You’ve heard this said before: “When the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. The truth behind the cliché’ applies not just to carpentry, but to leadership as well. A classic leadership pitfall is to find an approach to problem- solving that worked in the past and use it every time. Automatically. For years. And decades. And then wonder why it doesn’t work anymore.
This is pretty typical for a Governing Board (Session, Board of Deacons, Vestry, etc.) that has followed certain protocols in the past, and is trying to make an adjustment. It’s always easier to default back to what worked in the past.
Much of church polity is designed to solve one problem: accountability. Checks and balances were put in place – dating to back General Robert and his Rules of Order (1786). The primary problems being solved were designed for small churches of 80 people or less.
When a Governing Board exercises the wrong type of leadership, the solution can then become part of the problem itself. There are three types of challenges and, therefore, three types of leadership approaches. Each challenge requires a different mode of leadership behavior in response, a different “option”. Most leaders fail to identify the type of problem, and therefore fall back on their preferred, or default, option. Good Governance starts by knowing what sort of problem you are facing and what leadership option is required to tackle it. Each problem requires a different set of skills, language, questions, and styles of interaction.
LFM can help your Board gain clarity in how to approach each of the following types of challenges: Tactical, Strategic, and Transformational.
Tactical issues can also be called “operational”, “technical”, or “fiduciary”. Tactical challenges are the daily bread of the operations-oriented leader, elder, pastor, or director.
Tactical issues are solved by expertise. If the roof leaks, you call a roofer. If your driveway is covered with snow, you hire the neighbor’s teenage kid who has a shovel. If your hard drive crashes, you call the Geek Squad. An astute leader faces tactical problems by identifying the right expert who offers the right solution and empowering them to solve the problem.
For a Governing Board, tactical challenges should be where you establish policy, rather than make decisions. A Governing Board should make very few decisions, if any, with any regularity. Rather, a Governing Board should be discerning issues and whether or not a policy is warranted. Policies should be “what we always do and what we never do”. They should provide legal, ethical, financial, and moral protections for the organization. That is what Governance is.
Strategic challenges have to do with responding to the world outside Third. These challenges are not necessarily problems to be solved, but challenges you can
anticipate. Strategy has to do with surveying the environment outside the church and deciding how best Session and Staff can adapt to external opportunities and obstacles.
In the face of strategic challenges, tactical effectiveness is not enough. Anyone can operate effectively and still go out of business, fail in a capital campaign, or see a decline in member engagement. Strategy is when you choose a unique value proposition through a series of activities that become rooted in your system. Essentially, strategy is what differentiates Third Church from any other.
When you are exercising Strategic leadership, you are observing challenges that are rooted in the future. These challenges are about transitioning from one generation to the next, or one era to the next. Such challenges require more than a tactical fix. Strategic challenges require you to use strategic leadership – the art of leveraging strengths in order to minimize weaknesses and capitalize on opportunities.
Strategic challenges require a different, and in some ways more sophisticated, set of skills than tactical problems. But strategic acumen does not cover every type of leadership challenge. Often, when strategic direction is established, the result is that a whole different set of issues surface – issues related to values, behaviors, and attitudes – which are transformational.
A Governing Board should be involved with Strategic leadership. Ultimately, the Board is accountable for the strategic direction. But the Senior Pastor, Executive Director, or other Senior Leader is responsible for the strategic direction.
Transformational problems are the truly vital challenges, the ones which relate to values, behaviors, and attitudes. Transformational problems are often rooted in the system and are not usually visible to the naked eye. These are the ones that keep you up at night, the ones that tempt you to think “We’ll never be able to solve this one!”
The essence of a transformational problem is in the concept of “competing values”. The best strategic (or tactical) decision for Third may create significant dissent or conflict due to the competing values. Several years ago, one of the leaders at an Anglican Church in Virginia recognized that the church spent $20,000 per year printing the Sunday morning liturgy. So, he made what he thought was a tactical decision: Shut down the printing press and put screens in the sanctuary.
The cost savings, over time, would be enormous. What he failed to recognize was that his was a transformational issue – a printed liturgy gave parishioners something to hold in their hands, to take home and use for devotions throughout the week, to share with shut ins. This was a classic case of “the solution becomes the problem”.
To exercise Transformational Leadership, a Governing Board must:
- Be available.
- Manage conflict and grief.
- Accept resistance.
- Look at the entire system, not just the parts.
- Be an advocate for the mission (not a representative of a certain segment)
Governance is a tricky concept for most ministries. There are often dual roles, even conflicting roles. Am I a member or an elder? Am I the pastor’s boss in one meeting, while the pastor is my shepherd in another setting? Getting lines of authority and responsibility are important. Clarifying the boundaries between governance and management is critical. LFM’s governance process is customized to each client, based on size and scope. But all organizations face the same challenges, and we can help navigate those issues.