I was asked recently to speak to a smallish, bedroom-community congregation about what ministers are looking for when considering a new call. The answer is complex, and often has to do with circumstances over which the congregation has no control—cost of living, cultural opportunities, athletic facilities—but I believe that virtually all candidates for ministry are hoping to serve a healthy congregation.
Amid the conflicts and tensions that arise in congregations, we have more than enough opportunities to act on impulse. Too often, especially when we are upset, we lock into a reactive tug-of-war: “Yes, you did!” “No, I didn’t!” Before long, we’ve said something that we wish we hadn’t. Escalation seems inevitable, but instead of getting into a contest, we can simply—in the words of recent meme—“Keep Calm and Drop the Rope.”
Service is notoriously hard to measure. This is true for every type of service: checkout clerks at Walmart, geeks at Best Buy, and nurse-midwives. And it’s doubly true when the desired result is fuzzy, controversial, or unstated, as it often is for clergy, educators, organizers, or musicians working in a church or synagogue.
When the job is helping other people, measurement is difficult. That’s why you’re so often asked to fill out an evaluation after you get service online or by phone. Employers—who tried for years to measure service work with the same stopwatch-and-clipboard methods factory managers used a hundred years ago—have realized it doesn’t matter how much time it takes to serve a customer if the result is that the customer posts negative reviews all over Yelp.
Last week, Susan Beaumont wrote compellingly about when NOT to do strategic planning. As she correctly observed, “a hasty or poorly formed strategic plan is a waste of time and resources. A well-formed plan that isn’t executed is also a waste.” I would add that in times of crisis or high-level conflict, action or intervention is a better choice than strategic planning.
So when is strategic planning the right choice?
Strategic planning: in some congregations it’s the “go-to” solution whenever leaders feel stuck. We need to grow. We want more families with young children. We don’t know what to do next. Let’s plan! But strategic planning is usually a poor choice for getting unstuck. It takes a lot of time and energy—and in many cases postpones action when action is most needed.
When were your glory days? Pose this question and a congregation’s leaders will often tell stories of high attendance, engaged participation, and buildings that couldn’t hold it all. Glory-era memories are almost always recounted as blissful, happy times of pure goodness. However, parts of the story rarely get told—including how the seeds of decline may have been planted amidst the goodness.
In the third season of the Netflix series The Crown, Prince Philip meets with clergy attending a retreat at a newly-established “center of recovery and renewal” on the grounds of Windsor Castle. Dean Robin Woods is facilitating the retreat; I’m sure he expects the prince to give a word of welcome and encouragement. Maybe he hopes participants will be pleased by the mere presence of a prince.