Are Spiritual Leaders always leaning in different directions?

Several years ago a well respected church consultant told me that he thought pastors and governing boards will always be at odds.  “The system is set up that way,” he said  Ever since I have been trying different ways to align a congregation’s mission, vision, resources, worries, and personalities so that the best possible working group could emerge.  So the title of a recent Harvard Business Review article caught my attention, “What sets successful CEO’s apart.”  Surely CEOs need to work with powerful boards.  Perhaps in this article was another insight to supporting congregational governance.

The surprise came in the first line of the article. “In the more than two decades we’ve spent advising boards, investors, and chief executives themselves on CEO transitions,  we have seen a fundamental disconnect between what boards make for an ideal CEO and what actually leads to high performance. (Citation for the quote at the end of this post.) In my parish experience, most of the tension, miscommunication, and missed opportunity for a parish begins with the lay spiritual leaders not fully understanding the clergy’s role and the clergy leader not fully understanding the lay leaders role, relationships, and connections (historical and personal) in the congregation.  All sizes of corporations and congregations share the same disconnect!

Since the article focused on the CEO, the solutions were pointed to the CEO’s behaviors, however, when Spiritual Leaders are forming a complex community of values, beliefs, history, and vision, the behaviours can apply to other lay leaders and clergy leaders.

First, decisions.  “High performing CEOs understand that a wrong decision is often better than no decision at all.”  Churches are known for the long process of decision making because with one monthly meeting and complex impacts, it is hard for goverence members to go deeply into the issue.  Often more data is called for.  More data may help if the options have not been well research or presented to start but more data won’t illuminate a better decision when the vestry, session, or trustees know one needs to be made for the congregation.  What will help is assessing the impacts and providing vestry members with accurate, concise ways to communicate with their peers in the congregation.  Questions will inevitably come up.  And, the impact of a less than perfect decision can be redirected rather than waiting for the perfect, consensus decision so that everyone can claim, “everyone on the vestry is for it!”

Second, impact. The vestry being for an idea won’t help members get on board.  What will help are the talking points below, and the vestry’ confidence that they and the pastor will lead the congregational to a good result.  Pastors don’t need to try to be liked during a big decision that bring significant change nor can governing board members go for the same.  What they can go for is assuring members that as the decision unfolds into real life in the congregation that there is another side that is safe.

Third, adapting.  The wonder of every congregation is the particularities of that community.  For decisions there is not one formula to follow or as some say, a playbook.  Listen, assess, communicate, listen some more, and share accurate, up to date information. Hear the questions the congregation is asking and answer them.  If you don’t know the answer it builds trust if you say you don’t know but then promise to find out and answer the question

Fourth, reliability.  Set realistic expectations up front. Perhaps the decision needs to be implemented in stages.  Perhaps the vestry needs to appoint a task force and assemble the right team for implementation, perhaps there is information, welcome or unwelcome, that the congregation needs to digest before the implementation team begins.  Incorporate these tactics into the process.

As the HBR article concludes, they point out that not every successful CEO will use these four characteristics evenly or be equally well versed in all four.  Focusing on the presence of these four characteristics will enhance the cohesion and the success of the Spiritual Leaders in your congregation.  These four behaviours can help bridge the gap we all experience in understanding one another so that we are ‘one in unity and spirit.’

May-June 2017 Harvard Business Review.  Pages 71-77. HBR Reprint R1703C


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