All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at Work

What needed to be done was clear—at least to me. If we were serious about ourselves and what we were doing—and at 25, I was nothing if not serious—we had to find land or a building so we could continue growing. I knew what had to happen; the hard part was getting the whole group of leaders to agree. To accomplish that, we had to negotiate the widely different ideas and attitudes each of us brought from past experience—especially our experiences at work.

My first ministry began in 1980 in Boca Raton, Florida. I didn’t know it, but a few members of the congregation were working on a secret project that would have far-reaching results: the new IBM personal computer. Working outside the usual, highly bureaucratic confines of the company, the Personal Computer Division achieved the impossible, by IBM standards, when in 1981, after just a year, they rolled out a product.

I suspected something was afoot—people with a secret like to drop hints, and sometimes they drop them to their minister. IBM was in a hurry—nimbler companies like Kaypro, Osborne, Apple, and even Radio Shack had beaten them to market. Big Blue had to enter quickly with a standard-setting product. The company had no experience writing software for microcomputers, so they hired a tiny firm called Microsoft to do it for them.

In retrospect we know the IBM PC succeeded better as a standard than as a product for its parent company. Other firms quickly came out with “IBM-compatible” computers. Microsoft supplied them with MS-DOS, its own version of the PC operating system. IBM’s plans succeeded in some ways—but failed by a key measure: making money.

Meanwhile, at the church, we struggled with a planning challenge of our own. We had reached capacity in a cramped, World War II–era chapel building that had parking for eight cars. A few years earlier, the congregation missed a chance to buy the property next door; now we were landlocked. Everyone could see the challenge, and groups quickly formed to raise competing options to address it.

Three groups of planners

The IBMers were one group. They were comfortable with group decision making and with spending time and money fleshing out a range of possible solutions to a problem. They could get a little touchy when others got impatient with a planning process that seemed slow or overly concerned with numbers. They had spent years working on a secret, richly-funded effort while their competitors took the lead. Their motto: “Information is expensive.”

A second group were teachers, university professors, therapists, and others of like temper. Like the IBMers, they believed in planning by committee. But they were uncomfortable spending money to develop options and they tended to assume that once they had written up their plan their work was finished. At that point their interest often shifted to another problem, or (most irritatingly) to generating more alternatives. Their slogan: “We need more time to think this through.”

A third important group of players in our planning process was a cadre of retired entrepreneurs, men and women who had worked mostly for themselves. As small players in competitive industries, they were used to moving quickly, making decisions based on intuition, and learning from experience more than from reflection or analysis. They liked to say, “I’ll do anything, just don’t ask me to attend committee meetings.”

And then there was me. I didn’t realize it, but like everybody else I brought distinctive attitudes from my own work experiences and education. As a minister, I believed the church’s mission mandated us to grow—it didn’t occur to me that from the point of view of many laypeople, a congregation has a “right size.” Lay people may support “church growth” in the abstract, but they rarely equate it with the growth of their own congregation.

Unblinded by ambition, my lay leaders saw better than I could that our little congregation might well double, but was unlikely to grow much more than that because it was too settled in its small-church ways. I can write this now and half believe it. As a 25-year-old making his first mark, I would have disputed such a heresy till my opponents’ rolling eyes and shrugging shoulders signified defeat.

Occupational subcultures

Each leader at a board table brings a different point of view. The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator is one way of talking about such differences—others prefer the Enneagram. Talking openly about occupational subcultures helps make board conversation richer and more fruitful.

But we rarely talk about one of the most powerful differentiators—occupational subculture. Most adults today learn how to behave in groups at work. Those learnings come with powerful rewards and punishments and exert great power. But we’re reluctant to discuss these differences—in part because they are so strongly held.

Talking about occupational differences also reminds us of big differences in wealth within the congregation. The most common way of keeping economic inequality from undermining congregational community is to ignore it. That works, to a certain degree, but when workplace ideas and behaviors enter the decision-making process, it helps to understand where others are coming from.

I didn’t know all that as a young minister, but now I do. As a consultant I often ask board members, “What is your work?” I expect some resistance at first. But often, the question opens up a rich exchange about differing beliefs about the “right” way for a group to make decisions and get work done. Talking about occupational differences can help boards benefit their diversity.

Deliberation and decision

In Boca, here’s what happened: A committee, mostly of the IBM and academic folks, began to study options. They looked at land, they looked at other land, and criticized each option. At one point I took a strong position for a choice that would have been disastrous. Luckily, I was talked out of it, and the process plodded on.

Meanwhile, Zack Osias—a retired real estate developer from New York City—identified a perfect spot, well located next to a park, with an existing church on it and space for expansion. At church one Sunday, Zack told me he had bought an option on that parcel with $10,000 of his own money. “You have six months to make up your mind. If you don’t take it, I’ll buy and sell it at a profit.”

It took many more committee meetings, but eventually we analyzed and criticized our way to seeing that Zack’s choice was right. We went, we built, we prospered. Go and do thou likewise!

1566997380Dan Hotchkiss consults with congregations and other mission-driven groups from his home near Boston. He is the author of the best-selling Alban book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, which has helped hundreds of churches, synagogues, and non-profit organizations to streamline their structure and become more mission-focused and effective.

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