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Learning to speak more honestly in meetings

Melissa was sitting in a meeting of church leaders, and she was ready to tell the truth.

“Before I say this, could you pass me the PayDay?” she said.

At that moment, the item she had requested — a PayDay candy bar with a grubby red, white and blue wrapper — sat in front of Jon. It had moved around the room in the past hour. I could tell: courage was winning over fear.

What does a candy bar have to do with courage?

At the opening of the meeting, I’d introduced the idea that courage was a gift that would be rewarded. Soon, I was watching grown adults vie for that PayDay. I know it seems a little silly, but it’s vital to find a way to speak more honestly with one another.

We meet often but not well. We attend long meetings that go nowhere. We meet to solve problems but leave pertinent concerns unsaid. We meet for healing but let fear drive out openness.

It is no myth that the real conversations take place in the parking lots and bathrooms. It’s true for me, and I’m trained to help people speak freely. I sometimes wait until I’m walking to the car beside a committee member to have the honest discussion I should have had in the meeting. Why? I didn’t feel safe to mention my concerns.

People have different reasons for keeping silent. Introverts may be internally processing and not want to fight for airtime. Others may sense that speaking about the elephant in the room is discouraged. Many may find that their fear of offending someone is greater than the value of sharing a sincere opinion. People with less power may feel that their voices are unwelcome.

How do we bring the candor expressed in informal settings into more formal meetings — where honesty can feed the potential for more lasting solutions? How do we motivate people to bring their voices into the room?

There are numerous techniques to structure meetings for effective outcomes. When I facilitate conversations, I love to playfully reward honest talk with a PayDay.

I start by saying, “Who will overcome fear for a PayDay candy bar? Who will give us the gift of your courage to speak the truth today?”

Then I pull out the promised reward. No one seems impressed. Typically, it’s been riding in the bottom of my purse for days. If the participants groan at the sight, I counter that fame goes hand in hand with this PayDay.

I explain: “Here’s how this works. You’ll know when someone is brave.

“For instance, one of you may say, ‘I like that vision statement, but I don’t love it. For me to love it, it would have to include something riskier, such as …’

“I expect one of you to shout out, ‘That deserves the PayDay!’

“A while later, someone may say, ‘I wanted to have a funeral for that practice a long time ago.’ If I see people around the table respond with wide eyes, I’ll know to walk over and put the PayDay in front of that brave person.

“There is only one PayDay. It sits in front of the last courageous speaker.

“You do not eat it. You bask in its glory.”

Many times, the participants aren’t convinced — until the first honest comment shifts the conversation and someone quietly passes the PayDay. The recipient grins, and the rest of the room gets it.

Then we’re off and running. The meeting gets more interesting and productive. People actually sit up, lean forward and appear more engaged, because the conversation seems more authentic.

Soon, some participants like Melissa are requesting the candy for themselves even before they speak. Recently, a quiet participant took the game so seriously that they raised their hand and said, “I have not received the PayDay yet, but when I do, could you not have it passed from the last person, but could you go get it and put it in front of me yourself?”

The simple delivery of a PayDay candy bar can minimize fear and motivate people to share new and diverse perspectives. It can help participants be more likely to address the core problem rather than just the presenting symptoms. Sometimes, this honesty can become “confession within community” and offer a chance at healing.

Seeing honesty take root, even in this lighthearted way, can create a confident momentum that builds on itself. After all, fear is not a theological concept. Casting out fear is.

I moved from Southern California to Iowa in the middle of January to work as a campus pastor.

My first task was to start building the next year’s student leadership team. I reached out to the current members and asked whether they would reapply. All but one declined, saying they would be too busy with school or athletics to serve again. Thankfully, the president of the team did apply, but he missed his leadership interview because, he later said, he forgot.

And so by mid-February, my new team consisted of one student: a nursing major with no ministry experience who was painfully shy.

After her interview, as I walked back to my office in the snow, I found myself wondering why in the world I’d left a thriving ministry in California to be a campus pastor. This wasn’t the start I’d expected. But, as I would learn, it was the one I needed.

Like many pastors and ministry leaders, I was in a situation beyond my control. Three campus pastors had left the Lutheran-affiliated university in a four-year span. Not surprisingly, such rapid turnover had created a negative perception of the campus ministry — and a vicious cycle of downward momentum.

The specifics might be different for other pastors — the pandemic, a congregational scandal, changes in the community, a new option in town — but a vicious cycle can hit anyone. Something upsets the balance of a ministry and creates that downward spiral.

When these vicious cycle moments occur, it is easy to get down, give up, search for a silver bullet or look for another job. I must confess that the last option was the most appealing to me, especially in the brutal Iowa cold.

With panic setting in, I needed a new strategy. In his book “Playing to Win,” business leader A.G. Lafley writes: “The heart of strategy is the answer to two fundamental questions: where will you play, and how will you win there?” At the time, I could not answer either question. I needed to do some research.

I examined the religious demographics of the university and discovered that Lutherans made up less than 10% of the student body.

Though students from any affiliation could serve on the campus ministry team, the narrative among the student body was that only Lutherans were welcome. In fact, I befriended a Methodist student who asked me whether he had to become a Lutheran to take part!

It was clear from the numbers that the campus ministry team needed to start recruiting students from many denominational backgrounds.

Next, I turned to the theology department faculty. Could they suggest some of their most promising students, regardless of affiliation?

One of the students they named was in the Army Reserve and would be able to make only half of our meetings. He was hired. Another, the punter on the football team, would not be available until after the season. He too was hired. A third was a first-year Catholic student with no ministry experience. But she had time in her schedule! I made her chair of the team.

Eventually, I lured two of the previous year’s team members back, giving us six for the year.

Then I focused on hiring capable co-workers on a tight budget. I called an old friend who serves as a campus pastor at a local college. He knew a graduating senior who had ministry experience, was gifted musically and — most importantly — could relate to students. I also reached out to the previous interim campus pastor to lead the peer ministry program.

Within four months, I had a new strategy, a new team and a supportive theology department. No longer was I walking alone in the snow wondering why I’d left California.

In the first year, attendance at chapel was mostly students invited by members of the theology department. One professor invited the whole wrestling team, and most showed up. Peer ministry events, with lots of free food, attracted students interested in learning more about faith.

By the end of that year, all eight of our student leadership positions were filled. We’d halted the vicious downward spiral.

By the third year, something miraculous happened. We went from a vicious to a virtuous cycle as the various ministries began feeding each other.

Students who came to chapel attended peer ministry gatherings. They then wanted to apply their new ministry skills by serving on the ministry team or working at the local summer camp with which we’d developed a partnership.

After a summer of camping ministry, students came back excited and full of ideas, not to mention fun icebreakers. And even better, because of our relationship with the camp, I met and hired a new employee who brought tremendous experience to the campus ministry department.

In his article “Creating Virtuous Cycles,” Dave Odom defines this phenomenon as “a series of events that have beneficial impact on the [institution’s] other events.” This is what happened to me. I didn’t set out to create a virtuous cycle when I began at Grand View. I was just trying to survive.

But as I reflect on what happened, I can see a few lessons:

  • Vicious cycles occur in ministry, and often we are not the cause of them. What matters is not who is at fault but how we respond.
  • Strategy matters. For example, it didn’t make sense for us to focus primarily on Lutheran students. We learned that we had to be intentional about the students to whom we ministered.
  • Partnerships are crucial. Without the theology department, the interim campus minister, a local camp and a friend’s recommendation, the ministry would not have thrived.
  • Virtuous cycles take time. It took nearly three years before our ministry really took off. But I learned that it’s worth the wait, because beautiful and unexpected results can occur.

It has been nine years since that first February at Grand View. This year’s team has 18 student leaders. One of my former staff members is now the executive pastor at a growing church in Minnesota. My first hire, the one straight out of college, is still with the department but now directs our high school youth theology program. And former students are carrying their leadership lessons out of college into the churches where they attend or work.

One of the most heartening examples is the story of Joel, a student who came to Grand View to wrestle.

Raised evangelical, he wondered whether he would find a place to practice his faith at a Lutheran university. He came to chapel with his wrestling teammates and then participated in peer ministry, which in turn led him to apply to be on the campus ministry team. After spending a summer working at the local camp, Joel decided to attend seminary. He is now on his way to becoming an ordained Lutheran pastor. A virtuous cycle indeed!

One of our newest members looked completely bewildered as we stood outside the locked church in the rain.

A ministry leader had neglected to inform me about a last-minute change in the meeting schedule, so we were left waiting outside for 20 minutes until the church sexton arrived.

“You don’t have a key to the building, but you’re second in charge?” she said. (The senior pastor actually had suggested that I get a key, but we had decided to wait until after all the locks were changed.)

This member’s reaction speaks volumes about the paradox of my role as minister of leadership growth and development at Turner Memorial AME Church.

Some members have the erroneous perception that I wield authority and influence over everything that happens. Others feel that since I am not the pastor, they do not have to be accountable to me.

The truth falls somewhere in the middle, the place from where I am called to lead.

Leading from the middle can be challenging and often frustrating. The AME Discipline dictates that the only person “in charge” (besides God, of course) is the senior pastor. In fact, associate ministers are not even mentioned.

Yet my contract clearly states that my responsibility is to assist the senior pastor with administering all facets of the operations of the church.

This puts me in a situation where I have to lead people and manage the work of ministry when the perception of my authority does not always match my level of responsibility.

As a practical matter, this means I have to continually follow up with ministry leaders, ask the right questions and frequently check in. I constantly wrestle with the question, “How do I provide effective leadership without micromanaging?”

In my 16 years of experience in ministry and as an organizational communication consultant, I’ve learned to employ the following general practices to lead effectively from the middle — and to avoid the micromanagement trap:

Articulate the vision clearly and consistently

In our annual strategic planning meeting, every ministry team meeting and every one-on-one meeting that follows, we ask the question, “Based on the preaching, the teaching and what you have heard communicated, what is your understanding of the vision God has given us as a church?”

My senior pastor uses this question to ensure that our ministry leaders understand the articulated vision and to address any misperceptions they may have about our general direction. I too have found it to be instrumental as I work with ministry leaders to ensure that initiatives remain consistent with our overall objectives.

Currently, all of our ministry initiatives are focused on physically going into the surrounding community with our gifts, health screenings and other resources and – most of all — the word of God to make an impact and transform lives.

A huge aspect of my role is evaluating ministry effectiveness, which at times can feel like micromanaging. The articulated vision helps me by serving as a guide for evaluating the work of ministry.

Is this ministry initiative consistent with the articulated vision? How does this activity relate to our core values and accomplish our objectives?

A thorough understanding of the vision equips leaders to examine these questions with their teams and evaluate their work before I enter the conversation. This eliminates the perception that I am limiting a ministry’s activities when in fact they do not align with the vision.

Use the tools of processes and guidelines

Earlier this year during our annual day of strategic planning, I covered all policies and guidelines in painstaking detail. I explained the process for everything — from requesting a flyer from our graphic designer to obtaining approval of dates on the church calendar.

The administrative team and the various leadership boards of the church spent about a year compiling our standard operating procedures, a portion of which I also covered in our annual meeting.

Processes and guidelines that are efficient and make sense are my best tools in managing the work of ministry. While some ministry leaders may think these are created for the purpose of keeping good ideas bogged down in red tape, the real reason they exist is to keep things in order.

Order helps all of us operate with excellence, particularly in a church with a lot of moving parts. If multiple ministry teams are planning initiatives or the use of church funds at the same time, processes can help us make decisions without involving personalities or preferential treatment.

Good processes ensure that all the pieces fit together for the good of the church. Processes also ensure that every ministry’s needs are met, or at least addressed, and that all ministries are held accountable equally.

Not long after our strategic planning session, our highest-functioning ministry team and an underfunctioning ministry team both requested a special consideration that would have delayed finalizing the budget and the calendar for the year. Both requests were denied — showing that it was the process, not the personalities, that determined the response.

Follow a sound model of leadership

As I provided some direction concerning the plans for an upcoming event, a colleague jokingly remarked, “You sound just like your pastor.” Hearing those words felt profoundly similar to that moment you realize you have somehow become your parents.

Just as I have done with every senior pastor with whom I’ve served, I have spent a significant amount of time learning the preferences, thought processes and decision-making patterns of my current senior pastor.

He often says to the staff, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” If we trust that he is talking to God and trust him as our pastor, then we ought to have some trust that he is presenting a good model of leadership.

Doing so has allowed me to address issues and identify solutions with the confidence that my leadership is bringing about consistency and not conflict. Most of the ministry leaders know at this point that my language and my perspective will be consistent with what has been communicated by our senior pastor.

As I grow as a leader, my senior pastor’s task-oriented approach sometimes feels counterintuitive to my more relational style. Yet I am aware that his 20 years of experience in the senior pastorate offer insight and perspective beyond my degrees and training.

I try to gain wisdom from observing, asking questions and engaging in conversation whenever opportunity arises. Many times, I have questioned my pastor’s decisions and actions only to find later that his methods were effective and — more importantly — Spirit led.

In the times when I strongly disagree with my senior pastor, I remind myself that he holds the position and I have a commitment to respect his decisions. Yet I also make a personal resolution to be open to different decisions when I find myself in the senior role.

If we are to do ministry effectively, I have learned that while we can have a clear vision and efficient processes, the leadership we provide must be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

We need institutions, and they disappoint us. That puts all of us in a bind.

We depend on institutions to organize our daily activities, from driving to schooling to recycling. We may feel compelled to entrust our health care, our search for information and our spiritual vitality to institutions. Even when we don’t choose to interact with institutions, we rely on their structures, traditions and services.

Yet sometimes, the more we know about an institution, the less we trust it. Why? Because over and over again, we witness institutions acting to preserve themselves even as their employees and constituents suffer.

Occasionally, we get our hopes up that we can trust a particular institution. Maybe one champions a cause that is beyond itself, like universal clean water or freedom for the unjustly imprisoned or health care for the forgotten. Perhaps we see the institution reflect its missional commitments by selecting women or people of color as senior leaders. From the outside, we can see evidence that the institution is creating the conditions for all people to thrive.

But from the inside of the institutions where we serve, what does trustworthiness look like?

It looks, first, like predictability. In trustworthy institutions, workers and volunteers know how to do their work. They know where to go for resources. Effective, clear processes help them get the work done.

Second, it looks like transparency. Leaders within trustworthy institutions take time to explain the “why” of a decision. They describe who was involved, how options were weighed and the reasons for the final choice. This may not lead to universal agreement, but it does ensure that no one is surprised.

Once trust is established, creating a sense of agency among participants is the next step to helping all thrive. I have been reading about “flat” organizations — those in which people choose their own projects and have the authority to make decisions. For example, Valve, a game development company, describes itself as “boss-free since 1996.” The company’s new employee orientation handbook clarifies expectations and explains that employees are free to focus on their customers because, as a self-funded entity, Valve has no shareholders or funders to satisfy.

That points to a regular challenge in institutional life: so many people have a claim on the direction of the work. Institutional leaders must serve donors, customers, volunteers and longtime friends. That can create the impression that an institution has more bosses than the people who appear on the org chart. In response, employees will often trust a segment of the institution rather than the whole place.

When I worked for a 900-bed hospital, my job was once reclassified in a way that changed my vacation and sick leave. The director of payroll called to explain the change and its implications, saying she was reaching out to me personally because the policy seemed unfair to her. Her attention surprised me. She was responsible for the payroll for 5,000 people. She promised to remedy my situation as soon as the policy allowed and explained when and how I could follow up. Six months later, she did exactly what she had promised.

At that same hospital, the CEO once apologetically explained to managers that a strategy being rolled out did not make good sense but was necessary to comply with new Medicare and Medicaid procedures. He was transparent about the situation the hospital faced and the choices senior leaders had made.

This hospital was not perfectly trustworthy. Yet it had leaders like the payroll director and the CEO who explained decisions and how to navigate them. In my 15 years there, I came to understand how to do my job and whom I should approach when I was stuck.

I meet people who don’t want to go through the pain of figuring out whom and how to trust in an institution. They prefer to start their own organizations or to work with others in smaller, often scrappier enterprises. Such organizations can create and re-create services much more quickly. Such places are great learning environments.

At some point, though, even small places end up relating to large institutions, such as government offices, industry groups, suppliers or funders. Eventually, we all must evaluate which institutions we can trust and how we should interact with them.

Christian institutions that serve congregations are strengthened when they are embedded in networks of dependencies and partnerships. My current work involves creating opportunities to develop the trust necessary for those interconnections to form and grow.

I do this work because I believe that creating the conditions for human flourishing across generations requires healthy, mission-oriented institutions. Given the current state of the world, we need leaders who are renovating existing institutions as well as those who are creating new ones. This requires that we develop or reinvent systems that are predictable and transparent while also creating conditions that give participants the agency to clarify mission and work beyond an institution’s self-interest.