Dislodging Dysfunction

Dysfunction saps creativity in ministry, usually because innovators find too many obstacles to complete their work. Communication sputters; handoff becomes hands off; and follow-through falls through.

I’ve had the privilege of working for both highly efficient companies and living-on-a-miracle ones. That’s “privilege” in the sense of being a guinea pig and figuring out what works—and what makes you want to take sick days. Just being real.

Here’s what the efficient ones had in common:

A Funnel

Each department inherits ministry responsibilities—sometimes strategically, sometimes out of need. For example, a web team might be tasked with email communication or social media. That’s to be expected. But when these responsibilities shotgun into the department, you’ve got a mess. In departments with dysfunction, every team member gets forced into the corner of “we need this right now” and feels responsible. All other tasks get bumped down the list. What gets done depends on which demand comes from the higher authority or which has the most exclamation points in the email.

Efficient departments establish a single point of contact—a funnel. The person needs to have the authority to make decisions about task importance and the authority to reject or redirect tasks. To do this, he or she must also know who’s doing what and how projects relate to the ministry’s vision and timetable.

The person tasked to be a funnel must be gifted in administration, or the department falls right back into the shotgun method.

Clear Windows

Efficiently assigning projects means nothing if team members isolate themselves. In dysfunctional departments, projects disappear in one person’s email inbox. No one knows what anyone else works on unless accidentally revealed in a rant fest.

Cohesive departments (and businesses) share tasks continually. My last supervisor led a weekly department meeting focused almost exclusively on our personal agendas (there were also hilarious pop culture asides). During those meetings, related projects could be coordinated instead of languishing in the “to-do” folder. We also often found that someone else had already done what we needed to do or knew a contact who could help (i.e., shared knowledge = saved time).

Clear windows don’t happen by chance. You have to open them.

Mile Markers

Funnels and windows only get the projects rolling, but they’re not enough by themselves. In companies with a vision problem, a lack of follow-through often derails projects or makes for rushed results. You’ll hear this: “Go ahead and do it. We’ll fix it later.”

What you need are mile markers—clear, consistent goals. In ministries that lack these, I often see a great deal of wasted time because no one ever examines the workflow and barriers. Person A needs Person B to do something before the project can get finished (usually over and over). Meanwhile, Person B is waiting on Person C (usually over and over).

Mile markers allow a project coordinator (often the funnel) to see where hangups are and find ways around them.

Bottom Line

Efficiency is not the default mode of operation—it takes guts and determination. But if we’re working like it’s all for God, then shouldn’t ministry be more efficient than most businesses?

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Make Changes, Not War

Excuses ooze out our pores. Even typing this article, several have already planted themselves firmly in my can’t-finish zone: coffee needs to be drunk and sports news needs to be checked.

Being a leader means not only blasting through our own reticence to change, but also undermining the excuses of others. And they’ll have plenty of them. Just suggest something God-sized and wait for the challenges to roll in.

By change, however, I don’t necessarily mean paradigm shifts or seismic cataclysms, though those work too. Change can be as simple as moving from a state of non-existence to out-of-the-head being—such as decorating the stage or putting together a study booklet on your “No Fat on This Temple” series. Scale doesn’t seem to matter because excuses are size agnostic.

Both church name changes and switching bathroom soaps can face an eerily similar uphill battle over the status quo. And that’s mainly because of excuses. One reason for making a change usually slams into twenty oblique reasons the change can’t happen. Some of those reasons make sense, but some are simply ways to sidestep the cost or effort involved.

For those types of excuses, you can undercut them before they pile up.

1. Care about it.

A lack of passion gives off an odor—a subtle one that excusers can smell. Unless you’ve sold yourself on the idea, you’ll rarely package it effectively for others. If you don’t have time to lay out the vision and a real desire to see the change happen, keep it to yourself. Presenting something new requires energy—and probably hand gestures to add emphasis (can’t hurt). You’ll need the momentum that passion affords.

2. Swap seats.

Once you’ve revved yourself up, flip the table around. Think carefully through the types of questions you’ll receive. If someone on your team or board always asks about costs, know the general numbers. Providing quick, reasoned answers to objections or concerns makes your vision that much more possible. Of course, you may need some help on this, which leads us to …

3. Look for a doppelganger.

Sure, you’re creative, but you’re not one-of-a-kind creative. Someone else has probably already done something similar to what you’d like to see happen. Get on the phone or shoot out the email and find out who’s done it and what they faced. Your context is unique, but getting answers from a veteran gives you confidence that this really will work and makes you look researched. At least, that’s the goal.

4. Pick off a few.

If you go into a meeting with the entire team and lay out a sudden change, you might as well wear a helmet because you’ll slam into a wall. Talk individually with a few key leaders about the issue well before the meeting. Sell them on the why so that they’ll back you up when the time comes to tell everyone. Bonus points if you can make them want to champion the idea themselves. Regardless, you don’t want it to be you against the room.

5. Pull the rug out.

When (not if) the excuses hit, be prepared to blunt them. If you know technology will be a concern, have someone ready who can either show your team how to make the idea happen or who can do it for you. If it’s money, find cheaper alternatives or people willing to volunteer time or resources.

6. Listen—for real.

Even though you go into a meeting armed and dangerous, resist the urge to triumphantly squelch the excuses you’ve already considered. Listen carefully first and then parry—thoughtfully. Even if you have a good answer, people steel up when the words traveling from their mouths bounce off your head.

7. Be willing to time travel.

Sometimes you’ll realize the timing’s off. Even though you’ve prayed and prepared for every conceivable argument, other peoples’ minds aren’t necessarily swayed by your ability to lay out the vision. And if you plow through that type of environment, you’ll likely lose buy-in. Before the idea fizzles, punt, regroup, meet individually with those who have questions, and try again later.

What tips do you have for facing resistance to needed change?