Defining Healthy in Church Leadership Culture

I remember talking with a young hurting pastor just after he resigned from his church. For several years he had attempted to restore a dying church into a healthy church. The church brought him in with some definite goals they wanted him to achieve. They knew their very existence depended on change. He felt he had almost a mandate.

The church began to grow. Things were exciting – or so it seemed. But, with every change there was growing resistance. Eventually only a few people with power still supported him. Even those who once supported him refused to back him with changes they had previously agreed were needed.

He was continually reminded this was not “his church”. He felt it was best he leave rather than divide the church. (This church has a long history of short-term pastorates.)

In the course of the conversation he asked some sobering and honest questions.

He asked, “Is there really such a thing as a healthy church? Are there any healthy church staffs? And, what does healthy even mean in church leadership?”

Great questions. And, after working with dozens of churches, I understand why he would ask them. Sadly, I hear from pastors continually asking similar questions. There are many unhealthy environments in churches.

But, yes! There is such a thing as a healthy church staff and leadership culture. There are some healthy church environments – whether a single pastor and all volunteers or multiple staff members. Large church or small there are healthy cultures. They may not jump in the air every day with enthusiasm, as the picture with this post indicates, but people do enjoy being a part of the team.

In the purest form, the case could be made the church is always “healthy”, because it represents Christ. We are promised nothing will ever destroy what Christ has established.

But, local churches are made of people. And, some of those people, even well-meaning as they may be sometimes, work together to form unhealthy environments. Others work together for the common good of honoring Christ and form healthy environments. I’ve seen and been a part of both.

I’m often asked questions such as this – on how we know when something is healthy. This is always subjective, but I have certainly learned you know when something is unhealthy. I don’t know if I can define healthy in a single definition, but I’ve given the issue some thought as it relates to the working environment.

A healthy church culture doesn’t mean…

  • There aren’t bad days.
  • There won’t ever be tension or stress.
  • That everyone always agrees.
  • There aren’t relationship struggles.
  • All problems are solved.
  • The pastor is always right.
  • Problems or issues are ignored.

Work is still work and people are still people. Being healthy doesn’t not mean there aren’t real struggles at times.

A healthy church culture does mean…

  • People can disagree and still be friends.
  • Tension is used to make relationships stronger.
  • Meetings are productive and purposeful – not burdensome and certainly not hurtful.
  • Rules add healthy boundaries – empowering creativity rather than stifling or controlling.
  • You work as a team to find solutions.
  • The pastor, staff (and their families) are never attacked publicly or continually stabbed in the back.
  • The rumor mill is never allowed to form the dominant opinion.

Those are just a few of my observations.

Have you been in an unhealthy church or organizational environment? Have you been in a healthy one? What would you add to either of my lists of observations?

An Elementary Approach to Facing Conflict

I’ve seen a lot of conflict in my life. From parents and couples in my office for counseling to employment situations where two people can’t get along. I’ve even seen a fight in the grocery store because someone thought someone else cut line. And, I’ve been to more than one church business meeting gone bad.

As an observer, I’ve learned a few things about facing conflict. Primarily, I’ve observed the way one person responds often determines the way the other person responds. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

When you are backed into a corner and facing potential conflict you have a choice. You can come out fighting or you can be smart, plan your response, and help turn the situation for good.

In fact, the secrets of facing the fire of conflict should be elementary.

Here are 3 elementary approaches to conflict:

Stop

Stop and think. What is the best approach? What do you really want to accomplish? Based on your time to reflect – how should you respond?

The opening moments are always critical in any conflict. You can quickly back someone or yourself into a corner. Cornered people move into a self-protection mode, fail to react rationally, and the sense of what’s best is lost.

It requires practice, but take adequate time to plan the best way to approach the other party. It may require you being silent when your prone to speak, but this one step often avoids much of the unnecessary and unproductive conflict. (As an example, Jesus took time to make a whip before driving the money changers out of the temple. John 2)

Drop

Drop the right to win. That’s hard, but if you want the conflict to be resolved you have to start with the attitude that you want the best resolution – even if you don’t get everything you want in the outcome.

When you come into a potential fiery situation with a have-to-win attitude you cloud your ability to work for the best results. Self-centeredness always gets in the way of healthy conflict. Be humble and agree you are going to do what is best, even if that means you don’t get your way.

This doesn’t mean you give in to the other party, but the goal in conflict should not be to win personally, but to reach the best solution for everyone.

Roll

Roll out the best approach. Use the appropriate strategy, skills and temperament to resolve the conflict. This means you hold your temper, watch your words, and value the other person’s viewpoint.

I realize it takes two or more people to make this happen, but when one party is willing to do the first two it makes accomplishing the best so much more likely.

Go into every potential conflict with a humble desire for the best solution to be accomplished.

Stop, drop and roll.

4 Examples When Strategy Should Drive a Leader’s Decision

There are times the “gut call” comes in handy for a leader. Leaders often must make quick and decisive decisions. Past experience and instinct can help a leader make the call when an immediate decision is needed.

There are times, however, if a leader wants to be successful, when they must use strategy to make decisions. For defining purposes, A strategic decision doesn’t simply react based on how the leader feels – it brings other people into the decision and asks bigger questions, such as why, how, when, where, who and what. The consequences and ramifications of the decision are highly weighed before a leader makes the call.

Protecting the organization’s future and keeping the trust of people often demands strategic thinking, so all leaders must learn how to think strategically.

Strategic thinking comes naturally for me. I have tons of weaknesses, but thinking in a strategic sense is not one of them. If anything, I’m so strategic that it becomes a weakness.

When a leader isn’t necessarily wired to think strategically, it will need to come through discipline – simply learning how and practicing doing so. Thankfully, not all decisions a leader makes requires using strategy, but when it does the leader needs to practice stopping to ask bigger questions about how this decision will impact the future – again, using questions such as why, how, when, where, who and what.

To help you get started, let me share a few examples of times a leader needs to be strategic with their decision.

Here are four times the leader must think strategically:

The outcome is uncertain

I love risk, but the leader must weigh the risk with the future of the organization in mind. Ultimately the leader has responsibility for the overall success of the organization, so a leader has to make final calls as to whether or not a risk is worth the time, energy and resources, which will be invested in it. This requires strategic thinking. Absent of a direct “word from God” the leader needs to be strategic enough to thoroughly vet the decision and it’s potential future implications. IIt doesn’t mean you don’t take the risk or that you won’t lead into an unknown – that’s what leaders do, but taking time to think strategically can often help eliminate possible disasters.

The outcome impacts others

One flaw in leadership is when the leader thinks only about how he or she views the decision and not how the decision affects other people. The wise leader thinks strategically to determine the people aspect of a decision. This is especially where other people are brought into the strategy part of making the decision. If the outcome has an impact on other people, then other people need to be considered before the decision is made.

The issue is subject to resistance

Most change is subject to resistance, but if a decision is automatically going to involve a battle for acceptance, then a leader must strategically plan the way the decision is introduced and implemented. The more potential outcomes and reactions considered the greater chance of success the change can have.

The issue changes an agreed upon direction

When people get excited about a direction the organization is going and they invest their heart and energy into heading in that direction, they are naturally more resistant to a change in the direction. Good leaders think strategically how this change will be received and how it should be communicated so people transfer enthusiasm for the new direction.

Those are just a few examples. There are certainly many others. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a decision backfire against a leader who failed to think strategically. They did what they thought was best – they used their gut – but, there were too many variables at play and the decision came back to bite them – metaphorically speaking.

A good rule of thumb for leaders might be to simply discipline themselves to ask a simple question: Do I need to think more strategically before I make this decision? And, if the answer is yes, start asking more questions and involving more people. It will make you a better leader.

Wanting to be Led vs. Wanting to be a Leader

Discerning the difference in leading others

I have studied some psychological theory on personality differences and types. I’m certified to administer Myers-Briggs, but have worked with most of the more popular assessments. I generally agree with the theory behind these type tools. We can categorize certain personalities and traits together to help us understand ourselves and each other better. I am an introvert, for example. That’s not really a question for me anymore, now that I understand the term. It helps me know how I relate to other people on a regular bases.

At the same time, I hold loosely to all these types – believing that ultimately every human is uniquely designed by their Creator. No assessment can ever fully capture who we are as individuals.

But, I think understanding differences – and the broad categoration of them – has often been helpful to me in leading people. As much as I want to individualize my leadership based on the people I’m attempting to lead, it does help to have some broad ways to understand people.

Which brings me to a very broad difference in leading people.

There is a huge difference the way you lead someone who wants to be led and how you lead someone who wants to be a leader.

Huge. It requires a different approach.

The person who wants to be led desires structure. They want to follow the rules. They need someone to tell them how to do what you want done. He or she needs more specifics and more details – and less ambiguities. They tend to stress more during times of uncertainty, but they tend to be more compliant and cause less conflict when the path ahead is clearly defined.

You need to know that and allow it to impact your leadership of them.

The person who wants to be a leader needs space to dream, freedom to explore, and permission to experiment. He or she desires less direction and more encouragement. They need to be given a target of what a win looks like and then left alone to script the way to success. They continually need new challenges. They get bored easily. These people may stir conflict on a team – intentionally or not – because they enjoy testing and pushing the boundaries.

And, you need to know that and allow it to impact your leadership of them.

Again, these are generalizations, but there is nothing wrong with either person. Most teams need both types of team members. I have also found some people have seasons in their life where they float between preferring one or the other. And, of course, with any of these categorations there are huge variances within each of them. Again, everyone is unique.

The key is to know your team and the people you lead. The more we know the people we lead the better they are able to follow.

10 Easy Phrases Which Point to a Healthy Team

Do you want to be a part of a healthy team?

Do you like simple?

Maybe we’ve made this more complicated than it has to be. I think there are values we can strive to attain which can help make our teams healthy.

Let’s be honest, in team dynamics – just as in relationships – there are seasons when things are better than other times. But, over the course of months and years we should be able to identify a healthy team. You certainly know one when you serve on one.

I have noticed a few key things which are taking place when I’m on a healthy team.

Here are 10 easy phrases which point to a healthy teams:

  1. Relationships matter way more than structures or systems.
  2. Titles never determine the importance of a person’s voice.
  3. Good communication is highly valued.
  4. Conflict is never avoided and used to make the team stronger.
  5. Everyone embraces and loves a common interest and goal.
  6. A person’s character is equally important to their intellect or abilities.
  7. The team rallies when times are tough.
  8. No one gets all the recognition.
  9. Enjoying the journey is part of the plan.
  10. There are no minor roles or minor players.

How many does your team score?

Which of these does your team most need to improve upon?

And, if we do it right, we may be able to stop at number one!

4 Easy Steps To Healthy Delegation

Even a potential control freak leader like me knows healthy delegating actually improves the organization. 

Yet, I work with dozens of pastors and leaders every year who struggle to release authority and responsibility.

How do we let go of responsibility when we are wired so heavily towards not doing so? How do we delegate when the church holds us responsible for getting things done? How do we let go when doing so makes us sometimes feel so out of control?

I often say there are three underlying reasons a leader doesn’t delegate.

Pride. They don’t think someone else can – as well as them.
Selfishness. They don’t want someone else getting the credit.
Ignorance. They simply don’t know how.

I can’t help with the first two, other than point you to Scripture and hope it convicts you otherwise. But, I can help you with the third one. And, I’m not trying to over simply a complicated leadership issue. It’s certainly not “easy” to implement as the title indicates, but the understanding the process really is simple.

Here are 4 easy steps to healthy delegation:

Identify

It could be a specific one-time task or an ongoing assignment, but find something which would be better delegated – either because you aren’t as skilled as others, don’t have adequate time to commit to it, or have lost interest. You have to get gut honest here, but look for things know someone would be better suited to lead. They have more time or talent in this area. And, don’t get stuck on this one. Make sure you find something. There is always something when you look for it.

Match

Find the right person/s for the responsibility based on passion, experience, and follow through capabilities. This can be volunteer or paid, but pick people who will do what they say they will do and you trust. Otherwise you will constantly be looking over their shoulder and back to not delegating again. And, you may not know until you give someone a chance to try. And, please don’t say there is no one to trust in your church or organization. If that’s the case, I see a couple options – you can change organizations or change the leader – and, most of the time it is the leader. Part of leading is raising up others to lead. (I’m not trying to be harsh, but it’s true.)

Release

This is the “letting go” part. (This is the scary part for many leaders. You may simply have to walk by faith on this one. I suspect Moses did when he followed Jethro’s advice.) Few leaders really do this well. Leaders usually lean more toward control than release, in my experience. But, if you want to be a delegator, especially a healthy delegator, you have to learn to give up your right to control. It won’t likely be done the way you wanted it to be done. It may not be done at the pace you expected. You have to release authority to do the delegated work. Help cast a vision of what a win looks like, give them the tools they need, but, this is the part of delegation you need the most – getting out of the way.

Follow-Up

Healthy delegation isn’t a dumping of responsibilities. If you are the senior leader even when you delegate you have some responsibility, even though you have released authority. Set a reminder on your calendar to periodically follow up with the person. Remain close enough and Xavailable to them should they have questions or need help, but stay out of their way as they complete the assignment.

I realize it’s not easy for some to delegate responsibility. It comes with discipline and practice. One way to improve at this is to consider the overall purposes and goals of the organization, recognizing they can better be attained through delegation, and allow accomplishing them to be the leader’s principal responsibility – rather than simply completing tasks personally. 

The journey to complete a worthy vision, includes delegating. Letting go to achieve greater success should be a key motivation for leadership.

When I Say I and When I Say We

A Leader's Vocabulary

I was talking with someone about the early days of church planting before anyone was on our team. We had not yet officially formed a core group, the initial staff members had not yet committed. As I told my personal story, I kept using words such as “our” and “we”. Towards the middle of the conversation the person stopped me and asked, “Who’s ‘we’?”

The fact is I was talking about me most of the time, but I confused him with my verbiage by using inclusive words. I wasn’t trying to be confusing. It’s simply a habit I’ve formed. I have come to realize a team vocabulary is a large part of encouraging healthy teams. I love teams and team-building so much I’ve disciplined myself to always talk in a collective sense.

To be fully candid, I cringe when I hear leaders use the words “I”, “me, and “my” when referring to their team, their church or organization. To me it always sounds so controlling, prideful, and even arrogant. As an example, Bo Warren is our worship pastor. He’s one of the most talented people I have ever met. We joke about him being a celebrity, but he is really a very humble person. Most of our church doesn’t understand how talented he really is. When I refer to him, I don’t say “He’s my worship pastor”, because he’s not! He’s our worship pastor. I don’t want to portray to him or others that somehow I control him. I want the perception to be “we” together are part of a team effort. I would be limiting his potential if I referred to him in a possessive sense.

I understand it may seem to just be semantics, but to me it’s an important issue for leaders to think through, perhaps bigger than to whom some give credence. If we truly want to create a team environment, then we must develop team vocabularies.

There are a few times when I use the personal words, such as:

  • When offering a pointed direction – “I am asking you to do this for the team.”
  • When offering an opinion which may not be shared by others – “I think we should…”
  • When asking a question or stirring discussion – “I wonder if we could…”
  • When giving a specific, personal compliment – “I want to thank you for the incredible work you did.”

When I am speaking on behalf of the team or referring to team members, I try to use a collective term. My advice is to default to words like “we” and “our” whenever possible – even if people have to ask you who the “we” is to whom you are referring.

The more we talk like a team the more our environments will feel like a team.

(You may want to read my post on a leader’s vocabulary.)

Have you had a leader who abused team vocabulary as described?  

One Sure Sign You’re On a Healthy Team

I’ve often said good leaders never assume silence means everyone is in agreement.

Especially during seasons of change the leader can’t assume everyone is on board because they aren’t hearing complaints. On one extreme people may feel there will be retribution for stating their opinion. The reality is leaders can be intimidating just by position – whether they intend to be or not. On the other extreme people may not say say what’s on their mind simply believing it would be something the leader already knows. But, all of us only know what we know. We don’t know anymore.

The leader doesn’t always hear what they need to hear, which is why good leaders ask good questions.

There is one caveat to this principle, however.

When a team is healthy – really healthy – so that the leader is approachable and team members know they are encouraged to participate in discussion. When there is no unresolved conflict or underlying drama. And, when people are on the team not just for a paycheck, but because they believe in the mission and love the team.

When the team is really healthy…

Silence can be interpreted as agreement.

That’s because:

  • The freedom to challenge is present
  • The fear of retribution is absent
  • The power of unity is prominent
  • The spirit of cooperation is elevated
  • The synergy of differences is celebrated
  • The collaboration of ideas has been utilized
  • The sharing of thoughts is welcomed

When you are on a really healthy team people feel freedom to speak up when needed, so if they don’t, you can often safely assume they are in agreement.

I’ll be candid, I’m not sure I have been there more than a few times in my leadership career. I’m not even sure we are there yet with our current team. We have new staff members and we are in a season of rapid change. But, in the months to come, I’ll be looking to measure progress in this way. I’ll be reminding our team of this principle and the ramifications of it.

A good personal evaluation for the leader is to ask yourself this question: What does silence on my team indicate?

If people aren’t pushing back against change what does that really mean?

And, for your sake, I hope it means you’re really serving with a healthy team.

The Fuzziness of a Healthy Team

Clarity is often king in organizational dynamics. Clear communication is vital for healthy teams. A huge part of my job as a leader is to help people understand our vision and where we are going next to try to realize it (as well as I know at the time).

While this is true there is a paradox when it comes to clarity and organizational health.

Some things are actually fuzzy on a healthy team. Indistinct. Muddled. Unclear.

As strange as that seems in an age of instant and constant information it’s actually healthy.

Let me give some examples.

Here are 3 areas of fuzziness on a healthy team:

The lines of authority are blurred

In some of the healthiest organizations I know, the organizational chart doesn’t matter as much in accomplishing the vision. It’s often fuzzy in regards to who is in charge. One person doesn’t have all the ideas answers. Everyone has an equally important role to play, and while everyone knows what is expected of them, who is “in charge” is determined by what is being attempted at the time. Leadership often depends on the task. People lead based on their passions and gifting, more than because of their position or title. And, titles and positions can change as needed to fit current challenges and opportunities.

There aren’t a lot of burdensome rules

Obviously an organization needs structure. Rules have to be in place. But, on healthy teams, rules are designed to enhance, not limit growth. Rules help keep people empowered not controlled – and likely there are fewer of them. Bureaucracy diminishes progress and frustrates the team. Granted, this fuzziness can produce a lot of gray areas, which can even be messy at times, but removing all the hard lines around people promotes their individual creativity and encourages innovation for the team.

Some things are subject to change quickly

Certain things like vision and values are concrete. They aren’t changeable. In a healthy environment, however, methods of accomplishing the vision are always held loosely. There is no sense of ownership or entitlement to a way of doing things. As needs change, the team can quickly adapt without a ton of push back and resistance. Admittedly, this can cause some uneasiness for those who favor structure. That’s where the fuzziness can get uncomfortable, but the team has an attitude of unity, so even people more resistant to change can embrace it.

I am certainly not promoting fuzziness. I would still aim for clarity – whenever possible. Even in times of uncertainty some things, such as the values which drive the team should be clear. But, just as life is often full of unknowns – even messy – so is life on a healthy team. Figuring out how to navigate through these times and keep the team moving forward together is a part of good leadership.

The Life of an Idea on a Healthy Team

Healthy teams allow every idea a chance to live. At initial thought, there are no bad ideas.

The healthiest teams don’t contain a built in idea killer. And, if there is one they aren’t allowed to remain so for long.

Ideas need a chance to breathe. They need to be stretched and prodded and examined. The best ideas sometimes come from what started as a seemingly really bad idea. Genius ideas are often killed before they have a chance to develop into their greatness.

That’s why healthy teams have freedom and regularly:

  • Brainstorm
  • Analyze
  • Test drive
  • Push back
  • Critique
  • Debate
  • Challenge
  • Collaborate 
  • Dialogue 
  • Listen
  • Discuss 

Every. Single. Idea. 

Healthy teams remain open-minded about an idea until it’s proven to be a bad idea.

It doesn’t have to be a long process. It could be a short process.

But, healthy teams give every idea a chance to live.

That is because healthy teams know there is value in the collection of ideas on a team.

Leader, next time your team gets together open the floor of discussion to ideas. Let everyone put ALL their ideas on the table, with no fear of embarrassment or retribution. Watch for collective brilliance to develop .

Have you ever worked with an idea killer? How did it impact the team?