In her book “Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands”, Nancy Ortberg talks about the need to differentiate between “a tension to be managed and a problem to be solved“.

One example for me is the constant tension between the administration/money side of ministry and the discipleship/hands on side of ministry. As pastor, I’m always going to have to balance tension between our business administrator working to conserve cash and our missions pastor finding legitimate ministry needs in which to spend it, for example. That’s a tension to be managed, not a problem to be solved.

On the other hand, an employee who is taking advantage of a more casual organizational structure, which is a style of leadership I typically prefer, is a problem to be solved. Quickly. I prefer systems and structures which allow for freedom of individualized methods of execution, towards a more defined vision we are seeking to attain. When one person is disrupting that system – causing more harm than good to the organization – that’s a problem to be solved. And, solved now.

Many policies are written, because someone didn’t want to solve a problem.

This is especially prevalent in the church world. Churches, in my experience, are notorious for creating a new policy to attempt to manage the problem rather than doing the difficult work of solving it. Solving the problem often involves getting personal with people. It involves challenging people. It involves change. It involves holding people accountable to a higher standard. That’s messy. It’s never fun. Most churches like neat, clean and seemingly easy.

Using my illustration above, if the missions pastor has a perceived spending problem, rather than addressing the problem with him directly, many times a policy is created to “solve” the problem and curtail spending. Every other staff member may be performing satisfactorily, but the policy controls everyone.

Plus, the missions pastors may not even know the real problem. Without wise counsel, the missions pastor never learns principles of healthy budgeting or how to manage cash flow, for example. They never understand why overspending in the missions budget negatively impacts every other ministry. That person will likely continue to struggle handling finances the rest of their ministry – many times not even knowing why – just knowing they had they bumped up against a policy somewhere. And, they were truly trying to help people. (See the tension.)

Problem not solved.

Policies are easy. They are a piece of paper. They may involve some discussion, perhaps a committee meeting (maybe even a tense committee meeting), even a church vote, but they seldom specifically address the people who are causing the problem in the first place. They make people in leadership positions feel better about the problem, but they almost never solve real problems. In fact, they usually only create more problems, which later need to be solved!

I realize this problem is not limited to churches. Even the best organizations and corporations struggle to address problems as needed.

My advice: Manage the tensions, but solve the problems.

Do the hard work. It’s what leaders are supposed to do. Not always easiest. Always best.

Have you seen churches (or organizations) try to manage a problem that needed to be solved?

Bonus points if you give me an example.

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Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Rachel says:

    It seems that at some point, a leader’s unwillingness to engage a problem must be considered equally culpable for damages caused by the problem itself, since the willingness to engage (ie. lead) is what makes a leader in the first place!
    Assuming there’s no malintent in setting a policy to single out an employee, followed by failing to provide communication, guidance/training—leadership— to him or her… and also that the policy, and all other policies are uniformly applied across the organization; otherwise the actual “problem” may be elsewhere. 😬 This is particularly important in smaller orgs where there may be no HR to help untangle the knot that was left to form in the absence of better, healthier communication and better leadership.

    A bit of a sidebar, perhaps, but felt it ought to be said, especially as so many of us are considering protections for employees, and sadly the various failings of leadership in ministry and business these days.

  • […] The Reason Many Policies are Written by Ron Edmondson Many policies are written because someone didn’t want to solve a problem. In her book “Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands”, Nancy Ortberg talks about the need to differentiate between “a tension to be managed and a problem to be solved“…. Most of the time, in my experience, churches are notorious for creating a new policy to attempt to manage the problem rather than doing the difficult work of solving it. Solving the problem often involves getting personal with people. It involves challenging people. It involves change. It involves holding people accountable to a higher standard. That’s messy. It’s never fun. Most churches like neat, clean and seemingly easy. (Just being honest.) Read More. […]

  • […] More. The Reason Many Policies are Written by Ron Edmondson Many policies are written because someone didn’t want to solve a problem. In her […]

  • Carrie Boyer says:

    This is good stuff. I have a degree in public administration and I work in a large State law enforcement agency with tons of policy. am going to give this to our Captain.

  • […] Ron Edmondson explains The Reason Many Policies are Written. […]

  • Tyler Crosson says:

    I feel bad for your youth pastor.
    Twitter: tylercrosson

  • John Armstrong says:

    Love the post, well written and well balanced. I would add a little more to it… When we create policies to solve individual people problems, they are always communicated over email to everyone because we also don't like confrontation.

    Then because we don't like the confrontation, we use the dump truck approach when the new policy is abused (which of course it will be because we didn't do a face to face with the problem.) We let the one person the policy was written for, keep doing what they are doing without confrontation then after a period of time we back up the truck and dump on them all at once.

  • Joe Lalonde says:

    This reminds me of the recent news stories about a lifeguard who had to break policy to help save a drowning man. In the end, he lost his job over it.

  • alszambrano says:

    I work in an organization with a high degree of turn-over, and seasonal employees who come from a wide variety of backgrounds. When I started working here a number of years back, we literally had NO policies. Not a single one. This created financial instability and a whole collection of disgruntled, confused, over-worked, burnt-out employees. We've found that we need to have both one-on-one "solve the problem" discussions, and creation of policy to keep ourselves from solving the same problem over and over and over again. I strongly believe there is room for both.

    Having a policy doesn't mean you don't address issues with people personally – it means giving you a framework in which to discuss those issues. It lays out that "higher standard" you want people to adhere to.

    I completely agree that you cannot simply "fix" a problem by putting in a policy. This doesn't, however, mean there isn't room for policy at all.

    I think your thoughts on why you hate policies were good – but I still don't think its a reason to ditch them completely. For example, my office has a policy that any expenditures over a certain dollar amount must be run by the COO & CEO. It gives us a way to controlling our spending, and helps our employees reason through why they need something they'd like to spend the funds on. Does it take away the freedom to purchase whatever we think we need – sure does. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so, and I don't think our financial supporters think so either.

    We've put in policies that keep one employee from abusing another – like what time you can register for check in at events. Before this policy, we had employees sleeping on the floor of the office until 1 am, waiting for someone to register. Now, a late registration simply needs to make arrangements to check in late, or to find lodging until the office opens. Simply having a conversation with this type of person didn't seem to fix the problem of not respecting another employee.

    I don't think all policies should be discounted. I think that with the right attitude behind them – like protecting financial integrity or being good stewards of our human resources – there is a place for them.

  • Kmac4him says:

    I agree! Perspective is key! Perspective is the answer to understanding what causes the tension. Yes, I have lived it! I was a church financial admin secretary for years. I saw how miraculous it was, how God provided in His 29/59 kind of way each week. When you experience keeping the books at the church and you see the Provisional Hand of God, you want to protect that provision with great (tightwad) stewardship, it is only natural. LOL! NOT! I watched the finance committee meet and take papers in their hand that represented ministry and check it no because of lack of perspective. But, they did not experienced the other perspective of the miracles that happen daily in the discipleship area. A pastor once made us “shadow” each other for a week. One Admin & One Pastor paired up and we watched and lived in each others “worlds”. I gained a whole new perspective! We were no longer two silos containing our own corn to feed our “ministry”, we were one. I have learned the problem with perspective is churches where their ministries become individual silos standing on their own, not really a good atmosphere for enlarging perspectives when the Pastor’s Lay Council Board and the Staff have not walked in each others shoes.
    Twitter: kmac4him

  • Melissa says:

    Yes, I see it first hand daily. Where I work we are not big enough (number wise of employees) to efficiently handle the orders….busy good problem to have (thankfully)….but we just stress out, get it done and move to the next. We need structure (a solving of the problem) rather than just getting through.

    Name of company not disclosed to protect the stressed out and strung along…: )

  • Nancy Ortberg's book is a good one reminding us that tension is part of life.Thanks for the reminder for those of us who love solving everything!

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