Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Congregational Leadership Needs to Strike the Right Balance for Creative Leadership

 Catherine Thompson is the Rector of Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Texas.  Since I came to faith and the Church when Annunciation was a mission church of the Diocese of Dallas in the late 50s, I was pleased when she asked me to give her some coaching last year. 

She is facing two interesting challenges in taking on the calling of Rector to this congregation.  First, she has all the issues of following an over 20 year tenure of her predecessor.  I have written on these challenges in other places, so for this blog, let me just say that thanks to her predecessor’s work at the end of his tenure, and the good lay leaders of that congregation, and her own pastoral abilities, she is weathering through this well. 

Second, she is facing the on-going challenges of a church moving back and forth between the conflicting demands of an over-grown Pastoral Size congregation and an under-developed Program Size.  This issue will take a much long time to address.  In fact, I could write a book on this topic.  Oh wait, I already did. 

In this blog, I want to share a creative way that Catherine discovered to help build a more cohesive and creative Vestry.  She had been doing a great job in getting the Vestry centered on goals and what needed to be addressed for the future.  They have over-come some substantial hurdles in debt reduction and staffing.  However, at the same time such intentional goal directedness has a tendency to wear on even the best congregational leaders.  She was sensing that this year she needed “something” different from goal setting at her Vestry Retreat.  I suggested that her hunch was right and that she needed to do something that focused on the health and mutual support of leaders for and to one another. 

She came up with a great plan and she gave me permission in this blog to share it with you.  This year Catherine began the retreat by stating her intention to set goals aside and focus on the life of the vestry.

She then shared a video presentation  “Why Leaders Eat Last,” by Simon Sinek with her leaders.  (Here is the link  ) 

 In the presentation, the teacher focused on creating a safe place for people to work together.  It points out the pitfalls of not attending to creating this kind of safe place and how humans who do not feel such safety react to challenges and changes, mostly in negative ways.  Catherine then led the members in a discussion of what they needed to do to make the Vestry such a place. 

The results were surprising and insightful.  After an open and frank discussion of the needs they felt, the Vestry eventually returned to some planning.  This time there was a surge of energy, creativity, and commitment that had been lagging in recent meetings.  As I listened to the story, I could also hear the energy that Catherine felt from that retreat.   

What did Catherine learn from this creative venture?  I would suggest that she learned one of the fundamental truths of healthy community life.  It is the need to strike the right balance between task and group life.   

Many years ago, I learned this truth in my early work in organizational development.  It came from a secular source, but it has direct application to the Church.  I would say it has even more application to the Church.  This truth is at any moment in a group’s life there are two needs.  One is the need for structure and meaning that comes from “purposefulness.”  Individual and groups of humans badly need a sense of purposefulness.  We need, in other words, goals and direction.  We need to know where we have been and where we are going.  An essential element of what we call “self-esteem” is found in such purposefulness.  Many parents need to learn this lesson in regards to their children.  For years, parents have been urged to praise their children and this does have value, however if the praise isn’t attached to purposefulness, the praise soon sours into meaninglessness or worst narcissism.   

Second, a group also needs to attend to its affective life of mutual trust, caring, and create what we are seeing in this blog to be “a safe place” to belong.  It has been my experience that many Vestries pay far too little time dealing with this issue or striking this balance.  Even a vestry that primarily meets and maintains corporate life in reports, budgets, and plumbing, will grind out into a un-healthy place over time.  Here is a critical point; “community” in the New Testament doesn’t just happen by carrying out business, even purposeful business.  It happens when we attend to the needs of our interior corporate life. 

Of course it is possible for Church leaders to become too preoccupied with the interior life to the point of abandoning purposefulness for an attempt at emotional well-being, but this happens much less than the grind of usual life.  I have met many former Vestry Members who tell me that after a term on their local Vestry, they would never serve again.  When I ask why, they refer to how lacking in trust, love, and mutual regard, their experience was.  What a sad testimony for a Christian Church where such behavior is supposed to be normative for us. 

Notice that I say striking the right balance because this is the challenge that leaders face.  We need to know how to maintain this healthy balance and the sign of it is creativity, spontaneity and a sense of meaningful work.  I also like the way Catherine introduced this topic from outside by way of the video.  Often the least effective way at getting to this balance is to announce that we need to “look at the way we relate to one another” which can often create the exact tension that we need to avoid. 

How about your Vestry, Ministry Team, or Organization?  Are you striking the right balance between these two needs?.  If you are, you can probably feel it and see the fruit.  If you are not, the signs are often low commitment, morale, and mutual regard.