One of my client churches was located in suburban St. Louis. The then relatively new pastor, who had succeeded a long-time pastor, brought me along side and hired me. The former pastor was the classic chaplain. Warm, compassionate and people-oriented he was brilliant over coffee in the living room and at the hospital bedside. He was beloved by his people not so much for his preaching ability or leadership skills as for his ability to make each congregant feel loved, included, and cared for and to foster a sense of community and connection among his people.
The new pastor loved people too, but his strengths were quite different than his predecessor’s. This pastor’s skill set was in the areas of teaching and leadership. In particular, he was a gifted visionary able to see and articulate a future for the church that was both exciting and very different from its past and present. The church began to grow quite rapidly, fueled by an influx of young professional families.
Predictably, the church began to be polarized not long into the new pastorate. Folks who were wired to appreciate strong visionary leadership gravitated to the new pastor as a breath of fresh air. Those who had been drawn to the church under the predecessor pastor’s leadership missed his people skills and ability to generate congregational warmth and belonging.
When I sat down with a group of leaders, it became clear that the problem was not one of personalities but rather of values. One group – those drawn to the old pastor – spoke of missing the family feeling of past years. “The church is not a business, it is a family” they argued. “We can’t depart from that family feeling or we will become a sterile institution without a heart”. The other group – resonating with the new pastor – said that the church needed to be a better-run organization if it was going to have the opportunity to impact its surrounding community in a significant way. “We can’t be an inner-focused club”, they argued. “We have to have a bold vision and make decisions more like a well-run business. This is how we can best carry out our spiritual mandate”.
I let them argue and discuss for thirty minutes or so before I intervened gently. “What if the real issue is not ‘family’ versus ‘business’?” I suggested. “What if what is really going on here is a very healthy conflict over the value of what ‘church’ is to be? What if the real answer is not an either-or ‘family’ versus ‘business’ but something else entirely that we may not have thought of yet?”
So we spent the next several hours debating over the differences between “church vs. family” and “church vs. business”. A family takes care of its own, they said. A church exists for those who are not yet connected. A business produces a profit, while a church glorifies God. Sure, a church needs to take care of people and pay bills, but it is much more significant than a business and much more outwardly focused than a family. The participants were full of energy and excitement. They were finding their way towards a new reality and way of thinking which promised to move them forward in developing a vision for the future.
This “reframe” accomplished two things. It exposed the competing values in the room. And it offered a way out where there did not have to be a set of winners and a set of losers. Best of all, it opened the way to transformational change.
The first job of a leader is to diagnose what sort of problem she is faced with. Is this an issue for an expert that involves a transparent fix (Tactical)? Is it an issue that involves factors outside of the organization and requires change leadership (Strategic)? Or is it a deeper, systemic challenge relating to competing values and beliefs (Transformational)?
In my experience all transformational problems have some tactical and strategic components. All strategic challenges have some tactical components. And tactical problems are simply tactical. This knowledge is a big help in diagnosing they type of challenge you are facing. And getting that diagnosis right is all-important. If you don’t, you may well find yourself hammering away when what you really need is a level or a saw.
Several years ago, a new Executive Pastor at a well-heeled Episcopalian church on the East Coast analyzed the cost of printing the Sunday morning bulletin: $20,000 a year. The well-intentioned Executive Pastor researched the cost of adding a multi-media system to replace the bulletin. The answer? $20,000. So he purchased the new system and closed down the printing presses. The result? Pandemonium and outrage. The congregation viewed the bulletin as their way of following the order of service and glorifying God. He thought he was solving a tactical problem. In reality, he had stepped into a transformational issue of competing values. Thus, the “solution” became the “problem”.
May I recommend my book, The Leadership Triangle? As you digest the principles in this book, you will become an expert diagnostician as you and your organization face an array of challenges. You’ll learn when to call for a hammer, when to call for a level, and when to call for a saw.