Sunday, September 26, 2010

Staff Management as Open, Innovative Systems Part III

Here are several more organizational management principles for supervising staff teams in the church setting. These are, of course, just some ideas I have, and they are in development...nonetheless, here they are, for whatever they are worth:
3. Our life experiences don't come in boxes, nor should our contributions. First, a necessary preface: certainly I have an area of expertise on my staff team, as does every other member of the team. I am of course only human, and I would probably resent it if another member of the team felt they knew how to do my job better than I did. We all want to be respected for our hard-won expertise.

For this reason, no matter what opinions I have, I am not going to go around the staff team telling the Parish Minister how to preach or provide pastoral care, the Music Director how to direct the choir or play a piece of music, the Administrator what database she should use and how, nor the Bookeeper how to keep budget records or work with auditors. On occasion I share my personal experience of something if it seems that it would be a useful part of a conversation, but I have become wise enough to avoid telling people how to do their own jobs, in which they surely have far, far more expertise than I.

Folks who head staff teams are wise to keep this in mind. Ministers are usually responsible for the supervision of church staff and yet are not, as a whole, particularly thoroughly-trained themselves in all  aspects of administration, education, and bookeeping (as I am making my way into seminary, the proof is in the curricula at both the school I am attending this semester and the school I will begin attending next year). There is a reason experts are hired.

When my assistant -- who despite being "just an assistant" (as if there is a "just" in that) has tons of education and life experience in all kinds of areas that enhance our "department" -- asks me what I want her to do, I don't usually tell her how to do it. I simply tell her (1) either the outcome I am shooting for, or (2) the issue at hand. Often, she contributes a way of doing things that is way better than what I would have come up with on my own.

That said, when supervising a staff team, including volunteer staff, I expect everyone to bring their expertise -- that earned both through education and life experience -- to the table.  These don't show up in neat little boxes.  The manifestation of that is not as much that I direct certain questions to certain people (I do that sometimes too, but that isn't what I am talking about here), but that I ask questions designed to provoke collaborative innovation, and then I let the expertise come out in the way people approach the questions. In this manner I don't unnecessarily box people in and prevent good ideas from surfacing because I haven't opened up the system for the input.

Blessed is the Church Administrator I once worked with who was (and I am sure still is) the master of gathering large amounts of information. She read books, magazines, and the internet like crazy, and still found time to get out to the movies! While she could have technically done her job simply by maintaining databases, printing reports, and similar tasks, she didn't limit herself to that. She was a tremendous asset to the staff team by showing up at every staff meeting with an interesting blog or church website she'd stumbled onto, or a clipping of something interesting from "Congregations Magazine" or "UU World" or other similar resources, or a paragraph from a book, or even an idea she got from a tv show. I think she was able to do that because as a staff team we were ever-striving for an open, innovative, collaborative way of working together toward the good of the church.

4. Staff meetings are important. Some of the funniest moments in the tv show "The Office" come from bad staff meetings. I know that there are plenty of awful ways to run a staff meeting out there. I know that a bad staff meeting can be an irritation and time waster for the staff. The solution to that, I think, is not for staff teams to abandon staff meetings altogether, but to learn how to run great staff meetings. Staff need time together that goes beyond visiting one another's offices, bumping into one another at the water cooler, or even eating lunch together every day. Isolation among staff members doesn't cultivate creative, innovative collaboration.

Supervisors should not mistake their own sense of how well they are keeping up with what's going on with staff members as the fulfillment of staff meeting needs. That is, the staff meeting isn't for the supervisor. It is for the team. The more teams meet as teams, the more they will work as teams, so staff meetings should be frequent, regular, and effectively run. Because of the way most Unitarian Universalist churches are structured, it makes sense that there is a need for all-staff meetings as well as meetings just for "program staff."

5. Staff, down to the support staff, should have a part in determining the strategic direction of the congregation. Yes, it's about buy-in.  Chances are, if staff stick around for a while, they will be assisting the congregation through at least a couple iterations of strategic efforts.  While the congregation belongs to its members -- and the strategic direction of the congregation ultimately is a decision of members -- a strategic plan in which the staff have no personal investment will not be properly supported by staff, no matter how much they are willing to bend to congregational desire.

Staff who believe in the strategic mission and goals will work twice as hard to achieve them. In contrast, staff who simply bend to the will of the strategic mission and goals will spend more time trying to keep their head above water in meeting the new goals on top of everything else they do than creatively collaborating.  Creative collaboration requires effective prioritization, which requires some buy-in and a feeling of being an active, empowered part of the process.  The goal is creative collaboration.

Staff Management as Open, Innovative Systems Part II

Here are two organizational management principles for supervising staff teams in the church setting. These are, of course, just some ideas I have, and they are in development...nonetheless, here they are, for whatever they are worth:

1. Every single week of work together, church staff teams should have at least one opportunity in which they come together to innovate around a common "big picture" issue. It doesn't really matter what the issue is in any given week, but the opportunity must be nourished on a regular basis. The point isn't as much the resulting innovations (some may be quite good, but many will fail to get off the ground or to succeed), but rather the cultivation of a collaborative approach to innovation. Critically, this should not be framed as problems to solve, but rather "themes of innovation."

These themes or issues should also be "big picture" issues because especially in teams not yet accustomed to collaborative innovation, "little picture" stuff is often too easy to break up into individual-sized pieces that are then -- by habit and for ease but at the cost of innovation -- removed from the collaborative environment and taken on as individual pet issues at which to hammer away. That has a role too, but not in this principle. Here, it is all about the collaboration.

2. Relationships should be cultivated on the group level between staff and congregants, particularly lay leaders in the congregation. Individual staff members will naturally make individual partnerships with congregants with whom they work closely out of either necessity or affinity. This is generally good and most of the time quite healthy. It certainly shouldn't be discouraged. However, if you look at your church staff and see that each individual member of the staff has a narrow subset of congregants with whom the staff member works nearly exclusively, you can say with some certainty that your staff work in silos.

An innovative environment, as demonstrated in the TED video, is one in which collaboration is at the center. For this reason, since the Unitarian Universalist church really belongs to its members and not its staff or even its ministers (and thus the most fruitful innovations will come at least in part from the congregation itself), collaborative partnerships between staff and congregants should be nurtured in collaborative formations. Those leading staff teams should assist in nurturing between the teams as a whole relationships with sets of congregants.

I once served a church in which the staff meetings were attended not only by every staff member, but also by one of the older, retired volunteers who, among other things, spent most of her days at the church, serving folks from the congregational food pantry. While certainly she could have done her work in the food pantry without attending the staff meetings, she was a very important volunteer in the church, not to mention a mover and a shaker in the larger community. The staff team was enhanced by every member of the team having a solid relationship with her as a team. When I worked with this volunteer on a project or issue together in partnership with other staff, my relationship with not only the volunteer but my fellow staffer was enhanced. Meanwhile, our sense of "being in it all together" as a congregation was strengthened by this and other relationships with groups of volunteers in the congregation.

Staff members should not only have the opportunity to work with one another as a team, but to include on the team (and those are the operative words) multiple volunteer leaders from within the congregation.

Staff Management As Open, Innovative Systems Part I

One subject about which I am deeply passionate and interested is organizational development and "management" in religious settings.

If it were an option, rather than choosing between Community Minister, Minister of Religious Education, or Parish Minister, I would seriously consider a speciality in Minister of Organizational Development. One of the reasons that many faith communities are in decline in the United States is that religious organizations are not keeping up their development in pace with society's development.

Society is changing at an increasingly rapid rate. Meanwhile, religious organizations are for many good reasons on "glacial time." This serves no small number of important religious purposes (and I firmly believe that many religious leaders can improve their relationships with the folks in their organizations by slowing down on many levels), but in adapting ministries for changing populations, moving so slowly does nothing but hold us back.

For this reason, I think we would be well-served to expand our thinking about types of ministries to include the ministering that goes on at the organizational rather than individual level of any faith community. (That's my percolating argument for adding another type of ministry to the UUA ministry categories, if such categories must remain.)

I share all this to say that my interest in organizational development has led to some thinking recently about staff development and management in churches. In particular, I am interested in how staff teams can function in such a way that promotes innovation and outreach. My dad recently posted this TED video on the Facebook page for his coffee house (you'll see why), and somewhere around the six or seven minute mark, my ears started to perk up:

In the church in which I currently work, daily lunch table discussions are important for this reason. The tradition has long been that when folks are around and available, we eat together at noon. At lunch there is talk about everything from politics to the personal, but on occasion we talk a little business, and that serves a healthy purpose. The Director of Music is unfortunately rarely present, as he does not have an office nor "office hours" at the church, and neither myself nor the minister seem to be able to attend lunch on a daily basis, so the administrative staff and "support staff" are the most regular lunch attendees. Nonetheless, there are periodic occasions in which conversations over lunch are particularly fruitful in our work together.

Yet creating an innovative staff team, I have come to believe, takes more intentionality. Just being in the same room is as likely in the church setting to create a culture of camaraderie in the status quo, or even a place to vent and affirm fears about change, as it is to nurture the kind of open, collaborative systems of innovation that Steven Johnson is talking about in the TED video.

People want to have a meaningful part in something meaningful. All too many folks working as staff in churches come to find that they don't have a meaningful place in the life of their churches unless they inextricably link themselves to maintenance of systems. I'd like to see more churches breaking this mold and moving in the direction of properly supporting good, healthy, current, and relevant systems while also giving staff a meaningful place in something beyond the maintenance of those systems.

That's what I want to explore in part II of this (two part?) post series.