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The Transition from Idea to Change

All leaders have ideas, but not all ideas lead to change. What separates the dream from reality? Businessweek recently reported on the history of the bar code. It sounds mundane, but there is something to learn about change implementation from the story.

In 1948 two graduate students at the Drexel Institute of Technology overheard a supermarket executive discussing a key problem: the need for an automatic system to read each product item. Working together, the two students helped change the way retailers do business. Before the bar code, supermarket clerks had to punch numbers into a keypad. It was slow. The process was prone to keystroke errors. After the bar code, everything is scanned swiftly and with minimal errors (and thank goodness for the self check-out sections—impossible without the bar code).

We experience the change to the bar code system almost every day. It’s ubiquitous. But how did the idea transition to reality? What can churches learn from this process?

Simple with obvious benefits. Ideas that transition into changes are typically simple and have obvious benefits. How many times have I said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The best ideas are simple. The best ideas have obvious benefits. The bar code was simple—just a bunch of lines inspired by the dots and dashes of Morse code. And yet the benefits were profound.

Are the ideas you’re floating your church leaders simple? Are the benefits obvious? Not every idea needs to be simple. Indeed many changes in the church are complex, involving a cultural shift among the people. But the ones most quickly adopted are simple with obvious benefits.

Standard process. The great Wally World of Bentonville gave the bar code a boost. As Wal-Mart grew (along with other large grocery chains), so did the use of the rather efficient bar code, which became a critical part of retail distribution systems. Critical mass was achieved, however, with the adoption of a standard system.  The scanners were expensive to retailers. Manufacturers had to change systems to put the labels on all the products. Without a standard, each retailer would have its own system and each manufacturer its own label. When the National Association of Food Chains chose the UPC bar code as the standard, enough companies jumped on board to make it a reality.

If you’re mulling through an idea that will be a different reality for different groups in the church, then you’re less likely to see the idea transition into change. If the change effort is not standard for the entire church, then people likely to be confused. For instance, having two discipleship processes for two groups is likely to produce misunderstandings and misperceptions. To give another example, if you’re leading a multi-site church with individual systems for each site, then you’re less likely to institute changes across all sites. The more a leader can make a new idea relevant to the entire church, the likelier that idea will transition into change.

Flexibility.  The bar code went through several phases. The original design was a circle. But designers soon discovered during printing the ink would smudge in the direction of the running paper. So the linear form we know today was created. The original creators of the circular bar code could have scoffed at the proposed change, but they were flexible. The idea was not about shape or form but rather use.

If you’re working through an idea for your church, then make it simple, standard, and… flexible. Neither simplicity nor standards should become so rigid that—as the change implementation begins—an idea cannot evolve over time. A good idea becomes better through the multi-workings of the people in the church. As the leader, most changes will begin with your ideas. But your ideas are not the endpoint. The best vision for a church combines the simplicity of a leader’s idea with the involvement of the people. As a leader, you must be flexible with your ideas in order for the entire congregation to make them their own.

It’s fun to dream up new ideas. The hard work begins in attempting to implement new ideas. Change occurs most smoothly when ideas are simple, standard, and flexible.

This post was originally published at ThomRainer.com

Hurdles to Established Church Innovation

Does the established nature of some churches hinder innovation? Is an established structure antithetical to quick, nimble changes? For most established churches, yes, but it does not mean established churches cannot innovate.

A church plant is an innovation. Innovation is the process of successfully establishing something new. To introduce something new—and to get it to work longer than a month—is innovation. Perhaps some luck into the right change at the right time. Perhaps some churches land on the right demographic with the right leadership. Not all innovations are intentional or well-planned. But an effective church plant should be noted as innovation.

As organizations become more established, they tend to be less prone to change. By its nature, an established organization has a system in place that pushes against change. To establish is to create firm stability. Churches need stability. For example, a discipleship process that is not rooted into the culture of the church (or established) is not likely to last long. And it’s only a matter of time before the innovative church plant begins to feel the pull of becoming established. Everything is new only once, after all.

While stability is necessary, every church should also innovate. Established churches, in particular, can take comfort in the establishment. Traditions and history can easily become a guise for complacency. Innovation can take a back seat to the entrenched processes that help create the stability. While most church planters will admit to having many of the same people problems as established churches, church plants do innovate more easily. They have no history pulling them in a certain direction. Everyone is new. The church is new. Each decision is new. In the early days of a church plant, everything feels like an innovation even if it’s not.

So what hurdles to innovation exist in the established church? Here are four examples.

Lack of intentionality. Generally, established churches have more resources than new churches. When resources are limited, churches must be more intentional about innovation. Failure—especially one that is expensive—can quickly derail a church with limited resources. When resources are plentiful, the temptation is to be less intentional. Established churches can generally absorb more failures. But a practice of spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks is not true innovation. It’s haphazard chaos. Give it a month and see how many people get annoyed.

Lack of originality. Build on your foundation, but don’t slap a new logo on an existing program and call it innovation. Innovation is introducing something new, not introducing something with the façade of newness.

The wrong metrics. What gets measured gets done, and what you measure is typically an indicator of what you value. A mature church will measure different things than a new church. Most church plants are not attempting to track down meeting minutes from a dozen committees for next week’s business meeting. And established churches don’t have to worry about the retention ratio of people from a launch service. However, an overemphasis on the metrics sustaining the establishment will inevitably deemphasize innovation and dissuade team members from attempting innovation.

The ease of appeasement. In an established church some leaders prefer the ease of appeasing members rather than innovating to reach new people. Obviously, a long-term member may not desire to be appeased, but rather challenged. However, most churches have a segment of people who would rather rest in the stability of the establishment. It’s not necessarily a sin issue, and leaders should care about all members whatever their spiritual maturity. Appeasing existing members, however, is much easier than challenging a church to innovate and reach new people. Even in a healthy established church, one ready to reach outward, innovation is a challenge. The typical established church has several groups of people who joined during different seasons of the church for different reasons. Even when people agree to reach outward, getting them to agree on timing, direction, budgeting, and pace is a challenge. It’s easier to appease. But appeasement is never innovation.

Though established churches are not new, they can still introduce new things. They can innovate. Hurdles exist. These hurdles, however, are surmountable.

This post was originally published at my Church Executive blog.

Who You Influence: Five Types of Followers

Either people are on board with your leadership or not, right? Nope.

There are degrees of influence and different types of followers. The mantra of “get on board or get off” does not take into account the numerous types of followers and differing levels of leadership influence.

Most definitions of leadership allude to influence as the key driver. But I do not believe leadership and influence are synonymous—leader and follower exchanges are more complex than mere influence. However, leaders do influence followers. And the influencing process is made complex because followers are not a monolithic group.

Knowing how to influence begins with an understanding of who is following you. In her work, Followership, Barbara Kellerman identifies five types of followers based upon their level of engagement with the leader.

The isolate is completely detached. No influence exists between leader and follower. A formal relationship of power may be in place, such as between a congressman and constituent, but an isolate does not know or care about the leader.

The bystander observes the leader but does not participate in any interaction. These followers make a decision to stand on the sidelines. A small amount of influence occurs in this type of relationship. The bystander’s decision to withdraw, however, points to a position of neutrality about the leader.

The participant is more engaged and clearly favors or disfavors the leader. These followers are willing to invest time and resources in support or opposition of the current leadership.

The activist has strong emotional feelings about the leader. They act on these emotions and work hard to support the leader (or to undermine the leader). These followers are highly engaged with leadership and are often closely connected to many of the activities in which leaders are involved.

The diehard is the most engaged with leaders. These followers are willing to die for the cause of their leaders, often exhibiting deep devotion. Conversely, diehards who oppose the leader would die in order to remove the leader. A diehard forms an all-consuming identity around the leader and his or her causes.

As a leader, I would like to think most of my followers are supportive diehards. But it’s not the case. Most likely, it is not the case in your leadership role either. Understanding the types of followers (and who is in each camp) is critical to knowing how to influence. Believing people are simply on board or not will cause you to place too much distance between bystanders and participants. Focusing too much time on supportive or opposing diehards causes a leader to lose sight of the masses. Good leaders understand that knowing how to influence includes understanding the complexities of who to influence.

Leading Awkward People

Some people are just awkward. Awkward people are in almost every organization. The church—a place for all types—will have, by design, its share of awkward people.  As a leader, you might be tempted to avoid them (unless you are among them, but that’s a subject for another post). Too often leaders ignore awkward people in their organizations. We treat them like odd zoo creatures—they are best observed from a distance. So leaders ignore their emails. Leaders find ways to avoid meetings that include the awkward person. Leaders look the other way in the hall to dodge awkward eye contact. If you’re a top leader of an organization, ministry, or church, then it’s your prerogative to pick and choose the people you engage, right?

Sure. But awkward people need to be led like everyone else. And when leaders ignore awkwardness, it simply gets redirected at others. Good leaders do not pawn off awkward situations, awkward questions, or awkward people on others. Leadership involves delegation, but leaders can be quick to hand over awkwardness to subordinates, which is a form of laziness.

First, let me qualify my post by noting how I define awkward. Awkward people are other leaders or key followers in the organization, so they should not be dismissed entirely. Their awkwardness is neither a sin issue, nor is it a performance issue. They simply have the unfortunate combination of being both odd and high maintenance. And just because they are a less-than-ideal team member does not warrant your avoidance of them. So who are these awkward people? And how do you address them? Below are a few suggestions for leading three types of awkward people in the church context.

The quirky know-it-all. He really does know more than you. She can quote obscurities from all your policy and procedure manuals. He can pull out theological terms only the most seasoned academics have heard. And everyone just might appreciate the know-it-all’s intelligence if it didn’t always come packaged with an ample dose of fantasy literature allusions. One of the best ways to address the know-it-all’s quirks is to first acknowledge he really does know more than everyone else. Second, as a leader, you can be the filter for everyone else. Take the time to meet with the know-it-all, get the important information, and then communicate it to everyone else, while acknowledging the knowledgeable source. Your team is now happy; they’re spared the awkward conversation. The know-it-all is happy. She has received the credit.

The moderate conspiracy theorist. He brought up the Mayan calendar thing a little too much. Her conversations always shift towards a weird branch of eschatology. They aren’t crazy, but they lean a little too far that way. As a leader, you can address this person by finding a common point of agreement and emphasizing it. Coach him to stay focused on the part of his ideas that have value and merit.

The hyper-spiritualist. When the water cooler goes empty, this person finds a spiritual link. She’s a little too much granola-mystical-hipster for the rest of the team. Addressing this person is quite simple: Pray with her. When he gets a little wacky pray with him. As a leader, take the initiative with prayer to help relax the unnecessary fixations of the hyper-spiritualist. Quite frankly, you should be praying with your team anyway. Most likely, the hyper-spiritualist has more trouble finding someone with whom to pray. And don’t be disingenuous. Be authentic. Most people know when you are patronizing them.

If you’re quick to avoid dealing with awkward people, then you’re probably also willing to ignore difficult people, hard situations, and troubling questions. If all followers were ideal, and if the answers were easy, then the need for leadership would not exist. As a leader, however, the responsibility to lead awkward people first resides in you.

This post was originally published at my Church Executive blog.

Can I Be an Effective Pastor if I Don’t Like Management?

Pastors are not managers, at least in a corporate-business-world-publicly-traded-company-sort-of-way. But pastors are shepherds. And shepherds manage sheep.

Leading a church involves management. Perhaps you’ve had the privilege of attending a meeting discussing the finer details of administering the Lord’s Supper. If so, you probably recognize the importance of the managerial role in the church.

A church hierarchy assumes management. And most churches—even congregations with smaller staffs—are not completely flat. For instance, I’ve never seen a church intentionally give the same level of authority as the senior pastor to the student pastor. Maybe some might be better if they did (of course, some might devolve into chaos.). Even at the most basic level, churches require management. Who pays the bills? When does the meeting start? Who is responsible for snow removal? Who fills the baptistery? What is our policy? Those are basic managerial questions. Most churches are more complex.

Some senior leaders in the church gravitate towards being more like a senior writer or senior analyst. These leaders are recognized for their intellectual contributions but do not have managerial oversight. Many teaching pastors have this type of role in the church. Other senior leaders prefer to manage the minutia and deal with people issues. Many executive pastors have this type of role. Most pastors, however, must both teach and execute.

The vast majority of pastoral roles include management. So, can church leaders be effective if they don’t like management? Yes, but they must compensate in these ways.

Be self-aware. One of the core problems of bad management is poor managers often do not recognize their weak managerial skills. When you’re self-aware about your weaknesses (and willing to admit them), then you’re more likely to receive help from others. No pastor can (nor should) do it all. And all pastors should be self-aware of what they can and cannot do.

Discern what to delegate. Just because you’re naturally good at doing something does not mean you are able to manage others doing the same thing. Some pastors delegate their responsibilities too quickly. Others delegate the wrong responsibilities. And some tasks should never be delegated. Delegation with discernment makes up for a lot of managerial weaknesses.

Don’t fear being the doer. Some people prefer doing tasks. Others prefer managing people who do the tasks. If you cherish a few tasks, then don’t give them up. Keep doing them. For instance, a pastor might enjoy locking the church after the evening service as an opportunity to prayer walk.  Or, if you’re an artistic type, there may be certain creative tasks that are difficult to manage. Good church leaders know what select tasks they enjoy most and keep doing them, sparing their followers the inevitable and overbearing micro-management that would accompany overseeing others doing them.

You don’t have to like management to be an effective pastor. But shepherding a congregation does involve managing sheep. All pastors should both teach and execute. Few master both. If you’re weaker at managing execution, then you can compensate through self-awareness, discernment, and doing the tasks you enjoy most.

The Tone of Pastoral Leadership

Finding the voice in which to communicate content is sometimes just as difficult as determining the content itself. In other words, how you communicate is an important component of what you communicate. Content is critical, but so is delivery.

As a senior pastor, I set the tone of the church. My heart in writing such a statement is not arrogance but rather self-awareness. Of any leader in the church, I know my vision—and how I communicate it—will affect the church more than any other person. Even though I believe vision is a collective effort of leaders and followers, the communicator of the vision has a special prominence. Since I am often the first to communicate the content of the vision, my delivery of the content will affect the tone of how the church receives it. Therefore, finding my voice as a leader is critical to the actual vision of my church.

How might leaders set the tone in their organizations? What different voices might they use in communicating vision? I’ve listed a few different options for church leaders.

Coach. Use a coach’s voice if you want to get people pumped up about something. This voice works well when you are relaying positive news while attempting to recruit people to serve. An in-your-face-yet-encouraging coach will set the tone of enlistment with excitement.

Theologian. Not all theologians are leaders, but all leaders within the church should be theologians.  Not every church situation, however, requires a leader to communicate as a theologian. A pastor should use this voice when working through difficult biblical issues. How will the church handle the problem of divorce? What is the church going to do about a multiplicity of viewpoints among the congregation on a particular topic? A theological voice helps set the tone of looking at the issue with the proper amount of emotion.

Engineer. Inevitably, most churches will have a group of people who attempt to solve problems from a structural perspective. For them, problems are solved with policies, Visio charts, and spreadsheets. While not all vision needs to be structural in nature, vision does require structure for proper implementation. Leaders should use the voice of an engineer when communicating this structure, especially to the group of people who default to the structural frame.

General. Few want to be on the receiving end of a general barking orders on a regular basis. When a crisis hits, however, someone must step up quickly and take charge. When a vision includes a real sense of urgency, the voice of a general becomes an effective way to set the tone of urgency among followers.

Friend. Some leadership visions require less of an inspiring appeal to the masses and more of a friendly interaction with followers. Using the voice of a friend sets the tone of long term buy-in and loyalty among followers.

Leaders should use different voices in different venues with different groups of people in order to set the proper tone within a church. Followers will respond to the tone of leadership just as much as the actual content of the vision. Match the correct tone with the right content and people will better respond to a leader’s vision.

This post was originally published at my Church Executive blog.

The Advantages of Informal Authority

Ambitious leaders often pursue positions with formal authority. It makes sense. Those who desire to lead want the official capacity to do so. Positions with titles imply a legitimate endorsement to lead. But there is an advantage to leading with informal authority. Informal leaders have no official titles and no authoritative positions, yet they can wield much influence.

While much power comes from formal positions with legitimate authority, a different kind of power is found in leadership roles with informal authority. How is this power exhibited?

Informal authority allows leaders to raise difficult questions. Leaders without titles and positions can vocalize the questions everyone is thinking. Some questions are so difficult that if top leaders began posing them, people might question the viability of the organization. For instance, imagine the media reaction if our president openly began asking about what’s really going on at Area 51. Whether or not the president really knows the answer, such questions are better suited for people with informal authority.

Informal authority allows leaders to focus on one issue. Top leaders typically deal with a number of issues within an organization. Such is the nature of positions with formal authority. A CEO must be concerned about human resources, cash flow, marketing, and public relations. An individual with informal authority, however, is free to focus on more nuanced and narrow issues, or even a singular issue.

Informal authority allows leaders to break through formal hierarchies, policies, and protocols. Formal authority, by design, has a hierarchy with an expected protocol. A leader with informal authority, however, is not bound by the structure of a formal authority system. A school superintendent, for example, must follow certain protocols in dealing with problems. An informal leader at the school, however, has more flexibility in breaking through these formalities and can deal with the problem in a way the superintendent cannot.

Informal authority allows leaders the flexibility not to be a figurehead for all people in the organization. Top leaders with formal authority must act on behalf of all people within an organization. They represent the people. They speak on behalf of the people. Leaders with informal authority do not have to act as figureheads. Unlike formal leaders, informal leaders can offend some and play favorites with others to accomplish a goal.

Informal authority has its limits, but also its advantages. And organizations need both informal and formal leaders in order to keep power and authority balanced.

This post was originally published at my Church Executive blog.

The Need for More Homegrown Leaders

The church needs more homegrown leaders. It’s not a novel plea. In fact, church researchers have called for local equipping of leaders for a long time. In our globalized society, however, it is becoming even more important. Today everyone has access to the same information at the same time. Podcasts, blogs and sermon videos are ubiquitous.

The best teachers and preachers in the world now broadcast messages for free. Anyone can listen and benefit from excellent teaching—simply take your pick from several great leaders. The problem is applying this teaching to a variety of individual contexts. What we need are local leaders who understand unique cultural nuances of small towns, neighborhoods and enclaves of larger metropolitan cities.

Many churches will benefit by training and equipping local, homegrown leaders who have specific, lifelong knowledge of their context. What are some things to consider when empowering these homegrown leaders?

Inside, not outside hires. Church leaders will do better in most cases to train up people from within their congregations rather than hiring from the outside. First, if a person is faithful to a specific local church, then the likelihood of that person being sold on the vision of the church is higher. Second, inside hires have at least a basic understanding of the church culture (on the inside); whereas it’s speculation on an outside hire being a cultural fit. Additionally, an out-of-town hire will have two cultures to learn: the inside church culture and the outside community culture.

The rise of Boomer volunteers. Perhaps you’ve heard the Baby Boomer generation is reaching retirement age. Many of them will want to spend their retirement years serving—what better place than the local church. As they enter this season of their lives, perhaps they could lead a lay-led revolution within churches. If you’re wondering why your “senior” ministry keeps getting smaller and older, and no “fresh faces” are joining, it’s because Boomers don’t want to be lumped in with their parents. In fact, many churches may discover an army of volunteers by starting a new type of Boomer ministry with a leadership focus.

Intentional diversity. We are becoming a majority minority nation, and most communities in our country are changing. They are becoming more diverse. Homogeneous churches could benefit by utilizing the few people in their congregations of differing ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. Be intentional about learning from them, giving them leadership positions, and equipping them to reach outward.

Homegrown leadership is not new, but all churches should have a plan to equip their own. And developing homegrown leaders is a biblical way to help the church culture reach outward into the culture of the community.

This is an expanded treatment of thoughts originally published at Church Executive. Read more analysis of future trends from me and others here.

Looking Ahead to 2013: What Should the Church Expect?

If you do not make assumptions about the future, then you are not leading. Good leaders constantly assess the cultural climate. In other words, they do research. Good leaders are also willing to change their assumptions. In other words, they are flexible.  Holding firm to assumptions from the Y2K era is about as relevant as giving a set of Pokemon cards to your kids this year for Christmas.

So at the end of every year, I pause to challenge my underlying assumptions of what I believe the future holds. Vision is a key to leadership, and the nature of vision requires an assumption of what will happen in the future. Therefore, you cannot lead unless you are thinking about the future.

In a recent article about Ford Motor Company, the head of their trends and futuring department revealed several assumptions about the coming year. Though Ford is trying to determine consumer demand for automobiles three years in advance, their research is valuable to the church because they are assessing global trends within sociology, economics, technology, and politics, among others.

So what trends should the church expect to help define the cultural climate of 2013? More specifically, what assumptions do people have about organizations right now? The Ford consumer environment report has a lot of commonalities with current church research. I’ve listed below a few general, qualitative assumptions for church leaders to consider.

Lack of organizational trust. The fiscal cliff, BP, News International, bank after bank, public sector or private sector—the list of examples is long. Brand trust, organizational trust, and institutional trust are all low.  We’re foolish to think this lack of trust in the culture does not apply to the church. The best way to combat a general lack of organizational trust is to build a specific reputation as a trustworthy church. You may not trust car mechanics—generally—but you probably put forth effort to find one you do trust. And the way you find the trustworthy mechanic is through word-of-mouth. It’s the same with doctors. I recently spent considerable time asking people about the best doctor in a particular field. People may not trust churches organizationally as a whole, but a specific reputation as a trustworthy church spreads rapidly through word-of-mouth.

Desire for accountability in leadership. The single most neglected leadership behavior among executives is… accountability. And it’s the most neglected leadership behavior from a global perspective. It should come as no surprise that people recognize the pervasive culture of unaccountability and desire leaders who not only hold others accountable but are also willing to be held accountable. A lack of leadership accountability precipitates almost every church scandal. People desire accountability. From a biblical perspective, the church should be well-positioned to fill this desire. Ironically, many church leaders avoid it.

Fickle commitment. Gone are the days of working for a company for 50 years. People were once loyal to a single employer. Those employers once went to great lengths to take care of their employees. It just doesn’t happen anymore. Over 90 percent of millennials expect to stay at a job for less than three years. Why would we expect anything different for the church? Many reasons exist as to why people church hop, but a large driving factor is the cultural force of fickleness. A church can build commitment levels by having a culture of high expectations. When these expectations are communicated clearly and upfront, the people that commit are more likely to stick.

Intimacy within the crowd. We are quickly becoming an urban society. Big cities are getting bigger. Big churches are getting bigger. People are leaving the countryside in favor of the concrete jungle. The gravitational pull of large cities and large churches will continue for a generation, at least. But the draw of the city and the large church does not mean people eschew intimacy. In fact, the crowds of megacities and megachurches mean people are more intentional about trying to find intimacy. Healthy churches will get bigger by getting smaller. In this era of urbanization, small group settings are arguably more important now than at any point in our history. Quite simply, you will not keep people in a large worship service for long without also connecting them to a small group.

Weariness of overwhelming amounts of information. Hyperlinks, RSS feeds, and Twitter—all are great until you just get overwhelmed. Access to information is no longer a problem. Everyone is talking, and it’s posted all over the Internet hinterland. Now people just want to know who to listen to. In the overwhelming, loud complexity of our culture, the church should be a solace of simplicity and clarity. Of course, most church leaders try to make their church simple for them. Making a church simple for the people, however, is tremendously difficult and entirely complex for the leadership. As church leaders, we’ve made simple about us. It’s time we make church simple for the people.

Projecting the cultural climate ten years out is about as exact as nailing the tenth day in a ten-day forecast. But there is great value in assessing your assumptions about the direction of the culture, especially within the next year or two. Our culture is constantly changing. What people think about organizations is changing. As a leader, you must become a student of the culture to recognize these changes, and you must be flexible enough to rework your assumptions when necessary.

HT: Josh Ellis for the Ford article

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August 2020