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


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.

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

The Ultimatum

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Put yourself in this senior pastor’s shoes. You’ve had some supervisory challenges with your Minister of Music over the past two years, but she’s a person that you value having on your team. Let’s call this employee Connie.  Connie is a brilliantly gifted musician and widely respected within the local musical community. She is liked and admired by the congregation. She is not a good team player. She repeatedly fails to show up for staff meetings and she doesn’t work well with you or others in the planning of worship. The choir members respect her, but she hasn’t been effective at creating a sense of community within the choirs.  You’ve had several conversations with her about her lack of team orientation, but she doesn’t seem to be improving.

Yesterday Connie asked to meet with you after staff meeting. She began the meeting by saying that the stress of the job is doing her in. Specifically, she can’t take “the continual hounding about being a team player”. She wants to be left alone to run the choirs the way that she sees fit; after all she is the musical expert on the staff team.  After talking about her frustrations Connie issues this ultimatum. “I will not participate in staff meetings any more. They are a waste of my time. I also want to be able to make all musical choices, including hymn selection, without the oversight or input of any other members on the team, including you. Finally, I want you to quit bugging me about approaching the development of the choir from a community perspective. We are musicians plain and simple, and the community building stuff is just getting in the way.  You have thirty days to think about this request. If you do not agree to these conditions of my employment, I am finished here.”   

What is your response?  Would your response change if I told you that Connie is an African American and 58 years old?  (You are Anglo-American; your congregation is 90% white and seeking to become more diverse). Does it make a difference that you’ve also had two other really difficult staff terminations in the past year?

Dealing with a staff ultimatum is easy if the staff member is a problem employee that you’ve been trying to figure out how to terminate. In fact, it’s a gift. You simple thank the employee for their service and show them the door.  But when the ultimatum is issued by someone like Connie, it’s more difficult. You don’t want the employee to leave, but she does have certain shortcomings that can’t be ignored. You don’t want the risk of a bad departure, particularly one that is skirting around the issues of ageism and racism.  

Situations like this one make me grateful to be a consultant. I admire those of you on the frontline, trying to deal with real life, while I sit on the sidelines and offer commentary.  For what it’s worth, here’s my take on the general approach to a situation like this one.

  1. Yielding to an ultimatum is almost always a bad idea. It’s a set up for subsequent manipulation and hostage holding. General rule of thumb: don’t ever accept the demands of an ultimatum as presented (unless you are blatantly wrong about the situation and the employee’s demands are entirely justified.)
  2. If the employment situation is one that you want to maintain, find a creative way to invite the employee away from the line they have drawn in the sand. You can do this with a few good techniques:
  • Invite the employee back into conversation and seek first to listen and truly understand; see if you can identify the root cause of the frustration that caused them to become positional in the first place.
  • Affirm their value in the congregation in a way that is genuine and honest.
  • Unpack the various elements of their ultimatum. Identify: what is this about, what is this not about, which parts of the situation can be changed, which parts of the situation cannot be changed?
  • Make distinctions between what the employee is able to do (skill), willing to do (motivation) and has the opportunity to do (environment).
  • Invite the employee to join with you in thinking creatively about alternatives other than resignation. What other solutions exist that don’t involve the ultimatum?
  • Emphasize the mutuality of what you are both seeking to preserve. What do you mutually value in the situation that ought to be preserved?

    3.   At the end of the day, if they will not back away from the ultimatum, prepare for letting them go and prepare for the damage control that you’re going to need to do in the congregation as they depart.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. Weigh in.

Photo Credit: war.tix

The Invisible Family

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Recently, after speaking to a group of pastors about clergy roles in the large church, I was approached by a senior minister who said, “I’m surprised that you didn’t talk about the unique family dynamics that occur for clergy leaders of very large congregations, you know … the invisibility factor.”  I stood there looking rather dumbstruck for a few moments because frankly, I didn’t know what he was referring to. 

The senior pastor went on to talk about how differently the stress of family life manifests itself in the large church. As he talked I began to recognize the phenomenon that he was describing. I had encountered the issue before in other congregations with other clergy leaders; I just hadn’t heard it referred to under the label of invisibility. I immediately recognized the phenomenon as something real and profound for clergy families in large congregations.

In the small to mid-sized church the pastor and his or her family learn to live in a fishbowl. Everything that the pastor’s spouse and children do is subject to the intense scrutiny of the congregation, which places incredible pressure upon the family system. Most clergy families become oriented to life in the ministry through this fish bowl kind of environment. It becomes a way of life. They are accustomed to being known and watched by everyone in the congregation. The pastor’s spouse learns to view himself or herself as a partner in the ministry and is often treated as the “first spouse” of the church family. Many clergy spouses in the small to mid-sized church are viewed as equal ministry partners alongside their ordained spouse. They function as unpaid clergy leaders. For better or worse, they tend to be vocationally identified with their spouse’s role. Some clergy spouses thrive in the fishbowl and others wilt under the scrutiny and the expectations.

Clergy family life in the large church is a different kind of experience.  In the very large church the pastor’s family assumes a cloak of invisibility. The senior clergy leader who occupies the pulpit in the large church is a persona; everyone knows or feels like they know the preacher. It’s difficult for the primary preacher in the large church to go out in public places without being recognized. He/she is always on display; being watched from a close distance by those who occupy the pews on Sunday morning.

At the same time, the preacher’s family is having a very different kind of experience.  Few people recognize or know the family of the senior clergy leader, unless they appear at the side of the clergy leader. For many clergy families, being able to step out of the fishbowl is a welcome relief. Life feels a little more normal without the close scrutiny that comes from being known as the pastor’s significant others.  In other families, the loss of identity can be devastating. If a clergy spouse has vocationally identified with the role of clergy spouse, the loss of identity can result in the loss of validation. Suddenly, the clergy spouse is not the significant other when attending church functions. The clergy leader may be sharing their experience of church life more intensely and directly with other clergy leaders on the staff team, and not with the spouse at home. The spouse begins to feel unimportant to the ministry and left out. It seems like the ministry has become centered around “the pastor” and not at all about the family.  I’ve even heard some leaders talk about the confusion (and hurt) that takes place within a marriage when newcomers to a congregation assume that the male senior clergy leader is married to the female associate clergy leader, simply because they occupy a shared vocational space.

The fishbowl dilemma and the invisibility dilemma represent polar anchors on the same continuum of clergy family life. Each end of the continuum hosts its own set of problems. What kinds of adaptations have you and your family had to make as clergy leaders in a large church context? Which part of the continuum feels most comfortable to you, to your spouse, and to your children?

Photo Credit: T_Squared

Too Few Women

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

In this video Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, talks about why such a small percentage of women make it to the top of their professions.  I believe that the lessons she shares are applicable to, and prophetic for the world of congregations.

The pulpit in the large congregation, for better or worse, represents the top of the vocational ladder for clergy leaders.  We can argue that serving a large congregaton shouldn’t automatically be the ultimate vocational target for clergy leaders, but in many ways it is. And I think that we’d all agree that there are too few women leading our largest congregations.

I am regularly asked to speak at gatherings of senior clergy leaders from large congregations. There are still remarkably few women in the room. I’ve also noticed that the women who are present are seldom as vocal as their male counterparts. Sandberg challenges us to sit at the table and keep our hands up, a metaphorical way of referring to a need for stronger female leadership presence.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing that Sandberg talks about are the studies that have been done on the relationship between success and likeability in leadership. There is a strong positive correlation between success and likeability for men. Unfortunately, success and likeability are negatively correlated for women in our culture. This is particularly discouraging for the future of female leaders at the senior clergy level. How is a woman supposed to endear herself as the beloved pastoral leader of a large congregation, and still be considered a successful organizational leader? If we have to choose between projecting a likeable image or a competent image, we lose as candidates for the large church. The effective large church leader must be perceived as both likeable and successful.

Is this a lost cause? What have you learned about projecting an image that is both likeable and successful?