity, and strengthen social connection.  Awe opens people up. Learn to cultivate awe as part of your leadership repertoire.

 What’s Awe Got to Do with It?

According to philosopher and psychologist William James, awe is the feeling we get when we come across something so strikingly vast in number, scope or complexity that it alters the way we understand the world.  The emotion that we call “awe” is our capacity for deep pleasure. When facing the incredible- we pause to take it all in.

Research is discovering important linkages between the experience of awe and our capacity for clearer thinking, kindness, generosity, creativity, ethical behavior and social connection. Research even suggests that awe combats narcissistic behavior in individuals and groups. When people have regular experiences of awe they are increasingly oriented to the world around them and less invested in individual goals and agendas.

How Awe Works

Awe is triggered by a variety of experiences that include prayer and worship, an exposure to natural wonders, great works of art, music, architecture, brilliant colors, remarkable human accomplishments, or mind-expanding theories.

Experiences of awe make us feel small. Our self-perception shrinks, but not in the negative sense of low self-esteem or lower social status. We simply get clear about our own relative insignificance in the grander scheme of the universe. Awe elicits the “small-self,” shifting attention away from our individual needs and goals and toward the larger experience of the collective group. We see the universe as expansive and ourselves as less important.

Michele Lani Shiota, Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University,  explains that emotions have adaptive functions-they help us thrive in a changing, unstable environment. Fear, for instance, promotes avoidance and escape from danger. Love facilitates the intimate interdependent relationships on which humans thrive. Awe serves a distinct purpose.  It elicits our capacity for deep pleasure in the face of the incredible, and it calms us so that we can fully absorb our environment.

 

What Awe Produces

Most positive emotions elicit the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response). They produce the energy and adrenaline needed for survival and needed for goal achievement.

Awe has the opposite effect. Awe engages the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system (the rest-digest response) and invites us to be still.  It creates the perception that time is expanding. This calmer state of the nervous system impacts the brain. Awe creates a sense of uncertainty that we are compelled to try to resolve. It opens us to more careful, detail-oriented processing of information from the environment. In simpler terms, awe sharpens our thinking and helps us to notice, adapt and learn.

Awe also encourages altruistic behavior.  When we encounter a sense of something larger than ourselves, it expands our beliefs about the richness of human potential. Awe promotes social cohesion.

Research shows that people who regularly experience awe are kinder to others and more generous with their time. They behave in more ethical ways. They have a reduced sense of entitlement and deprioritize their own goals in service to a group goal.

 

Eliciting Awe

Fortunately, religious institutions excel at attuning people to awe. Our worship services, prayer disciplines, sacraments and healing rituals are meant to be awe-inspiring.

Unfortunately, many of use leave the experience of awe at the door when it comes to managing the business of the church. We ignore the potential benefits of awe in the board room, the staff meeting and in our committee work.

We can significantly enhance the qualities of leadership and followership in our congregations by inviting regular experiences of awe. Here are a few simple ideas:

  • Invite people to remember a recent time when they experienced awe. Invite them to write or talk about that time. Research shows that the simple act of remembering an awe-filled experience elicits many of the positive effects of awe.
  • Show your people visual stimulation that is awe-inspiring, like this awe video . Let them sit in silence and gratitude for a few minutes after viewing the video before picking up business as usual.
  • Take your leaders on an “Awe Walk” before making a big decision. Move them into nature, if nature is available. Take them to explore a part of the city they’ve never experienced before. Otherwise, simply ask them to gaze on something familiar, from a unique angle and with fresh eyes.

While walking, shift awareness so that you all are open to what is around you, to things that are vast or unexpected. Things that delight and surprise.

As you walk, breathe deeply, counting to six as you inhale and six as you exhale.  When you return to your meeting venue, bring this state of awe and wonder with you.

We live in highly anxious times. It’s difficult for people to think and behave expansively when they are anxious. Inviting more frequent experiences of awe, and helping people attune to awe, can transform both you and your followers.

 

Photo Credit: “Morning Awe”, © 2009 Dru BloomfieldFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

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.

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.

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.

Taming the Bureaucracy Beast

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The church needs innovation, experimentation and risk taking.  The church has bureaucracy; inactivity in the name of good order and process. Senseless bureaucracy keeps us endlessly mired in reporting, approval seeking and communication. We end up with repetitive meetings, multiple levels of approval, over-reliance on procedure, and postponed decision making until everyone is informed and happy.  What would it take to free ourselves from all of this and just get things done?


Too Much of a Good Thing

In the late 1980’s Zebra Mussels found their way into the Great Lakes. A few Zebra Mussels are healthy for a fresh water ecosystem. They filter the water and reduce the overgrowth of algae. They produce clear water and facilitate healthier conditions for bottom dwellers.

image controlsUnfortunately, Zebra Mussels also feed voraciously and reproduce rapidly. Instead of gently cleaning up the Great Lakes waterways, the mussels over-proliferated and destroyed too much algae, threatening wild fish habitats.  They also clogged fresh water intake valves and filtration processes that human communities around the Great Lakes depend upon to thrive.

Congregational systems are like the Great Lakes ecosystem in this analogy. A few good procedures and carefully constructed decision making rules will produce transparency and generate healthy representation. Good policy keeps us from running off the deep end in pursuit of ideas that are not a good fit for us.  However, when process and procedure over-proliferate, we end up with clogged decision making. Innovation and risk taking take a back seat to sustaining good order.

The good news is that there are things we can do right now to tame the bureaucracy beast and restore a healthier balance between order and innovation.

Know what you seek to accomplish:

Bureaucracy thrives when process takes precedent over outcomes. When communication, shared decision making, and keeping people happy become the outcome, we end up with stagnation and clogged intake valves.

We begin unclogging by naming the specific changed conditions we are trying to produce in mission and ministry. This requires naming the new learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning that fulfilling your mission requires. These are your outcomes.

Outcomes are the not the same thing as outputs. Outputs are the direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs indicate if a service was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of constituents served, classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged.  

When we are unclear about outcomes, we often chase outputs. Chasing outputs without clarity about outcomes promotes unhelpful busyness and feeds the bureaucracy beast.

 

Eliminate Liaisons

Congregational governance systems ensure representation, and the primary way we have pursued representation is through liaison roles.  We select leaders on the basis of their ability to represent the voice of a specific constituency: the choir, the youth, the women, or the daycare. The liaison is expected to attend all board meetings, as well as any committee or team meetings that impact her constituency group. Her job, in addition to representing the best interest of her constituency group, is to ensure that important information from the board meeting is carried over to the committee meeting, and vice versa.

There are several things wrong with liaison roles. First, liaison roles elevate communication and decision making over action. A liaison may be expected to attend three to four meetings per month so that her constituency group is appropriately informed and represented everywhere that a decision might be made. Volunteers use up all of their available time attending meetings, without actually engaging in any hands on ministry. It’s exhausting for the volunteer and the governance system. In this age of digital communication there are far better ways of sharing important information than requiring a person to sit in endless meetings, in case their viewpoint is required.

The second problem with liaison roles is that they don’t promote strategic thinking on behalf of the whole. They certainly encourage debate: my group needs this, your group wants that. A room full of designated liaisons acting in the best interest of their constituent groups won’t necessarily reach a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. They are likely to make decisions that serve the needs of the constituency with the most outspoken liaison.

What if, instead of appointing liaisons, we assemble smaller bodies of decision makers who act on behalf of the whole? We expect them to make informed decisions and communicate as needed with the appropriate constituencies of the church. This requires more intentionality when forming agendas, to make certain that the right people (the staff member or committee chairperson) are in the room when a decision is being considered. This would free us up to make decisions more flexibly, without deferring decisions back to committees or task forces for further consideration before a decision is authorized.

 

Design an Experiment

Some bureaucracy stems from the fact that we don’t want anyone to be surprised or upset about a decision that is under consideration. We postpone decision making until every voice is heard and until everyone is happily on board. This squelches innovation. Nothing happens until we all agree.

Next time you find yourself in a meeting where the group wants to postpone a decision, why not encourage the birth of an experiment? If the group isn’t comfortable approving a new giant step, figure out how to make it a baby step that everyone can learn from.

Bureaucratic systems are built to support “Ready, Aim, Fire!” mentality. Bureaucracy seeks absolute clarity and consensus before allowing action, so that errors are not made.

In this era of continuous change, we don’t have the luxury of moving ponderously. We need to act more quickly, embracing more of a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach to decision making.  We ready ourselves to take a step that is reasonable. We pull the trigger and move ahead with an experiment that will allow us to learn something. The experiment has to be appropriate in scope so that failure won’t be devastating. We learn from the experiment and refine our next steps, postponing acts of authorization until we have learned what we need to know.

Bureaucracy in a congregation is not inevitable. We don’t have to succumb to overgrown systems of communication, decision making and approval. We don’t have to wait for a major overhaul of our governance system from the denomination. We can begin right here, right now to streamline our approach and allow more innovation.

Blame it on Polity

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Leaders utter a predictable battle cry when faced with possible organizational changes.  “Our polity won’t allow us to do that!” They may want to consider changes that will make their organization more nimble, flexible and efficient, but they suspect that polity (denominational governance systems) will stand in the way.

We live in an era where thoughtful experimentation is critical to survival.  Congregations and the institutions that support them will not survive unless they are able to design and learn from bold experiments.  And yet, we cling to our polity like a drowning person clings to a lifeline.  We blame our polity for our unwillingness to change. We cite our constitutions, our by-laws, the Book of Order, and the Book of Discipline as reason for our inability and unwillingness to adapt.

Why is it that congregations who would never embrace a literal interpretation of scripture, without critical theological reflection, are so willing to cling to a literal interpretation of governance practice? How can we learn to use our polity to support adaptation, rather than resist it?

Our Devotion to Our Polity

Within the traditional mainline church, the distinctions between us are more readily identified by polity differences than by uniqueness of doctrine.  It is hard to distinguish between the beliefs and worship styles of congregations that call themselves Methodist, Presbyterian, or Congregational in a particular locale. You can’t appreciate the distinctions until you consider governance. We distinguish ourselves based on whether we vest ultimate authority in a bishop, an elder governing board, or in the membership body.

Polity determines how rules and procedures are developed, sustained and sanctioned. Congregations believe certain things about governance, based upon their doctrinal stance.  Our understanding of our relationship with God informs how we decide to get things done, establish authority, and represent the voice of membership.

Every polity undergoes developmental change over time. As institutions move through developmental life cycles, governance practices and policy statements tend to become more restrictive. Leaders wrestle with each new problem situation that emerges and eventually codify their decision in policy.  Over time our policy books become increasingly complex, overly bureaucratic, and artificially binding in ways that no longer represent the original spirit of intent. We lose flexibility. We become institutionalized.

Practicing Critical Interpretation

We must live into fresh expressions of polity if we are going to embrace change.  We can’t wait for permission, in the form of governance change, to begin experimenting. We experiment first, and adapt policy later based on what we learn. We also acknowledge that not all forms of experimentation are appropriate in every setting. The appropriateness of an experiment is determined by the principles and beliefs that undergird our way of life.

For example, a large Baptist congregation is facing senior pastor transition for the first time in eighteen years.  The congregation is healthy, vibrant and is experiencing momentum in key areas.  Traditional Baptist practice requires waiting to begin search for a new senior pastor until after the current senior pastor retires.  This will require an eighteen to twenty-four month interim leadership period.  Congregational leaders fear that an interim period will result in harmful loss of momentum and may have irreversible impact on giving and membership growth.

Congregational leaders would like to consider a direct pastor to pastor transition, with the pastoral search process taking place prior to the retirement of the current senior pastor.  They would like to forgo an interim pastorate time period, and have the new pastor begin before the current pastor retires. This is not traditional practice in the denomination.  Should leaders consider this course of action?  

We can’t be naïve.  Of course, this congregation must consider whether they have basic support from denominational leaders to experiment with a new form of pastoral transition. Without support they won’t be able to engage in pastoral search. Assuming some support, how do they determine which experiments are appropriate for their context? They begin by identifying relevant core values, beliefs and principles.

Baptist polity honors a handful of ideological principles; the priesthood of all believers, the authority of the bible, the autonomy of the local church, non-creedal faith, separation of church and state, the right of dissent, and unity within diversity.

Our example church decided that the use of interim pastorates was meant to protect the autonomy of the local church.  A Baptist congregation makes its own choices about leadership, without undue influence from the current pastor or denominational staff. An interim minister provides a buffer to protect the voice of the membership body. Self-study and search wait until after the departure of the incumbent senior minister to encourage the congregation to listen for its authentic voice.

They also wondered if a direct pastor to pastor transition might undermine the priesthood of all believers, which emphasizes individual soul competency before God.  A period of time without a permanent senior pastor in place encourages each individual to explore the sacredness of individual choice in their personal relationship with God.  

Ultimately, the leaders of this congregation designed an alternative pastoral transition process that protected these basic tenets.  They determined that the use of an interim minister was only one possible way to advance their core principles.  They hired an interim consultant who guided the congregation’s self-study and the preparation of a church profile. This role created space for independent thought and the expression of soul.  They also created a transition process which gradually diminished the present pastor’s presence in the pulpit and at governing board meetings, in the period of time leading up to her retirement, gradually increasing the leadership voice of the new leader and lay leaders during the same time period. These choices nurtured a seamless leadership transition, while honoring the soul freedom and the autonomy of voice of the congregation.

We don’t have to force artificial choices between adaptive change and our polity. We can craft experiments that honor the principles behind our polity, without being held captive by traditional practice. We need the freedom to think critically, evaluate and adapt. This is how we live our way into a new era with our core identity and our polity intact.

 

Do I Have Enough Influence

Monday, June 15th, 2015
© 2011 Yogendra Joshi, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
© 2011 Yogendra Joshi, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

You are clear about the changes needed in your congregation, and you are confident in your ability to execute the change. You are not certain that you have the influence needed to overcome change resistance. This is the fundamental dilemma of every leader, especially those new to an organization.

A longstanding rule of thumb is that a pastor must not change anything significant in the first year of assignment.  She must earn leadership capital by watching, listening, honoring and caring.  We’ve all heard it said that you have to marry and bury enough people to earn the trust of the congregation.

The frightening reality for many of us is that we simply don’t have the luxury of time. Institutional decline is urgent.   We can’t passively wait for our leadership capital to accumulate.  Instead, we must be politically savvy about building our capacity for influence, and we must sometimes act before we feel adequately influential.

The ability to influence others, gain commitment, and overcome change resistance is difficult, but it is not mysterious. It has four identifiable elements that can be cultivated.

  1. Deepen the fundamental sources of your power.
  2. Select influence tactics that are appropriate, ethical, and effective for your context.
  3. Resist the inappropriate influence tactics of those operating at odds with the congregation’s mission.
  4. Observe, interpret, and learn from the political dynamics of your congregation.

 

Deepen Your Power Base

Every leader has some access to three forms of organizational power: granted power, assigned power, and attributed power.  Power is organizationally neutral; it is neither good nor bad for the leader or the organization.  Having power is only a capacity for influence. It does not become influence until applied. You need to work on building capacity before you seek to influence.

Think of the power bases as buckets that must feed an influence reservoir. The tricky thing about the three sources of power is that they are multiplicative; the absence of any one of the three power bases results in zero power in the reservoir. Each bucket must have something in it, and collectively the three buckets must keep the reservoir in ample supply.

Granted power is the agency assigned to you by an authorizing party, usually outside of your specific context.   We all have some granted power in a congregation by virtue of our baptism; we are co-creators with God, of the kingdom of God.  However, some have more granted power than others by virtue of institutional affiliation. Your denomination grants power to certain leaders by ordaining them. Educational institutions grant power in the form of degrees. Generally, a Ph.D. supplies more power than a Bachelor’s degree. Certification from a nationally recognized institution grants more power than one from a local agency.

Assigned power comes from the specific organization you are leading. The defined role you play carries the legitimate right to do things on behalf of the organization. You may have been assigned the authority to hire and fire others, to spend money on behalf of the congregation, or to start or retire programs.  Assigned power also grows from your centrality in the organization, your access to information and decision making.  An office administrator may not have much legitimate authority, but his central control in disseminating information, and his ability to place himself in decision making moments can result in great power.

Attributed power comes from two sources. First, it comes from your expertise in a valued subject area.  A music director has attributed power from her skill base in choral direction or in organ performance.  A bookkeeper carries attributed power because of the twenty years of institutional memory at her disposal, and because she is the only person in the congregation who understands the financial records.

Second, attributed power also comes from personal charisma. People are drawn to certain individuals over others by virtue of personal energy, endurance, focus, flexibility, likeability and trustworthiness.  People are willing to submit to the agency of another whom they admire and want to be around.

Select Appropriate Influence Tactics

Maintaining full buckets is not enough to wield influence and gain commitment in a congregation.  You also need to employ effective influence tactics.  The tactics you use must be varied, appropriate to your context, ethical, and effective.  A leader who selects ineffective or immoral influence tactics drains the influence reservoir faster than it is filled.

Influence tactics include things like rational appeal, personal appeal, inspirational appeal, consultation, exchange tactics, ingratiation, pressure tactics, and coalition building. Each is appropriate and ethical in some contexts, but not in others. You must consider the needs and influence capacity of each player, and you must diagnose the situation. Most of us favor a few tactics that we overuse. Effective leaders deploy a variety of influence tactics, and they tailor them well to the situation.

Resist the Inappropriate Influence Attempts of Others

The congregation suffers at the hands of those who inappropriately undermine leadership influence efforts. Inappropriate resistance may involve triangulation, bullying, blocking, condescension, manipulation, or passive-aggressive noncompliance.  As you work to fill your influence reservoir, these people are draining it through another spigot. You must address inappropriate influence attempts if you want to deepen your own influence capacity.

If the inappropriate influence tactic is from someone who is healthy, willing and able, use direct personal confrontation to refocus their energy more positively.  Describe the problematic behavior to them in concrete terms. Explain the impact that their behavior has, and ask for a specific, alternative behavior.

If the person is unable or unwilling to employ better behavior, you must disengage from their unhealthy behavior.  Covenant with the healthy leaders in your congregation to ignore the inappropriate influence, and continue moving in the direction of health and wellness.

Observe and Learn

Deepening your capacity for influence is not a passive waiting game. Adaptive leaders continually study and learn from the influence dynamics of their congregations. Watch the impact of a particular influence tactic. Analyze its effectiveness and reflect on what impact another technique may have had.  Continually observe who has influence and where that influence stems from. Attend to the draining and inappropriate influence attempts of others. Work continually to deepen your own influence reservoir.  All of this, for the sake of helping your congregation effectively engage its mission.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

 

Working Around Incompetence on the Team

Monday, May 11th, 2015

We aspire to build staff teams of competent, motivated individuals who work in dogged pursuit of a clearly articulated vision. What most of us have are teams with some outstanding staff and some not so outstanding staff, working side by side towards a vision that seems clear, on some days.

Most of you are grappling with some incompetence on the team you inherited, or incompetence you managed to hire yourself.  You spend your time accordingly.  Sometimes, it is abundantly clear that a member of the team just isn’t able or willing to adequately fill the needs of the role, but the political dynamics of the situation don’t allow for making a transition now.  How do you manage in this environment?

Maintain Clarity of Expectations: Effective performance management of the team requires clarity in three areas, for each staff role: the essential functions (duties & tasks of the job), the core competencies (behavioral attributes, skills & abilities required), and the performance goals (area of focus for the current year).

Oftentimes, as a supervisor comes to terms with the incompetence of a team member, the supervisor abandons performance expectations, settling for whatever the employee delivers.  The supervisor grows weary of communicating failed expectations over and over. So, he scales back the expectations. Each time that expectations are lowered, the underperforming staff member reduces effort and performance degenerates even further.

Working with incompetence on the staff requires vigilance around role expectations. If we cut the underperformer slack, we teach the larger staff system that excellence is not important. We set up an unhealthy dynamic where high-functioning staff burn out as they over-compensate for the underperformer. We lose sight of effective staffing structures because we keep re-assigning responsibilities to newer hires that are brought in to pick up the slack.

Maintaining clarity of expectations requires a commitment to ongoing communication about what the role requires, and communication about the gap we observe between actual performance and the ideal. Maintaining clarity of expectations means that the under-performing team member bears the discomfort of their own under-performance. We don’t create a comfortable environment for them to settle into by displacing responsibility elsewhere.

Be Honest with Yourself: It is easy to tell yourself that it isn’t in the best interest of the congregation to move the incompetent member off of the team right now.  You imagine the level of conflict that such a move might produce. You exaggerate the level of social support that the person has in your congregation.  You empathize with the drama the employee is experiencing in his personal life. You nurture all of your worst fears about how badly this could unfold. You tell yourself that people of faith are invested in redemption and that you are giving this person one more chance.

If you are honest about the situation, you may have to acknowledge your own conflict avoidance.  You may have to admit that you haven’t moved on the situation because you simply haven’t engaged the hard work of expectation setting, and you haven’t invested the necessary time in performance feedback. You may have to admit that this season isn’t any better or worse than a future time for addressing the problem; in fact, to allow the situation to continue will only make things worse over the long term.

Have a Long-Term Plan: Now may not be the right time to move the under-performer off of the team. What conditions would be evident if it was the right time?  How can you create those conditions?

Recently I spoke with a pastor who vowed to me that she would not pass her incompetent employee onto the next senior pastor. So I asked the pastor, “If you are ultimately going to deal with this, why not now, so that you can enjoy the benefit of the improved environment, along with the next senior pastor?”  She didn’t have a response.

If we decide to live with continued incompetence, we should have a clear picture of the conditions we are trying to produce that will ultimately birth a healthier team. For example, a pastor decides that she needs eighteen months to bring a new staff member fully onboard, so that the new leader can step into the gap as we let the problem staff member go.  Or, a pastor targets a six-month period of time to help lay leadership become more aware of the performance gap, and to build a cadre of lay leadership supporters before moving the incompetent team member out. The pastor should have a specific action plan in mind to justify inaction now.

Having a long-term plan also means creating a five year staffing plan, so that each time you make a staffing change you work towards a long-term solution that resembles your dream team.  Don’t structure around incompetence.  In other words, don’t create new positions to shore up an under-performer. When you eventually move an under-performer off of your team, you don’t want to be saddled with a patchwork of positions that no longer make sense.  Design roles and hire new people only because they move you towards your long term vision of team health.

You may not have the staff team of your dreams, but there are concrete steps that you can take to eventually live into that dream.  It requires persistence and hard work. You can move in the right direction by maintaining clear expectations, being honest with yourself, and having a long term plan.

Breaking Our Dependence on Praise

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

“You like me.  You really like me!”  Let’s face it. We are all guilty of defining our self-worth by what others think. When people praise us we feel successful.  Are we?

Courageous and adaptive leadership requires leaning into our own incompetence, and pointing out the incompetence of our congregations.  Leading beyond our own competence will invite mistakes and failures. Mistakes and failures call forth criticism.

Anything really worth doing as a leader is going to involve criticism.  How do we wean ourselves from a dependency on praise and teach ourselves and others to work well with criticism?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

1. Recognize that feedback is data. Feedback, in the form of praise or criticism, is primarily about the person offering it. Typically, praise or criticism leveled at a leader has little to do with the leader’s personal performance.  If you treat the feedback as data you can remain more objective about it, and use it to better understand the organization you are leading.

An individual offering praise may be using it as an ingratiation tactic, to get into your good graces, to create rapport, or to advance an agenda.  They may be trying to enhance their own self-image by displaying their magnanimous nature.  They may use praise to break the ice, to introduce a topic that is hard for them to talk about. They may be telling you that what you have done aligns with who they are.

Similarly, criticism is often data about the personal preferences, emotional maturity or values of the person(s) offering the critique.  Criticism may indicate change resistance, a tension in values, or priorities out of alignment.

2.  Become more aware of your own triggers. Each of us has emotional triggers that reflect our personal insecurities.  Our most dysfunctional congregants have a knack for honing in on our triggers, criticizing us in just the right way to provoke reactivity.

If I know which stimuli are likely to set me off, I can create intentional strategies to override my automatic “flight or flight” response, so that I can respond with greater intentionality.

3. Learn to evaluate the quality of the feedback you receive. You are in control of whether you will receive the feedback that has been offered, whether you will seek further information to strengthen the feedback, or whether you will simply choose to ignore it.

You can evaluate whether or not the feedback you receive is valid by considering its accuracy, its substance, and its importance.

  • Accuracy:  Who is offering this feedback?   Are they in a position to accurately observe and evaluate your efforts?  What are their intentions and vested interests? Do they have the emotional capacity and willingness to offer feedback constructively? Are they having a bad day?
  • Substance: What values and priorities does this individual hold with regard to the feedback topic?  Are their values and priorities in alignment with yours? With the organization? Are they vested in your best interest and the best interest of the congregation?
  • Importance: How critical is this feedback to the success of your initiative?  How central is their viewpoint to your efforts? How connected are they to others and what is the likelihood that others will give credence to what they are saying?

4.  Ask for better feedback. Undifferentiated praise is no more helpful than undifferentiated criticism.  If you want to move away from a dependency on praise you must invite more concrete feedback.  Begin by explaining to others how, when and where you prefer to receive feedback. (A critique of the sermon in the back of the church during the meet and greet…not so helpful.) Ask clarifying questions. What was the specific context, the behavior, the impact?  Invite feedback from others to verify the data that you are receiving.  In the face of criticism, ask the critic to suggest alternative behaviors that would be more effective in the future.

5.  Nurture a contemplative mind-set. Ultimately, to break our dependence on external praise we need to strengthen our authentic, soulful self.  As we become clearer about who we are in relationship to our source, we lessen the need for external validation.  Contemplation is an all-embracing quality of presence that is grounded in prayer and union with the divine. Contemplation through prayer and meditation invites us to release our attachments to outcomes in general, and to the need for praise. We remain steadier, more objective and less reactive when we are centered in God.

Attaching our self-worth to the praise of others is a dangerous leadership practice.  It prevents us from taking necessary risks.  We must focus less on whether we are praised or criticized, and focus more on improving the quality of feedback we offer and receive.

Holding Steady (Maintaining Presence)

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
tightrope 2

(Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD, Flickr /CC-BY-ND/ via Wylio)

Congregations today are chronically anxious. When the anxiety of the congregation rises, leaders come under attack. We know this intellectually, but understanding that something will happen and actually riding out the experience are two different things.

Every change leadership theory has a name for the leader’s needed presence during times of high anxiety.

Edwin Friedman in “Generation to Generation” calls it 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 restoring the status quo. It involves focusing attention on the issue and letting the issue ripen. It requires the ability to observe and learn from resistance and the factions that emerge.

These three authors provide leadership language and skill sets that are useful in congregational contexts. However, as faith leaders we must first acknowledge the foundational importance of soul.

We dare not forget that presence is primarily a contemplative state of mind, and only secondarily a leadership state. We may enhance our leadership presence through learned behavioral skill sets, but our personal presence is ultimately nurtured through prayer and cultivated through spiritual discipline.

Presence is a different way of knowing, a knowing that emerges from the intelligence of the heart and spirit- from a place of wisdom. Presence is strengthened when we connect with our Source. In a state of presence we recognize our authentic personal self, alongside the authentic self of the institution.

We can invite presence through three spiritual postures: unknowing, attending and unbinding. But ultimately, presence is a gift that is given through grace, not something that we can manufacture.

Unknowing: Presence requires a willingness to step outside of the comfort zone of expertise and into the openness associated with “not knowing”. This is frightening work for the leader who has been authorized to lead by virtue of demonstrated expertise. An anxious system wants definitive answers from its authority figures.

A posture of unknowing is fostered in the leader and in the organization through a variety of spiritual practices that include slowing down, entering silence, engaging prayer, and confessing shortcomings. These are counter-intuitive behaviors to an anxious congregation that feels compelled to demonstrate mastery over its environment.

Attending: Attending is a shift in perspective. In the busyness of daily congregational life most leaders pay attention to the institution from the center. We see institutional life with ourselves and our world view as the definitive perspective. We make assumptions accordingly. Presencing requires shifting our field of awareness from the center of the organization to its margins, seeing with new eyes and fresh perspectives.

Attending invites us to seek Divine perspective, through the lens of kairos time. It requires disengagement from held assumptions and reengagement from a different place, which may feel counter-intuitive to holding steady. When a shift in our field of attention happens, the boundary between observer and observed collapses (unitive awareness) and the observer begins to see the system from a holy and holistic point of view.

Unbinding: Upon shifting perspectives we may notice that the organization lacks the freedom to work openly with the Divine. Unfreedom blocks our capacity to move from knowledge to wisdom, to move out of our heads and into our souls. Unfreedom may cloak itself as resistance, shame, cynicism or pride.

Unbinding work is fostered by a spirit of abundance and nonjudgmental blessing, when the space between us holds unconditional love, and when we invite a quality of witnessing and listening that is totally safe, where each person is honored as an authentic soulful self. Unbinding work requires letting go of the old and surrendering past wounding experiences or outdated self-images.

At the end of the day, our capacity as leaders is best served by cultivating personal spiritual presence. When we adopt postures that are unknowing, attending and unbinding, we position ourselves to remain non-anxious, to hold steady, and to self-differentiate.