Saturday, April 30, 2016

Seminary PL6: Casting Vision

This is the sixth post in the Pastoral Leadership stretch of my Seminary in a Nutshell series. The first five were:
1. In theory, the mission statement of a church or organization leads naturally to a vision statement. In our next installment, we will look at vision statements in more detail. However, in this post we want to strategize about how a leader can move a church or organization toward establishing these sorts of statements.

What we are talking about here is the broader matter of "leading change." Far more important than having mere statements about a church's mission/vision is a church embracing that mission/vision. And far more important than "buy-in" to a mission or vision is movement toward reaching that vision. "A leader without followers is just going for a walk." [1] Statements are meaningless if they don't actually result in change.

2. Here we have to face a fundamental reality. Having a position does not make you a leader, at least not a significant one. There is "formal power" and there is "informal power." Formal power is the power that comes from having a position or office. To the extent that an organization takes a position seriously, having a position can give a person a great deal of power and influence.

The duties and responsibilities of "formal polity" should be clearly defined to avoid unnecessary conflict. The boundaries and powers of an office are best set before conflicts ensue. It is difficult to set such parameters in the middle of a conflict. In such cases, a superior may have to intervene and make a power-based decision. At the same time, job descriptions can be modified to fit the individual strengths of a person playing that role.

But "informal polity" is sometimes even more significant than formal power. There are often individuals who have more influence than those who formally hold positions of power. The impulse to squash such influence often comes at great price. Indeed, it often leads to defeat and ministry failure. A leader needs to pick her battles.

Notorious here is the so called "church boss." There are often individuals in small churches who more or less run the show no matter who the pastor is. A pastor--especially a new pastor--should not think that he or she is really the boss just because they have the office of leader. It usually takes some time for a new pastor to gain the much more important informal authority. This dynamic can apply to many organizations.

3. So when it comes to formulating mission and vision statements, who should formulate them? Sometimes a pastor or leader has a strong sense of what they want such statements to be. Sometimes a leader is excited to see such statements emerge from the congregation or from a smaller group of leaders. Each situation will have its own unique dynamics and challenges.

For a mission and vision to go far, it will need buy-in from those who are going to live it. This fact immediately raises questions about the personality of the group. Is the congregation happy to go with whatever vision the leader casts? Are there informal leaders whom you will need to get on your side? Are there formal leaders you will need on your side?

Negotiating potential opposition is an art rather than a science. Timing is important. Contrarians are more likely to oppose something they hear about indirectly than if a leader has already secured their support before they hear of ideas, especially before some public unveiling. But they can also undermine movement if they are brought in too soon and do not join your side.

4. A colleague of mine used to say that "If there are more than six people in the room, then the decision has been made somewhere else." Big meetings rarely make significant progress on anything. Decisions are more often made at the water cooler or around the coffee pot or in the restrooms.

A leader is wise to have a strategic team, a go-to group that he or she strategizes with before moving forward. Formal polity usually involves a board that makes official decisions. It would be ideal if the official board were a leader's strategic team. But often those who hold official positions are not those who have the most insight.

Again, the path to generating a strategic vision can be more an art than a science. If your church or organization has a strategic planning committee, then the path to an official mission or vision will have to flow through it at some point. However, leaders often have a special "go-to" set of people who help them formulate their best ideas. This group can be as simple as two or three people you regularly email when you are contemplating a decision or strategy.

One way to work toward buy-in is to have a brainstorming session with a large group at the beginning of a process of strategic planning. Such a group is ill-suited to formulate a specific mission or vision statement, but they can generate a host of possibilities from which a smaller group can then select the best ideas. In this way, the larger group has a sense that they are involved in the process long before any final presentation is made to them for adoption.

5. Getting buy-in usually requires that key influencers put their fingerprints on the process and the final product. It's usually prudent to leave some aspects of a mission or vision or plan open to change. It's unwise to think you have a finished product when a statement or plan will have to go through several hoops. Each step of a planning process will almost certainly involve change.

So a leader should identify the key aspects of the mission, vision, or plan that he or she wants left alone and which parts can provide key constituencies the chance to put their fingerprints on the process.

6. As a process unfolds, a leader should informally build support among key influencers. Ideally, everyone should feel included. However, there are often difficult personalities who need to be negotiated carefully. Of course a leader should always listen to those difficult personalities. Sometimes they are right! There are some people whose personalities make you want to say no to anything they say, but a good leader will take the time to consider if they may actually be right. Always remember the old adage, "Don't ask a question if you don't really want an answer."

When it is important, a leader may need to marginalize difficult personalities. Often, these personalities have already marginalized themselves from others. But at times, difficult people have significant informal power. Although it is not ideal, a leader may have to keep plans carefully guarded, securing as much official and informal support before a final showdown at the right time. Hopefully, assuming it is important for the plan to succeed, by that time the plans will be far enough along or there will be enough support that the contrarian will not be able to kibosh movement forward.

7. There are costs for pushing forward in the face of opposition. A leader has a certain amount of capital that comes with the office and with the authority he or she has earned informally. There is not an infinite amount of capital to spend. Try to impose too much against the will of the church and you face the possibility of a coup. Win one battle today, you may be assassinated later in a weak moment.

It is unwise to try to push through a plan in the face of overwhelming opposition, even if you are sure it is the right plan. There is the leader that sacrifices him or herself for the good of the organization's future. They take down a bad leader or push through organizational change, but are "killed" in the process.

But, in the vast majority of cases, a vision for a church cannot go anywhere unless the church embraces that vision. There is a time to give up on a plan. There is a time to move on. There is a time to back off. Part of being a good leader is being able to read the times.

Next Week: Pastor as Leader 7: Identifying Strengths and Weaknesses

[1] John Maxwell

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