How Many People Can One Pastor Supervise?

Friday, July 14th, 2017

Only the largest congregations have the resources to hire full-time supervisors. The average congregation employs a “head of staff” who also preaches, teaches, provides pastoral care, leads mission and ministry, and guides the work of the board. Given this breadth of responsibility, how many employees can a pastor effectively supervise? What happens when a supervisor has too many direct reports?

Supervision is performance management. The effective supervisor manages a simple, but challenging communication loop between the employee and the organization. She sets clear expectations for each employee and provides ongoing feedback about whether those expectations have been satisfied.

Let’s examine the components of effective performance management and determine the time it takes to supervise well. Only then can we speculate about the number of employees that a pastor can manage.

Setting Expectations: The primary tool used to set employee expectations is the job description. The job description outlines the core duties and tasks associated with the role. These are called the essential functions. The job description also outlines the skills, abilities and attributes that we expect an employee to demonstrate as they engage their duties. These are referred to as the core competencies.

In addition to defining essential functions and core competencies, a supervisor helps to create two or three performance goals for each employee. The goals shape the employee’s focus in the current performance cycle. The performance goals link the employee’s efforts with the immediate priorities of the congregation. For example, congregation A is focused this year on getting 50% of its active members engaged in small groups. Every member of the staff team has a performance goal aligning their energy with this congregational goal.

Setting expectations requires time beyond creating a job description and performance goals. The congregation operates in a dynamic environment. Employees need regular check-ins around shifting expectations. Should this still be my priority? Given limited time, should I focus primarily on this or that?

The ongoing clarification of expectations happens best in one-on-one meetings with our employees. We bring emerging priorities to their attention. They check assumptions about priorities with us and they bring concerns about things that stand in the way of their performance. We help shape their decision making so they can satisfy our shared objectives.

Providing Feedback: Accountability in employment relationships happens through conversation. We hold employees accountable by reminding them of expectations and discussing how their performance measures up. Did the employee meet, exceed, or fail to satisfy our expectations this past week, month and year? We affirm their good work or we ask them to step up their performance and close the gap.

Fairness and justice require that we provide feedback frequently, not storing up resentments and disappointments for the annual performance review. We give employees opportunities to correct their performance and satisfy our expectations on an ongoing basis.

Evaluating the Whole: Effective supervision also requires a periodic evaluation of the whole person in the whole role. Typically, a full performance evaluation takes place once a year.

Throughout the year we focus on individual components of the job as they arise. Annually, we pause to consider how the role is evolving, how the employee is shaping the role, whether the employee has been neglecting aspects of the job, whether a salary adjustment is appropriate because the role has significantly expanded.

The supervisor must take primary responsibility for leading the annual employment appraisal. Others, including the employee, may provide input. A personnel committee or human resource function may assist with the synthesis of feedback, but the supervisor must shape and deliver the message.

The Role of the Staff Meeting

Regular staff meetings are an important component of performance management. Staff meetings serve several important supervisory functions.

Staff meetings help with mission alignment. The clergy leader can regularly ground the team in the larger vision and mission of the congregation and emphasize the core values of the congregation.

Staff meetings help to develop community and resolve conflicts. They provide a venue for sharing information, so that team members share a common base of knowledge about what is happening in the life of the congregation.

During staff meetings, we work on the oversight of joint work. The supervisor helps the team negotiate shared boundaries of work, identify overlapping responsibilities, and coordinate efforts that involve multiple team members.

Staff meetings are also effective for developing the culture of the team. We establish acceptable group norms and challenge unhelpful group behaviors. We proactively shape attitudes.

The staff meeting is NOT an appropriate venue for individual performance management. We should not use team meetings to set individual expectations, establish individual priorities or offer corrective feedback. These things are best accomplished in individual conversations.

Intentional One-on-Ones

Ineffective supervisors rely only on group meetings and an “open door” policy for supervisory work. They trust employees to ask for help when needed. This shifts the burden for expectation setting and feedback to the employee.

Unless we are intentional about one-on-one supervisory sessions, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Our best supervisory energy goes into our most problematic employees. Effective employees rarely interrupt our work to seek guidance. They get the least amount of our attention when, in fact, they should get our best energy.

In a strong performance-management culture, every member of the team has a regularly scheduled and honored appointment with their supervisor. For most employees, this one-on-one conversation happens weekly or biweekly. Employees may require more or less frequent meetings depending on the nature of the role, the length of time the employee has been in the position, and the extent to which the employee and supervisor share a common mindset. Effective employees value the time and energy invested in oversight of their work.

Protecting these appointed one-on-one meetings shows respect for the employee and their contributions.

Managing Your Limits

How many supervisory relationships can you maintain and still tend the rest of your responsibilities? It depends. You need to have enough time with each employee to guide the full communication cycle described above. If you can’t sustain the necessary schedule of individual and group meetings—and get the rest of your job done—you have too many direct reports.

In general, pastors cannot effectively supervise more than five employees. Some pastors should have fewer direct reports because of the needs of those employees and the other demands of the pastor’s role. A pastor with five direct reports will generally have to spend 25 to 30 percent of their time on supervisory related activities. Senior pastors of large congregations must limit their direct supervisory relationships to a smaller number.

Supervision doesn’t just happen while you are busy doing other things. Effective performance management requires intentionality and time. Only you can determine whether there is enough time in your day for effective supervision. If not, it’s time to develop other supervisors on the team.


This post originally appeared at on 07/03/2017

Photo Credit: “Organization Chart”, © 2011 Luc GaloppinFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio


Making Space for Middle Ground

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

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

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

Signs of Polarity

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

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

Ten Things You Can Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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.

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?

Spiritual Work in Pastoral Transition

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

 Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to Frank Ostaseski speak about Being a Compassionate Companion while accompanying the dying. Frank is a leader/teacher in the Zen Hospice Project. As I listened to Frank speak, I was struck by how well his five precepts for walking with the dying apply to congregational life, when a congregation is in the midst of a significant ending.

labyrinth_4Pastoral transition is a death, of sorts, in the lifecycle of a congregation. It involves taking stock, defining the boundaries of our own existence, celebrating our success, grieving our losses, and reflecting on what it means to construct a well- lived life as a congregation. In this sense pastoral transition calls forth the same kind of spiritual work that is involved in a good death experience.

Let’s consider Ostaseski’s five precepts for companioning death, and apply them (with some liberties) to leadership in a season of pastoral transition.

1. Welcome Everything: Push Away Nothing: Over years of doing ministry under a singular head of staff, congregations get caught in habitual responses to ministry and the environment. In a season of pastoral transition it behooves leaders to adopt an attitude of “fearless receptivity”; openness to considering that “what comes to us is for us”, to embrace and to learn from everything. All things have the potential to teach us, especially conflict, failed experiences and risk taking.

Of course, this doesn’t suggest that leaders embrace every new request or new idea that presents itself during an interim time period. It does suggest that leaders maintain a spirit of wonderment about what emerges and a willingness to embrace the anxieties that arise in saying goodbye.

2. Bring Your Whole Self to the Experience: I have noticed that congregations approaching a pastoral transition often hunker down and prepare themselves to power through the events of the transition period. They act as if hard work and singularity of focus will help minimize congregational anxieties and conflicts. Leaders put on their super-hero armor and their masks of competency in front of the congregation. They deny whatever level of grief, confusion or anxiety that they may be experiencing for fear of contagion.

If we want our congregations to practice adaptive leadership in a season of pastoral transition, then we need to cultivate openness, receptivity and wonder. We can’t cultivate those attributes in a congregation without revealing our own discomfort and sense of dis-orientation. This is not about revealing our ignorance. It is about demonstrating our authenticity.

3. Don’t Wait: So often, congregations in the midst of pastoral transition put any and all new initiatives on hold, for fear of binding the hands of the new leader. All planning and evaluation efforts are met with a resounding, “We had better not initiate that until after the new pastor arrives.” The congregation moves into maintenance mode and this is deadly, particularly for the large congregation. Once a congregation has programmed itself to function in maintenance mode it is extraordinarily difficult to re-ignite new energies.

Implementation of changes in the strategic direction of the congregation should be postponed until the arrival of new leadership. However, dreaming about those directions and making ongoing course changes in anticipation of those changes, these are necessary for vitality and growth.

4. Find a Place of Rest in the Midst of Things: Pastoral transitions can move at a snail’s pace. It can take months/years to articulate the needs of the congregation, prepare an attractive church profile, search for the ideal candidate and call that candidate. Leaders must take care not to burn out while ensconced in the difficult work of adaptive learning.

The basic human response is to try and find rest by managing the conditions that surround us. We tell ourselves that we will rest once the budget is balanced, the staff team is fully configured, the new board is up and functioning and a search committee is underway. In a season of pastoral transition, conditions will almost never be right for rest, if rest requires everything to be in order.

We need to allow ourselves to take a rest from the hard work of adaptive leadership by bringing our attention fully to the presence of the moment we are in; by resting in the sufficiency of God’s grace and abundance in the now.

5. Cultivate a Don’t Know Mindset: It is not ignorance to admit that you don’t know what to do next, you don’t know how a problem will resolve itself, or if a problem will resolve itself. When we don’t know what to do next, we have to rely on others to pick up their share of the adaptive challenge and to do their part in the hard work of transition. Giving the work back to the people is a hallmark of good adaptive leadership. When we admit that we don’t know, we open ourselves to new learning and create an atmosphere where others can do the same.


Talking About Staff Team Health

Monday, November 14th, 2011

What words would you use to describe the ideal staff team? I frequently pose this question to church leaders and the two words most frequently offered are collaborative and accountable.  We want our staff teams to be cooperative, to demonstrate an ease and naturalness in working together that capitalizes on the strength and ingenuity of team members.  At the same time we want the staff to accomplish worthy work that is both effective and efficient. We value a team that fosters both individual and group accountability. Most staff teams function somewhere along a spectrum that favors either collaboration or accountability.
The healthiest staff teams find a way to foster both attributes.

Teams that embrace collaboration over accountability tend to produce cultures of hyper-collaboration that are not healthy. Every member of the staff team feels personally responsible for every aspect of staff life and work. On the surface, these teams appear to have something remarkable going on. Staff members are always available to support and assist one another and the congregation. But when you look beneath the surface something more troublesome is happening. There are no clear boundaries around roles and responsibilities and no clear feedback on performance. Without role boundaries staff members aren’t free to say, “That’s not my area of responsibility or giftedness and I wouldn’t be the most effective person to lend support, but let me point you to the person who could help.” Staff members don’t end up working in their areas of passion and skill. Talented and responsible staff members end up burned out in a culture of hyper-collaboration. They feel personally responsible for the success or failure of everything that the staff team undertakes, and are seldom honored for individual excellence. At the same time, underperformance is seldom addressed so that slackers and competence thrive and flourish.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the team that values accountability over collaboration. We often use the term “silo” to describe how these teams function. These teams consist of highly skilled individuals, each working with excellence in their own area of expertise. They engage one another to coordinate when necessary.  However, these staff teams are really working groups as opposed to teams. There is no real synergy in their work beyond what they accomplish as individual performers. Staff members do not reach out beyond their own work areas to think generatively or work cooperatively. Team members feel free to say, “That’s not my job” and are comfortable leaving tasks undone and colleagues unsupported.

Staff leaders can generally recognize when their team is out of balance on the collaborative/accountability spectrum.  However, recognizing the problem doesn’t do much good if you don’t know what to do to promote better balance.   I have found that the best approach to consulting with a team that is out of balance is providing them with language to talk about their health. A team that can articulate what is not right, and what health would look like, is well on its way toward fixing the problem.  To that end, I have developed 30 markers of staff team culture that describe overall health.  These descriptors unpack the assumptions we leave unstated when we use terms like collaboration and accountability.

  1. As a staff, we have a compelling vision for the future of the congregation and our place in that future.
  2. We have a clearly defined and well communicated statement of purpose as a staff team.
  3. The size of our staff team is appropriate for the size and growth aspirations of our congregation.
  4. The configuration of our staff team is appropriate for our congregation; we have the right people in appropriately defined roles.
  5. Our work is managed against goals and objectives.
  6. We recognize and celebrate our accomplishments as a team.
  7. When priorities are revised, the need for change is discussed and made clear to the team.
  8. Individual roles, relationships and accountabilities are clear to everyone on the team.
  9. Team members are technically qualified to perform their jobs.
  10. Each member of the team has clear and effective supervision.
  11. Each member of the team is held accountable for his or her individual performance.
  12. Individual performance is recognized and appreciated.
  13. Our approach to problem-solving results in effective, high-quality solutions to issues.
  14. Staff meetings are productive.
  15. Policies and procedures that we rely upon are helpful in the accomplishment of tasks.
  16. We are able to respond to a crisis in the congregation quickly and flexibly.
  17. There is room in our decision making process for discernment of God’s Spirit.
  18. Our work as a staff team is grounded in God’s Spirit.
  19. We coordinate our work with a spirit of collaboration.
  20. Staff members appreciate and capitalize on each other’s differences, strengths, and unique capabilities.
  21. Communication within our team is open and above board.
  22. Staff members defend/support one another when criticism arises from within the congregation.
  23. We are able to resolve our conflicts and disagreements openly and honestly.
  24. The staff team has fun together.
  25. Staff members use humor freely and appropriately.
  26. We communicate effectively with the congregation, its governing board and committees.
  27. We are aware of and attentive to the needs and desires of the governing board and committees as we make decisions and plans.
  28. The governing board and committees are aware of and attentive to our needs and desires as they make decisions and plans.
  29. The staff team is appreciated and supported by the governing board.
  30. The staff team is appreciated and supported by the congregation.


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

Admin Staff & Mission Ownership

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Most of us expect our clergy staff to demonstrate a strong sense of commitment to the mission of the congregation. We use the language of “called, not hired” to describe the over the top commitment we seek. We also expect our non-ordained program staff to embrace the mission of the congregation.  Most program staff are members of their congregations, and consequently are called upon to demonstrate some passion for the congregation’s purpose and identity. 

What kind of expectations do we carry about missional ownership among our administrative support staff? Many congregations are very intentional about not hiring church members to serve in administrative support roles. They believe that the relationship is neater and cleaner if the people serving the church administratively have a pure employment relationship with the congregation. That way it will be easier to fire people that aren’t working out (or so we tell ourselves). That way it’s always possible to determine which part of time spent on church activity is paid activity versus volunteer work. That way it’s easier to prevent members from knowing things that could get dicey, like the giving patterns of other members. That way we can keep relationships with administrative staff purely professional and avoid the unpleasant triangulation that can occur when staff wears employment and membership hats simultaneously.  

Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of separating the employment and membership relationship is that our administrative staff often fails to embrace the mission of the congregation. When working with staff teams I frequently ask members of the team to evaluate the extent to which the following statements describe their team:

  • As a staff, we have a compelling vision of the future for the church, and our place in that future.
  •  We have a clearly defined and well communicated statement of purpose as a staff team.

I am surprised by the frequency of negative responses that administrative staff members provide in response to these two statements. Administrative staff will often tell me that they don’t think the mission of the congregation, or the staff team, has anything to do with them. After all, they are employees, not members. They believe that missional commitment is something that belongs to the clergy and program staff, not to them. Their job is simply to keep the members of the congregation happy.

Is this really the mindset that we want to promote among our administrative staff members? I can appreciate that our employees who are not members will have less of an attachment to the mission of the congregation. But can they ever really remain detached from the mission and still be effective employees? Doesn’t an administrative staff member need to embrace the mission of the congregation on some very basic level in order to serve as a member of the team? Have we gone overboard in trying to protect ourselves from the potential downsides of combining membership and employment?

I believe that every member of the staff team should have an awareness of the congregations’ mission and strategic direction. They should be able to articulate an ownership of that mission in a way that feels genuine to them personally, and in a way that clarifies their relationship to the mission. That doesn’t mean that our employees need to share our theological, religious or polity orientations. They do need to support the basic work that the congregation is engaging, and they do need to understand how their role functions in support of that work. One of our jobs as heads of staff, and as supervisors, is to help our employees articulate how their role connects to mission, vision and values. Are you doing that with your employees?

Photo Credit: darwinbell

A Word of Thanks

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

I began this blog a year and a half ago, in part to help give birth to a book I had in mind about the large congregation. My hope was that the blog would allow me to actively try out ideas and find my voice about life in the large congregation. This week I finished the manuscript and sent it along to my editor (Phew!). The working title of the book bears the same name as this blog, “Inside the Large Congregation”, (although any of you who have published a book can appreciate that the title will change numerous times between now and publication).

The book is about five leadership systems that remain in motion in the large congregation, and how those leadership systems must be right sized to accommodate different threshold limits of complexity.  The book defines four new large church size categories. For each of the new size categories it explores: clergy leadership roles, staff team function and design, governance and board function, acculturation and the role of laity, and the formation and execution of strategy. I expect that the book will be published through Alban sometime in the fall of 2011.

I want to mark this moment by stopping to thank you, my readers, for your part in helping me get this manuscript written. The discipline of crafting weekly entries for the blog has kept me on task, forcing me to articulate what I am learning. Many of you, and you know who you are, have contributed to the birth of this book by presenting me with interesting case scenarios, by challenging me to think and talk about things that weren’t being addressed elsewhere, and by encouraging me in my consulting, teaching and writing. Thank you.

I fully intend to continue the blog, even though the manuscript is done. I have discovered that the discipline of noticing what my clients are struggling with, and translating those observations into written commentary, is invaluable to my own learning process. I hope you’ll stay with me and continue to challenge me with your ideas and observations.

I also want to invite you to consider joining me, in person, this fall to explore the collective learning that came with writing the book.  I’ll be facilitating an Alban sponsored seminar, Inside the Large Congregation on October 25-27, 2011 in Norcross Georgia.  You can read more about the event and register online at  I hope to see you there!

Photo Credit: maher berro