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.

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.


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.


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.

Ask Alban: Thinking About Board Size

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

Q. Everyone knows that our governing board is too large for effective decision making, and yet every time we talk about reducing the size of our board people grow anxious. The conversation gets stuck when leaders assert that we must have a large board to insure good representation.  How can we engage a productive conversation about board size that explores new ground and doesn’t provoke anxiety?

A. A good place to begin the dialogue is by asking board members, “What is the fundamental work of the board?” You may want to begin with the assertion that the primary work of the board is governance, and then go on to ask board members how they understand that term.

Once board members build a shared definition of their work, you can introduce the next important question, “Why is having a large board important to you?” A first round response is likely to include vague assertions about the importance of representation and good democratic process. If you stick with this question long enough (by repeatedly asking, “And why is that important?”) you will eventually surface the heart of resistance. Congregations with large boards are often protecting or promoting some core value that is widely shared but not fully articulated. Let me offer a few examples from my consulting practice.

The board of a Baptist church recently spoke to me about their belief in soul liberty and soul freedom, and the need to protect individual voice from the unchecked authority of a pastor. In their thinking, a large board is the best way to insure the individual right of self-expression.

The board of a Unitarian Universalist congregation spoke to me about the importance of hearing the underrepresented, or the voice on the margins. For this particular group, a large board is important to insure that a mainstream voice doesn’t silence the margin.

A group of Mennonite pastors recently spoke to me of their congregations’ deeply held values of humility and being a “plain people”. A large board signifies that no individual voice is more important than another.

A Jewish rabbi explained that for a people who have suffered near extinction, the notion that every person matters finds its way into board life, where the presence of many voices around the table is an end unto itself.

If we listen carefully to these examples we see that “representation” is the expressed principle, but the underlying values that drive people to pursue representation are subtly unique. If you want to advance the dialogue around reducing board size, you need to articulate the underlying values that support representation. Then you are ready for the next question.

“Are we really promoting or protecting what is most important to us by operating with a large board?” In the above examples board members recognized that what they cared most deeply about was not actually preserved or promoted by a large body. A large board often results in a few active board members engaging in dialogue and decision making, while the rest of the board looks on, or rubberstamps decisions made outside of the room. Sub-groups within the board often form, creating marginalized clusters whose voices are never fully heard or honored. Board members don’t experience their presence as critical and find it easy to skip meetings or to ignore their responsibilities. The most assertive and frequently heard voices on the board are often not the healthiest leadership voices. In short, large boards don’t actually promote good representation, they often undermine it.

Once the board has identified the fundamental nature of their work, and they have recognized that being large doesn’t necessarily promote effective representation, you are ready to move the dialogue forward. “Where does our understanding of “right” board size come from?”  Somewhere in the history of the congregation a group of leaders decided that this structure was the right structure. Why was that decision made? Was it a good decision for that time? Are the conditions which informed that decision still relevant today? Does denominational polity really require the specific practices that we have adopted?

Finally you are ready to pose the ultimate question, “What is the right board size for who we are and what we seek to accomplish?”

Boards that engage in this type of dialogue rarely come to a decision about reduced board size in a single conversation. It takes a long time to unfreeze the long held assumptions that members cling to, even when they can no longer defend the logic behind their position. Lots of patience and good humor is required. And once the board has changed their thinking, well then there is the rest of the congregation.

Leadership Systems in Motion

Monday, October 31st, 2011

The large church is managed through five interdependent leadership systems. When change occurs in one system, it tends to produce
change in the others. These systems include:

  1. Clergy Leadership Roles
  2. Staff Team Design and Function
  3. Governance and Board Function
  4. Acculturation and the Role of the Laity
  5. The Formation and Execution of Strategy

As daily changes occur in the life of the congregation, these systems adjust but remain relatively stable. Leaders come and go, policies are formed and adapted, groups form and dissolve, but the basic interaction of the five systems remains constant.

However, every leadership system has a capacity limit, a point beyond which it can no longer effectively function. When the activity
level of the congregation significantly increases or decreases, leadership systems hit their limits. A senior clergyperson assumes a particular leadership role that is highly effective in a church with weekend worship attendance of 700. The clergyperson is surprised to discover that the leadership role begins losing its effectiveness when the church adds an additional worship service and  now hosts 850 in weekend worship. Or, a staff team that was humming along eliminates a few part-time staff members due to a budget decrease, and suddenly the overall department structure of the church no longer works. The staff team maintains  momentum but notices how much more energy it suddenly takes to function well across departments.

One of the remarkable things about leadership systems is that they tend to reach the outer limits of their effectiveness at predictable
moments, based on worship attendance or budget size. We often refer to the period of time that a congregations approaches or moves through these limits as a transition zone. Some refer to transition zones as “attendance ceilings,” because they observe that a congregation’s weekend attendance repeatedly climbs to a predictable level and then drops back down. When a congregation hits one of these transition zones, it must intentionally adapt all of the five leadership systems, or the congregation won’t be able to accommodate added complexity. The systems have reached their effectiveness limits and cannot accommodate additional growth without being repurposed.

In the large church there are natural attendance and budget zones where the five leadership systems stabilize and accommodate complexity
and growth without shifting.  Each of  these zones operates with a basic organizing principle and with predictable characteristics
in the five leadership systems.

Congregations occupy a stable size zone when they operate with an annual budget of between $1 MM and $2 MM or when weekly worship attendance remains between 400 and 800. I refer to this size zone as the professional congregation, because most of its behavior is driven by the need to professionalize operations. The congregation realizes that the church’s programming has outgrown the managerial capacity of its lay leaders to both sustain excellence in existing programming and introduce new programming, so the demand for a staff team of specialists emerges. The growth of this size church is related to budget capacity, which limits the ability to add staff. The pastor is learning to let go of a purely relational style of leadership and adopt a more managerial focus. The staff team is moving away from a generalist orientation and toward a specialist orientation. The board is learning how to govern by setting policy and creating systems of performance management.

The strategic congregation emerges as the stabilizing zone once a congregation is operating with a budget between $2 MM and $4 MM or maintaining average weekly attendance between 800 and 1,200. This congregation requires a more intentional orientation towards strategy,
growth, and alignment. In this size congregation there are so many decision-making groups at work that it is easy for the church to drift out of alignment and for tremendous energies to be wasted. The pastor is learning to maintain strategic focus.  The staff team is learning to function in aligned departmental structures, with the oversight of an executive team.  The board is growing smaller in size and is learning to delegate daily management of the church to the staff, so that it can focus more clearly on strategy formation and oversight.

The church that worships with an average weekend community of 1,200-1,800, or with a budget of more than $4MM, is known as a matrix congregation. The presenting organizational challenge of this size category is decentralization. The careful work that was done to align church structures in the previous size category suddenly gets in the way of the more organic leadership style needed to function in this very large category. The matrix size church takes its name from the shape of the organizational chart that often characterizes this size zone. Growth in the
matrix-sized church emerges and is managed everywhere, all at the same time.  The senior clergy leader focuses primarily on the overall strategy of the congregation, teaching, preaching, and fund-raising. She has fully delegated the management of the staff team to one or more executive ministers.  The staff is learning new ways to coordinate its decentralized decision making.

A congregation approaching the upper or lower limits of any one of these stabilizing zones will experience leadership stress. Rightsizing the
systems requires a fundamental paradigm shift in how the church functions. The congregation that tries to avoid the difficult work of adapting its leadership systems risks stagnation in growth and/or the ineffective use of congregationa lresources.

The Village Elders

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

All congregations are faced with decisions that can be made by a small leadership body (the governing board, the staff team, a committee) and decisions that must be taken on by the collective body. In the small to medium sized congregation, when full congregational decision making is required, a church-wide meeting is scheduled and a significant percentage of total membership shows up.  In the large congregation, leaders are continually frustrated by the small percentage of members that turn out for a “y’all come” meeting. It’s not unusual for a congregation with membership exceeding 2000 to have only 120 people show up for a congregational meeting where important decisions are being made.  Why is this? I believe that the answer has something to do with group threshold limits, and the number of people who identify themselves as the “village elders” at any point in time. Let me explain.

The full leadership body of the church is a self identified group of leaders who feel “responsible” for the overall well being of the congregation.  This typically includes members of the staff team and board members. It also includes an inner ring of leaders who are not currently serving in either of those capacities, but still feel a strong sense of leadership responsibility for the church. This group informally functions as the “village elder” body, keeping a watchful eye on the direction of the congregation.  It’s not an officially appointed body, and membership seems to self adjust over time. However, the size of the group always remains rather constant; somewhere between 75-150 people.  This seems to hold true regardless of the size of the total membership body.

Why doesn’t the informal leadership group ever grow larger than this number, even in the very large congregation?  Humans are known to have a cognitive upper limit to the average number of individuals with whom they can form cohesive personal relationships. That limit, known as Dunbar’s Number, is around 150 people.  Having enough memory space to remember people’s names and faces is not enough to manage 150 relationships. It is about integrating and managing information about the constantly changing relationships between individuals within a group.  When a group grows larger than 150 people, members of the group lose their ability to track relationships, and the group loses its capacity to function well as a community.

I would argue that in the large congregation the leadership body is always subconsciously reforming itself around the Dunbar limit. The leadership body must be able to think of itself in some cogent way as members of a single community. This requires that people know one another well enough to communicate around important congregational issues.  In response to this natural group dynamic, leaders are continually stepping into the informal village elder group and removing themselves from the village elder group, based on life circumstances.

In a medium sized congregation, if 150 people show up for a congregational gathering it represents a significant percentage of the membership body. In the large church it may represent less than 10% of membership.  The small percentage may be interpreted as a sign of apathy, but it’s really just the village elder system organizing itself to fulfill an important leadership role on behalf of the congregation.

How does this compare to your lived experience?

Photo Credit:  The Earth Tribe

Role of the Executive Team

Friday, January 7th, 2011

An ideal sized governing board in the large congregation is 5-7 individuals. A group of this size can effectively engage strategic decision making. Many congregations simply cannot imagine reducing the size of their governing board to 5-7 individuals. Either the operating culture or the congregation’s polity system do not support a streamlined decision making group. Congregation members may be too distrustful of the small board, believing that it couldn’t possibly represent the best interest of an entire congregation. In these congregations an executive team is often formed within the board structure, to facilitate more effective decision making and to help the board maintain a focus that is more strategic and generative in scope.

The executive team may consist of the senior clergy leader, the executive clergy (if such a role exists), the board chair, the treasurer (or other financial office) and one or two other central board figures. Executive teams may meet weekly, bi-weekly or monthly, depending upon the work that they do on behalf of the congregation. Executive teams can promote good governance when they focus their time in the following ways:

Triage: One of the primary ways that an executive team can promote good governance is by triaging the various topics that are slated to come before a board. The team looks over all of the slated board issues and determines which topics can be effectively delegated to other decision making bodies in the congregation. By keeping an overabundance of fiduciary items off of the agenda the executive team can help the board stay more strategically and generatively focused.

Framing: Once the ET has determined that an issue does belong on the board’s agenda they can work to frame the issue in a way that will encourage strategic and generative conversations about the topic. They can determine which part of a conversation belongs to the board, and then they can frame the topic in such a way that the board’s time is well used in service to the decisions which must be made. Similarly, the ET may entertain some dialogue around important topics before bringing the issue to the board so that only those elements of the topic that are relevant to the board’s decision making are brought to the board. In other words, the ET strains out irrelevant or misleading data so that the board conversation stays more focused on the truly critical issues at hand.

Decision-Making: Some congregation’s delegate specific types of decision making to the ET. The most common decision making that occurs within an Executive Team is the time-sensitive issue that must be acted upon in between regularly scheduled board meetings. When the ET makes a decision on behalf of the board it is critical that full disclosure of those decisions be communicated back to board members in a timely manner.

• Deciding what to place in the “consent” agenda: A consent agenda, sometimes called a consent “calendar,” is a component of a meeting agenda that enables the board to group routine items and resolutions under one umbrella. As the name implies, there is a general agreement ahead of time by a board on the use of the procedure. Issues that are packaged together in a consent agenda are distributed to board members ahead of their regularly scheduled meeting for preview purposes. At the meeting, items in the consent agenda do not warrant any discussion before a vote. Unless a board member feels that an item should be discussed and requests the removal of that item ahead of time, the entire package is voted on at once without any additional explanations or comments. Because no questions or comments on these items are allowed during the meeting, this procedure saves time. Those items removed from the consent agenda by a member of the board can be discussed more fully before being acted upon. The Executive team can pre-sort the issues up for inclusion in a board meeting and determine which items can effectively be included within the consent agenda.

Large congregations that make effective use of an Executive Team often find that over time the board needs to meet less frequently. As the ET becomes more effective at triaging, framing and decision making on behalf of the board, board members come to accept and expect strong leadership from the ET. Board members appreciate the need to meet less frequently and appreciate that when they do meet they are engaged in more productive conversations that truly benefit the life of the congregation. Some congregations, after working effectively with an Executive Team over time, come to realize that the ET has become the governing board and that the larger governing body is actually an advisory group to the ET. Once this awareness takes hold, the congregation may be ready to reduce the size of their board to 5-7 individuals and eliminate the Executive Team.

Photo Credit: Zebra Huddle