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One’s leadership style reflects how they are wired, their gifts and passions along with their understanding of what leadership is and how it is exercised. Listed below are assumptions about leadership that many people, including me, embrace as essential for being a transformational leader everyday, everywhere.  Begin making a list of which assumptions below resonate with your understanding of leadership.

ASSUMPTION 1: You Can Make a Difference

Leadership begins when you believe you can make a difference. You have to believe in yourself.

ASSUMPTION 2: Credibility is the Foundation of Leadership

You have to believe in you, but others have to believe in you, too. What does it take for others to believe in you? Short answer: Credibility. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t willingly follow you. It turns out that the believability of the leader determines whether people will willingly give more of their time, talent, energy, experience, intelligence, creativity, and support. Only credible leaders earn commitment, and only commitment builds and regenerates great organizations and communities. Before anyone is going to willingly follow you—or any leader—he or she wants to know that you are honest, forward-thinking, inspiring and competent. People must  believe that you know where you are headed and have a vision for the future. As a leader you are expected to have a point of view about the future. You are expected to articulate exciting possibilities about how today’s work will result in tomorrow’s world. Your ability to take strong stands, to challenge the status quo, and to point people in new directions depends on just how credible you are (honest, inspiring, competent). If you are highly credible, people are much more likely to enlist in your campaign for the future. But if others don’t believe in you, then the message you are delivering about an uplifting and ennobling future rests on a weak and precarious foundation. People may actually applaud your vision of the future but be unwilling to follow you in that direction. They may agree that what you are saying needs to be done, but they just won’t have the faith and confidence that you are the one to lead them. If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message. If you are going to lead, you must have a relationship with others that is responsive to their expectations that you are someone they can believe in.  If people are going to willingly follow you, it is because they believe you are credible. To be credible in action, you must do what you say you will do. That means that you must be so clear about your beliefs that you can put them in practice every day. The consistent living out of values is a behavioral way of demonstration honesty and trustworthiness. It proves that you believe in the path you have taken and are progressing forward with energy and determination.

ASSUMPITON 3:. Values Drive Commitment

People want to know what you stand for and believe in. They want to know what you value and why. And leaders need to know what others value if they are going to be able to forge alignments between personal values and organizational demands. You can only fully commit to organizations and other causes when there is a good fit between what you value and what the organization values. That means that to do your best as a leader you need to know who you are and what you care about. You need a set of values that guide your decisions and actions. To discover who you are and what you care about, you need to spend some time on the inner work of a leader—in reflection on finding your voice. And keep in mind that it’s not just your values that matter. What is true for you is true for others: they too must find a fit with who they are and what they value. Credible leaders listen, not just to their own aspirations, but also to the needs and desires of others. Leadership is a relationship, and relationships are built on mutual understanding.

ASSUMPTION 4. Leaders are forward-thinking

The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining competence of leaders. Leaders are custodians of the future. They are concerned about tomorrow’s world and those who will inherit it. They ask, “What’s new? What’s next? What’s going to happen after the current project is completed?” They think beyond what’s directly in front of them, peer into the distance, imagine what’s over the horizon, and move forward toward a new and compelling future. Your constituents expect you to know where you’re going and to have a sense of direction. You have to be forward-­‐looking; it’s the quality that most differentiates leaders from individual contributors. Getting yourself and others focused on the exciting possibilities that the future holds is your special role on the team. Developing the capacity to envision the future requires you to spend more time in the future— meaning more time reflecting on the future, more time reading about the future, and more time talking to others about the future. It’s not an easy assignment, but it is an absolutely necessary one. It also requires you to reflect back on your past to discover the themes that really engage you and excite you. And it means thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave and the contributions you want to make.

 

Truth Five. You Can’t Do It Alone

No leader ever got anything extraordinary done without the talent and support of others. Leadership is a team sport, and you need to encourage others in the cause. What strengthens and sustains the relationship between leader and constituent is that leaders are obsessed by what is best for others, not what is best for themselves. Leaders alone don’t make anything great. Leadership is a shared responsibility. You need others, and they need you. You’re all in this together. To build and sustain that sense of oneness, exemplary leaders are sensitive to the needs of others. They ask questions. They listen. They provide support. They develop skills. They ask for help. They align people in a common cause. They make people feel like anything is possible. They connect people to their need to be in charge of their own lives. They enable others to be even better than they already are.

ASSUMPTION 6. Trust Rules

If you can’t do it alone and have to rely on others, what’s needed to make that happen? Trust is the social glue that holds individuals and groups together. And the level of trust others have in you will determine the amount of influence you have. You have to earn your constituents’ trust before they’ll be willing to trust you. That means you have to give trust before you can get trust.  Trust rules your personal credibility. Trust rules your ability to get things done. Trust rules your team’s cohesiveness. Trust rules your organization’s innovativeness and performance. Trust rules just about everything you do. How can you facilitate trust? Research has shown that the following  behaviors contribute to whether or not others perceive you as trustworthy. Here are four actions to keep in mind:

  • They behave predictably and consistently.
  • They communicate clearly.
  • They deliver on their promises.
  • They are transparent and candid.

Getting people to work together begins with building mutual trust. Before asking for trust from others, you must demonstrate your own trust in them. That means taking the risk of disclosing what you stand for, value, want, hope for, and are willing and unwilling to do. You also have to be predictable and consistent in your actions: forthright, candid, and clear in your communication; and serious about your promises. And, as we’ve learned so many times, leaders are far better served when they’re forthcoming with information. There’s nothing more destructive to trust than deceit, and nothing more constructive than candor.

ASSUMPTION 7. Challenge Is the Crucible for Greatness

Exemplary leaders—the kind of leaders people want to follow—are always associated with changing the status quo. Great achievements don’t happen when you keep things the same. Change invariably involves challenge, and challenge tests you. It introduces you to yourself. It brings you face-­‐to-­‐face with your level of commitment, your grittiness, and your values. It reveals your mindset about change. The study of leadership is the study of how men and women guide people through uncertainty, hardship, disruption, transformation, transition, recovery, new beginnings, and other significant challenges. It’s also the study of how men and women, in times of constancy and complacency, actively seek to disturb the status quo, awaken new possibilities, and pursue opportunities. All significant and meaningful accomplishments involve adversity, difficulty, change, and challenge. No one ever got anything extraordinary done by keeping things the same. Risk, uncertainty, and hardships test us. Initiative and grit are imperatives in times of uncertainty. You have to embrace the challenge, control what you can, and take charge of change to be successful in these turbulent times. To deal with setbacks and to bounce back from mistakes, you need grit. You also need to find ways to learn from failure, knowing that’s one of the best teachers you can have.

ASSUMPTION 8: . You Either Lead by Example Or You Don’t Lead At All

Leaders have to keep their promises and become role models for the values and actions they espouse. You have to go first as a leader. You can’t ask others to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself. Moreover, you have to be willing to admit mistakes and be able to learn from them. We know that credibility is the foundation of leadership (Truth #2). What is credibility behaviorally? How do you know it when you see it? The most frequent answer we get in our research is: You have to Do What You Will Say You Will Do, or DWYSYWD for short. Seeing is believing, and our constituents have to see you living out the standards you’ve set and the values you profess. You need to go first in setting the example for others. That’s what it takes to get others to follow your lead. A big part of leading by example is keeping your promises. Your word is only as good as your actions. You have to realize that others look to you and your actions in order to determine for themselves how serious you are about what you say, as well as understand what it will mean for them to be “walking the talk.” Your statements and actions are visible reminders to others about what is or is not important. And when you make a mistake, admit it. Admitting your mistakes and shortcomings goes a long way toward building up people’s confidence in your integrity. It gives them one more important reason to put their trust in you.

ASSUMPTION 9: Leaders Are Lifelong Learners

You have to believe that you (and others) can learn to lead, and that you can become a better leader tomorrow than you are today. Leaders are constant improvement fanatics, and learning is the master skill of leadership. Learning, however, takes time and attention, practice and feedback, along with good coaching. It also takes a willingness on your part to ask for support. Leadership is not preordained. It is not a gene, and it is not a trait. There is no hard evidence to support the assertion that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of only some individuals and that the rest of us missed out and are doomed to be clueless. Leadership can be learned. It is an observable pattern of practices and behaviors, and a definable set of skills and abilities. Skills can be learned, and when we track the progress of people who participate in leadership development programs, we observe that they improve over time. They learn to be better leaders as long as they engage in activities that help them learn now. But here’s the rub. While leadership can be learned, not everyone learns it, and not all those who learn leadership master it. Why? Because to master leadership you have to have a strong desire to excel, you have to believe strongly that you can learn new skills and abilities, and you have to be willing to devote yourself to continuous learning, and deliberate practice. No matter how good you are, you can always get better. You can develop yourself as a leader, but it takes a continuous personal investment. It takes time, it takes deliberate practice, it requires setting improvement goals, staying open to feedback, working on your strengths and weaknesses, and having the support of others. Moreover, the very best leaders also believe that it’s possible for everyone to learn to lead. By assuming that leadership is learnable, you stay open to opportunities to turn the workplace into a practice field and every experience into a chance to grow. By believing in yourself and your capacity to learn to lead, you make sure you’re prepared to take advantage of the many opportunities that are open to you.

ASSUMPTION 10: Leadership requires a servant-mindset

It could also be the first truth. Leaders are in love with their constituents, their customers and clients, and the mission that they are serving. Leaders make others feel important and are gracious in showing their appreciation. Love is the motivation that energizes leaders to give so much for others. You just won’t work hard enough to become great if you aren’t doing what you love. There’s no integrity and honor with heart. There’s no commitment and conviction without heart. There’s no hope and faith without heart. There’s no trust and support without heart. There’s no learning and risk taking without heart. Nothing important ever gets done without heart. Purely and simply, exemplary leaders excel at improving performance because they pay great attention to the human heart. Leaders put their hearts in their organizations and their organizations in their hearts. They love what they’re doing and they stay in love with leading, with the people who do the work, with what their organizations produce, and with those who honor them by using their products and services. They show they care by paying attention to people, sharing success stories, and making people feel important and special. Exemplary leaders are positive and upbeat, generating the emotional energy that enables others to flourish.

CHAPTER SIX

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.

— Mark 8:34

Guide:
Step 5 in Coaching Change

Monitoring Progress, Celebrating Wins,
and Making Course Corrections

Being a courageous follower of Christ is hard work. Taking up our cross involves sacrifice and a willingness to view the world and our daily encounters through the eyes of Jesus. Exerting leadership for the sake of Christ is also hard work, and we can expect to run into obstacles as we live into God’s preferred future. In the coaching CHANGE process, persistence is key. Leaders will find that even if earlier steps of aligning and goal setting have gone relatively well, they will eventually encounter some resistance. As leaders, we can expect to be sabotaged by others. So how do we provide effective leadership as we swim upstream and move people beyond their comfort zones as well as ours? This chapter explores what it means to guide people and the CHANGE process through such challenges.

When I go river rafting one of things I like to observe is how the guide interacts with the people in his raft, and how he exerts leadership along the way to the final destination. Specifically, the best guides exemplify five critical qualities:

Maintaining a nonanxious presence in the midst of rough waters and changing conditions

Addressing counterproductive behavior immediately

Celebrating short-term wins

Adjusting their plans based on the situation

Recognizing and removing roadblocks

Maintaining a Nonanxious Presence

Many years ago I lead a youth mission trip to New Orleans, and I brought along an adult leader who was highly organized, had a deep faith, and was a great cook—all traits that were much appreciated for this trip. She also brought along another trait to the experience that I wasn’t prepared for—anxiety. What started out as a minor irritation for me became a major issue by the middle of the trip. She had a strong need for control, and when she couldn’t control things to her satisfaction (pretty typical for a mission trip), her anxiety level skyrocketed. By day five of the mission trip, I was spending more time dealing with her anxiety than I was interacting with the young people. I noticed that other people were picking up her anxiety, including myself. It wasn’t until I realized how “viral” I had become that I was able to detach myself from the anxiety and exert more effective leadership. This experience taught me the importance of being a nonanxious presence in the midst of other people’s anxiety.

Addressing Counterproductive Behavior

A rafting guide learns to address unhelpful behavior immediately, because failing to do so may hinder outcomes and endanger participants. When congregational leaders fail to address counterproductive behavior, they jeopardize achieving the congregation’s mission and vision.

At a congregation’s staff leadership team retreat I was part of, I noticed that a couple of people presented major challenges to the team in fulfilling their collective roles. One of the team members was extremely rigid about how things needed to be done and frequently shut down conversations that the group desperately needed to have. Another team member’s identity was wrapped up in the role she played working at the congregation. She needed to prove herself to others and often chided others who weren’t as committed as she was. When I asked a couple of people how long these situations had been occurring, one remarked, “Oh, longer than I’ve been here,” which was more than seven years. When asked, “Why hasn’t anyone addressed these situations?” several comments came forth:

“I didn’t see it as my role to confront them.”

“I know it’s a problem but I don’t have the time to deal with it.”

“I find it’s easier to work around it than deal with it.”

“I didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”

“I’m uncomfortable dealing with conflict.”

As an outsider, it was easy for me to see how the dysfunction was adversely affecting the team’s productivity and cohesiveness. This team had created and regularly recited a covenant that gave every team member permission to address the dysfunction that was present. The “I don’t have time” excuse is simply that—an excuse to remain immobilized. My experience is that these conversations take very little time. Most people are simply afraid of entering into these conversations because we feel ill-equipped to do so.

Small problems often become big ones when we fail to address them as they arise. We hope that these problems will go away on their own and that we won’t have to deal with them. One consequence of waiting too long to tell a person something we should have told them immediately is that when we finally do say something six months later, the person begins to wonder what else we have not told her, destroying trust in that relationship.

We pay a significant cost when we walk away from these difficult conversations. If we don’t master the art of having crucial confrontations, nothing will get better. Sometimes we think that we can solve performance problems by simply changing the performance review system or changing our personnel policies. These are technical solutions that won’t solve adaptive problems. Situations like the ones described above require a face-to-face conversation held in a safe place.

Before seeking to resolve an issue, we need to be clear about the exact nature of the problem we hope to resolve. I’ve noticed that most problems among leadership team members generally fall into one of three categories:

A single, isolated situation: “I noticed that you arrived twenty minutes late to lead the choir rehearsal and some members were visibly upset while waiting for you. Is there anything I should know about what prevented you from being on time?”

A series or history of events that demonstrate a pattern: “I’ve noticed that you have a pattern of arriving five minutes late each week for teaching Sunday school. This prevents us from greeting each student as they enter the classroom, and sometimes causes interruptions for other teachers. What are some ways you see that we could fix this problem?”

A situation that adversely affects relationships: “Tom, the deadlines we assign to you are consistently not met, which disrupts our workflow in the office. I’m beginning to wonder if I can trust you with completing upcoming projects on time. Help me understand how I should interpret your behavior.”

If the solution you’re applying doesn’t get you the results you want, you’re most likely dealing with the wrong problem. If you’re dealing with the same issue more than once, you’re probably dealing with the wrong type of problem. Sometimes we need to unbundle the problem and focus on the most significant problem first. Try distilling the problem into a single sentence, such as “Tom, I’m struggling with your pattern of not replying to my urgent e-mails in a timely manner.” Avoid the tendency to sugarcoat the problem by sharing a compliment first and then following up with the “gap in behavior.” Listed below are a few phrases I have found helpful while entering into difficult conversations:

“Help me understand how you came to that conclusion . . .”

“Is there a reason you . . . ?”

“I’m uncomfortable with . . . / the statement you just made . . . / this course of action.”

“I’ve noticed . . . and I’m not sure how to interpret your actions.”

My dad used to tell me, “Rotating bald tires is a time-consuming activity that changes nothing.” I think it serves as a helpful metaphor for all the things a congregation does to dance around problems rather than deal directly with them. These kind of problems will not be resolved unless there is someone serving as a nonanxious presence who willingly addresses the causes of the problem rather than just the symptoms.

Monitoring Progress and Celebrating
Short-Term Wins

I’ve noticed that guides always take time throughout the journey to affirm rafters and celebrate their progress. There are “high fives” after running a set of rapids, with frequent words of encouragement to recognize the contributions of each team member. In the same manner, effective leaders identify appropriate short-term goals for a congregation and make note of the progress they’re making. This is where having a written list of thirty-day, sixty-day and ninety-day goals can be helpful in identifying potential short-term wins that are worthy of celebration. In addition to recognizing and celebrating short-term wins, a leader or coach can use these milestone moments to learn from their success and failures, asking questions such as these:

What led to the successful completion of the goal?

How do we do more of what made us successful?

What slowed down our progress?

What might we do differently in the future?

When working with congregations, I often encourage session moderators and council chairs to maintain a “celebrations” list, which is included at the bottom of every meeting agenda and is reviewed and updated at every meeting. By reviewing the celebrations monthly, leaders are reminded that progress is being made, that God is at work through our efforts, and that attending to results and next steps are important. During this time of reviewing the celebration list, I’ll ask three questions:

What has been accomplished since we last met that needs to be added to this list?

How will we inform the congregation about the progress we’re making?

What do we hope to accomplish before we meet again?

Celebrating short-term wins serves as a launching pad for setting next steps and new goals. It reminds people of their capacity to make a difference and energizes others to “get on board.” How might you make celebrating short-term wins part of your meeting rituals?

Adjusting Plans Based on the Situation

Rafting guides learn to quickly assess the skills of their group and make adjustments as needed to accomplish their task. They learn when to move people beyond their comfort zones, careful not to push them beyond what they are capable of. They move people to different locations and positions within the raft based on where they can make the biggest difference. They ask lots of questions and seek constant feedback to ensure a safe and memorable experience. Effective leaders are like rafting guides who constantly assess the situation, quickly and accurately gather feedback, and discern how to best exert their leadership in ways that are most helpful for the congregation. They quickly match up the gifts and passions of their people with the congregation’s mission, and find ways to make the most of the congregation’s resources. In short, effective leaders learn to be nimble and adaptive, making changes as needed to fulfill the mission.

In his book Managing Transitions (Philadelphia: Perseus Books, 2009), author and business consultant William Bridges reminds us of the importance of understanding the stages for transitioning from where we are to where we want to be.

Coaches are aware of the two fears congregations face—the fear of too much change and the fear of too little change. People that fear too much change are concerned about losing control. People that fear too little change may be unwilling to invest significant time and energy if they think the end result will be minimal. Please note that all change will produce conflict, which is good and not to be avoided. A good guide will pay attention to how people are responding to the change and will make adjustments as needed to move things forward in a healthy manner.

Recognizing and Removing Roadblocks

Every goal has obstacles that hinder one’s progress or derail one’s plans. For river rafters, it’s rocks and rapids. Sometimes it’s one of the rafting participants. For congregations, it can be a multitude of things. Take time to review “Roadblocks to Renewal” (Tool 26) and consider how you might be more proactive in anticipating and dealing with the roadblocks you encounter. As you identify the roadblocks in your ministry, schedule time with staff or ministry team leaders to explore options for addressing them in a proactive manner. The roadblocks rarely disappear, so learn to deal with them sooner rather than later.

How Congregations Sabotage
Their Change Efforts

Most roadblocks that congregations encounter are self-inflicted. Listed below are the top six ways I see congregations sabotage their own efforts.

1. They send out mixed messages. Leaders must speak with one voice and vision. Change is disconcerting enough, but even more so when the leaders are not on the same page. A clear and powerful vision, undergirded with a strong, credible strategy is almost unstoppable. This vision must be focused, flexible, and easy to communicate. It must be communicated in a way that inspires action and guides people’s actions and decision making.

2. They fail to obtain adequate buy-in. Not only must your congregation have a clear picture of what the future will look like, that vision must be embraced by key stakeholders of the congregation. Before a congregation announces a capital campaign, they typically have in place a guiding coalition, dozens of committed donors, and plenty of advocates ready to support the campaign process. When considering who might be part of your guiding coalition, ask yourself:

Who are influential people that shape the opinions of our people?

Who has expertise in areas that would help move this initiative forward?

Who has earned the respect of others in our congregation?

Who has proven leadership skills that can help drive the change process?

Focus on getting 20 percent of your congregation to buy-in on the initiative before publicizing the project to everyone.

3. They fail to create an “actionable” ministry plan. Most plans I see only scratch the surface of what’s possible and are not designed to go deep within the congregation. Superficial efforts will not be sustained, and eventually you’ll hear people say, “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” We’ve all heard the phrase, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” If your plan does not identify action steps that will involve the majority of your people, it will most likely fail. All good plans help people understand the big picture, the next steps that need to be taken, and what role each person will play. If your plan leaves out any of these three items, expect to experience a few roadblocks. You may wish to review the section in the previous chapter on navigating change about setting 30-day, 60-day and 90-day goals.

4. They work on too many projects at once. Remember the phrase “Do less and go deeper.” Focus on just one or two initiatives rather than a laundry list of projects. Many congregations create a theme for the year and address just one project at a time. Successful initiatives always have a sense of urgency built into them that provides a compelling reason for why others should get involved now. It’s very hard to communicate this urgency when you’re working on multiple projects at once.

5. They undercommunicate. When it comes to change, there are three questions everyone wants answers for:

What is the change?

Why is it happening?

How is it happening?

The why answers are what motivate people to take action. The how answers help people understand how the change will unfold and how they can contribute to the effort. When leaders spend months working on a plan, it’s easy for them to lose sight of the fact that others aren’t as fully invested at this point. This is like being on a roller coaster where the people in front (leaders) are well aware of what’s about to happen and the people at the end (members) are clueless about what’s about to transpire. When in doubt, always overcommunicate. Use at least seven different communication mediums, such as the following:

One-to-one meetings and phone conversations

Website, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, other social media venues

E-mails

Texting

Posters and entryway signs and banners

Video clips and storytelling

Cottage meetings, dinner discussions

Newsletters, flyers, and handouts

I can’t think of a case when a program failed because there was too much communication. Make sure your communication efforts focus on your primary goals and key messages—avoid allowing less important projects and programs to overshadow your main talking points. Keep in mind that your communication plan must also address ways your congregation intends to address short-term wins and key accomplishments. People are energized by and will continue to support efforts if they see that they’re making progress and making a difference. Without the continued support of the people in the congregation, the change efforts will die a slow death.

6. They underestimate the power of entropy. I’m often amazed at how quickly congregations will revert to their old, counterproductive behaviors. Resistance is always waiting in the wings to reassert itself. The consequences of letting up, becoming complacent about your communication and behaviors, can be very dangerous. Whenever you let up before the job is done, critical momentum can be lost and regression may soon follow. The new behaviors and practices must be driven into the congregational culture to ensure long-term success. Once regression begins, rebuilding momentum is a daunting task.

I worked with a congregation that spent considerable effort reframing their leadership meeting agendas and integrating their key messages into everything they did. About six months into the coaching process, I noticed that their newsletter no longer included faith formation stories about their people (one of their goals), the meeting agendas no longer included time for caring conversations and for evaluating their meetings. Nor were they regularly reviewing their goals, tracking their accomplishments, and planning new thirty-day goals . The pastor continued to preach great sermons (I’d listen to his podcasts) but was no longer weaving the congregation’s mission and vision into them. In essence, what I was observing was entropy in action where the positive changes they had made earlier were no longer being practiced and reinforced. I didn’t wait to discuss this with him at our next coaching session. I called him immediately, because I knew that the longer we waited to correct the action, the harder it would be to reverse course.

Leaders must avoid declaring victory too soon and moving on. They must focus on driving the desired change deeper into the congregation. They must take the time to ensure that the new practices are firmly grounded in the organization’s culture. I encourage leaders to keep and regularly review a list of “new behaviors and practices” they have implemented. I inform leaders that when the behaviors or practices are no longer being consistently observed, it needs to become an agenda item at their next leadership team meeting and stated in a way that gets at “How do we get back on track?” If leaders fail to address problems when they’re small, they almost always become larger and more significant problems later. It reminds me of how most congregations deal with inactive members. When people haven’t been active for one or two years, they end up on a list and the church sends a letter to the household asking if they intend to continue their membership. In my experience, less than 5 percent of inactive people ever become reactivated through this process. Most congregations call this process “cleaning up our membership list.” Let’s face it, if we were really concerned about their spiritual well-being, we’d be contacting them after a month of inactivity, not waiting a year or more to find out their status. I call this practice the “too little too late” syndrome that plagues most congregations and hinders our capacity to do our best work on behalf of the kingdom.

How Leaders Sabotage Their Congregation’s
Change Efforts

As individuals and leaders of the congregation, we need to acknowledge that we play an important role in whether or not our congregation fulfills its mission. We may lament that our congregation is drifting, lacks clarity of purpose, and can’t seem to sustain positive change. In many ways, it’s not much different than what most of us experience in our own lives. How many of us have created a personal mission statement or clearly understand what God is calling us to be and do? How many of us consistently eat well, exercise, floss our teeth, read the Bible, pray regularly, and more? Unfortunately, it is much easier to set goals than it is to achieve them. Individuals encounter many of the same roadblocks as congregations, such as lack of a clear vision and trying to do too many things too quickly. The roadblocks I find most common in congregational leaders include the following:

They lack a clear understanding of their own vocation. Leaders are often unclear about their vocation, or what Jesus is calling them to be and do for the sake of the kingdom. Understanding our vocation is a spiritual discernment process that involves looking at our areas of giftedness, passions, life experiences, and more. It’s hard to be a self-differentiated leader and a nonanxious presence if we are unclear about who we are and whose we are, and what role we play when we interact with other congregational leaders.

They lack the necessary knowledge and skills to provide effective leadership. It’s hard for leaders to be effective if they lack critical knowledge about the congregation, family systems dynamics, how the congregation makes decisions, and so forth. Is it fair to expect leaders to lead effective meetings if they’ve never been trained how to moderate one? Is it fair to expect leaders to know how to deal with a member’s inappropriate venting if they haven’t role-played similar situations? Does your congregation provide tools and training to help leaders facilitate focus groups, lead task forces, or serve as a project manager? If high performing teams are made up of high performing individuals, then how does a congregation and its leaders make sure that it’s helping pastors, program staff, and congregational leaders perform at their very best? Have you considered helping leaders create a personal development plan to make the most of their giftedness? Do you provide mentors for new leaders? Are your leaders required to read certain books or articles? Do you include continuing education presentations and resources at your monthly meetings? If we invite people into ministry, then we have to have a plan for equipping and supporting them.

They forget which hat they’re wearing. I remember working with a congregation who had a delightful, bubbly office manager named Ruth who made everyone feel welcome and special. She radiated hospitality and knew just about everyone in the congregation. Unfortunately, she was also organizationally challenged, computer illiterate, frequently forgot to pass on critical messages (“A member just died”) to pastors, and she viewed deadlines as mere suggestions. By not addressing the inadequacies of this person’s administrative skills, the very tasks she was hired to do, the organization was paying a huge cost. As I sat in on a meeting where leaders were discussing how to deal with Ruth, it was obvious that people’s friendships with Ruth were causing them to discount the adverse impact she was having on the work flow and overall ministry of the congregation. When there was a break in the conversation, I interjected a series of questions:

Does anyone have concerns about Ruth’s character? (All shared a resounding “No”)

Does anyone have concerns about Ruth’s competence related to her position?
(All said “Yes”)

Is it fair to say that a person in this position should have good character and be competent? (All said “Yes”)

Is it fair to say that Ruth’s lack of competence is negatively affecting ministry efforts of paid and volunteer workers? (All said “Yes”)

Is it fair to say that Ruth’s lack of competence is hurting this congregation’s ability to fulfill its mission? (Most said “Yes”)

Is it fair to say that your role as a congregational elder is to make decisions that are in the best interests of the congregation rather than based on your personal friendship with Ruth? (Eventually all said “Yes”)

The conversation continued but was framed in a much different manner once leaders were aware that they needed to wear their “council hat” at the moment rather than their “friend hat.”

Arrogance, defensiveness, and rigidity. Leaders that exhibit an arrogant, “I know best” mindset shut down constructive conversations. Leaders who are defensive also shut down conversations when they erupt in anger or are obviously irritated by the discussion. Defensive leaders avoid being held accountable or project blame elsewhere. Leaders known for being rigid impose confining structures on their organizations, often because they lack basic confidence in their own abilities and the abilities of others. Their energy is focused on controlling everything and they are frequently perceived as micromanagers. If not addressed, all three of these behaviors tend to immobilize leadership teams, and important issues no longer get discussed and new ideas never get shared.

Are your leaders willing to name the “elephants in the room”? Do you have a strategy for dealing with these situations before they actually occur? Do you have a covenant that gives you permission to confront inappropriate behavior?

Final Thoughts

Every congregation I’ve worked with related to strategic planning has had to address the following roadblocks or obstacles at some point in the implementation process. I name them to provide you with a heads-up rather than offering a bevy of solutions. (See Tool 26, “Roadblocks to Renewal,” for additional insights.)

Procrastination: The hardest part for many people is just getting started. When you think about your goal in its totality, it may seem daunting. The key is to break it down into doable steps. Once you do that, it’s easy to get started. I encourage pastors and program staff to inform their colleagues in ministry of their next steps in ministry and to ask people to hold them accountable.

Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” Just when you were making real progress toward your goal, something unexpected happens and causes a setback. How you approach a setback is critical. Some people will become discouraged, while others give up. Others will take this in stride and find a way to get to their goal. Do your best to plan ahead and anticipate problems, refusing to let these challenges derail you from moving forward.

Plateaus: It’s normal after working on your goal for a period of time to hit a plateau. You know when you’ve hit a plateau because the same things that were working before suddenly aren’t working—and that’s exactly the problem. You need to do something different. Hitting a plateau means you need to shake things up, do things in a different order, or try something new until you start seeing progress again. What worked when you first started on your goal may not work several weeks or months later. The key is flexibility and a willingness to try new approaches.

Discouragement: Along the way to your goal you may hit a rough patch and become discouraged. The important thing to know about discouragement is that it’s temporary. This is when it’s helpful to have a prayer partner or a network of support to sustain you in times of disappointment.

There’s never a “right time” to facilitate change. We must accept that we are going to experience obstacles along the way. We don’t know exactly which ones, but we know it’s inevitable. So, when something does happen, we’re not shocked and we’re not discouraged; it’s simply part of the process. Dealing with these obstacles will require moving beyond our comfort zones and moving into uncharted territory. In most cases, when the comfort zone is at odds with our goal, the comfort zone usually wins unless we remind ourselves why we’re seeking the desired change. If the why is big enough, the how won’t hinder us from living into God’s preferred future.

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QUESTIONS TO PONDER

Which of the five leadership traits found at the beginning of this chapter do you most readily exemplify? Which trait is needed most for your particular setting?

What are the roadblocks or obstacles facing your congregation?

How might your congregation be more proactive in dealing with the roadblocks?

Are there changes you could make in how you govern that would allow you to be more nimble and adaptive?

What are the comfort zones that you need to move beyond in order to achieve
your personal goals? The goals of your congregation?

How might you create a culture where members are mutually accountable to each other?

In what ways does our congregation typically sabotage its change efforts?

How might we communicate more effectively in the future to help others embrace the change we’re seeking?

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