The Truth About Consensus

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

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

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

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

Case in Point:

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

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

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

What Consensus Is and Isn’t?

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

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

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

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

How Do We Work with Disagreement?

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

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

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

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

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

What Happens if We Can’t Reach Consensus?

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

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

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

Blame it on Polity

Monday, August 31st, 2015

Leaders utter a predictable battle cry when faced with possible organizational changes.  “Our polity won’t allow us to do that!” They may want to consider changes that will make their organization more nimble, flexible and efficient, but they suspect that polity (denominational governance systems) will stand in the way.

We live in an era where thoughtful experimentation is critical to survival.  Congregations and the institutions that support them will not survive unless they are able to design and learn from bold experiments.  And yet, we cling to our polity like a drowning person clings to a lifeline.  We blame our polity for our unwillingness to change. We cite our constitutions, our by-laws, the Book of Order, and the Book of Discipline as reason for our inability and unwillingness to adapt.

Why is it that congregations who would never embrace a literal interpretation of scripture, without critical theological reflection, are so willing to cling to a literal interpretation of governance practice? How can we learn to use our polity to support adaptation, rather than resist it?

Our Devotion to Our Polity

Within the traditional mainline church, the distinctions between us are more readily identified by polity differences than by uniqueness of doctrine.  It is hard to distinguish between the beliefs and worship styles of congregations that call themselves Methodist, Presbyterian, or Congregational in a particular locale. You can’t appreciate the distinctions until you consider governance. We distinguish ourselves based on whether we vest ultimate authority in a bishop, an elder governing board, or in the membership body.

Polity determines how rules and procedures are developed, sustained and sanctioned. Congregations believe certain things about governance, based upon their doctrinal stance.  Our understanding of our relationship with God informs how we decide to get things done, establish authority, and represent the voice of membership.

Every polity undergoes developmental change over time. As institutions move through developmental life cycles, governance practices and policy statements tend to become more restrictive. Leaders wrestle with each new problem situation that emerges and eventually codify their decision in policy.  Over time our policy books become increasingly complex, overly bureaucratic, and artificially binding in ways that no longer represent the original spirit of intent. We lose flexibility. We become institutionalized.

Practicing Critical Interpretation

We must live into fresh expressions of polity if we are going to embrace change.  We can’t wait for permission, in the form of governance change, to begin experimenting. We experiment first, and adapt policy later based on what we learn. We also acknowledge that not all forms of experimentation are appropriate in every setting. The appropriateness of an experiment is determined by the principles and beliefs that undergird our way of life.

For example, a large Baptist congregation is facing senior pastor transition for the first time in eighteen years.  The congregation is healthy, vibrant and is experiencing momentum in key areas.  Traditional Baptist practice requires waiting to begin search for a new senior pastor until after the current senior pastor retires.  This will require an eighteen to twenty-four month interim leadership period.  Congregational leaders fear that an interim period will result in harmful loss of momentum and may have irreversible impact on giving and membership growth.

Congregational leaders would like to consider a direct pastor to pastor transition, with the pastoral search process taking place prior to the retirement of the current senior pastor.  They would like to forgo an interim pastorate time period, and have the new pastor begin before the current pastor retires. This is not traditional practice in the denomination.  Should leaders consider this course of action?  

We can’t be naïve.  Of course, this congregation must consider whether they have basic support from denominational leaders to experiment with a new form of pastoral transition. Without support they won’t be able to engage in pastoral search. Assuming some support, how do they determine which experiments are appropriate for their context? They begin by identifying relevant core values, beliefs and principles.

Baptist polity honors a handful of ideological principles; the priesthood of all believers, the authority of the bible, the autonomy of the local church, non-creedal faith, separation of church and state, the right of dissent, and unity within diversity.

Our example church decided that the use of interim pastorates was meant to protect the autonomy of the local church.  A Baptist congregation makes its own choices about leadership, without undue influence from the current pastor or denominational staff. An interim minister provides a buffer to protect the voice of the membership body. Self-study and search wait until after the departure of the incumbent senior minister to encourage the congregation to listen for its authentic voice.

They also wondered if a direct pastor to pastor transition might undermine the priesthood of all believers, which emphasizes individual soul competency before God.  A period of time without a permanent senior pastor in place encourages each individual to explore the sacredness of individual choice in their personal relationship with God.  

Ultimately, the leaders of this congregation designed an alternative pastoral transition process that protected these basic tenets.  They determined that the use of an interim minister was only one possible way to advance their core principles.  They hired an interim consultant who guided the congregation’s self-study and the preparation of a church profile. This role created space for independent thought and the expression of soul.  They also created a transition process which gradually diminished the present pastor’s presence in the pulpit and at governing board meetings, in the period of time leading up to her retirement, gradually increasing the leadership voice of the new leader and lay leaders during the same time period. These choices nurtured a seamless leadership transition, while honoring the soul freedom and the autonomy of voice of the congregation.

We don’t have to force artificial choices between adaptive change and our polity. We can craft experiments that honor the principles behind our polity, without being held captive by traditional practice. We need the freedom to think critically, evaluate and adapt. This is how we live our way into a new era with our core identity and our polity intact.


Do I Have Enough Influence

Monday, June 15th, 2015
© 2011 Yogendra Joshi, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
© 2011 Yogendra Joshi, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

You are clear about the changes needed in your congregation, and you are confident in your ability to execute the change. You are not certain that you have the influence needed to overcome change resistance. This is the fundamental dilemma of every leader, especially those new to an organization.

A longstanding rule of thumb is that a pastor must not change anything significant in the first year of assignment.  She must earn leadership capital by watching, listening, honoring and caring.  We’ve all heard it said that you have to marry and bury enough people to earn the trust of the congregation.

The frightening reality for many of us is that we simply don’t have the luxury of time. Institutional decline is urgent.   We can’t passively wait for our leadership capital to accumulate.  Instead, we must be politically savvy about building our capacity for influence, and we must sometimes act before we feel adequately influential.

The ability to influence others, gain commitment, and overcome change resistance is difficult, but it is not mysterious. It has four identifiable elements that can be cultivated.

  1. Deepen the fundamental sources of your power.
  2. Select influence tactics that are appropriate, ethical, and effective for your context.
  3. Resist the inappropriate influence tactics of those operating at odds with the congregation’s mission.
  4. Observe, interpret, and learn from the political dynamics of your congregation.


Deepen Your Power Base

Every leader has some access to three forms of organizational power: granted power, assigned power, and attributed power.  Power is organizationally neutral; it is neither good nor bad for the leader or the organization.  Having power is only a capacity for influence. It does not become influence until applied. You need to work on building capacity before you seek to influence.

Think of the power bases as buckets that must feed an influence reservoir. The tricky thing about the three sources of power is that they are multiplicative; the absence of any one of the three power bases results in zero power in the reservoir. Each bucket must have something in it, and collectively the three buckets must keep the reservoir in ample supply.

Granted power is the agency assigned to you by an authorizing party, usually outside of your specific context.   We all have some granted power in a congregation by virtue of our baptism; we are co-creators with God, of the kingdom of God.  However, some have more granted power than others by virtue of institutional affiliation. Your denomination grants power to certain leaders by ordaining them. Educational institutions grant power in the form of degrees. Generally, a Ph.D. supplies more power than a Bachelor’s degree. Certification from a nationally recognized institution grants more power than one from a local agency.

Assigned power comes from the specific organization you are leading. The defined role you play carries the legitimate right to do things on behalf of the organization. You may have been assigned the authority to hire and fire others, to spend money on behalf of the congregation, or to start or retire programs.  Assigned power also grows from your centrality in the organization, your access to information and decision making.  An office administrator may not have much legitimate authority, but his central control in disseminating information, and his ability to place himself in decision making moments can result in great power.

Attributed power comes from two sources. First, it comes from your expertise in a valued subject area.  A music director has attributed power from her skill base in choral direction or in organ performance.  A bookkeeper carries attributed power because of the twenty years of institutional memory at her disposal, and because she is the only person in the congregation who understands the financial records.

Second, attributed power also comes from personal charisma. People are drawn to certain individuals over others by virtue of personal energy, endurance, focus, flexibility, likeability and trustworthiness.  People are willing to submit to the agency of another whom they admire and want to be around.

Select Appropriate Influence Tactics

Maintaining full buckets is not enough to wield influence and gain commitment in a congregation.  You also need to employ effective influence tactics.  The tactics you use must be varied, appropriate to your context, ethical, and effective.  A leader who selects ineffective or immoral influence tactics drains the influence reservoir faster than it is filled.

Influence tactics include things like rational appeal, personal appeal, inspirational appeal, consultation, exchange tactics, ingratiation, pressure tactics, and coalition building. Each is appropriate and ethical in some contexts, but not in others. You must consider the needs and influence capacity of each player, and you must diagnose the situation. Most of us favor a few tactics that we overuse. Effective leaders deploy a variety of influence tactics, and they tailor them well to the situation.

Resist the Inappropriate Influence Attempts of Others

The congregation suffers at the hands of those who inappropriately undermine leadership influence efforts. Inappropriate resistance may involve triangulation, bullying, blocking, condescension, manipulation, or passive-aggressive noncompliance.  As you work to fill your influence reservoir, these people are draining it through another spigot. You must address inappropriate influence attempts if you want to deepen your own influence capacity.

If the inappropriate influence tactic is from someone who is healthy, willing and able, use direct personal confrontation to refocus their energy more positively.  Describe the problematic behavior to them in concrete terms. Explain the impact that their behavior has, and ask for a specific, alternative behavior.

If the person is unable or unwilling to employ better behavior, you must disengage from their unhealthy behavior.  Covenant with the healthy leaders in your congregation to ignore the inappropriate influence, and continue moving in the direction of health and wellness.

Observe and Learn

Deepening your capacity for influence is not a passive waiting game. Adaptive leaders continually study and learn from the influence dynamics of their congregations. Watch the impact of a particular influence tactic. Analyze its effectiveness and reflect on what impact another technique may have had.  Continually observe who has influence and where that influence stems from. Attend to the draining and inappropriate influence attempts of others. Work continually to deepen your own influence reservoir.  All of this, for the sake of helping your congregation effectively engage its mission.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)


Pastoral Transition-Lifting the Veil of Secrecy

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing the Baton

Friday, January 31st, 2014

Lately my phone has been ringing off of the hook with people who want to talk about pastoral succession: denominational leaders who want to prepare for the impending onslaught of baby boomers about to retire; senior pastors wanting to think about exiting their congregations well; and lay leaders wondering how to talk with their pastors about this without making everyone nervous. Most of these callers want to talk about a process for managing a change in pastors. I’ve been trying to re-frame the conversation.

c-baton-passManaging change, and managing the transitions that accompany a change, are not one and the same (Bridges, 1991). Change happens in an instant; the pastor departs, a new pastor arrives, and change has occurred. The transitions associated with change are much more subtle and occur over a broader expanse of time. Transition management addresses the cultural, behavioral, and spiritual adaptive learning that must occur for a congregation to fully prepare for new leadership. During pastoral succession, most congregational leaders are so invested in managing the change elements of succession that they fail to adequately tend the important work of managing the transition. We need to be talking about the transition work.

Congregational leaders invest enormous angst and energy in managing the change mechanics of pastoral succession, because they know what is at stake. They zealously manage and protect the process of search. They maintain control by keeping secrets about progress. They work to preserve the status quo among congregants while the transition is underway. As a result little actually transitions in the congregation during the succession period. It is up to the search committee to identify a candidate who “gets us”. And then it is up to the new clergy leader to figure out how to adapt to an entrenched system as they enter it.

As we seek to better understand failed pastoral succession we often discover that the failure has less to do with the attributes of the specific candidate, and more to do with the candidate’s inability to survive the transition into the congregation. “They just weren’t a good fit for us”. “They just couldn’t seem to adjust to how we do things here.” “Our leaders just weren’t ready to let go of the reigns and let them actually lead.”

One clergy leader described his entry journey in this way. “It was a full five years before I could exert any kind of meaningful leadership. For the first several years I was negotiating my way through fog. There were unexpressed standards of performance that I was being evaluated against, that everyone knew but me, and no one was able to articulate.” This particular candidate was eventually able to claim a leadership voice and went on to have a successful eighteen year pastorate. Others are not so fortunate.

Today’s large congregations are asking new and provocative questions about the real nature of transition in this important leadership season. Are interim pastorates really helpful in negotiating transitions in the large congregation? Can the congregation transition directly from one senior pastor to the next without creating an arbitrary space between leaders? Should internal candidates be considered for the job, to minimize the risks of transition? If so, what process is appropriate for considering internal candidates? If the congregation is kept in the dark about pending pastoral transitions, can they really do their adaptive work? Can retiring senior ministers retain some kind of role in the faith communities which they have shepherded for many years?

Is your congregation in conversation about this? What’s the nature of your dialogue?

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.


Leadership Systems in Motion

Monday, October 31st, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for Staff to Retire

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I often find myself in conversations like this one with a senior pastor.

Pastor: “I need help thinking about the configuration of my staff team. I’m currently trying to work around 2 key positions that aren’t appropriately staffed right now. There isn’t much I can do in the moment because I’m waiting for these 2 people to retire, but I want to be ready to do the right thing once these two individuals do decide to retire.”

Me: “How are you engaging the dialogue with these two individuals around their retirement decision?”

Pastor: “I’m not. I’m waiting for them to decide what they are going to do.”

The problem with the “wait and see” approach to the retirement of others is that it places the overall effectiveness of the staff team in the hands of a few individuals. In most of the situations that pastors bring to me for discussion, the individual that is deciding the fate of the staff team through their retirement decision is not performing effectively.  The head of staff stands by and does nothing out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, or out of a fear of creating division or risking a law suit. It seems easier to wait it out than it does to engage in conversations that have the potential to go very badly.

I believe that the most effective way to stay engaged with employees around their retirement decision is to be absolutely clear with them about role expectations. We shouldn’t freeze the expectations around a role to match what the person used to do when they were first hired, or to match what the individual is capable of doing now. We should be absolutely clear with all of our employees about what their current role requires of them, and we should provide clear feedback about how they are performing against those expectations.  This applies to all employees; those who have just begun their careers as well as those that are approaching retirement. Regular conversations about how the role is evolving, what skill sets they are expected to demonstrate, and ongoing feedback about how the employee is performing in the role, will provide the employee with the accurate information needed to make a good retirement decision.

What often happens in place of honest feedback is that the role is gradually diminished over time to accommodate the level of work that the employee seems willing and able to engage effectively. As the role is diminished, others around the employee work extra hard to pick up the slack and overcompensate for the underperforming person.  This isn’t fair for anyone, including the employee who is approaching retirement.

The decision about when to retire should be up to the individual, but only if the employee is effectively engaging the role. If an employee is no longer interested or able to meet the changing needs of the congregation, it is time to get honest. Most people are not interested in staying on in an employment situation once they realize that they have become a burden to the system. We can celebrate years of fruitful ministry and still be honest about what is required in the here and now.

Photo Credit: jimbeauphoto


Monday, September 20th, 2010

Congregations that employ more than one pastor often grapple with the authority relationships between those two pastors, particularly in congregations that call their pastors and embrace a congregational form of polity.  Increasingly, these congregations are inquiring about, or exploring, co-pastorate relationships. I’m using the terminology here to refer to a relationship in which there is no designated senior pastor. Both pastors function with shared authority and  equal  salaries. The notion of equally yoked pastoral leadership is attractive because it models a form of shared power and decision making that we’d like to see lived out in our congregations and in our communities. We’re attracted to the ideal of shared authority, to the ideal of equally valuing the giftedness of our pastors, and to the ideal of equal pay for equal work. Co-pastor relationships seem like a good leadership model for embracing all of these principles.

While these ideals are noble and noteworthy there are some serious problems and repercussions in the practicality of co-pastor relationships that, I believe, make them a less than stellar managerial option. In my experience, co-pastor relationships either work brilliantly (because the chemistry in the partnership is right from the beginning and the congregation doesn’t have to do much to keep it healthy) or they fail miserably.  When they work brilliantly there is a beautiful synergy in the relationship that infects the congregation in a very positive way. When they don’t work well they can be a disaster, not just for the two ministers but for the entire congregation.

Let’s explore some of the reasons that these partnership tend to fail.

By design, a co-pastor relationship requires having two ministers with skill sets that are different, but perceived as equal, in the eyes of the congregation. Right away we’re off to a difficult start. Congregations tend to value preaching, teaching and pastoral care over community involvement, social justice, administration and religious education. Two ministers with different preaching skills may not be viewed equally in the eyes of the congregation. In fact, the congregation doesn’t really need two equally gifted preachers. Will the congregation ever invest the weaker preacher with the same ministerial authority that they vest in the stronger preacher? Probably not.

A co-pastor relationship requires having two ministers that are equally loved and known by the congregation, and equally valued in pastoral care. Ministers earn much of their authority in the life of the congregation through their pastoral care involvement.  If co-pastors enter the church together the church has a reasonable shot at keeping this part of the relationship healthy. If one of the ministers has already been serving in the congregation for an extended period of time, the longer tenured pastor will have established stronger relationships with congregants. The second minister that enters the system at a later point in time may have a very difficult time establishing the kind of pastoral care presence needed to fully vest the authority of the role. The longer established, longer loved minister will always be perceived as having more power and authority in the system, even though the two roles are designed to share power equally.

Clarity of vision and strategy is critical, particularly in the large congregation. Vision drift is one of the biggest threats to the large congregation. It’s very easy for the collective staff team and governing body to lose clarity of focus. The large congregation is capable of doing so many things well that it has difficulty keeping a clear eye on the distinctive program strengths and core identity of the congregation.  A singular point person who is charged with maintaining the vision clarity of the congregation (through careful coordination of the staff team and the governing board) has a better shot at this than a shared partnership does.

The overall performance management system of the staff team works best when every person on the staff team has one clear supervisor. This is the person with whom they negotiate their role and set performance expectations, and from whom they receive feedback.  A co-pastor relationship may or may not impact this dynamic. Confusion reigns if members of the staff team have to begin negotiating role expectations with two different ministerial leaders, and either minister can call for a change in ministry priorities. Sluggishness occurs if members of the staff team have to seek permission to act from two different leaders.  If there is not clarity in supervisory relationships the entire staff team begins to function with a murkiness that is palpable throughout the entire congregation.

One of the greatest challenges that the governing body of a congregation faces is its oversight role of the senior minister.  Historically, congregations haven’t done this task very well. A co-pastor relationship place much greater demands on the governing board in its role as supervisor of the ministers. The co-ministers are ultimately accountable to the board. If disagreements between the two ministers emerge, that they are unable to effectively resolve between themselves, the board will be called upon to mediate. There is a level of complexity presented by a co-pastor relationship that exponentially increases the skills sets needed by board members to serve as mediators/employers. If the co-pastor relationship is not working well, all of the energies of the board will be consumed by the relationship, because there is simply no other place in the church for the relationship to be managed. A governing body that is wrapped up in the dysfunction of a co-pastor relationship doesn’t have much energy for its other critical tasks.

Finally, and very pragmatically, congregations often find it difficult to pay two ministers equally and still set compensation packages high enough to attract the best of talent. I know this seems callous and perhaps unjust, but it is real. A congregation’s capacity to support ministerial salaries works best when there is one higher paid senior minister who brings an elite skill set and one assistant or associate minister who comes in with a lower price tag because of lesser experience or skill set. Hiring two, equally skilled and highly gifted ministers may be outside the financial capacity of the congregation. Hiring two, equally skilled and lesser gifted leaders will probably not provide the congregation with the leadership that it needs.  You may find yourself faced with a pool of substandard candidates.

Interim (or not?)

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

4158547805_1207cf6201_mChange in the senior leadership of a congregation is fraught with opportunity and danger. A congregation in the midst of senior clergy transition is likely to experience high levels of anxiety and energy manifested in stagnation, conflict, or in brilliant creativity and rebirth. The Interim period has long been viewed as a special time in the life of a congregation, a time requiring a “different” sort of leadership. Rather than moving from one ministerial relationship immediately into another, the long standing practice generally involves the employment of an Interim Minister, a temporary shepherd who leads the congregation through the murky waters of transition. 

Increasingly, large congregations are questioning whether or not pastoral transition is sufficiently unique in the large setting to warrant a different way of thinking and different practices. Many large congregations today are considering direct pastor to pastor transitions that eliminate the practice of interim ministry.

The congregant in the small to medium sized church must use the interim period to let go of a personal one on one attachment to the departing pastor.  In the larger church those personal attachments are likely to be more present among the staff team and among key lay leaders. The larger population of the congregation is attached to a persona, not to a personal relationship. There is still important transition work to be done in transferring attachment, but the transition experience will be different from that of a smaller congregation.

Issues of identity and distinctiveness are fundamentally different in the larger church. Smaller congregations often describe their core identity as caring communities of support. It can be difficult for the small or medium sized congregation to describe the unique nature of its ministry, the distinctiveness of context, or who it is seeking to serve. These congregations have a great deal of identity work to engage during pastoral transition. In the smaller church the interim time is designed to be a neutral, resting time where the congregation can stop action and engage these important identity conversations.

 The healthy large church already possesses a unique way of talking about its identity, its context and the unique niche that it serves. The persona of the current pastor projects that uniqueness. The vision work of the large congregation during the interim generally does not involve re-inventing the church, but looking for fresh ways to articulate what is already present, and looking for evidence of vision drift. During the interim period the large church will claim 3-5 strategic priorities to project the established identity into a preferred future and to name the attributes of the pastor who will manage and personify the identity. In the large church the interim time period is not a vision neutral time zone. Leading the large church is like steering an ocean liner. The vessel turns slowly and with great deliberation. It is not flexible and nimble and if momentum is lost during an interim time period it will take huge amounts of energy on behalf of leadership to get the vessel moving again. The interim time period in the larger church is not a time to stop action. It is a time to review, reflect and refocus while maintaining important momentum.  Typically the momentum is maintained by the staff team and board leadership while the search committee engages leadership in reflection about future focus and strategic priority.

Anxiety and conflict express themselves differently in the larger church than they do in the smaller congregation.  Smaller congregations are constructed around simpler relational cells and networks. When anxiety surfaces in the smaller congregation it is quickly experienced throughout the entire congregation, and must be managed systemically.  In the larger church anxiety is likely to express itself in increased interest and speculation across the congregation, but outright conflict is likely to be localized and experienced in leadership pockets. During the interim period the overall anxiety of the congregation will be higher, but it can be managed through clear and transparent communication and by involving congregants in important data gathering activities that will shape the choice of future pastoral leadership. Outbreaks of conflict are best handled from the center and at the source, engaging the staff team and key lay leaders in the important work of conflict management as needed. Stability on the staff team and governing board are critical to keeping conflict healthy and anxiety at a minimum. Stability on the staff team and governing board may be best served by a single transition from one senior ministerial leader to the next, not by entertaining two major transitions (one from the retiring senior minister to the interim and then a second transition from the interim to the new senior minister).

In future entries I’ll explore different models of pastoral transition in the large church. In the meantime, what do you think about the notion of doing something other than an interim pastorate? Is the large church significantly different enough to warrant different models of pastoral transition?