As I met with a governing board during a planning session, one member asked, “How are we ever going to develop a communications strategy without the appropriate staff?” I responded, “We won’t know what the appropriate staff is until we have a strategy. Don’t you have some members who work on communications and marketing in their day jobs?” “Of course! We have some people who are outstanding in that field,” came the reply. “Then why are we talking about this instead of having your members who have the skill sets and experience to do it?” Folks took my question as though it was a revelation. Actually it was common sense.
Every busy person knows that if we want to add something new to our schedule, we need to let something else go. (You know this, right?) Religious institutions face the same dilemma—unless blessed with unlimited dollars for additional staff, they know that programs and projects need to end in order to start something new. Letting go is hard, though. It disappoints members, who are usually not only fans but donors. How does a church decide when to let go?
Over this past year, we have had to pivot—in our personal lives, as religious leaders, and in our organizations. We have found ways to be resourceful in ways we didn’t know we could. Perhaps we have even sensed a capacity to be resilient in order to navigate intense and unforeseen challenges. Resilience is often understood as the capacity to “bounce back,” but I prefer to think of it as the ability to return again and again to what matters. In other words, to cultivate resilience, we must practice pivoting.
Given the extreme polarization that now infects American society, many wonder what they can do to reduce divisions in families, communities, and congregations. Fortunately, there are strategies any of us can adopt to become agents of depolarization. They range from the intrapersonal (changing attitudes and behaviors) to the systemic (advocating for social change), but all can be implemented at the local level. All the ideas that follow come from When the Center Does Not Hold: Leading in an Age of Polarization, a book I wrote with several colleagues in 2019, published by Fortress Press.
When I was a young seminarian, I worked in a factory that made doorknobs for historic buildings. In class I studied new, improved ideas about faith and life. At the W.C. Vaughan Company—working with Joe, Homer, and Fred—I learned to value what my elders had to teach.
That was more than forty years ago! Today pastors often ask me, “What should I do about the Elders?” They’re talking about the old guard—longtime and former leaders. Different congregations call them Deacons, Past Presidents, the Women’s Fellowship, or something else. Sometimes Elders have no formal name at all—but rest assured, if your congregation has existed for more than a decade, they do exist! Like Joe, Homer, and Fred, they can be challenging, but have a lot to teach.
In the next year it is likely that your congregation will have to fire someone. As we come out of the pandemic, every congregation will have to reevaluate its staffing structure. Do you have the right people with the right skills to lead your congregation through the next chapter? Some new hires may be needed, requiring painful terminations to free up precious payroll dollars. Acting with integrity as you fire people can make all the difference in helping your congregation cope with difficult transitions.
The “go it alone” model of congregational life is dead. That’s my takeaway from a recent conversation with Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. He is convinced, and I agree, that congregations that insist on going it alone it will be dead in due time, as well.