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‘How are you sleeping?’ And other leadership questions

When people mention how they are sleeping, I perk up. They may be about to reveal something significant about their level of stress.

Yes, this could sound creepy. Inquiring about sleep habits is not part of my getting-to-know-you routine. I have been conducting interviews for several jobs lately. I don’t ask candidates how they’re resting.

When extending hospitality with event participants or guests in my home, however, I do ask. They might raise a concern about the environment — temperature or noise — that I can address. Most often, I congratulate those who are resting well and commiserate with those who are tossing and turning.

Outside of hosting and traveling, conversation about sleep is uncommon. But when the topic does come up, I start listening closely. I lean in further if people mention dreams. I am not a physician or a therapist, but when resting and dreaming come up, I sense that people are offering me a deeper glimpse into their lives.

Sleep patterns and dream narratives can reveal the depth of tension that a person is experiencing. A comment about sleep can reflect deeply troubling stress at home or work or church or in the neighborhood. It is a signal that I should be more attentive.

If I am the person’s pastor, I likely will ask questions about whom that person trusts to share dreams with.

If someone in the systems I lead is talking about disrupted sleep, I don’t try to interpret what is happening in that person’s soul. When my role is team leader, I listen for clues of the stress the person is experiencing. I explore what conditions are amplifying it.

If work is playing a role, I might offer suggestions on navigating the stress or offer to intervene in the situation. When I have leadership responsibility for the overall system, I consider the possible effect of what’s happening on everyone in the system, not just on the person speaking with me.

What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility? Do you pay attention to when people are responding to emails or whether they’re accepting appointments during scheduled vacations? Do you notice when people don’t turn on their cameras in video conferences or are continually checking messages during meetings?

When you pick up signs of stress, what can you as a leader do? Sometimes, I am a primary cause of the stress. Change is stressful, but it also can be necessary. Seldom can I make the stress go away. But I can always listen.

If a person is sharing about stress, I try to listen carefully and deeply. I do my best not to defend the organization or diminish the person’s experience. I acknowledge the difficulty of the situation.

If the conversation is mostly about work stress, I might point out factors that the person is not considering. I might apologize for the effect on the person. I might pledge to make changes. I might acknowledge the challenges and indicate that I don’t see improvement coming anytime soon.

Later, I will step back to examine the situation. I will listen to others. What is stressing the team? What is stressing me? How might those stresses be acknowledged or mitigated for everyone?

I don’t know of any tension-free places to live or work. Paying attention when people are sharing about the intensity of their stress is not the same as accepting responsibility for fixing it. People under stress may not want to surrender their agency; they may just be looking for acknowledgment. They may want to feel less alone. They may not know what they want.

Responding to the stress in people’s lives is balanced by an organization’s mission and the responsibility to follow through with its commitments and priorities. Leaders are responsible both for the mission of the organization and for the morale of the people. The same actions rarely achieve progress on both mission and morale. In fact, aiming for progress on both with the same actions might result in progress for neither. Leaders need to have in mind a mix of actions. When signs and symptoms of stress appear, leaders should consider putting more energy into the morale-lifting actions that are likely to alleviate the stress.

In the stories in Scripture, Jesus displayed a finely tuned sensibility to the stress in people’s lives — from the death of a loved one to not catching enough fish to feed the family. He also challenged religious leaders to pay more attention to God’s purposes. Jesus was not leading an organization, but he was on a mission. He tended to people while making progress toward Jerusalem. The stories that we have indicate that he knew how to help people take their next faithful steps in living.

In a world where everyone is carrying plenty of burdens, I recognize that I cannot work solely on my task list but must listen carefully to the stresses behind the stories that colleagues and constituents share. Listening in itself is not enough, but without it, I will not appreciate what is happening and consider adjustments that I can make.

How are you sleeping? How are your colleagues sleeping? How are your participants and constituents sleeping? What clues might we pick up by paying attention, and how can we respond?

What clues do you monitor to gauge the level of stress in people in your areas of responsibility?

On a trip to celebrate a friend’s installation as president of one of the world’s most influential Protestant seminaries, I experienced a master class for those who are beginning a ministry assignment.

David E. Goatley is the sixth president of the 75-year-old Fuller Theological Seminary, which has its main campus in Pasadena, California. I had already witnessed David’s exceptional leadership over two decades at Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society. More recently, I had a front-row seat as he served at Duke Divinity School in multiple leadership roles under three deans, including recruiting faculty and inspiring students as director of the Office of Black Church Studies and as academic dean. I was expecting to learn something from both him and Fuller at his installation on Jan. 21. They did not disappoint.

In the 20th century, some experts advised that new leaders not make any changes in the first year; introducing the peculiarities of a new leader would bring change all by itself. In this approach, the new leader should not intentionally introduce additional changes while learning the organization, the community and all the personalities.

Almost equally common guidance from the same era advised that new leaders make as many changes as possible in the first year, treating it as a grace period, with no expectation of knowing history, tradition or past practice. Enacting a version of “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” the new leader, if confronted, could say, “I had no idea.”

Both approaches can work. The key to positive influence is not a particular strategy itself but how it addresses the needs of the institution at the time of transition. For example, if the institution is stuck in the past, then change is likely essential to moving forward. If the institution’s people are fearful, then building trust through relationships might be best accomplished with minimal change.

The best strategy does not come from the leader’s preference as much as it does from the opportunities and challenges facing the institution.

David takes the helm of a flagship seminary whose faculty and graduates have influence across the globe. Yet these are challenging times for nearly every school and for most congregations; standing at the intersection of academy and church, Fuller is thus buffeted on all sides.

Significantly, David is a newcomer to Fuller Seminary. Unlike his predecessors, he is not a graduate, faculty member or founder of the school. Much of the last 30 years he has spent traveling the globe with bases of operations on the East Coast of the United States. As a Black man, David is the first person of color to lead Fuller. In so many ways, he has embodied change from the moment he was elected.

The installation of a president often occurs months after the president has begun work. The associated pageantry involves so much coordination and support that many, many preparatory meetings are required. Yet I noted that Fuller chose to install David about three weeks after he started at the school. Such speed signaled something, but what?

When I arrived in Pasadena for my first visit to the campus, everything was carefully prepared. I had no sense that anything had been rushed. The smallest details were curated to communicate meaning. For example, the location of the ceremony was a church. That congregation had hosted the first class meetings of Fuller Seminary 75 years ago, in their kindergarten rooms. There had been a switch at the last minute from a building the school had prepared because of a delay in permits from the city. The congregation has held a significant place in the school’s life ever since.

The installation service was in a beautiful sanctuary that was well equipped to livestream the service to Fuller’s many constituents. Both the congregation and the school have matured and expanded over three-quarters of a century.

The service included expressions of faith and culture that make up the diversity of the Fuller community. Every move was filled with beauty and meaning.

David’s presence and words were most notable to me. He impressively embraced Fuller’s history and brought it to the present moment. In his address, he quoted from speeches given by all five of his predecessors, in several cases from their installation addresses. Rhetorically, he drew a through line from the commitments of all the presidents to his own priorities.

Doing such historical work is not very popular these days. But David was demonstrating that in the midst of a changing guard and the emergence of new leadership, he respected the past even as he was urging the community forward.

Some leaders believe that an institution’s history starts anew when they arrive. David demonstrated the art of learning the history so well that its telling can point to the future. He spoke the truth about the history in a way that was charitable and future-oriented.

Yet even as he named and honored history, he signaled a fast pace. The quick installation launched a tour across the country in which David met alumni and donors. Leaders often need to signal enthusiasm for the work by picking up the pace in the first few months. The goal is to connect with and bring energy to the system. Once connections are made, the leader can slow to a more sustainable rate.

I have found that the aftermath of lockdowns and social distancing has made many aspects of leadership more difficult. Shaping culture in an organization requires new strategies. At Fuller Theological Seminary, I witnessed an inspiring mix of classic tactics with a freshness and vitality that held promise for shaping culture. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from Fuller. God be with them and all those who are beginning ministry together in this season.

The best strategy does not come from the leader’s preference as much as it does from the opportunities and challenges facing the institution.

 

“Will I have a job in five years?”

“What will happen to this ministry in the long term?”

I hear leaders worrying about long-term viability, uncertain about how to plan for it.

Beyond wringing hands, some are experimenting by launching a new degree, starting a new worship service or selling a new curriculum. Others are begging donors for more financial support to cover expenses or provide scholarships to reduce fees. A few are exploring mergers with like-minded organizations to consolidate costs and expand ministry work.

Viability is tied to the services offered, the income generated and the related expenses carefully managed.

In a startup or turnaround phase, employees are asked to invest long work hours and offer their best creatively. When successful, such efforts generate more income and keep expenses low. This works for a season but is nearly impossible to maintain for the long haul. People wear down and eventually burn out.

At some point, we have to pay attention to the organizational capacities that undergird a ministry — things like the pay and benefits offered to employees; the hours of work expected; the methods of communication to constituents, donors and other stakeholders; the systems that store, manage and access data; and the skills needed by the board and the staff to operate year after year.

We know that such things are important. However, in an extended period of transition and related uncertainty, we often push off strategic decisions in order to accomplish the urgent. The donors, board members and other stakeholders can lose sight of the time and money required to keep the ministry functioning in healthy ways. The employees and volunteers grow so accustomed to working in overdrive that they may not even point out these longer-term needs.

Over and over again, I meet ministry leaders who have sacrificed the time and money necessary to provide for themselves and their families for the sake of launching and maintaining a ministry. They depend on pay and benefits provided by spouses and partners. They take risks with inadequate health care or borrowed housing.

They can make these choices, but should donors turn a blind eye to such sacrifices? Do those of us who have influence over resources question the decisions and their consequences for the people involved? Do we recognize the problems inherent in unsustainably low salaries and expenses?

Practically speaking, higher expenses require more revenue. Increasing revenue has consequences. For many ministries, the main sources of revenue, and the consequences of dependency on them, include the following:

  • Fees paid by those served. Fee-based ministry serves those who have money and are willing to spend it. Even modest fees can exclude some groups from the services offered.
  • Sponsor fees paid by those who have money in order to provide a service for those who don’t. Sponsors often determine whom the ministry serves. Sponsors also often have stipulations about how the work is done.
  • Contributions from supporters of the ministry. Those who contribute again and again want to know the impact the ministry is making and how their donations are spent. Developing the initial connection that leads to recurring gifts requires a deep commitment on both sides. Ongoing fundraising often becomes a substantial part of the ministry’s work.
  • Grants, usually one-time gifts for specific projects. Grants typically require reports to the grantors and are seldom renewed more than one time; the general expectation is that grants are a way to fund startup costs or launch experiments. With some notable exceptions, like government grants, ongoing grant funding is unlikely.

Occasionally, a ministry will have assets like property or endowments that can generate revenue. Such assets often take years to acquire as well as skills to manage.

The wisdom from 20th-century nonprofit work was that if 20% of an organization’s income comes from a single external source — a person or organization — then the organization is dependent on staying in alignment with that source’s expectations. Perhaps the percentage is different for your organization, but if the loss of a single source of income would require you to make significant strategic changes, then your organization is dependent. The governance structure might indicate independence, but the financial statement does not. For the sake of clear expectations, the board, staff and volunteers need to know the influence of any single funder on the ministry.

Another factor related to viability (and connected to revenue) is often labeled scale. What quantity of services can we provide that are both affordable and of good quality? This might be the number of congregations a consultant can serve or the number of people in a learning experience. Congregations have to discern the number of staff that can be adequately paid and what those staff members can accomplish. The questions about scale are specific to each organization, but the concern is across the board.

Our recent experiences with quarantines have changed the scale questions in so many different industries. For example, who knows now how much office space a business needs? Each business answers that question differently. Airlines are now cutting and adding flights continually to adjust to changing passenger needs while doing their best to fill up every flight. Congregations can no longer rely on counting the average in-person worship attendance as an indicator of staffing and services.

While capacities, revenue and expenses, and the scale of services are the most obvious questions to explore, the only way to get clear about long-term viability is to get clear about your organization’s mission and vision, along with your part in that mission.

In our work, we often use five questions based on the ideas of business theorist Roger Martin and former Proctor & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley to develop a strategy. These questions function as a cascade, the answer to each in turn providing structure for the one that follows.

  • Why? What is the deepest aspiration?
  • Where and with whom are we serving/transforming?
  • How will we serve? What activities are needed?
  • What capacities do we need to do “it”?
  • What management systems are required to ensure that the capacities are in place?

If your organization gets stuck on any of the questions, back up and review the responses to the earlier questions. What has changed? How should that change affect answers to the other questions?

Too often, ministries stop after answering the third question. But when we focus on the long term, we also have to address questions four and five, which take us back to capacities. If boards and donors don’t encourage and support ministries in addressing these questions, then the employees have to answer them out of their own resources. That leads to exhaustion. Insisting that these questions be addressed is a great gift that donors and other stakeholders can provide.

Questions about capacities, revenue and scale are difficult, but those who care about our ministries must do our part to raise them with a view to the organization’s mission and vision. Long-term viability is important to all of us.

What does having a financially sustainable ministry mean? The one-size-fits-all answer is simple. The revenue coming in is consistently more than the expenses going out. But this simple answer obscures the gap between those benefiting from generations of building wealth and those in Black and brown America who have had wealth stolen across the years. Calculating sustainability needs to account for this gap.

I hope that the current pandemic, economic recession and renewed attention to racial inequity is teaching those in the dominant culture that one size does not fit all. When “we” talk about money, the field is never level.

African Americans were treated as property for generations while white Americans were acquiring land and accumulating money. The starting places for families in these communities today is not equal. Whenever we discuss financial sustainability, we have to examine the conditions that create, or that make it difficult to create, wealth.

Sustainability is a sought-after goal in new-program development. In financial terms, it refers to developing revenue sources that provide funding to keep the program going. Sometimes it is as simple as one funder asking the program to find other donors. Sometimes it means adding fees to the service or getting somebody else’s budget to pay the cost. Often it includes reducing the cost of the service to match the expected revenue.

As a white leader in a dominant-culture organization, I hear the talk about making adjustments and raising more money — and it all seems doable. The pandemic has thrown up a roadblock, so reaching sustainability will likely take more time, but “we” believe that “we” can be back to normal in six months or a year. A few think that “we” are in for a decade of economic difficulty.

The use of “we” covers up the different experiences in different communities. When listening to colleagues in organizations founded by and rooted in African American and Latino/a communities, I recognize that they hear talk of sustainability differently. They have learned to say what funders want to hear, but they translate the words into a different set of actions.

For example, I have encountered a handful of organizations in these communities that recently had applied for but did not receive a $1 million grant to serve pastors. Most of these organizations moved forward to develop and deliver as much as they could of the proposed program without the money. How? Mostly through unpaid labor. People affiliated with these organizations took on a second (and sometimes third or fourth) job to serve pastors. In economic terms, these organizations were investing sweat in place of money in order to do what was both most important and possible.

In financial terms, it looks as if these programs are doing great. In fact, they don’t seem to need the grant money. But when we listen to their stories, it is clear that valuable ministry is being performed by exhausted leaders.

The white-culture organizations where I have worked talk about priorities. These organizations have the privilege of deciding how to serve according to the financial resources available. But I have observed many organizations that are part of African American and Latino/a communities prioritize according to the needs of their communities and the world. The leaders of these organizations do what is needed regardless of the money.

How can I learn from this dedication and not participate in taking advantage of it? One element of privilege is not recognizing the impact of categories like sustainability on those without privilege.

This realization has made me more careful when planning a collaborative project with organizations from different cultural, racial and ethnic communities. For example, I now ask partners about pay equity across the project for the same work. I don’t assume that because employees at my white, dominant-culture organization are paid a fair wage, all the collaborating organizations are able to do the same. How do we plan the project so that people are paid equitably?

In fact, the concern starts in the planning phase. What creates the conditions so that all the organizations involved in planning a project have the resources to do the planning? Those with wealth have the option of choosing to shift their efforts to a new project. Those with no resources have to double up on their work to do something new.

If a project is underway, what would it be like to count the labor of these leaders as part of sustainability? What would it be like for donors to see that they are matching a contribution of labor and recognize that effort as part of sustainability?

What would happen if donors recognized the vast disparity between the assets accumulated by white-dominant organizations and white families when compared with African American and immigrant institutions and families? What if the funding levels were calibrated to address these disparities? What would happen if organizations in these communities had significantly longer to develop sustainability plans for donors?

In the midst of economic challenges, more complex and nuanced definitions of sustainability need to be used. All who donate and benefit from donations can learn to pay attention to the needs in communities, as well as who can be supported to address these needs. Moving too quickly to asking a program to “pay for itself” can continue a cycle that takes resources away from long-disadvantaged people.

As a white leader, I must learn more about the challenges faced by my colleagues in different racial, ethnic and cultural communities and advocate for adjustments that provide a path to more equity. I must not leave all the weight for making this case on these leaders.