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

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)

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.

 

The Truth About Consensus

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Hand-Stack“Let’s work by consensus!” is a familiar rallying cry. It feels egalitarian, generative and worthy. So we set aside Robert’s Rules of Order and begin a dialogue where all are encouraged to weigh in. We promise ourselves that we won’t move forward until we’ve reached an agreement that everyone likes. And then the problems begin, because we have confused consensus with unanimity.  

True consensus is achieved when every person involved in the decision can say: “I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.”

In contrast, unanimity is undivided opinion.  Everyone is in agreement on the best course of action to take. The difference is subtle but important. When we strive for unanimity, we end up taking an inordinate amount of time to make decisions. At best, innovation grinds to a halt. At worst, we create unhealthy patterns of interaction where people are pressured to acquiesce on important issues.

Case in Point:

They were known within the congregation as the dream team, nine respected leaders with rich life experience, assembled to identify and recruit the next pastoral leader of the congregation. The team members were individually accomplished, insightful and wise.  Their first motion was to work by consensus. They interpreted this to mean that they would not recommend any candidate to the congregation unless they were all in agreement about their first choice.

The dream team worked diligently at their task for eighteen long months.  Then they polarized around three potential candidates. Sub-groups began meeting informally between meetings to decide how they would posture themselves in the full team meeting.  Each group had become highly invested in promoting their candidate and “protecting the church” from the other candidates. They were locked in opposition and it did not appear that they were going to accomplish the basic task to which they had been appointed.

What caused nine healthy leaders to become so dysfunctional?  Their decision making rested on the assumption that when the right candidate came along, the team would unanimously recognize that person as their first choice. They confused consensus and unanimity.

What Consensus Is and Isn’t?

According to Dressler, “Consensus is a cooperative process in which all group members develop and agree to support a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. In consensus, the input of every member is carefully considered and there is a good faith effort to address all legitimate concerns.”

Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous decision, in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied.  Consensus is also not a majority vote, in which some larger segment of the group gets to make the decision. Consensus is not a coercive or manipulative tactic to get members to conform to some preordained decision.  

In testing for consensus you are not asking: Is this your first choice of options? Do you like this option?  Does this option satisfy your personal needs? In testing for consensus you are asking: Is this an option that I can live with and ultimately support? Does this option satisfy the criteria that we have claimed as a group? Will this option adequately serve the best interest of our congregation and its stakeholders?

Simply agreeing with a decision is not true consensus.  Consensus implies commitment to the decision, which means that you oblige yourself to do your part in putting the decision into action.

How Do We Work with Disagreement?

Each group member has the right and responsibility to express concerns.  Legitimate concerns will take the form of questions and statements about the option that might not serve the congregation’s best interests. As concerns are raised, the group seeks to understand and attempt to resolve them.

Expressing and resolving legitimate concerns looks like this. We listen fully to the reservation that has been raised.  We ask open-ended questions to better understand the reservation. We provide additional information to the person raising the concern. We pause regularly for silence and prayer, to discern the movement of Spirit.

When listening and clarification don’t resolve the expressed concern, we have several options available to us. We can offer to make the concern a point of record, so that the person with reservation can support the initiative of the whole without abandoning their personal integrity. The individual with reservations can also agree to “stand aside”, which is to say that their concern has been appropriately vetted, and the individual is willing to let the group move ahead in spite of the reservation. This also means that the concerned individual will support the decision outside of the decision making room.

Sometimes the reservations expressed in decision making are non-legitimate or obstructive.  A non-legitimate concern occurs when the person who disagrees is acting at odds with what is in the best interest of the congregation, often pursuing personal values, beliefs or needs.

When non-legitimate concerns are raised, the group needs to reassert its agreed upon decision criteria. The group encourages the objector to distinguish between their personal values and the values of the organization, to distinguish between the organizational “must haves” and their personal “wants”.

What Happens if We Can’t Reach Consensus?

There will be moments when consensus just doesn’t emerge.  The group has multiple options at that point. You can;

  • Defer the decision: Go back to the drawing board.  Consider a new pool of options.
  • Dissolve the group: Acknowledge that this group is probably not able to reach consensus and form a new group to take over.  
  • Give decision making authority to a sub-group: You may decide in advance that unresolved issues will be delegated to a smaller sub-set of decision makers.
  • Default to a majority vote: The group can decide, in advance, on a point in time where consensus seeking will end. If you have not reached consensus by that point in time, the group will vote and the decision will be determined by the majority.

Consensus isn’t mere acquiescence. It is a healthy and cooperative form of dialogue that invites truth-telling, authentic listening and accountability.  It invites group members to move into the future, passionately committed to the decisions they have made.

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.

 

The Problem With Meetings

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The problem with meetings in congregation is that they focus on building and sharing knowledge. What if we focused on cultivating collective wisdom instead?

Think about the agenda in your typical church meeting. Staff meetings, board meetings, and committee meetings all incorporate the same elements. I tell you what I know, you tell me what you know, we consult with outside sources that know, and then based on our shared knowledge we wrestle our way toward decision making. If we can’t all agree, then majority rules. And most of this happens in the form of sharing and receiving reports, making motions, and approving actions. Boring, not very creative, and certainly not soulful!

Knowledge is tactical and practical. It is acquired through processing information and it informs us.  Knowledge is something that we have. It empowers us to act when we work well with information. Our financial reports, budgets, and committee or department reports are filled with gathered knowledge that we create to keep ourselves informed.

Wisdom requires more than shared knowing. It includes our ability to discern the inner qualities and relationships of a situation, the capacity to distinguish between the rightness and wrongness of things, to distinguish between what fits here and what does not.

Collective wisdom is not just about assembling our smartest or most spiritual people in the room, and asking them to make a decision on our behalf. Collective wisdom is about the capacity of a group to make wise choices and to orient themselves around a living sense of their shared future, informed by collective values. Collective wisdom emerges when we balance the content of our knowledge, with personal contemplative awareness, right relationship with one another, the needs of our community, and openness to the divine.

When collective wisdom emerges, people describe a seamlessness, a slowing down of time and space, a unitive awareness of boundaries expanding, and permeable connections growing stronger.  The ability to communicate with others becomes sharper and broader.  Astonishing creativity springs forth, along with the sudden and surprising appearance of new capacity and intelligence.

What are the conditions and practices that cultivate collective wisdom, particularly in the meetings we lead?

Stand Humbly Before God: We cannot create wisdom. Wisdom is available to us. We may cultivate conditions that open us to the presence of wisdom, but wisdom itself is a gift from God. So, collective wisdom requires that we begin with humility, and that we ask for guidance.

In a group or meeting context, this requires an orientation of unknowing, of recognizing that we each have personal biases and assumptions that are not helpful to the decision at hand.  We are all naturally invested in clinging to what we know; we don’t naturally engage in unknowing behavior. Therefore, we need to offer opportunities and rituals in meetings for people to acknowledge and release their personal biases, for making group confession, for naming and surrendering preferences.

Gain Clarity and Commitment to Core Values: The values of the community are those core principles and beliefs we hold that describe who we are when we are living as our best selves.  For example, our values might include: Our commitment to excellence as an attribute of God that honors God, our strongly held belief that every person matters to God and therefore to us, our embrace of worship as a way of life, our strong commitment to engaging those who live on the margins of life, etc.

Every community has a unique set of values. We cultivate collective wisdom to the extent that we gain clarity about our core values and call upon them regularly, as criteria to satisfy, within our decision making processes.

Cultivate Group Silence and Solitude: Silence and solitude lie at the heart of wisdom awareness. They are the center from which we connect to the soul of the congregation.

When we work in knowledge mode, we produce a lot of conversation: the report, the debate, the presentation, the brainstorm, etc.  When we open ourselves to wisdom, we take time for silence.

For example, we may frame a topic for discussion, and then stop for quiet reflection and prayer.  We might review all of the knowledge content available to us on a subject being considered, then put the reports away and use silence to reorient ourselves around soulfulness.

It feels counterintuitive to speak about solitude as something that we invite into a group context. But wisdom work requires healthy intrapersonal awareness. Intrapersonal awareness requires solitude.

Team members should receive information in advance of the meeting, so that they have time to think and pray about issues on their own. Institute the practice of waiting and resting between the time when an issue is introduced and the time when a final decision is made.  Create an agreement among team members that they will not debate or decide an issue with sub-groups, outside of official meetings. Use the time between meetings to reflect and pray individually, in solitude.

Use Robert’s Rules of Order Sparingly:  Robert’s Rules are parliamentary procedure to determine who has speaking and deciding authority in deliberative settings. They are meant to contain conversations that are likely to become contentious. They move debate towards decision making, using the principles of majority rules.

However, Robert’s Rules are not effective at cultivating wisdom or honoring the soul of the congregation.  The Rules don’t solicit input from those hesitant to speak.  They don’t consciously address the needs of people not in the room.  They don’t promote, silence, solitude and waiting as needed. They don’t easily accommodate flexibility or changes in decision making direction. In short, Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful in meetings that require order and constraint. They are not helpful for promoting collective wisdom.

Work with Consensus Based Decision Making: In consensus based decision making, we stay in dialogue until every person involved in the decision can say: “I believe this is the best decision we can arrive at for the organization at this time, and I will support its implementation.” Simply agreeing with a decision is not true consensus.  Consensus implies commitment to the decision, which means that all participants oblige themselves to do their part in putting the decision into action.

Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous decision (in which all group members’ personal preferences are satisfied).  Consensus is also not a majority vote (in which some larger segment of the group gets to make the decision). Consensus is not a coercive or manipulative tactic to get members to conform to some preordained decision.  The goal of consensus is not to appear participative, it is actually to be participative.

Congregations require meeting structures for getting things done.  Without structure and process, there is just chaos. We can create processes that invest in building and sharing knowledge, but then we will always be limited by our own best thinking.  Or we can create processes and structures that cultivate collective wisdom. Then the possibilities for transformation are truly limitless.

Silo Mentality: Breaking Through to Collaboration

Monday, March 16th, 2015

We have great leaders.  They just don’t work together collaboratively. What we accomplish together is sometimes less impactful than the sum of our individual parts, because we spend precious time and energy protecting individual or departmental turf. This is silo mentality.

silos-in-the-cloudSilos are artificial boundaries put up to accomplish personal   goals and keep others (perceived outsiders) from interfering with progress. A silo mindset produces sub-units that fail to share information, resources, or decision making.

Why are silos a problem in congregations? They encourage local optimization (personal, department or committee agendas) at the expense of alignment around mission.  Silos diminish the capacity of the whole. When allowed to flourish, silos advance favoritism and scapegoating. They contribute to secrecy, resource hoarding and an absence of trust.

Many congregations try to address silos through behavioral promises, “We will do a better job of sharing information, resources and decision making”.  If silos could be minimized through simple behavioral intent, we would have figured out how to eliminate them by now.

Complex organizational dynamics give birth to silos.  In the paragraphs that follow we will explore five contributing conditions.  By addressing these five conditions you can reduce or eliminate the destructive power of silos in your congregation and breakthrough to greater collaboration.

Lack of Incentive

In a healthy congregation leaders will collaborate so long as there is reason to do so. We often promote collaboration as a virtue without articulating what collaboration will serve.  It takes energy to sustain a collaborative culture. If we want staff and lay leaders to invest energy in collaboration, then we need to identify a clear and compelling case for doing so.

It begins with clarity about the overarching mission that unites us in ministry.  This is no small task in and of itself.  But then we also need each member of the team, committee, or board to link their personal passion to the overarching mission.  We can ask them what they need from the rest of us to pursue their passion. We can identify our intersecting points of need and interest, the places where my ministry needs intersect with yours.

Collaboration will naturally emerge if the case for crossing barriers becomes personally and departmentally compelling and satisfying.

Focusing Primarily on Resources

Silos flourish when our primary focus is on the allocation of scarce resources.  When the conversation is always about who gets what resource, people and departments become fearful.  Individuals seek to preserve and promote their own needs and agendas.

First Church went through a rocky pastoral transition.  During the interim time period the budget took a hard hit. Finding a new pastor took longer than anyone anticipated. Leaders hunkered down to get by with less.  The allocation of resources became the default mission of the congregation for a period of two years.  By the time the new senior minister arrived silos were firmly entrenched on the staff team and in the committee and board structure.

Once the new pastor arrived and found a way to turn the primary conversation towards mission, and away from resource allocation, the silos diminished.

Lack of Accountability

In some congregations favored leaders or departments get whatever resources they want without needing to demonstrate need or impact.  In other instances, players who fail to perform as needed, or people who introduce dysfunction into the congregation are not held accountable for their behavior.

In such environments constituents learn to protect themselves from neglect, abuse or dysfunction by focusing only on what is in front of them.  The result is an entire congregational system that hoards information, decision making and resources.

When silos exist due to lack of accountability, the solution is to establish clear performance expectations (essential functions, core competencies, performance goals) for each member of the team and every department.  People must be held accountable for meeting those expectations, with natural and logical consequences for failure to perform.

Once it becomes apparent that health and good performance are rewarded, and that inappropriate behavior is addressed, shared communication and decision making will naturally reemerge.

 

Poor Organizational Design

Organizational design theory teaches us that hierarchical structures work against collaboration. We have learned that flatter, more decentralized structures invite collaboration.  This is true in theory.

However, collaboration is possible in every structural design model.  Similarly, silos can emerge within any organizational design.  Flat structures produce silos when they become unwieldy and unmanageable. Hierarchical structures produce silos when we fail to create logical linkages between organizational sub-units.

If your congregation is struggling with silo mentality, take a look at your organizational design to make certain that it can handle the size and complexity of the congregation.  Does your senior minister have too many direct reports to provide effective supervision?  Are there too many committees reporting into your board structure?

Make certain that there are solid integrating mechanisms in your organizational design. Integrating mechanisms include things like effective meeting structures that delegate planning and decision making to appropriately sized decision making groups. Integrating mechanisms also include the shared supervision or oversight of ministry areas that need to logically coordinate work.

Absence of Trust

An absence of trust rarely develops from a single incident or violation.  People have learned over time that others cannot be trusted, that being vulnerable gets you nowhere, and that sharing resources and information generally leads to loss or punishment.

A team or board that is mistrustful cannot simply declare a new day and become instantaneously collaborative.  The team has to learn its way back to trustworthiness. New sprigs of trust emerge when we make small commitments to one another and then deliver on those promises.

A good way to restore trust is to establish a behavioral covenant. Clearly define acceptable healthy behaviors and teach people conversational techniques for holding one another accountable when unacceptable behaviors emerge. Collaboration will slowly build as team members learn their way back to health.

Breaking down silos is not easy because silos don’t have simple origins. They are the result of complex organizational dynamics that must be addressed simultaneously. However, silos do not have to become your organizational status quo.  Begin where you are. The benefits are worth the investment of time and energy.

 

Building a Discerning Team

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Most teams in congregational settings assume they are being Spirit-led.  They believe that God will be self-disclosing and guide the work of the team, so long as good people gather with good intent.  They expect that discernment will happen automatically in the context of good decision making. And so, they demonstrate little intentionality when it comes to being Spirit-led or God-centered.

compassDiscernment doesn’t just happen.  It must be intentionally nurtured within the culture of a team.  A team that is grounded in God’s spirit, and open to authentic discernment, will cultivate its presence, its process, and its practices.

The Status Quo: Typically, groups trust each member of the team to be prayerful and discerning about an issue, and they expect each person to bring their private discernments into group decision making.  They rely on the spiritual depth of individuals to carry the team.

Certainly, a team will not be discerning if individual members haven’t developed their personal prayer and discernment muscles. You can’t simply show up and expect to engage in holy listening as a group, without having cultivated a prayerful spirit among members of the group.

However, personal prayer work isn’t enough for creating a group culture of discernment, because the team has a spirit of its own that engages the discernment process. The group has a history of carefully cultivated roles and relationships, habitual ways of seeing things, and established patterns of interaction.  To break through our entrenched behavior patterns we need to work on group presence, process and practice.

Presencing: The group must “presence” itself if it wants to do the work of discernment. Presencing is what the team does when it connects to its deepest source.

Otto Scharmer says that this is the place from which the field of the future begins to arise. The team has entered this state when it sits fully in the presence of these questions: Who is our Self? What is our Work?

Presencing happens when the team looks honestly at its past patterns of interaction, and suspends those patterns long enough to see with fresh eyes, and sense the organization from a new perspective. The team lets go of its attachments to personal agendas and the way that things have been done before, and enters the conversation with open mind, open heart and open will.

In a traditional decision making process there is little room for the concept of “presence”. Presence requires an attitude of unknowing. It takes time and intentionally. We can’t show up, say a prayer, and then dive into work as usual. We need to engage in deeper disciplines of prayer and silence in order to invite the team into a presencing state.

The more we cultivate this state, and the more frequently we enter into it, the easier it is to access presencing, when the need arises.

Process:  Group discernment involves a process that has many parallels to, but is distinct from traditional decision making. A team that is discerning will adopt an intentional discernment process. Let’s compare.

 Steps in Group Problem Solving   Stages in Group Discernment(Morris & Olsen)
Defining the problemLooking for root causesGathering the  data

Interpreting the data

Brainstorming alternatives/options

Establishing decision criteria

Evaluating alternatives

Assessing risk and return

Selecting an optimal solution

Allocating resources

Framing the focus of discernmentGrounding in guiding principlesShedding ego & biases

Rooting in the tradition & values

Listening for the promptings of Spirit

Exploring through imagination

Weighing options

Closing; moving toward selection

Testing the decision with rest

Decision making assumes that problems are solvable if approached carefully and logically, and that we have the capacity to understand and solve our own problems & embrace our own opportunities. Decision making seeks to maximize available resources and to maintain and restore the status quo.

Discernment, on the other hand, assumes that logic, attitude and ego stand in the way of effective problem solving.   Divine will is the ultimate value. Discernment relies on vulnerability, humility and unknowing. It opens up creativity and compassion. It requires patience, perseverance and fluidity in practices of dialogue and prayer. It works on God’s timing and not in accordance with human time frames.

Practices: Teams that are spiritually grounded generally have a deep toolbox of spiritual practices at the ready, for use as needed in the course of teamwork. These practices extend well beyond a simple prayer at the beginning and end of each meeting.

Spiritually grounded teams regularly engage such practices as:  lectio divina, contemplation/desolation, reflective story-weaving and biblical-theological reflection. Teams sharpen these practices outside of problem solving contexts, so that when they need to call upon the tools the practices are already well understood and practiced.

Spiritually grounded teams cultivate their capacity for silence. The team regularly enters into silence together and discovers a place of authenticity at the core of its stillness.

Some teams appoint a sage or discernmentarian. These are people with particular gifts of discernment and a capacity for wisdom, who are asked to guide the team’s discernment practices.

We cannot take the soulfulness of our organization or our teams for granted.  Our desire to be grounded in God’s spirit does not automatically make us a discerning team.  Tending to our presence, our process, and our practices leads to a rich, life-long journey of intentional spiritual discovery.

How to Have a Better Conversation

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Board leaders long for meaningful meetings. Instead, many participate in mind-numbing meetings that repetitively chase topics, with little forward momentum. Agendas are rigidly structured around the receipt of reports, with little work that actually impacts the future of the congregation. What would it take to foster more fruitful board conversations?

BetterConversationRecently, I observed a board conversation about declining worship attendance. The decline followed three years of slow, but steady growth. The topic appeared on the agenda as “worship attendance.” The conversation was introduced by the pastor as part of her regular monthly report. The pastor pointed out that every other indicator of church health looked positive; membership was up, the budget was growing, more people were serving in volunteer positions, and new programs were well attended. The pastor wondered aloud what the dip in attendance meant, and whether or not the dip was a foreboding indicator of future decline.

Immediately, the gathered leaders plunged into frenzied dialogue with a lot of “worrying about” attendance numbers. There was some brainstorming about cause, some speculation about how to solve “the problem”, and lots of worrying about long term budget implications. The conversation lasted twenty minutes, without any clear consensus as to whether the congregation actually had a problem, and no plan of approach as to what should happen next. Leaders agreed to watch the situation, and the conversation was tabled until the following month, where it was re-introduced again, with much the same outcome.

During my visit with the board, I asked the leaders if they would humor me in an experiment. The leaders agreed and I introduced the language of Richard Chait, et al., in their book Governance as Leadership. We discussed the differences between fiduciary, strategic and generative modes of governance, all of which must be nurtured within the life of a board. I introduced the following distinctions.

The fiduciary mode of governance focuses on the effective use of assets. It concerns itself with preventing theft, waste or misuse. It explores issues related to budgets, assets, compensation, facilities, fundraising and staff team performance. It considers the ethics of a situation, the safety of the constituency, the legality of things and appropriate boundary setting.

I asked the board to talk about the dip in worship attendance, purely through the lens of fiduciary governance. They talked about possible budgetary impact, and the long term correlation between attendance and giving patterns. They engaged in some worrying behaviors, but their overall conversation was directed towards specific asset areas. They asked themselves if giving patterns were historically correlated with attendance patterns. They wondered what a plateau in growth would mean for long overdue salary increases anticipated at the end of the year. They asked themselves what percentage of the operating budget was actually allocated to the production of the Sunday worship service. If people were changing the way that they participated in the life of the congregation (by worshiping less), should the assets devoted to worship attendance be re-allocated?

Next, I introduced the language of strategic governance. A board is operating in strategic mode when it explores the long-term impact on identity and future of the congregation. It examines the topic for its intersection with the questions: Who are we? Who are we here to serve? What is God calling us to do or become? Strategic governance builds authority, responsibility and accountability into the system by empowering others to act in pursuit of an agreed upon strategy.

I invited the board to wade into the conversation about attendance again, this time purely through the lens of strategic governance.

They had a rich conversation about the link between worship attendance and their identity as a disciple-making congregation. The wondered if less face time in worship actually reduced spiritual growth and relationship building within the congregation. They explored whether or not their mission suggested a particular sized worshiping community. They wondered aloud how they would know if they were being successful in worship, and whether or not worship attendance was an appropriate indicator of discipleship success.

The group decided that they needed better information to determine if the dip was problematic or not. Had some people dropped out of worship entirely, and if so, who were they? Or, was the dip reflective of a stable but growing body of worshippers that were attending with less frequency. The board decided to assign the research of these questions to the Director of Membership and asked for a more complete reporting, by demographic group, at the next scheduled meeting.

Finally, I introduced the mode of generative governance. This mode of governance seeks to unleash the power of creative thinking. Generative thinking invites meaning making about the knowledge, information and data. It involves re-framing problems/challenges so that the congregation can understand and approach them in new ways, by introducing paradigm shifts. Generative thinking typically requires noticing cues and clues, choosing and using new frames of reference, and intentionally constructing a dominant narrative.

Board leaders began their conversation again, this time adopting the generative lens. They began with open brainstorming about all of the challenges, problems and opportunities that might contribute to worship decline. They discussed the busy lifestyles of the congregants, the increase in competing activities on Sunday mornings, and the presence of a new mega-church across town. Someone suggested that members might be experiencing more authentic Sabbath by staying home on Sunday mornings. They talked about a recent article from ABPnews/Herald on national trends in reported worship attendance, and they explored whether or not the article had anything to do with this congregation. They brainstormed possible ways to infuse more energy into the existing worship experience, and they suggested potential new worship venues to better meet the needs of congregants. They wondered what qualified as meaningful worship. Ultimately, they decided that they weren’t ready to create a narrative about worship attendance. They wanted to see more information first.

At the end of our experiment, leaders agreed that this conversation had been more meaningful and future focused than previous attempts. The board agreed that they wanted to delegate more of their fiduciary work, so that their future conversations could take on more generative and strategic overtones. They agreed that artificially separating the three modes of governance was an interesting experiment that they would adopt from time to time moving forward.

Most importantly, the board chair and pastor realized that they had important work to do in framing agenda items before bringing them to the board. The framing of an agenda item influences the mode of governance that the board assumes as it enters a conversation. The board chair decided that the agenda item for the following month’s meeting would read, “Changing patterns in worship attendance, by demographic group.”

And the conversation moved forward from there.

Equipping Board Leaders with Behavioral Expectations

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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