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Through painful experiences, I’ve discovered why many policies are written.

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 consistently stirring conflict among the team – that is a problem to be solved.

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.

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.

Solving a problem involves challenging people. It involves change. You must hold 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 easily fit on 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. Policies 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!

This is not limited to churches. Even the best organizations and corporations struggle to address problems as needed. They often pref to write policies instead.

Good leaders do the hard work. It’s not always the easiest. But it is always best.

Manage the tensions, but solve the problems.

Check out my leadership podcast where we discuss issues of leadership in a practical way. Plus, check out the other Lifeway Leadership Podcasts.

Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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  • Jim Pemberton says:

    There is some great insight here. Policies should never be used to cover for individual deficiencies. Policies are used either to set the standard in order to identify deficiencies, provide structure for effective systematic interactions, or as safeguards for legal or monetary purposes. To follow after your illustration of the fiscally irresponsible missions pastor, my own church has a method for handling our missions monies.

    We have a missions committee that oversees spending. About 10% of our budget is designated for missions (not including the CP) and it's no small amount. The committee also oversees fundraising and mission scholarships from special giving. One member of the committee is a missions-minded fellow who is also on the finance committee. He has helped the committee develop policies for supporting mission endeavors that provide safeguards. For example, there are tracks for giving subject to periodic review or tapering off giving on a five-year plan depending on the needs of the missionary or ministry requesting contributions. This locks the committee and the missions pastor into a responsible pattern of support for missionaries that also simplifies budget plans and maximizes impact. This removes a particular financial burden from the missions pastor if he needs to turn people down but it also enables him to provide focused support for particular efforts.