Grand visions have their place, as does strategic planning. But before a congregation can think freely and creatively about the future, it needs to believe it has what it takes to carry out whatever plans it makes. For a quick boost to congregational self-confidence, there’s nothing like succeeding at a project. So if your congregation needs its mojo boosted, it might be time to brush up your skills at leading projects.
What kind of project? It might be something like removing the accumulated junk out of a classroom, updating your sound system, or painting a neglected room. Or it might be something a bit loftier like organizing a new men’s group, planning a one-week music camp for children during spring break, or challenging the Baptists to a softball game.
Picking the Right Project
It’s best to choose a project that feels challenging but doable. It should align with your purpose but need not be all that strategic. You’ll want to choose something that has general support and few passionate opponents.
It matters what project you choose—but it is not important to choose perfectly. Before a congregation accomplishes something really big—a relocation; a building; outreach across barriers of culture, race, or language—it may need to flex its muscles on a “starter project.”
One church leader, who led a major building repair that a few years later was torn down to make room for a bigger, better one, was a little sheepish about what some saw as a waste of effort and materials. “But looking back, I don’t see how we could have made it to the bigger project without proving we could do a smaller one.” Don’t fail to choose a project just because you can’t be 100% sure it’s perfect.
Newcomers like projects. Many long-time members remember being asked to help with a project soon after they arrived—not to fill a slot in a long-standing committee, but to be a co-instigator of something new. So projects have the bonus benefit of attracting newcomers—especially those most likely to become engaged, productive members.
Learning to Lead Projects
So what are these skills of project management that you—or your minister or rabbi—did not learn in seminary? Effective project leaders focus on four steps, roughly in sequence:
1. Pick a project. Most congregations have long-neglected projects sitting in plain sight, suggestions that repeatedly get turned down because they seem too challenging, and questions that come up from time to time that you could convert into good research projects. The best project choices lie far enough outside your routine to seem almost impossible right now because your confidence is low. Pick a challenge you can rise to.
2. Ask in advance for the support you need. Try to ask in advance for everything you’ll need to carry the job through—resources, permission, guidelines—to avoid the start-and-stop tempo that frustrates too many projects. Propose a deadline to complete the task. Insist on clarity about who will oversee your work. Do not promise to report on every step. Do promise to account for what you’ve done after you have done it.
2. Recruit a team, not a committee. A committee is a group gathered to produce minutes, drafts, and recommended actions for a parent body. It should be representative, deliberative, and comfortable with work whose product basically is words on paper. A team, by contrast, should be unrepresentative, impatient with delay, and eager to produce tangible results. A team should intentionally exclude people who oppose the team’s objective or have little to contribute to accomplishing it.
When you’re picking people for a team, you have a golden chance to gather those who are enthusiastic about the goal. You need people with a mix of talents and diverse backgrounds and perspectives—all of whom are ready to contribute.
3. Move the project forward. Project leadership is not democracy, exactly. Good leaders show respect for everyone and let people make decisions on their own, but do not consult everybody about everything. Good leaders trust the expertise of team members, especially those who know things they don’t know—and effective teams trust their leaders, who are responsible to the whole congregation.
If you’re not good with timetables and to-do lists, you’ll need to rely on someone else to do that for you. If you’re shy about reminding people about what to do next, you need to get over it. Projects get done step by step. Coordination is essential, even between teammates whose communication styles differ.
4. Let people know. It’s the leader’s job to advertise the team’s successes and explain why projects do not always go as planned. Some team members want to be thanked often and in public; others simply want someone in charge to understand what they are doing and express informed appreciation privately.
Thank your team for the time they give and honor them for what they have accomplished—for their sake, and to let others know that if they step up to work on the next big project, their gifts will be valued, too.
Whistling while You Work
Last but not least, your first job as a project leader—or as any kind of leader, actually—is to appear to be having a good time. If you doubt it, watch your favorite youth worker, choir director, soccer coach, or exercise class leader. They may be respected for their expertise, but they attract people because they make work look enjoyable. If you can pull off your project in a similar spirit, you can get something done—and get your congregation ready to step up to something larger next time.
Dan Hotchkiss has consulted with a wide spectrum of churches, synagogues, and other organizations spanning 33 denominational families. Through his coaching, teaching, and writing, Dan has touched the lives of an even wider range of leaders. His focus is to help organizations engage their constituents in discerning what their mission calls for at a given time, and to empower leaders to act boldly and creatively.
Dan coaches leaders and consults selectively with congregations and other mission-driven groups, mostly by phone and videoconference, from his home near Boston. Prior to consulting independently, Dan served as a Unitarian Universalist parish minister, denominational executive, and senior consultant for the Alban Institute.