Monday, March 19, 2018

Lessons Learned: Schaller on Leadership

I considered Lyle Schaller a teacher, mentor, and a friend at critical moments in my life. There is much I could say about him and his insights about congregational life were of great help to me as a leader and especially when Bishop Payne gave me the opportunity to work with the 156 congregations in the Diocese of Texas.  Almost all the teaching that I have done on Congregational Development came from him.  However, this series of blogs is about lessons I learned from others on leadership, so I will limit my comments here to four things that I learned from him that directly relate to leadership. 

When Stuck, Change your perspective

I learned from Schaller, that when a leader is stressed, we do the counterproductive thing of doubling down.  We do this with our intentions, by repeating them over and over.  We do this with our personality, overusing one of our strengths. We do this with our energy, working harder and harder and getting smaller results. Schaller taught models that allowed one to see things from a new perspective. 

For example, “Does this issue make sense if I, as a leader, apply the typical congregational life cycle to our situation?”  Another example is “Is this strategy going to be effective in a small pastoral sized church?” 

The big one that I often see in churches is that when the leader is challenged, he or she responds by once more repeating their intentions.  The assumption we make is that a challenge can be answered by clarifying what we have already said.  Seldom is a challenge to leaders about what we are saying.  Many times, it has to do with an inconsistency in what we say verses what we are actually doing.   Many of Schaller’s books give us tools to make just such a shift in our perspective. 

When I started working with the Vestry of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, I was struck by how may intelligent people kept saying, “Dean, but what do you think we should do?”  I thought I was doing team building. As I reflected on this, I realized that I was acting like a consultant to the Vestry and not as the leader of a program sized congregation.  The Rector of a large parish acts more like the Director of a non-profit than a participative leader typical of smaller parishes. Once I started giving suggestions and saying which one made sense to me and my staff, it helped us get unstuck.

When It Isn’t Working, Ask Yourself the Right Questions

Quite honestly, when frustrated many clergy leaders ask “What is wrong with me?”  This is the wrong question.  The better one Schaller gave me was “Why am I frustrated and what can I do about it?”  This is also true for congregational leaders.


Once when working with a conflicted Vestry, I stopped an angry discussion and asked them to go around the room and define what each thought the issue really was.  We had 6 different answers from 9 Vestry members.  Realizing this, I challenged them to choose one of these and start from there. 

Manage both Content and Process

Schaller taught me that when a leadership team or any group is working, there are two dynamics going on.  One is the content and the other is the process.  His advice was simple; “If you are stuck on content, then ask a process question.  If you are stuck on process, ask a content question.”

In a divided Vestry discussing the need for a new building and getting nowhere, I asked, “What would be the best way to resolve this matter?”  After further discussion, they delegated this to a special committee and asked them to come back with a recommendation.

Good Leaders Ask Others the Right Question at the Opportune Moment

Schaller taught that a good leader knows the power of asking the right question at the right moment.  Here is one of his classic ones: “If we decide to go ahead with this plan, what do you think the predictable resistances will be?”  

Here is what I said to my senior warden at a critical moment.  “I understand that you are against what I am recommending, but I am wondering why you are so angry about this.”  His first response was classic.  “I don’t know.”  Which do you think more important at that moment, his position or his anger?

And here is a question Schaller asked me, “Kevin, is this the most serious crisis that you’ve ever faced in ministry?”  “No, not at all,” I blurted out.  Then he asked, “So why are you so preoccupied by this?”  It didn’t take long for this question to bring an irrational fear to the surface that had me stuck.

And here is my favorite one that I have had to ask myself and others many times; “Is this a people problem or a system problem?”  Because as Schaller liked to point out, people problems need people solutions and system problems need a system solution, and it is not always clear at any moment which solution is really needed. 

It is painful to note how many congregations try to solve their dysfunctional systems problems by firing the Pastor.  Smart Leaders learn the difference.

As I reflect on this, I realize the wisdom and tools that Schaller gave me as a leader and how passing these on have helped many pastors and lay leaders become more effective. 

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