Have We Failed?

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

What Makes a Ministry Sustainable?

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

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

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

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

Learning from our Endings

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

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

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

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.

 

Breaking Our Dependence on Praise

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding Steady (Maintaining Presence)

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014
tightrope 2

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

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

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

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

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

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in “Leadership on the Line” call it holding steady. Holding steady is about learning to take the heat rather than restoring the status quo. It involves focusing attention on the issue and letting the issue ripen. It requires the ability to observe and learn from resistance and the factions that emerge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Acting on on Our Plans

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

In the world of congregations we are good at planning and doing. We enjoy thinking great thoughts and crafting lofty ministry ideals. We are fair at experimenting with our ideas, and taking tentative steps in the direction of our plans. We are great at running programs, running programs, and running more programs.

However, we are not good at learning from our mistakes, making course corrections, and fully implementing our intentions. We avoid evaluation and accountability. Consequently, we fail in our intentional change efforts and fall back into the status quo.

We could learn something from the discipline of Management, which has long embraced the plan-do-check-act process (also known as the Deming cycle), as a way of managing change and promoting continuous improvement. The four phases in the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle involve:

  • Plan: Identifying and analyzing the situation. Setting a goal for the future.
  • Do: Developing and testing potential approaches.
  • Check: Measuring how effective the approach was, and analyzing whether it could be improved in any way
  • Act: Implementing the improved approach fully.PDCA-250

Congregations feel most comfortable on the top half of the cycle. We are allergic to the reflection, evaluation and accountability required to improve and complete implementation. We attribute our difficulties in completing the cycle to a variety of issues including: lack of clarity about priorities, short attention spans, conflict avoidance, uncommitted volunteers, inadequate resources, and frequent leadership turnover.

The net result is an endless treadmill of plan-do-plan-do-plan-do that exhausts church leaders and fails to produce meaningful change. It does not have to be this way. Here are five intentional things that you can do to quit being “that” church, and to start being a church that learns from its mistakes and acts on its plans.

Five Things You Can Do

  1. Limit your Plans.

Every congregation is limited in energy and resources. You need to focus your efforts on the one or two big plans that will make the biggest difference in the right direction for your congregation.

If you establish more than one or two areas of growth, you are basically telling your staff and volunteers that they can work on whatever feels good in the moment, without impact. You need to be clear about a few priorities if you want to get better at learning and implementation.

  1. Name the Metrics (or Observable Behaviors).

How will you know when you have arrived? What new behaviors will you witness, or what old behaviors will disappear?

We improve our odds of learning and acting when we know how to evaluate our efforts: changes in attendance patterns, giving, participation, service touch points, new members, new disciples, an increase in the use of personal spiritual disciplines, more people sharing their faith stories, etc.

  1. Clarify the Work of the Board vs. the Work of the Staff.

Generally speaking, the governing board is responsible for naming the larger priorities and outcomes that you are pursuing as a congregation, naming the metrics of evaluation, and allocating resources. The board also establishes policies that determine who is authorized to do what and with what limitations.

The staff team leads the day-to-day efforts related to experimentation and implementation, with the support and involvement of appropriate ministry teams and committees.

The board and staff work together to check in, evaluate progress and establish course corrections.

When we are clear about who does what, there is a better chance that we will engage the plan.

  1. Create a Calendar of Check-in and Evaluation

Intentionality is everything when it comes to learning and acting. Unfortunately, most congregations prepare meeting agendas in a very reactive manner. The work of the day is based on the felt needs of the moment, or the problems that seem most pressing.

Alternatively, why not create an annual calendar of meetings, (for both board and staff) that covers the full plan-do-check-act cycle. Determine when the new strategic priorities of the congregation must be named by the board each year. Schedule the date by which staff must set their performance goals with their supervisors, in accordance with the new priorities. Name the month in which the board will allocate resources in accordance with the plan. Schedule an annual performance review process (with board and staff coming together to evaluate ministry areas, and supervisors evaluating the performance of staff members.)

  1. Celebrate Success

The busyness of congregational life often precludes real clarity about when something is finished. Take time to notice and celebrate when a plan has actually been accomplished (regardless of its overall success). This will help to create a culture in which people learn to finish what has been planned.

Imagine for a moment the impact that your congregation could have in the world, if it actually learned from its mistakes and implemented the plans it made. With a few intentional practices, you could become that congregation.

 

 

How to Develop Wise Leaders

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

Consider the last slate of candidates nominated for leadership in your congregation. What attributes were sought when recruiting this group? Perhaps you looked for potential leaders who were: invested, good decision-makers, strategic, prayerful, respected, effective communicators, with strong personal boundaries.

How did the actual list of nominees compare to your desired list of attributes? Did you find the attributes you were seeking, or did you default to: loyal, breathing, and willing?2 beautiful owls

Congregations struggle with a perpetual gap between the leaders they need and the pool of talent that they actually have. There are a host of circumstances to blame. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we haven’t developed our leadership base. We rely on other institutions to cultivate leadership talent in our members, which we try to harvest. And, we haven’t clearly identified or developed the most important attribute for congregational leadership: Wisdom.

Wisdom, in the biblical tradition, stands for many things ranging from the technical skill of artisans, to the art of governance. It incorporates simple cleverness, with the practical skill of coping with life, and the pursuit of ethical conduct. Wisdom is seen as derived from God, as belonging to God, as associated with creation, and as identified with the Torah or law.

Congregations are not meant to operate like other for-profit, or not-for –profit entities. We value the effectiveness and efficiency associated with institutional life, but we need to be led in ways that reflect our faith based origins and in ways that foster covenantal community. We seek leaders that can nurture institutional health, while tending to the soul of the institution and its constituents, and while listening for the guidance of Spirit. We seek wisdom.

Can wisdom be taught? Or, is wisdom something that certain people are born to, or gifted with, independent of learned skills and experience?

Two Schools of Thought

Let’s examine two viewpoints on the development of wisdom in leaders; one secular and one spiritual.

Yale psychology professor, Robert Sternberg, promotes the Balanced Theory of Wisdom to explain how wisdom can be intentionally developed.

Sternberg explains that wisdom seeks the common good. Wisdom realizes that the common good may be better for some than for others. A wise leader can negotiate the differences among individuals and groups, much like Solomon negotiated between two mothers who each claimed the same baby. Sternberg claims that we can nurture wisdom by developing the following capacities in our leaders.

• Basic intelligence (practical problem solving and verbal abilities)

• Factual & procedural knowledge

• Intrapersonal awareness (biases, skills, orientations, values)

• Extrapersonal awareness (goals, political agendas and interests of others)

• Balance and integration of competing interests

• Clarity about goals, along with the ability to recognize competing goals and to negotiate unifying goals

• Balancing short and long-term interests and needs

• Naming and clarifying core values, and using values to negotiate competing interests

• Shaping and adapting the congregation to changes in the environment

A more spiritual approach to developing wisdom is described by Cynthia Bourgeault, in “The Wisdom Way of Knowing”.

Bourgeault asserts that wisdom is a way of knowing that goes beyond one’s mind, one’s rational understanding and embraces the whole of a person: mind (intellectual center), heart (emotional center) and body (moving center).

This viewpoint sees wisdom as a gift of God, a gift that can be invited through prayerfulness. When a person is poised, balanced and alert in all three centers, a shift in consciousness happens. We become present, fully occupying the now in which we find ourselves. A state of presence is required to move into wisdom. The wisdom way of knowing stresses the fluidity of movement between God consciousness and present-centeredness. The Wisdom way of knowing requires:

• Surrender (which opens the heart directly to the more subtle realms of spiritual wisdom and energy)

• Seeing with the eye of the heart, and

• Connecting to the Divine Source

Tips for Cultivating Wisdom

We do not need to choose between secular and spiritual approaches to developing wisdom. We must nurture both. Our churches and synagogues need wise leaders with practical organizational wisdom and deep soulfulness.
Here are several practices to consider adding to your leadership development toolbox:

• Create the expectation that every member of your leadership team will have a personal prayer discipline. Create a culture in which leaders hold one another accountable for that discipline, by encouraging spiritual direction, check-ins and testimony.

• Introduce prayer practices into your meeting format, practices that extend beyond opening and closing prayers. Teach your leaders how to engage in guided meditation, lectio-divina, appreciative inquiry, theological biblical reflection, and consolation vs. desolation. Help your leaders become more comfortable spending time in silence.

• Instruct your leaders in the basics of governance and polity that will guide their work. But also ground them in the core values, strategic priorities and goals of the congregation.

• Help new leaders articulate their own personal core values and priorities and examine the overlap or conflict between their personal goals and the goals of the congregation.

• Define an intentional decision making/discernment process that includes these elements:

o Framing the issue,
o Naming guiding principles and core values that apply to the decision,
o Weighing the competing interests at work in the decision; clarifying who stands to gain or lose what,
o Distinguishing between the long and short term implications of a decision,
o Naming the adaptive work at the core of the issue, and
o Inviting silence and prayerful reflection in the midst of group decision making.

In this era of congregational life, where change is constant and adaptive leadership is needed, we must cultivate different leadership skills. We can’t simply assume that the leadership skills that our congregants have learned in other settings will translate well into the church. We need to be about the work of cultivating wisdom and developing more soulful leadership.

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.

Pastoral Transition-Lifting the Veil of Secrecy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Organizations in all walks of life openly plan for leadership transition. The Church is unique in the veil of secrecy that we draw around pastoral transition. We don’t want to watch people grow anxious, so we withhold known information about departure. secretjpg_jpg_size_xxlarge_letterboxIn doing so, we postpone the hard adaptive work of leadership transition into the next chapter. New pastors walk into congregations that haven’t yet had a good ending, and clearly aren’t ready for a new beginning.

Pastors plan their retirements for years, but wait to tell their congregations about their plans until a few short weeks or months before the intended transition date. Or, a pastor discerns that his or her call to this congregation is drawing to a close. She begins feeling a pull towards a different kind of ministry. Rather than discussing this discernment with leaders in the congregation, she holds her decision tightly to her chest until another call is firmly in hand. Then she springs an announcement on church leaders, four short weeks prior to her departure.

Recently, a congregation contacted me to help them with some low level anxiety in the system (i.e., conflict) that was getting in the way of strategic planning. We decided to host listening sessions with leaders, to better understand what was happening.

The consultation began with the senior pastor pulling me aside for a “confidential” conversation. He wanted to talk about his planned retirement. The pastor was in his early seventies and had not yet spoken with a single staff member or lay leader about the end of his ministry. He had been their leader for twenty-three years. The church had experienced remarkable renewal and growth under his leadership. This pastor was certain that any conversation along the lines of retirement would create mayhem in the congregation. In fact, numerous leaders had told him over the years that he couldn’t possibly retire because he was so loved, and no one could replace him. The pastor didn’t believe that line, but he could sense the anxiety in his leaders, whenever he tried to broach the subject.

When I finished my conversation with the pastor I facilitated listening sessions with the board and the staff team. In both listening sessions the primary issue raised was the future leadership of the church. They loved their pastor, but they sensed a waning energy and enthusiasm in his leadership. The believed it was time for the pastor to begin planning for retirement, but they didn’t want to disrespect his leadership by saying so, directly to him.

Leaders were fearful that the lack of a transition plan would result in one of three outcomes. The pastor would experience a significant medical event that would abruptly take him out of leadership and leave the church in chaos. The pastor would stay too long at the fair, and the vitality of the church would wane, inviting malaise and decline that would be hard to reverse once a new leader actually came on board. Or, the pastor would exit from the system poorly, failing to release the leadership reigns gracefully to a new leader.

Why couldn’t the leaders of this congregation have an open and honest dialogue about pastoral transition? They were afraid. They had legitimate reason to be fearful about all of the possible things that could go wrong in such a conversation.

There is fear that too much time in role after the announcement will lead to “lame duck” leadership; pastors feeling sidelined and irrelevant in their own congregations. There is fear that the anxiety in the congregation will prevent good work in the present. Better to wait and let the congregation do their grieving and adaptive work during the official interim season. There is fear that the rest of the staff team will get nervous and bolt if too much time passes between the announced intention to depart and the actual departure. Finally, there is fear that announcing an intended departure will place control in the hands of everyone else, but the pastor.

The problem is, and always has been, that systems know when secrets are being kept. First, when it comes to pending retirements, let’s acknowledge that congregations can do basic math. They know how old their pastors are, they anticipate that retirement is somewhere on the horizon. Second, leaders can sense when a leader is anxious about their own call, or when a leader has begun the process of detachment. In the absence of information, people make up their own stories about what is happening, and the stories that they make up are almost always more dramatic and fatalistic than reality.

We have taught ourselves this culture of secrecy and dread around pastoral transition. And it’s time to teach ourselves a better way.

Over the past several years I have worked with a number of congregations who have courageously entered the pastoral transition conversation, with openness and transparency. This is what I am experiencing. Congregations have remarkable resiliency around pastoral transition. Pastors can effectively discuss their departure plans with leaders, even years in advance, when several good practices are put into place.

• The governing body of the congregation (or its designated sub-committee) has an annual performance conversation with the senior leader, during which an honest picture of the health and vitality of the church and the clergy leadership role is explored. The pastor, in conversation with this body, develops a clear picture of his or her vibrancy in the system.

• When it becomes apparent that leadership transition is on the horizon, a trusted and authorized group of leaders is assigned the task of designing a leadership transition process. (This is often the personnel committee or the executive committee of the board). The departing pastor is an active participant in this design process.

• Depending upon polity, or the stipulation of by-laws, an appropriate group authorizes the transition plan. (In some congregations this is the governing body; in some it is the congregation at large.)

• A communication plan for announcing the departure is thoughtful and deliberate. People receive as much information as they need, when they need it, in order to manage their part of the transition process. Once a critical mass of leaders is aware, the whole congregation is brought into the communication loop.

• A transition team is appointed by the governing board to provide oversight to the overall transition. The transition team is not the search committee; the search committee has its own demanding work to do. The transition team consists of four to six spiritually mature, trusted, strategic thinkers in the life of the congregation. Their job is to monitor the congregations overall transition process; and to help negotiate the effective transfer of leadership authority, responsibility and accountability. The transition team stays in place until well after the new pastor has arrived.

• The pastor stays energetically engaged in the life of the congregation, all of the way up until the last day. The body of work that they do may begin to shift as they prepare for eventual departure. But, they stay engaged, active and vibrant in the pulpit.

• The pastor plans for the next chapter of his or her life and actively communicates his or her excitement about beginning that new chapter to the congregation, so that the congregation is able to envision life after ministry for themselves and the pastor.

The process of pastoral transition doesn’t have to be nearly as frightening as we make it. It is time to lift the veil of secrecy and discover a better way.

Is Our Busyness Masking Spiritual Boredom?

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

The large church is known for the quality and depth of its programming, and for the exhaustion of its staff team. It’s true, every one of my client congregations is functioning with a burned out staff team, and pastors on the brink of exhaustion.

We assume that a growing and thriving church is always adding more programming, enhancing current programming, and making certain that there is something offered to satisfy every imagined need. We heap on more and more options in an effort to improve participation and engagement. But it isn’t really working, is it? Those who are already engaged and active feel compelled to participate in the latest new offering to show their support. In fact, we are creating more opportunities for those who are already over-engaged, while the under-engaged watch our frenzy with mild disinterest.676x380

As we design and facilitate more programs, what is it that we fancy we are accomplishing? Do we honestly believe that adding offerings to the already overcrowded lives of our congregants will lead them more deeply into relationship with the Divine? Does one more scripture study, an extra spiritual formation instruction, an enticing new worship experience, or a compelling social justice opportunity really contribute to the soulfulness of our people or our congregations? Wouldn’t it be better to teach people how to sit still, to be okay with the discomfort of confronting themselves in empty time and space, to see what might emerge?

I suspect that the busyness we participate in and contribute to masks a deep-seated spiritual boredom of our own. We have forgotten what an authentic experience of God feels like, and how it is nurtured. Experiencing God begins in silence and stillness. There are no classes, twitter feeds, blog posts or sermons that will produce this. We cannot manufacture silence and stillness for our congregants. We can only point them in the general direction, and then trust that God will meet them there.

Have we ourselves confused thinking about, speaking about, and acting on behalf of God with the deep personal experience of being with God? Are we fearful that if we enter the silence and stillness that we will find nothing there to satisfy our souls? Are we afraid that we will have nothing to teach our congregants out of that experience?

It is summertime. We dreamed of this time all through the busy program year. This is the season we imagined would involve long stretches of uninterrupted time to dream, to pray, to rediscover our relationship with God, and to invent a next chapter. Instead, many of us are secretly ticking off the passing of days, worried that the summer will pass us by with nothing productive to show for our rejuvenation efforts. Many of us are already secretly gearing up for the onslaught of fall programming, just around the corner.

Today, I read this marvelous piece from Maria Popova on “Why the Capacity for Boredom is a Good Thing”. Popova reminds us of the childhood experience of boredom that emerges from having long stretches of “nothing to do”. She quotes Adam Phillips:

“Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom; that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.”

We have to slow down the madness of our program offerings so that we, and those that we lead, can enter the stillness, experience the boredom, and rediscover the desire for God on the other side. We need the courage to lead others in this counter-cultural journey of discovery.

So, today I invite you to quit work early. Put aside the sermon prep. Go for a walk or sit by a stream and stay there long enough to remember the sweet invitation of boredom. Invite God into that space with you and see what happens.

Size Matters

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

Size Matters…at least it does in the world of congregations. Don’t get me wrong. The size of a congregation doesn’t automatically make it any more or less impactful. Small churches and large churches can be equally effective in ministry. However, a congregation’s perception of its size, and how it functions in relationship to that perception…that matters.

size-mattersMany congregations today are suffering from something akin to a dysmorphic disorder. When they look at themselves, they see something remarkably different from what the outside world sees. They act on self-images that no longer reflect reality, but images to which they are still strongly attached. They organize themselves to serve the image, rather than the reality.

One expression of this is the little congregation that has inadvertently grown large over the years, but refuses to see itself as a large and complex institution. Leaders cling to their values of intimacy and family-feel, an image that hasn’t accurately described the church for years. They repeatedly select staff leaders who are most effective in small church contexts. Then they burn out those leaders by emphasizing a relational leadership style, in a system that requires a more managerial approach.

Another expression of the same problem is the congregation that “once upon a time” was a flagship church in the denomination. This is the church that has declined in size and scope, and continues to live in a larger shell of a structure. Leaders can’t bring themselves to right size their space or their leadership structures, because that would involve surrendering an image of prestige and importance which they hold dear. And so, the church wastes resources trying to sustain systems and structures that are inappropriately over-grown for a mid-sized congregation.

A healthy congregation has an accurate body image. It understands that systems and structures must serve the actual complexity of the organization. The healthy congregation understands that size is not an end unto itself, but that size must be understood in relationship to the soul and the mission of the institution.

Recently, leaders of a congregation that I worked with posed the following question to members, as part of a self-study process: “What are the essential, central characteristics that make our congregation unique? “ A disturbing phenomenon surfaced as we began reviewing the collected data. A significant number of people responded to the question about central essential characteristics with some version of, “Well, I guess what makes us unique is that we are big.” These statements about the size of the congregation were often made without any qualifiers about why big was important, or what it helped the congregation to accomplish. People simply thought that what made them unique was their size. Size was an end unto itself.

As we probed the responses a little further, we discovered that people meant many different things when they named size as an essential characteristic of the congregation. Some talked about the fact that the size of the congregation generated enough resources to ensure that the congregation could make an impact in its community. For others, size produced a capacity for excellence in worship and education that they valued. For still others the size of the congregation was a measure of prestige. They valued being part of the “biggest and richest” congregation around. (Leaders expressed a collective “ouch” in response to that last interpretation.)

Today, this congregation is only half the size that it was ten years ago. It is still a large congregation, but linking the congregation’s strategic identity to its size is problematic. How does a congregation feel good about itself at a smaller size when its fundamental self-image is related to being large and impactful? The leaders of this congregation realize that they have a lot of work to do around congregational image, strategic identity, and right-sizing operational expectations.

What stories does your congregation tell about its size? Does your congregation have a size that it thinks it “ought” to be? Listed below are a set of dialogue queries designed to help surface assumptions, and right size leadership expectations:
1. If we are successful in our mission as a congregation, what size will we be? Why?

2. How do we measure our size? What are the most important indicators that we look to, to determine whether we are growing or shrinking, succeeding in our mission or missing the mark?

3. When we tell ourselves the story of our congregation (its history), where does size enter into the storyline? Has size ever been a defining element in our congregational story? What size congregation did our founders imagine that we would grow to be?

4. What are the core values of our congregation? Do any of our core values seem to require “smallness” or “bigness”?

5. How does the size that we are today compare to our size at other moments in time? How big was our congregation in its glory-days? Does it bother us that we are bigger or smaller today?

6. In what ways are we clinging to leadership systems that would more appropriately serve a different-sized congregation? Where do we need to right-size our structures, to effectively serve the congregation that we are today?