“We don’t have enough people to fill all of our positions.” I hear this complaint a lot, especially in congregations that are smaller than they used to be. Their official structure may call for a dozen or more boards and committees. Add it all up, and a congregation that sees 50 people on its pews feels obliged to fill up 60 or more seats around committee tables. Streamlining the official structure is a challenge, but with a clear plan and some determination, it can be done.
If your congregation was once larger than it is today, the obstacles to changing your established structure can be daunting. Entrenched fiefholders resist changes that could make them more accountable. The most thoughtful reorganization plan can look to wary long-time members like a power grab by current leaders. No wonder that so many congregations cling to complicated “paper” structures that no longer fit.
All this can make it difficult to build consensus for a major overhaul—but when the time comes, it’s helpful to know how to go about it. Here are some steps that have been helpful to my clients after they decide to simplify their structures:
Honestly describe your current structure for getting things done. By “honestly,” I mean without regard to bylaws, manuals, or other standards. By “getting things done,” I mean what a business might call “management”—worship, music, education, social justice, and all other programs—including the support functions they require, such as communications, building maintenance, technology, and bookkeeping. I am not, for now, considering strategic planning, choosing clergy, or designs for doing things you aren’t yet doing.
Start with an empty wall or table and some 3×5” Post It notes. Try to forget your current org chart—who should have oversight of what—and make an honest, realistic chart of how you actually get things done:
- List all the people who carry significant responsibility now. I don’t mean people who hold titles; I mean people you now count on to take care of some part of the work without needing to be asked each time. Put each name onto a note with a label indicating what they are responsible for doing. Most of the cards will have one person’s name; a few may have two who work together.
- Make a second list of people who consistently say “yes” if they are asked to do something. Some names may appear more than once.
- Move the notes for people who oversee, recruit, support, or train others higher on the chart. Solo contributors (however brilliant or appreciated they may be) go lower.
- Create a simple chart of accountability and care, with lines connecting solo workers to the people who support, direct, or train them. For each person, ask, “Where do you get a sense of direction for this work?” “Where do you go if you need resources or help?” “Who lets you know if you’re doing well or should do better?” “Who would you speak to if you wanted to quit?” If you don’t know how they would answer, ask them.
- Your chart may have as many as three levels. If it has more than that, you may be slipping into thinking of official or imagined future structures. We are describing how things really happen now.
As you do this try not to be distracted by bylaws, manuals, or unwritten rules about who “reports to” whom, or by distinctions between paid and unpaid workers. Don’t worry that your congregation, governing board, and “power committees” do not appear on this chart, or if high-ranking officers or staff do not support any front-line workers. Right now, we’re in the realm of daily work, which is accomplished by individuals and small teams led by individuals. (This is so even when those individuals like to say, “Our board runs the stewardship drive.” or “The Music Committee organized the concert.”)
Surprises on the Map
In the process, you may discover things that surprise you. For example, your official structure may say that paid staff members “report to” committees when in fact they oversee, recruit, support, and train committee members, who function as a pool of volunteers. Your clergy leader may function as an individual contributor, with little responsibility for organizing others to get work done. Note these facts—but don’t try to fix them now.
Having described your real-world structure, you might choose to make some of it official. Starting once again with a blank sheet, think about which leaders need to meet, how often, and for what purpose. You may find that you can support your workers better with purpose-driven, ad hoc meetings on specific topics than with routine gatherings of staff, teams, or committees.
To be purpose-driven, it helps to be clear about your purpose. Getting clear about your purpose is a different kind of task than getting daily work done—in fact, the two can be in tension with each other. Nothing bogs a vision-setting meeting down quite like beginning with a series of work-focused reports, especially in a small group where leaders wear multiple hats. The same can happen in a work-focused meeting when someone raises cosmic questions about purpose!
In a perfect world—the one described in my book Governance and Ministry—the governing board delegates all management (or “ministry”) to others so that it can host an inclusive, ongoing conversation about what the congregation should be doing (“governance”). I’ll write about that for smaller-than-they-once-were congregations soon. In the meantime, if you’re interested, take a look at “How Boards Plan.”
But first, recognize the people who get things done and free them from unnecessary meetings and confusing lines of management authority. Now that you are smaller, you may feel anxiety about how you can keep doing what you did before. This makes it all the more important to streamline the management of daily work.
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.