Five Things to Consider Before Inviting Visitors into the Boardroom

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Inclusion, transparency and trust are important values for many congregations. To promote these values, congregations often adopt open board meetings. Members who do not serve on the governing board are welcome to attend the board’s meetings. They may or may not be allowed to weigh in with their opinions. Are open board meetings a good idea? Under what circumstances?

A variety of options exist for opening the board meeting to visitor participation. It is important to note that in each of the following scenarios only elected board members are permitted to vote.

Some congregations open the entire board meeting to visitors but ask the observers to watch and listen in silence. Occasional closed door sessions are held, where all visitors are asked to leave the room so that more confidential agenda items can be discussed.

Other congregations open a portion of the meeting to hear from any non-board member on any topic. Then the meeting is closed and visitors are asked to leave the room.

Still others invite only those outsiders with insights pertinent to a planned agenda item. These visitors typically arrive at the beginning of the meeting and stay through their scheduled discussion topic. Once the pertinent agenda item is finished the visitor is expected to leave.

What is the impact of having outsiders in the boardroom? There are at least five factors to consider before deciding to open or close your board meetings.


The Size of the Group Matters

The ideal sized decision making unit is between five and seven individuals. In a group of five to seven people, every participant can track the opinions of every other person. Every voice can be heard. The group is large enough to foster diversity but small enough to prevent silent factions.

Most governing boards are already larger than seven members before visitors are invited. We must bear in mind that each additional person in the room exponentially increases the challenges of open communication and decision making.  This is true even when the visitors are not allowed to vote or comment. Interpreting body language and imagining the viewpoints of silent participants is all part of the communication challenge.


The Quality of the Work Matters

The primary work of many governing boards involves sharing reports about what has already occurred and seeking authorization for upcoming activity. If this is the primary work of your board- you won’t be inhibited by the presence of non-board members. There isn’t much that outsiders can do to enhance or inhibit rubber stamp board work.

However, if you would like your board to be more strategic and generative, reconsider the presence of visitors.  Strategic work involves examining congregational identity, clarifying core values, naming targeted outcomes, and aligning resources. Generative work involves noticing changes in the environment, challenging paradigms, and re-framing ministry.

Strategic and generative work requires bold and imaginative thinking. Board meetings should serve as safe spaces where leaders can brainstorm outlandish ideas before narrowing in on a specific course of action. Board leaders shouldn’t have to worry about what a visitor might take away about an idea that is only half formed.


The Emotional and Spiritual Intelligence of the Visitor Matters

The work that takes place in the board room ought to represent the best and brightest thinking of the congregation. Hopefully, we assemble boards made up of emotionally and spiritually mature leaders. We should only invite outsiders into the board room who have the capacity to enhance our conversation.

Sometimes, the people who show up in response to open invitations are not our best and brightest. They may have an individual axe to grind. They may be attracted to the board room as a vehicle to exercise power and control. They may simply be seeking something to do, or a way to connect.

When you decide to incorporate non-board members, consider the emotional and spiritual maturity of people that will be in the room. Their presence includes them in the dynamic, regardless of whether they speak during the meeting. A silent meeting participant won’t necessarily remain silent once they leave the room. They may take their end of the conversation into the parking lot or onto social media.


Every Voice Matters, But Not in the Board Room

Every member of your congregation is a child or God and of equal inherent worth. Every member of the congregation has equal voice on issues that come before the congregation for a vote. However, not every voice belongs in the board room.

We are all gifted in different ways and called to serve differently in church life. Those who are gifted in the work of governance, policy and strategy are called to serve as board members. We should authorize them to make decisions on our behalf and then hold them accountable in accordance with our by-laws. We shouldn’t micromanage their monthly meetings.

Members who have not been authorized to serve as board leaders should not have unlimited access to board conversations. They should apply their skills and abilities to areas where they are most gifted.


There are Better Ways to Promote Trust

There are better ways to engender trust, transparency and inclusion than randomly inviting members to witness or influence the work of the board.

The research of leadership professors, Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith (1997), identified four organizational traits associated with trust: vision, empathy, consistency and integrity.

Our governing boards will be trustworthy when their work produces clarity of vision, when the actions of the board demonstrate empathy for the membership base, when the board makes decisions that are consistent with the core values of the congregation, and when board decision-making brings about moral order. If the random inclusion of non-board members detracts from these conditions, then inclusion works against trust.

Want to enhance the culture of trust, inclusion and transparency in your congregation? Be more intentional, and perhaps more restrictive, about who gets invited into the boardroom.


(Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds, May 2017, Norfolk, England. Flickr)

Don’t Just Talk About Mission-Act With Passion!

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

Congregations waste precious time forming mission statements that fail to inspire action. Writing a mission statement produces clarity, but rarely generates energy. It’s time to move beyond mission and start focusing on the passion that compels us to make a specific difference.

We often think of an individual as having a vocation and an organization as having a mission. Religious organizations have both a mission and a vocational calling. They are related to one another but they are not the same thing. A mission explains, but a vocation inspires.

Mission vs. Vocation

The mission of an organization defines the work undertaken by the organization. It describes why we do what we do. Our mission is our reason for existence.

Most religious organizations derive their mission from Scripture. This may sound blunt, but the mission of any Christian congregation boils down to some version of “Bring them in, transform them through the Gospel, and send them out to change the world.” Does every congregation really need to craft their own clever spin on this?

Alternatively, an organization’s vocation is its path of authentic service to the world. A manifestation of the divine spark within. An awakening of the God-given gift of the institution. The fundamental yes from which everything else in the organization flows. Perhaps theologian, Frederick Buechner, said it best, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

When you ask a struggling congregation about their vocational identity you are likely to get a response like this, “We are just one big family. We are a group of people that love being together. We are here to serve the world.” Struggling congregations are rarely able to describe their specific work. Sadly, the warm and loving feelings they ascribe to themselves rarely extend to anyone beyond a core group of insiders.

When you ask a thriving congregation about its vocation you are likely to hear something like this, “We have a heart for walking with people as they deal with their addictions. Our pastor has a professional background in addiction recovery and many in our congregations are themselves in recovery. We find ourselves particularly drawn to serving the homeless within our community, many of whom are struggling with issues related to substance abuse and addiction.”

Thriving congregations understand their broad part in spreading the Good News and in loving and serving others. At the same time, they are clear about the specific ways they are called to engage those broad mandates in their local context.

The Heart of Vocation

In Holy Conversations, consultants Alice Mann and Gil Rendle pose three questions that lie at the heart of identity. A congregation has vocational clarity when it answers these three questions: Who are we? Who do we serve? What are we called to do or become next?

Who are we (the identity question)?

Congregations, like people, bear unique fingerprints. Who we are is a function of our unique demographic; education level, affluence level, racial and ethnic profile, beliefs, core values, giftedness, limitations and passions.

Who we are is also formed by where we have been, by our history. Understanding the trajectory of our past clarifies our present. Our identity is shaped by our success, failings and shortcomings. Our limitations are as unique as our strengths and they help to clarify the work that may not be ours to do.

Who do we serve (the context question)?

We live in time and space. This season in ministry is unique. Clarifying vocation requires an understanding of how our context is changing.

There are many ways to think about the constituencies that we serve. Certainly, we serve the people who show up and include themselves in what we do. We can also include the neighbors in the places where our people live and work. And, we might include those we serve with our mission and outreach efforts. These geographies may overlap but they may also be quite distinct.

Of all the constituencies we serve, which constituency group(s) are we called to make a difference among in this season? Where is the greatest unmet need that we are uniquely situated to address?

What are we called to do or become next (the purpose question)?

The discernment of vocation requires an act of faith; a declaration of what God is doing in our midst here and now.

Our vocational calling emerges at the intersection of three circles represented by identity, context and purpose. Our identity has many components, but one piece of our identity has significance in this season because of our unique context. Similarly, we may serve diverse constituencies, but a subgroup is more relevant in this season because of who we are and how we feel called. When clarifying vocation, our task is to articulate what lies at the intersection of the three questions.

Three Oaks Community Church feels called to reach the unchurched thirty-five-year-old male who thinks that religion is irrelevant, and to transform that individual into a fully devoted follower of Christ.

First Church feels drawn to serve the families of children with special developmental needs. The congregation has embraced all abilities inclusion in worship and education. This is their gift to the community.

Cherry Hill Church is in a predominantly Muslim community. The congregation regularly hosts interfaith dialogue in the city, helping the community embrace its multi-cultural identity.

Vocation is a journey of discovery. We cannot manufacture it. It is a gift, given and discerned. When we gain clarity about our vocation we unleash energy and excitement in the life of the congregation.

Stop Making Small-Minded Decisions

Thursday, February 16th, 2017

We are living in a liminal season, a time betwixt and between an old order that we understood and a new era not yet defined. We are anxious and disoriented. When we are anxious it is hard to think expansively. Anxious leaders often take large issues and define them narrowly, making small decisions about consequential matters.

Deciding small things provides the illusion that we are in control. However, small-minded decisions will not help us to adapt, learn and grow. Now more than ever, we need the whole-hearted practice of spiritual discernment to enlarge our leadership responses.

Case in Point

Trinity Church is in a liminal season.  The congregation has just begun a new pastorate with their first female clergy leader.  Many are excited about this new era of leadership while others remain reticent. With this transition the congregation is experiencing a shift from authoritarian to participative leadership. Additionally, denominational leaders are in debate about marriage equality and gay ordination.  The congregation is also politically divided over the results of the recent election cycle. Everyone is on edge about how to make decisions in this environment.

Amidst this larger turmoil, city officials have approached Trinity with a rental request. The city is proposing a lease arrangement for thirty church parking spaces to be used by city employees during the workweek. Trinity has the space to share but they aren’t sure they should. The increased traffic may place wear and tear on church property and could inhibit some of the midweek ministries of the church. Also, Trinity just learned that the city offered a better leasing arrangement to the church across the street.

The first inclination of the governing board was to make this a simple face value decision.  Should the parking spaces be leased for the money offered? This framing of the decision led to a controlled conversation about offer, acceptance, value and fairness.  After two-hours of debate, the board was prepared to reject the offer. It simply didn’t make financial sense.

This was a fine conversation, but was it the right conversation? The challenge before the board is larger than a simple fiduciary question about rental space. The parking proposal hosts a broad range of issues related to the congregation’s relationship with its city, its neighbors and its mission.

The board had full authority to make this decision on behalf of the congregation. However, before taking a final vote the leaders at Trinity decided to move out of decision making mode and into a discerning mindset.

The Lost Art of Discernment

The practice of discernment is an ancient spiritual practice that many congregations have forgotten, or perhaps never knew. Most governing boards rely exclusively on group problem-solving to engage their work.

Ruth Haley Barton defines discernment as the ever-increasing capacity to “see” the work of God in the midst of the human situation, so that we can align ourselves with whatever God is doing. Discernment is a quality of attentiveness to God that, over time, develops our sense of God’s heart and purpose in the moment. In communal discernment, we move beyond the personal to see what God is up to within the collective whole.

Decision making is largely an intellectual process. We define, analyze, evaluate and determine. Discernment is an activity that connects heart, head and spirit. As such it is more robust and leads to greater innovation.

Group discernment is guided via a carefully crafted process, one anchored in prayer and stillness, grounded in guiding principles and steeped in listening. Discernment moves toward choice, but only after the application of careful spiritual disciplines.


Reshaping Deciding into Discerning

Trinity located their discernment within the governing board while seeking input from the congregation. They decided to allocate four weeks for the discernment process. At the end of that time, in the absence of consensus, they would vote and a simple majority would rule.

Discernment began with careful framing of the topic. Discernment topics are typically framed more broadly than decision making topics. Trinity leaders chose to define their discernment topic as follows: “How is the city our neighbor?  How is the city related to our mission?”

After framing, leaders took time to shed preconceived outcomes and biases. Through prayer, reflection and journaling, leaders set aside their convictions, personal histories and agendas, opening themselves to however the Spirit might lead.

Next, the discernment was grounded in important principles and core beliefs. Leaders looked at the history of the congregation and the city. They told stories about prior problems and opportunities with city leadership. They identified the core values of the congregation and how those values ought to inform this choice. They identified and weighed competing values. The considered their overarching mission. They sought the wisdom of scripture.

Discernment requires an intentional period of listening. At Trinity, congregants were invited into the conversation. The board hosted a town hall meeting where constituents were invited to weigh in on the discernment topic. Through the listening process a deep loyalty between the city and the congregation made itself felt. Leaders sensed a yearning for more connection with the community and its leaders.

Next, Trinity identified four viable options for moving forward: accept the offer as presented, reject the offer outright, counter the offer, or offer the parking spaces at no cost to the city. Each option was steeped in prayer and the group chose a spiritual discipline to evaluate viable alternatives. Trinity chose the Ignation practice of examen, using consolation and desolation as their guide.

Finally, the board moved towards closure. Every member of the board registered their level of support, objection or indifference to each alternative. Consensus emerged. A vote was only taken to make the choice official in the minutes of the church.  Board leaders chose to accept the offer with a caveat defining specific access hours, to protect drop off and pick up at the church daycare. The decision was tested through rest and prayer before it was communicated to the congregation and the city.

Liminal seasons are frightening but also exhilarating. Something new is often being called forth that cannot be attended through simple decision making. The process of discernment invites us beyond the narrowness of our decisions and into the expansive possibility of a future more fully grounded in God.  

Raising the Lowest Common Denominator

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

We’ve all been there. Stuck on a committee, task force or board that began with great promise but fizzled into dysfunction. Brought down by one member of the team who is unwilling or unable to participate productively in the work of the group.

Sometimes, the incapable member sits quietly and isn’t disruptive. Even this is disappointing because we lose the diverse viewpoint of one who was meant to contribute.  In the more typical scenario, the problem player throws up roadblocks to the work. People eventually grow weary of dealing with troublesome behavior and settle for any outcome to end the misery.

What can we do to raise the bar so that our boards, teams and committees do not settle to the level of their lowest common denominator?

Choose More Carefully

Our recruiting practices often exacerbate the problem. We get sidetracked with filling required slots rather than choosing healthy and talented people to lead. We emphasize the values of inclusion and diversity to a fault. We let anyone with an expressed interest occupy any role. Frankly, we are desperate to find people who will serve. A warm body who volunteers gets an enthusiastic response.

Careful selection always serves us well, especially in a period of institutional decline. A few quality leaders will always produce better outcomes than a bevy of warm bodies who are not equipped to decide or lead. This is true even when we are trying to incorporate diversity and honor inclusion.

  • If your church is declining in size, reevaluate your board and committee structure to make certain that it is right-sized for today’s work. This will allow you to make more judicious leadership choices from among your available membership body.
  • Don’t extend open invitations to serve on boards and committees. When we ask for volunteers we are bound to select those who raise a hand or step forward. Those who volunteer are sometimes not the best candidates. Make the selection of leaders a careful matching of skills with the needs of the mission. Ask for those with interest to submit their names for consideration in a transparent vetting process.
  • Make emotional and spiritual maturity a selection criteria. Passions and skills come in all shapes and sizes. Not every member of the team is equally equipped for every aspect of the team’s work. Emotionally healthy individuals are self-aware. They will determine when to assert their voice and when to submit to the leadership of others. Spiritually mature leaders work hard not to let personal agendas drive decision making.

The leadership structure of the church should never become a dumping ground for those who aren’t allowed to lead elsewhere in our culture.  Our mission is too important to settle for poorly chosen leaders who are unable or unwilling to participate productively in our work.

Empower the Healthy Players

First Church formed a task force of six people to consider adding a new worship service. Five members of the team were innovative, bright thinkers, well suited to the task. The sixth member, Andrew, refused to accept the basic premise that anything needed to change in the church. He resisted each new idea before it was explored. During every meeting, he stopped action by challenging the work process of the group.

At first, each time that Andrew offered resistance the team stopped to make certain that Andrew felt heard. They carefully re-examined both task and approach to ensure Andrew’s understanding and buy-in. But Andrew never bought in.

Eventually, the innovative players on the team quit offering new ideas. In the interest of inclusion, they yielded the floor to Andrew’s diatribes. The healthy players attended meetings less frequently and in the end the recommendation that was brought back to the board sought to preserve the status quo.

There are several things a team can do to ensure that the productive voices on the team hold sway and that the dysfunctional voices don’t run roughshod over good process and open dialogue.

  • Establish behavioral expectations up front. Determine how agendas will be formed, how information will be shared, how reservations are to be expressed, and how decisions will be made. Then act in accordance with those expectations.
  • Appoint a facilitator so that it is clear who is to officiate the meeting and balance the voices in the room. Without a clear facilitator, no one feels empowered to step in and set things right.
  • Clarify outcomes and manage your work per an agenda, with time frames assigned to each part of the work. A directionless meeting is a petri dish for the proliferation of dysfunctional behavior.

Clarity of roles, process and behavioral expectations will always make room for healthy voices and curtail the interruptions of less than healthy participants.

Move Around the Obstruction

Too often, we bounce back and forth between trying to convince and then control the obstructionist. We let them stop action while we work to bring them on board. Or, we try to make them behave well and coerce them into submission. Neither of these approaches is particularly helpful.

Players who are unwilling or unable to engage productively won’t be cajoled into better behavior. And it often takes too much energy and leadership capital to remove a volunteer from the team and deal with the aftermath of that choice.

There is a third way. Oftentimes, you can move around the problem player. When it becomes clear that a participant is obstructing, simply acknowledge their reservation but declare the group’s intent to move forward.

In the example above, the team could listen to Andrew’s reservations the first few times to make certain that they understood any legitimate concerns. However, once it became clear that Andrew was obstructing progress, any team member could simply say, “Andrew we have heard your concern, but right now we are going to focus our conversation on _______.” Then the team needs to ignore the problem behavior. Most of the time behavior will stop if it is acknowledged and then ignored.

Innovation and quality group work is core to the survival of the Church. We cannot afford to let recalcitrant or troubling behavior by one team member drag down the whole. Careful attention to our recruiting practices, establishing healthy behavioral norms, and simple conversational techniques for moving around obstructions can help any group work more productively.


What Can We Expect, When We Pay So Little?

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

© ‘Stopping On A Dime’| Flickr | JD Hancock 2009

Healthy employment relationships require accountability. Accountability involves setting clear expectations, providing ongoing feedback, and inviting employees to step it up if performance falls short of expectations. This fundamental cycle of communication seems easy enough to grasp, in theory. In practice, many of us demonstrate a failure of nerve when it comes to holding church employees accountable. We grapple with whether we can expect much from our employees, especially when we pay them so little.

This is not an article about fairness or justice in our compensation practices, although we certainly ought to be striving for equitable pay practices and a livable wage. This is an article about the role that money plays in employee motivation and performance accountability. Many assume that money is a required component in creating accountability. We expect to use money as a reward or to take it away as a form of punishment. In fact, money has little to do with performance accountability.  Here are four reasons why:

  • The mission of the congregation is worthy.
  • Employment relationships are utilitarian in nature. 
  • Money is not the most important motivator.
  • Good employees value mutual accountability.

These factors mean that churches can hold their employees to a high standard of accountability—higher, even, than employers that pay more for comparable work. Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

The mission of the congregation is worthy.

A congregation’s mission is important in the lives of its employees, congregants, and community. If this is not true for your congregation, then you have bigger problems than accountable employment relationships. If we have clarity about our mission, and clarity about the contribution that each employee makes to our mission, then we should never be embarrassed to invite accountability. It should be a privilege to work in service to the mission.

The average congregation in the United States devotes 49% of its annual operating budget to payroll related expenses. For most of us, this is the single largest line item in our operating budget. Our payroll dollars are the primary resource available to us for the pursuit of mission. We cannot afford to waste the precious resources of the congregation on employment relationships that don’t work. Good stewardship demands accountable employment relationships.


Employment relationships are utilitarian.

Both the employee and the employer must experience usefulness in the employment relationship. If they don’t, the partnership doesn’t work long term. The employer offers a combination of things the employee values: pay, benefits, the opportunity to do something meaningful, the opportunity to work towards the greater good, and the opportunity to grow and advance. In return, the employee offers something the employer values: time, talent, passion, energy and loyalty. Money is only one of many factors that provide utility. So long as the employer and employee value what is offered and accepted, there is utility and a meaningful union. When utility is lost, either because we no longer offer something that the employee values, or because the employee no longer provides what is needed, then something must be renegotiated or employment should end.

If an employee accepts the initial terms of engagement, then the supervisor can assume that there is enough utility to sustain an ongoing relationship. From that point forward, accountability is critical for maintaining utility. Expectations should be continually updated and communicated. Feedback needs to be regular and consistent. The employee needs to be willing and able to close the gap when performance expectations are not met. The employer needs to be willing and able to provide opportunity for growth.

Some congregations are experiencing declining budgets. We are reducing the size of our staff teams or we are asking people to forego pay increases.  We owe it to our employees and the congregation to be forthcoming about the changing utility in employment. We cannot simply ask people to do more with less. Nor should we accept lower levels of performance in exchange for lower levels of pay. We should have frank and honest conversations about the mission and ministry we can support with the payroll dollars available. The utilitarian nature of the partnership needs to be transparent to all.

Money is not the most important motivator.

Research shows that money does not motivate in employment situations, except when the tasks of the job are purely mechanical. Contrary to longstanding organizational beliefs, linking pay to performance has negligible impact on motivation, and in some instances, reduces motivation.

The lack of an adequate salary may keep a person from accepting a job, and it may cause enough dissatisfaction for an employee to leave a job, particularly when he feels unfairly treated. However, if the employee finds her level of pay basically satisfactory, money does not lead to higher levels of motivation.

Rather, motivation is produced by managing the more intrinsic side of the employment situation: greater autonomy, the mastery of an important skill, the ability to work in service to a larger good, etc. We strengthen these intrinsic motivators through accountability conversations, by gaining clarity about what is expected, offered and received.

Good employees value mutual accountability.

Over the years, the Gallup Organization has interviewed more than one million employees of various organizations about what they value in their work. Searching for patterns across organizations, Gallup identified key factors that provide strength in employment relationships. The most important factors include: a clear set of expectations, ongoing recognition for a job well done, a supervisor that cares, regular encouragement, feedback about needed improvement, and opportunities to learn and grow.

These elements of a good working relationship are also the elements of an accountable working relationship. Good employees value clarity of expectations and ongoing feedback about their effectiveness. They long to be given the chance to step up their performance, to learn, to grow and to contribute in meaningful ways. You may not be able to pay your employees at the top of the pay scale, but when you create an accountable environment, all involved in the mission of the congregation grow and thrive.

Many of you are beginning a new budget year. In the next weeks, you will be finalizing salary levels for 2017. These are important decisions that impact perceptions of fairness and equity among your employees. Bear in mind that the salary conversations are important, but they are not the same thing as accountability conversations. Accountability happens all year round and it has little to do with how much you pay.


Remaining Non-Anxious in Anxious Time

Thursday, November 17th, 2016

f296f98f-e13d-4304-b061-964fc6394179I’ve been watching and listening to pastors these past few weeks. They are bone weary. I can hear it in their voices and see it behind their eyes. It is challenging to marshal a calm and steady presence in the midst of our national political turmoil.

In the weeks ahead our leadership bodies will be making many of the hard decisions that come with wrapping up a calendar year. Many of you will be negotiating final decisions about the budget, staff raises, mission and program funding for a new year. These are difficult conversations to navigate in the best of times. These are not the best of times. How will you bring your best non-anxious self into these conversations and call that non-anxious presence forth in the groups that you lead?

A Steady Presence

We have long been taught that a non-anxious self is a critical leadership stance in the midst of anxiety.  Good organizational leadership requires someone who is non-reactive, thoughtful and steady-particularly when the things around them are spinning out of control.

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

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

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in Leadership on the Line call it holding steady. Holding steady is about learning to take the heat rather than fleeing or retreating back to the status quo. It involves focusing attention on hard issues and letting those issues ripen.  It requires the ability to observe and learn from resistance and factions that emerge.

It is one thing to describe this kind of leadership presence. Embodying it is an entirely different matter. How do we offer a non-anxious leadership presence when we feel shaken to the core? How do we help an anxious leadership body engage in tough conversations when the environment feels so precarious?

Wonder: The Antidote to Anxiety

Wonder trumps anxiety. We cannot be filled with wonder and remain anxious at the same time. Wonder is the ability to feel amazement, admiration and curiosity about something. Wonder invites our best, most creative thinking. Wonder connects us with God. So how do we move from anxiety to wonder?

Otto Scharmer, Senior Lecturer at MIT, speaks of three internal voices that stand in the way of wonder; the voice of judgement, the voice of fear, and the voice of cynicism. In anxious times these voices dominate our thinking and reasoning and they keep us from engaging our best, God-centered selves. In times of anxiety we must learn to release these voices.

The Voice of Judgment is intellectual.  This is the voice in your head that knows many things and has already reached conclusions about decisions at hand. It likes to label things “That approach is flawed and won’t work.” “He won’t support my idea because he is risk averse.” The voice of judgment tries to seal off the mind and protect the status quo. It shuts down creativity.

The Voice of Cynicism is born of mistrust. This is the voice in your head that is skeptical and certain that everyone is out to protect their own self-interest and violate yours. “He’s never supported any of my ideas and certainly won’t support this one.” “Just try to get the governing board to approve that idea!” The voice of cynicism tries to protect the heart from becoming too vulnerable. If I close myself off to the possibility of cooperation and success, I won’t be disappointed.

The Voice of Fear seeks to prevent us from losing what we already have. This is the whiny voice in your head that is certain you are in danger of losing ground. “Let’s just quit while we are ahead” “If we don’t raise this money, our very future is in jeopardy.” The voice of fear gravitates towards extremes. It shuts down the open will by keeping us in grasping mode, which works against the spiritual stance of surrender.  Grasping at what you are in danger of losing keeps you from experiencing God’s abundance.

The voices of judgment, cynicism and fear run amok in anxious times. They cultivate a closed mind, heart and spirit. They fight against wonder. If our desire is to adopt a non-anxious leadership stance then we need to release these voices.

Releasing the three voices begins with acknowledging their existence. At least initially, we have to create some space to attend to the voices as they express themselves.

Create a quiet space to reflect and attend to your inner thoughts. Sit with a blank sheet of paper. Think about a specific issue or decision that you are facing. Attend to each of the voices one at a time, with regard to that specific issue. What is the voice of judgment saying in your mind about the specific decision at hand? Write the musings of the voice down on the paper in front of you in stream of consciousness fashion. Don’t argue with it or filter it, just write it.  Then ask the voice of judgment to be silent for a while so that you can hear from the voice of cynicism on this matter. Again, give this voice free reign for two or three minutes recording everything it says to you. Finally, invite the voice of cynicism to remain silent while you listen for the voice of fear. Record any and all thoughts that fear expresses to you.

Once the journaling exercise is complete, read through the thoughts that have been expressed simply acknowledging their presence. And then, in whatever way works best for you, release the voices. You may want to symbolically fold and put the paper away or shred it and throw it away. You may want to pray to be released from the constraints that the voices represent. Or, you may want to simply sit in silence and listen to the voices retreat.

On the other side of judgment, cynicism and fear lives a state of wonder, mystery and possibility. “What wants to emerge here? What is likely to happen next? How can we bring the best of ourselves to the decision at hand?”

The anxiety in our culture is not likely to diminish anytime soon. Our leadership presence does not need to be captured by it. I pray that each of you, and the leaders that you lead, will find your way towards wonder in the weeks and months ahead. May God be with you in this.

The Future Doesn’t Exist Yet

Monday, January 18th, 2016

“There is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.”-Ed Catmull (Pixar)

All congregations experience seasons when something has ended, but a new thing has not yet begun. Perhaps it is the beginning of a new pastorate, when consensus about the way forward is still forming.  Or, maybe it occurs at the end of a building project when leaders are spent and no one is sure about what is being called forth from the new space. It can even occur at the completion of a strategic plan, when we are left wondering where the next big idea will come from.

These are liminal seasons, threshold moments where the continuity of tradition is called into question, and uncertainty about the future throws us into doubt.

Leading in a liminal season requires a fundamentally different way of being, with less emphasis on busyness and more emphasis on attending, framing, and helping people become creative.

Are you in a liminal space, and have you adjusted your leadership style accordingly?

Leading the In-Between

During liminal seasons we occupy space on both sides of a boundary or threshold. We have one foot rooted in something that is not yet over, while the other foot is planted in a thing not yet defined. We function with structures, identities and relationships formed by our old experiences, although we know that those constructs will not serve us adequately in the future.

Pastor Jon is brand new to his congregation. He is a bright young leader, high on potential but with no previous experience as a senior pastor. The congregation is a little edgy about the call. Will Jon have the skills and maturity to actually lead this congregation?  Members are eager for Jon to prove himself early on, so that they can relax and feel confident about their decision.

Jon is only too eager to please. He wants to do something new, bold and brilliant to quell their anxiety, as well as his own.  The problem is that the new thing is not yet apparent. Lots of great ideas abound, but there is no consensus about a way forward, at least not yet.  Jon and the congregation are still discovering one another. They will be in liminal space for a while longer.  

Neither Jon nor his congregation are keen about being in this space. Liminality introduces ambiguity and disorientation. People would rather be almost anywhere else, longing either for a return to the status quo or a dramatic leap forward. They look to their new leader to resolve their discomfort, and they wonder if his inability to do so is a sign of leadership weakness.


Don’t Just Do Something; Stand There

Staying with disorientation in a liminal season is critical.  The disorientation is needed to free us from old ways of being. It makes way for creativity and new things that want to be born. The challenge of leadership in a liminal season is helping people cope with their disorientation without panicking.  Anxiety has to remain high enough to ferment change, but not so high that the leader is rejected or that deadly schisms emerge. This requires some action, but mostly it requires a way of being, a presence that calms, reassures, and inspires openness.

Liminal seasons are often, wrongly characterized as periods of inactivity and waiting. They are not. They require both a presence and a different body of work.

Here are five specific things that leaders can and should be doing during a liminal season:

● Get Clear About the Core: It may be too soon to have clarity about the next big thing, but it is the perfect time to get clear about what is at the heart of our identity. Who are we when we are at our best? What are the core values and guiding principles that will shape our decision making? What strengths will we seek to preserve regardless of what happens next?

This kind of work is energizing for a congregation.  It will inspire confidence in the future and it will foster creativity.  Whatever the next thing is, it will grow out of this positive core.

● Frame the Issues: Help people understand what this season is, and is not. We are not being inactive. We are attending to our future. We are looking for what wants to be released, and what is yearning to emerge.

Listen for problem saturated stories about the past and reframe those stories so that they teach lessons in alignment with your core values. Re-story the old narratives so that they point towards a hope filled future.  

● Move from Striving to Presencing: When congregations grow anxious they often move into hyper-drive, artificially pushing to produce a more certain future through sheer will power and brute effort. When we aren’t certain what should happen next, we do more of what we have always done, to reassure ourselves that we are actually moving somewhere.  

Presencing is grounding yourself and the congregation in the abundance and the fullness of time. Presencing embraces the collective wisdom of the congregation. It recognizes the integrity of the whole in the parts, and the parts in the whole. In a state of “presence” we recognize the authentic self of the institution and we begin to approach that self from the emerging future.  

We proceed as if we have all the time in the world. We are connected to our Source. We yield and we are led.

● Be Clear About Loss: In liminality we are always moving away from something, and that means valued things are being left behind.

The effective leader helps people cope with loss at a pace that they can tolerate. This involves a clear acknowledgement of who stands to lose what as we move away from our past. We stand with people in their loss. We compensate for that loss to the best of our ability, and we encourage their capacity to endure loss, and to negotiate the transitions ahead.

●  Conduct Experiments: It is dangerous to claim permanent solutions to long-standing problems, when we don’t yet have clarity about where we are headed. Avoid locking in a single course of action.  Instead, create small experiments and encourage innovation.  Set up learning opportunities. Identify targeted outcomes. Harvest learning along the way. Admit when something isn’t working and begin again.  Eventually your experiments will lead to greater clarity and to the next generation of innovation, which is waiting just over the horizon.

Leading in a liminal season is not about protecting the status quo, nor is it about leaping blindly into an unknown future.  It is about building the bridge as you walk on it. Your leadership must honor the in-between nature of things. It requires leading with presence.

Why We Aren’t Learning

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

WSF-Lightbulb “What are you seeing out there that is working?” the pastor asked when we met for lunch. The assumption behind the question was that someone, somewhere had discovered a way forward, one that we might all benefit from knowing.

This era of congregational life calls for innovation and learning. We praise reinvention, yet our congregations aren’t doing much risk taking. We stay in maintenance mode and wait for someone else to discover a magic bullet that we can replicate.

Why aren’t we practicing what we preach? Why aren’t congregations everywhere taking more risks, experimenting and learning new pathways forward? There are at least four factors contributing to our innovation malaise.

Limiting Metrics

We all want to regard our ministry as a success. Traditionally, success in the mainline church has been defined by growth in membership, attendance and operating budgets. Unfortunately, in an era of increasing secularization and declining religious affiliation these indicators are not likely to rise.

Fostering innovation requires that we adopt better indicators to serve as a barometer of our learning and progress. If our sole focus is on the weekly number of “butts in seats” and “money in the offering plates,” we are not free to experiment or fail. Any new experiment that threatens even a slight decrease in attendance or giving is quickly abandoned.

Effective measures of learning need to focus more on outcomes, and less on output. Outcomes describe specific changes in opinion, attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning. Outputs are usually metric based and describe what we do and who we reach (number of participants, people served, classes taught, etc.)

Outcomes are not easily counted, but they are observable. We need to do a better job of creating indicators of our learning outcomes. We might measure the number of tried, but failed, experiments. We might collect stories of important lessons learned and new insights gained. We might set goals targeted at meaningful risk taking.

Our Fear of Failure

The November 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review features an article, “Why Organizations Don’t Learn,” that identifies two basic mindsets with which people approach their lives: “fixed” and “growth.” People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence and talent are a matter of genetics. Either you were born with them, or you don’t have them. A fixed mindset aims to appear smart at all costs. It fears looking incompetent and seeks to avoid failure. Consequently a fixed mindset has limited learning capacity.

By contrast, people with a growth mindset seek out challenges and learning opportunities. They don’t see failure as a sign of inadequacy and are eager to take risks. People with a growth mindset are more aware of opportunities for improvement all around them. A growth mindset can be taught and cultivated.

Our problem is that we have institutionalized the fixed mindset. We have taught our congregations that experimentation and risk-taking are best controlled at the denominational level. Others will take risks. The denomination will determine which risks are worthwhile and will provide formulaic solutions to our problems. Our job is one of implementation, not innovation.

If we want congregations to learn we need to break the fixed mindset and reward risk taking at all levels. We can do this by personally demonstrating curiosity, acknowledging what we don’t know, and personally demonstrating a willingness to fail.

Compulsive Activity

These are anxious times to do ministry. When people grow anxious they have a natural tendency to pursue activity compulsively, to be mindlessly busy without adding much value . No one wants to be seen as “fiddling while Rome burns.” So we get busy and we stay busy. We exhaust ourselves and become too tired to learn. We apply what we already know to each new problem that emerges, and then we move on to the next thing.

Becoming a learning organization requires that we collectively breathe more deeply and take time for reflection. Research shows that people who spend as little as 15 minutes per day reflecting on the work of the day perform an average of 20% better than those who don’t.

What might happen if we reserved the first or last minutes of each of our meetings to reflect on what we have tried and learned since last we met? Four simple questions can help:

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why was there a difference?
  • What do we do next time? (which activities do we sustain, improve or eliminate)

Developing a disciplined practice around these four questions will build greater reflective capacity in our congregations. We’ll become a little less inclined to add things that increase our busyness, and a little more inclined to work smarter.

Our Belief in Outside Expertise

Every time that the Pew Research Center comes out with a new report we grit our teeth and dig in. We have come to expect bad news about the ecosystem that supports congregations. The absence of Millennials and the rising number of “Nones” are the go-to excuse for why our situation is intractable. The complexity of our environment seems totally beyond our personal knowledge base and expertise. We yield to the voices of outside experts.

We need to instill a new mindset, one that advocates addressing issues when and where they occur. Whatever the global forces affecting ministry, your challenges are always local and contextual. There are no easy fixes and no one “out there” has the answers. Anyone who suggests ten easy steps is oversimplifying and/or lying.

We need to help our people understand that the specialized voices of outside experts do not hold sway over the breadth and variety of our lived experience in our context.

If we want local congregations to become less passive and more active in the face of decline, we need to make some changes. We need to establish learning metrics, diminish the fear of failure by eliminating fixed mindsets, take more time for reflection, and learn to trust our lived expertise about context. In so doing we can shift the conversation away from what the learning is out there, and focus instead on the learning at our fingertips.

Taming the Bureaucracy Beast

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

The church needs innovation, experimentation and risk taking.  The church has bureaucracy; inactivity in the name of good order and process. Senseless bureaucracy keeps us endlessly mired in reporting, approval seeking and communication. We end up with repetitive meetings, multiple levels of approval, over-reliance on procedure, and postponed decision making until everyone is informed and happy.  What would it take to free ourselves from all of this and just get things done?

Too Much of a Good Thing

In the late 1980’s Zebra Mussels found their way into the Great Lakes. A few Zebra Mussels are healthy for a fresh water ecosystem. They filter the water and reduce the overgrowth of algae. They produce clear water and facilitate healthier conditions for bottom dwellers.

image controlsUnfortunately, Zebra Mussels also feed voraciously and reproduce rapidly. Instead of gently cleaning up the Great Lakes waterways, the mussels over-proliferated and destroyed too much algae, threatening wild fish habitats.  They also clogged fresh water intake valves and filtration processes that human communities around the Great Lakes depend upon to thrive.

Congregational systems are like the Great Lakes ecosystem in this analogy. A few good procedures and carefully constructed decision making rules will produce transparency and generate healthy representation. Good policy keeps us from running off the deep end in pursuit of ideas that are not a good fit for us.  However, when process and procedure over-proliferate, we end up with clogged decision making. Innovation and risk taking take a back seat to sustaining good order.

The good news is that there are things we can do right now to tame the bureaucracy beast and restore a healthier balance between order and innovation.

Know what you seek to accomplish:

Bureaucracy thrives when process takes precedent over outcomes. When communication, shared decision making, and keeping people happy become the outcome, we end up with stagnation and clogged intake valves.

We begin unclogging by naming the specific changed conditions we are trying to produce in mission and ministry. This requires naming the new learning, changes in attitude, behaviors, knowledge, skills, status, or level of functioning that fulfilling your mission requires. These are your outcomes.

Outcomes are the not the same thing as outputs. Outputs are the direct results of program activities (what we do) and participation (who we reach). Outputs indicate if a service was delivered to the intended audiences at the intended “dose”. A program output might include things like the number of constituents served, classes taught, meetings held, materials produced and distributed, and the number of people who engaged.  

When we are unclear about outcomes, we often chase outputs. Chasing outputs without clarity about outcomes promotes unhelpful busyness and feeds the bureaucracy beast.


Eliminate Liaisons

Congregational governance systems ensure representation, and the primary way we have pursued representation is through liaison roles.  We select leaders on the basis of their ability to represent the voice of a specific constituency: the choir, the youth, the women, or the daycare. The liaison is expected to attend all board meetings, as well as any committee or team meetings that impact her constituency group. Her job, in addition to representing the best interest of her constituency group, is to ensure that important information from the board meeting is carried over to the committee meeting, and vice versa.

There are several things wrong with liaison roles. First, liaison roles elevate communication and decision making over action. A liaison may be expected to attend three to four meetings per month so that her constituency group is appropriately informed and represented everywhere that a decision might be made. Volunteers use up all of their available time attending meetings, without actually engaging in any hands on ministry. It’s exhausting for the volunteer and the governance system. In this age of digital communication there are far better ways of sharing important information than requiring a person to sit in endless meetings, in case their viewpoint is required.

The second problem with liaison roles is that they don’t promote strategic thinking on behalf of the whole. They certainly encourage debate: my group needs this, your group wants that. A room full of designated liaisons acting in the best interest of their constituent groups won’t necessarily reach a decision that is in the best interest of the whole. They are likely to make decisions that serve the needs of the constituency with the most outspoken liaison.

What if, instead of appointing liaisons, we assemble smaller bodies of decision makers who act on behalf of the whole? We expect them to make informed decisions and communicate as needed with the appropriate constituencies of the church. This requires more intentionality when forming agendas, to make certain that the right people (the staff member or committee chairperson) are in the room when a decision is being considered. This would free us up to make decisions more flexibly, without deferring decisions back to committees or task forces for further consideration before a decision is authorized.


Design an Experiment

Some bureaucracy stems from the fact that we don’t want anyone to be surprised or upset about a decision that is under consideration. We postpone decision making until every voice is heard and until everyone is happily on board. This squelches innovation. Nothing happens until we all agree.

Next time you find yourself in a meeting where the group wants to postpone a decision, why not encourage the birth of an experiment? If the group isn’t comfortable approving a new giant step, figure out how to make it a baby step that everyone can learn from.

Bureaucratic systems are built to support “Ready, Aim, Fire!” mentality. Bureaucracy seeks absolute clarity and consensus before allowing action, so that errors are not made.

In this era of continuous change, we don’t have the luxury of moving ponderously. We need to act more quickly, embracing more of a “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach to decision making.  We ready ourselves to take a step that is reasonable. We pull the trigger and move ahead with an experiment that will allow us to learn something. The experiment has to be appropriate in scope so that failure won’t be devastating. We learn from the experiment and refine our next steps, postponing acts of authorization until we have learned what we need to know.

Bureaucracy in a congregation is not inevitable. We don’t have to succumb to overgrown systems of communication, decision making and approval. We don’t have to wait for a major overhaul of our governance system from the denomination. We can begin right here, right now to streamline our approach and allow more innovation.

Blame it on Polity

Monday, August 31st, 2015

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

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

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

Our Devotion to Our Polity

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

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

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

Practicing Critical Interpretation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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