Surviving a crisis

I almost drowned once. No, I wasn’t caught by a rip tide. I didn’t lose my bearings and drift out to sea.

I’m speaking metaphorically.

I served in the leadership of an organization that went through a terrible ordeal—a conflict I’ve never seen the likes of elsewhere.

And it almost killed me.

Drowning—metaphorical or not—isn’t a pleasant experience. 

The thing is, however, that once you escape it and survive it, it re-calibrates your expectations. 

That heated conversation in a meeting? We can get past that. 

The difficulty planning logistics for a conference? We can muddle through. 

A challenging author? No worries. 

When you’ve survived extensive exposure to a near-toxic environment, just about everything else becomes manageable. As one former infantry officer put it, “Did anyone die?” If no one died; it’s a good day.

When you emerge after the crisis it’ll take you some time to find your feet again, but you will. 

What to do when you cannot say anything…

no-talk-mdLeaders will occasionally find themselves in situations where, for a variety of reasons, they are unable to speak publicly about a matter that is directly related to them. It’s not an easy spot to be in. After all, most of us who serve in leadership roles value the opportunity to use words to describe both the situation and they way forward. When a leader is not able to do this, it can be both frustrating and energy-sapping.

When a leader is a writer, the effect is doubled (at least). Those of us whose vocation includes writing find that the act of setting words on paper or on a screen is part of–perhaps most of–the way we make sense of the world. And when we write, we like to share. Those of us who share on a platform like a blog like people to read our writing because we write about things about which we care deeply. We want a large readership because we are convinced that what we’re writing can positively affect the lives of others.

When you’re put in this situation, it’s important to make the best of it and not squander the opportunity to both discipline yourself to act with integrity and to find appropriate ways in which to express your leadership gifts.

So, when you’re constrained from saying anything about a situation here are four things that you can do:

  1. Pray.
  2. Speak with a confidant.
  3. Journal.
  4. Write an article.

Pray. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies” (Q/A 98). When we pray, we pour out our hearts to God in the certain knowledge that He both hears our prayers and will respond to them. As we pray–and as we appropriately use the Bible in our praying–we find that our desires and our perspective becomes increasingly aligned with God’s. We often find, too, that we experience a peace in the knowledge that God is both sovereign and favorably disposed to us because of Christ. In other words: God is in control.

Speak with a confidant. Since we’re embodied beings, it’s often helpful to have a person to address as we process difficult situations that require our silence. Sometimes we’ll have the luxury of a colleague at work with whom we may talk. At other times, we need a discerning friend. Either way, make sure that you are able to open yourself up to someone and in conversation with them find the release that comes with honest conversation.

Journal. The writers among us will find that keeping a journal can serve a similar purpose to speaking with a discerning friend. Some address their journal to God; others write to/for themselves. Either way, the act of capturing on paper the thoughts that flitter around our minds is as liberating as allowing our mouths to form words which are received by another in conversation.

Write an article. Believe it or not, there always comes a time in which confidential things can be openly discussed. When that times comes, having an article or essay that captures your view on the matter can be handy. Simply find a way to publish it and those feelings, thoughts, convictions, and desires that so mattered to you at the time can be given new life.

So, what do you do when you cannot say anything?

[New Series] How to get stuff done for pastors – 1

My first year on the senior staff team of a large church has been exhilarating and pretty challenging. One of the biggest challenges has been learning to coordinate ministry initiatives across the church. This coordination requires effective communication and often meetings form the starting point for that communication. In a given week I usually lead a departmental staff meeting and three to four one-on-one meetings with direct reports. I participate in our senior staff meeting which is led by our Senior Pastor/Head of Staff, which is a blend of strategic discussion and tactical planning. I also attend our weekly pastors’ meeting which covers a variety of topics related to pastoral care, worship, and the like. That’s a total of seven meetings not including bi-monthly session meetings, and other committee meetings.

In each of these meetings, I capture notes as well as actions that I am responsible for. Early on I realized that by the end of the week I had a bunch of legal pads with meeting notes and actions accumulating on my desk. A lot of times it seemed that the stack kept growing and that I was at my capacity to keep up with things using such an ad hoc system. In ministry, just as in business, people don’t like it when you drop balls or miss important details. It erodes trust, which is the currency of ministry.

Stress Man

I decided to revisit David Allen’s influential book Getting Things DoneIf you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and get a copy as soon as you can. Read it. Implement it. It will change your life.

Allen’s approach (GTD, for short) is a simple five step process that will enable you to externalize tasks so you don’t have to have them buzzing around in your head. Here’s a snapshot of the system:

  1. Capture—collect what has your attention
  2. Clarify—process what it means
  3. Organize—put it where it belongs
  4. Reflect—review frequently
  5. Engage—simply do

Consider this a GTD tutorial. You can learn the system and put it into practice by reading the five posts (of which this is the first).

Step One – Collect or capture what has your attention.

My Capture Tools: these are the places–physical and virtual–where I place “to dos.” They’re sort of like different buckets that I empty regularly into an orderly system for processing.

  1. Email Inbox: I get about fifty emails a day (at work, which is low). Most contain information and often an action. I process my inbox daily with a goal of getting to zero messages in my inbox.
  2. Office Phone Voicemail: I get relatively few phone messages. I usually listen to them and write brief notes on an index card and then throw that card into my physical inbox for processing later.
  3. Cell Phone Voicemail/Text: Same as #2.
  4. Office mail box: I process my office mail box several times a day, putting actionable items into my physical inbox.
  5. Levenger International Pocket Briefcase [Link]: I put receipts in my wallet, jot notes on index cards that are in the wallet, and process these into my physical inbox every time I return from outside of the office.

All of these capture tools end up moving action items either (1) into my physical inbox or (2) into a file in Outlook that I use to categorize and process emails into task manager.

inbox-zeroDavid Allen will tell you that the critical thing about collecting is that you have to collect everything. You’ve got to build trust in the system by using the system to handle all of your tasks or other data points that are taking your concentration or subconscious memory. And you have to discipline yourself to take one of five responses to something that comes across your desk (see the graphic to the left).

For all of these decisions (other than deleting) you have to have a system to help you to do things like:

  • Keep track of items delegated to others so that you can follow up on them.
  • Keep track of items deferred so that you’ll come back to them when the time is right.

It’s a big task especially in a profession where there are often unplanned major events (hospital visits and funerals) alongside a rigorous normal schedule of worship and work.

Next up: how to clarify!

Three observations on the World Vision debacle

The Christian blogosphere has been buzzing around World Vision’s announcement that it would hire openly gay partnered Christians. You can read the Christianity Today story here. Within 48 hours–and some 2,000 cancelled sponsorships later–the board of World Vision announced that they had reversed the policy. Christianity Today covered it here.

Image

It’s difficult to draw a lot of conclusions from the outside about how this change in policy was mishandled. It’s clear that the board’s deliberations, decision, and subsequent communication of that decision were flawed. Three leadership lessons stand out for me:

  1. An organization has to be clear about its identity. World Vision seems to be unclear about it’s identity. It has variously described itself as an “aid organization” and “parachurch ministry.” Fair or not, people (especially donors and, frankly, the law) expect differences between the two. I don’t think many evangelical Christians would have a problem with Oxfam hiring gay people in any capacity. The law, in addition, would bar Oxfam from discriminating. However, when an organization employs the moniker “Christian” and draws its donor base almost exclusively from evangelical Christians, it’s not a stretch for the average thinking person to recognize that there would be pushback on a decision like this. Call it homophobia. Call it defending traditional sexual ethics. In the end, Christians–and evangelicals especially–expect organizations they support to align with their own theology. This is reasonable. Internal confusion about the organization led to poor decision making that negatively affected the mission.
  2. Reversing course in the first 48 hours is a recipe for a disaster and low morale. If Richard Stearns had asked me, “what should I do?” I would have suggested delaying implementation until after a period of input from key stakeholders, especially donors. I don’t mean to seem cynical, but World Vision is as much about its donors as it is about those starving little kids on the postcards. Donors are the sine qua non of non-profit work: you can’t do it without them. If you want to make a major policy change (I know some will dispute whether that term fits here) take plenty of time to consult with donors. Boardrooms can be intensely isolated from the aggregate of people who fund the mission. Once you make a decision, however, it’s important not to reverse it instantly. This signals panic, lack of leadership, and impulsivity. Worse, it makes everyone angry. World Vision picked up a lot of new sponsorships after the policy change largely because of support in the progressive blogosphere. Reversing the decision created a lot of seriously miffed people. They started giving to support the organization in the midst of the crisis–the loss of other donors–but feel double-crossed. For those who didn’t support the change–even those who didn’t revoke their support–flip-flopping on this decision communicates that fundamental organizational values are decided by who shouts the loudest. Not a good message.
  3. If you do choose to reverse course, keep reasons to a minimum. Richard Stearns’ letter–presumably written by the board–was too long and was too diffuse in citing reasons for the reversal. When the change was announced, it was simply a policy alteration in a handbook. With Stearns’ letter it had become a quasi-theological treatise on essential matters of faith. That’s overkill and smacks of pandering to special interests. Better simply to communicate: “that many donors have told us that this policy change is at conflict with their core Christian beliefs. We’ve heard these concerns and have considered them, etc.”

Richard Stearns is a capable leader and the members of the Board are also capable people. It’s sad that–despite the immense talent present in that room–the decision was so poorly handled.

Five things to do when leading in uncertainty

The reason markets hate uncertainty is because people hate uncertainty. Each of us has a limited capacity—it varies from person-to-person—to live in a state of ambiguity. We need closure. Some of the most horrific suffering in this world is the product of unsolved crimes like child abduction. It can be paralyzing in the extreme.

Because of our dislike for uncertainty it is often difficult for leaders to be effective during a time of great ambiguity. For those who do lead effectively during a time of uncertainty, that leadership often comes with great personal cost.

I’ve witnessed this in the lives of my clergy colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The average membership of a PC(USA) congregation is around 180. 76% of PC(USA) churches are smaller than 200 members. On a given Sunday around half of the members of a church are present in worship.[i]

As pastoral leaders, how do we respond to these sorts of ambiguous situations? What do we do when we don’t know what to do? Or, when what we don’t know that what we’re about to do will help solve the problem we’re facing?

I’m currently reading Mary Beth O’Neill’s book Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with their Challenges. She writes,

By ambiguity, I mean the business situations that are by nature unclear and murky. It’s not like people have suddenly lost their intelligence of problem-solving ability. Rather, the issues never seem to sort themselves out.

Leaders often lose their bearings when confronted with lingering ambiguity. Like a pilot landing a plane in low visibility uses an instrument landing system (ILS) to guide the plane smoothly onto the runway, leaders can take five actions when confronted with ambiguity. These actions may not shift the fog of uncertainty, but they will provide a guiding framework to navigate through it.

GBAS - runway

Five things to do when leading in uncertainty:

  1. Acknowledge the ambiguity
  2. Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation
  3. Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity
  4. Say what you want to do, given the situation
  5. Tell others what you need from them

Acknowledge the ambiguity. Unnamed ambiguity hinders communication and also inhibits performance. It’s a manacle that makes a victim of leadership teams. Naming the ambiguity places it front and center and also helps the entire team to own it. The truth is—despite what our hearts often tell us—in 99% of situations, the ambiguity is no one’s fault. Letting go of the guilt will help a team to move forward.

Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation (internally). Surrounding an ambiguous situation there are often some places of clarity. In the case of a church with declining membership and attendance the place of ambiguity may be “how do we get more members?” Around this sticky issue there are places of clarity that should be named. For example, a congregation could discover that young families are living in the neighborhoods around the church, that they tend to be middle class. In other words, there are people that could come to this church—its not sitting in an island of farmland with no one around for miles. This kind of certainty helps leaders to identify other areas of certainty, which over time can build a better picture of the precise issue that is hindering the ministry or business.

Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity (externally). This is often best done simply by stating the problem you’re trying to solve and then listing your knowns. Then, spring-boarding from that into the listing as many unknown factors as you can. Putting all of this together should enable your team to (eventually) arrive at consensus about where the boundary is between certainty and ambiguity.

Say what you want to do, given the situation. The aim here is not finding the perfect solution. The goal is not finding absolute clarity. It is simply weighing all the evidence you currently have, identifying some ways forward and moving toward one of them. In the case of the declining church, it could be something as simple as deciding the leadership making the decision to actively engage neighbors in conversation with a view to more deeply understanding what life is like for those who live in the neighborhood. Even something that simple helps propel a team toward greater clarity.

Tell others what you need from them. Other members of the team need clarity about the project, lines of authority, and desired outcomes. As a team member it’s critical that this is stated explicitly so that everyone understands it or if there is haziness (beyond the problem itself) that it is acknowledged and then clarified.

Leading in uncertain times is very demanding. This template from Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart can provide a great way to step back from the problem and systematically edge forward into greater clarity rather than becoming disoriented and losing focus.

What do you do to navigate uncertainty?

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[i] Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church (USA). Available Online at: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/research/10faq/