Thursday, February 19, 2009

Ministry Maxim, 4

You usually hear this one the other way around, but I always say, "it's easier to ask for permission than forgiveness." Here's the deal. As a minister, you seldom have a vote. You don't vote in the elders' meetings. You have to watch yourself in congregational meetings and discussions. And you don't get to vote about whether or not you have a job. The biggest thing you have to trade on is trust. It is gold. And there is nothing more powerful in a human community. Blindsiding your leaders or the congregation squanders it.

I know the temptation to do it the other way around. It seems like change is so arduous in a congregation. And elders and other leaders are set up by the system to be conservative, even if this isn't their own personality or inclination. They're concerned with the preservation of the whole, and they have to spend way too much of their time keeping the customers happy. They will keep their foot very close to the brake, and sometimes it seems like things will never change. It seems easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. I think the short term gains from such an approach, however, aren't worth the long term damage in most cases.

I'm convinced, moreover, that a congregation will give you a lot of permission toward real change. There are two things that have to be in place for this to happen. First, the congregation has to believe that you are open ended about their future. Most ministers who flame out cast the dye in their opening weeks and months. They try to change things too fast, and they have an ideal congregation in mind (the one they wish they had) that constantly judges the congregation as it actually exists. I am suspicious of any leader who knows beforehand what it is that God is up to in a congregation, and so are church members.

The second thing here is that every congregation has challenges that are real and at the surface that they would love to see addressed. These aren't always the one ministers are interested in. Some are easier to deal with than others, but a congregation will give you permission to work on things.

Let me give you an example. One congregation I worked with had a ministry structure that existed before I arrived. Well, structure is too strong a word. They had people with titles and tasks, but had no idea how those were assigned, how they were related to the budget, etc. And it caused no little consternation in leadership meetings. It was something that they couldn't solve because they had competing interests that they were afraid would cancel each other out if they went one direction or the other. Everyone was frustrated. I asked for permission to take what everyone was saying and work on a proposal. Just a proposal. If we didn't like it, we could try again. They gave me permission. Helping us past our girdlock on this matter was probably the most significant thing I did with that congregation.

It worked in part because they recognized their conversation in the proposal. And it was biblically and theologically grounded. And I made sure they knew at every step along the way that it was only a proposal. If it didn't express what we thought God was up to, we could start over.

I never lacked for such opportunities. You know you're on potential permission giving ground when you keep having the same conversation over and over again and no one is satisfied. Brain storming gets you nowhere. The move then sounds something like this..."We've been over this ground 100 times and we never seem to get anywhere. This seems pretty important. Would you give me a few weeks to work on a proposal to let me see if I can bring everything we're saying into focus. It will give us all something concrete to work on, move us past the brainstorming phase. It's only a proposal, and I promise not to get my feelings hurt if you don't like it."

But permission given has to be rewarded with good work. That's the catch, isn't it. So, here's my advice on a proposal.

1. It has to be recognizable. That is, people have to be able to see that their viewpoints have been taken into consideration. I know this is not always easy, and some viewpoints need to die. But the proposal needs to be respectful of the conversation to this point. There needs to be a sense that this is what we have been trying to say.

2. Find the bigger frame. Reframig is the biggest part of moving past sticking points. The great thing about good theology is that it can account for polarities, for tensions and contrasts. The frame should always be bigger than the field of contention. It should be theological.

3. Treasure new, treasure old. A proposal should express the congregation's identity, both what is has been (treasure old) and what it hopes to be (treasure new).

4. Detail, detail, detail. The frame is the big work, but the details clinch the deal. It needs to be concrete. And details are places for negotiation. As long as you don't lose the frame, details provide the possibility for negotiation, for collaboration. If you lose the frame, you have to go back to the drawing board.

You'll never run out of this kind of work, and the better you get at it as a congregation, the more risks a church will be willing to take. The big stuff becomes possible.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Mark. I needed this wisdom today.

Cheryl Russell said...

Great, and timely thoughts on leadership Mark. Always appreciate your insights.