Leadership means sharing responsibility so that there is a mutual investment in the outcome of a ministry task. Just as in this video where the football team shared responsibility for getting the ball across the goal line, ministry team members should work closely together to realize an effective, God honoring expression of ministry. Don’t try to be a hero. Simply work together in gracious harmony with staff, volunteers and parents. And make sure you celebrate for God’s glory and the edification of all.
On 9 June 2007 I wrote a post entitled Leadership Means Conflict Resolution. This article is intended as a followup to its predecessor. I specifically wish to highlight the need to “focus on issues rather than personalities.” Leadership means managing dissent pertaining to issues which face us daily in life and ministry. It is a given that others will disagree with us at least occasionally. As a leader, I would not have it any other way. Honest, prayerful, humble dissent on real issues forms the basis for dialogue which refines our character and sharpens our leadership focus. We need to manage that dissent in such a way that all parties in a specific discussion have a fair hearing, providing a segueway into wise, prayerful decision making. It is not always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes it can seem quite impossible. But why?
I maintain that the number one problem obscuring honest dialogue about real dissent and affecting interpersonal relationships — whether it be in marriage, work, community or church — is selfishness. We often prefer a certain tradition, distinctive, style, theological nuance, ministry emphasis, a need to be in control, a distrust of leadership, a condescending view of parishioners and even clergy who are not seminary trained or who have training different than our own, a disdain for people who are seminary trained, etc. Basically, we want it our way or we will not be satisfied. This sort of intractable stance naturally causes friction in faith communities due to the intensity which serious volunteers and professionals bring to their roles in ministry. We are serious about our roles but we might have very different views on how to carry them out. Often the differences are honest views, having nothing to do with selfishness. Sometimes selfishness is at the core of the disagreement.
For our purposes in this article, I wish to focus on honest dissent, rather than the variety motivated by selfishness. Dissent is simply a disagreement on an issue which pertains to church life. Let me provide one example from my own past ministry experience from several years ago.
Statement of dissent: Sunday school teacher 1 believes that we should establish educational benchmarks similar to the public school system with a view toward implementing biblical knowledge expectations which are age-appropriate and regularly tested from preschool through 6th grade. Further, curriculum should be chosen which meets the criteria for the aforementioned benchmarks. If no such curriculum can be found, then we must create it or adapt existing curriculum to meet the need. I should add that this teacher is a public school teacher and a type A personality.
This view is in contrast to my perspective that while Sunday School classes play an important role in forming children as disciples, the primary role is in the home. Thus, we make every effort to provide a rounded education experience in the church, but we are seeking all the more to strengthen families to take on that responsibility by equipping parents and also collaborating with them creatively in helping their children learn how to read the Bible for themselves and apply it practically to their lives. I am not against a certain level of expectation for kids, but I feel that the extent of the “benchmarks” advocated by my esteemed colleague go a bit beyond the realistic capabilities and mission of the children’s ministry in our specific church. Also, I am not persuaded that we need to throw out our very fine curriculum which we all worked together just the previous year to choose. Although I am trained to write curriculum, I have no interest in spending all of my free time writing it for four sunday school classes, in addition to what I already write for mid-week.
The fact is, age-level characteristics are a bit of a misnomer these days, since many kids function academically and emotionally at levels much lower than their peers. Others are far beyond their peers. The reasons for this are legion. My point is that extensive “benchmarks” based on specific age levels simply are not realistic, given that we only have one hour (actually about 30 minutes of real teaching time) per week with them, not including those days which students may be absent or class might be cancelled due to holidays, snow days, etc. It also doesn’t take into account kids who commute between divorced parents and thus make it only one third to one half of the time.
Having said that, I would add that we do attempt to help our kids, by the time they leave the 6th grade, learn a certain quantity of key Bible verses, the books of the Bible, the major themes of each book, the major stories and characters of redemptive history, and how to conduct a basic inductive personal Bible study.
I appreciate Sunday School Teacher 1’s passion and desire to educate children in the faith. I appreciate the desire to increase the level of effectiveness in our Sunday School classes. I affirm the need to hold children and parents accountable to real measures of learning, but I correspondingly point out that simply developing a measuring tool and requiring students to meet its expectations is not going to work well for most kids in that context, given the limitations. Additionally, I am all for biblical literacy. However, I hesitate to emphasis knowledge acquisition at the expense of practical application.
End Case Study
So you see, we have a very real disagreement which is heart-felt and based on our differing perspectives. The dissent came to light in a staff meeting and my colleague, with her type A style of interaction pretty forcefully advocated her view and appeared to disregard my stance. I expressed my appreciation for her passion and her ideas, but I also clearly stated my perspective. Because this was an item which was not on the agenda to address at greater depth, I referred it to future discussion, once again expressing appreciation, but also pointing out that more thought, prayer and discussion was needed before making any major paradigm shifts in how we conduct ministry with the children. Our meeting concluded a bit uneasily as I felt she was not satisfied with my response. I again expressed appreciation for her input and promised to work with her and the others to come to conclusions which will satisfy all of our input but that also put the needs of the kids and their families first.
In essense, I tried to manage dissent by focusing on the issue rather than the personality. I will add that it was not easy. Yet, it was necessary. By modeling the behavior, I am hopefully influencing my colleagues to learn how to interact with others who disagree without taking personal offense or turning it into unnecessary conflict.
What are your best ideas for managing dissent?
Leadership means advance planning. It is, in part, a function of carefully structured project management, but also a function of visionary entrepreneurialism. Even as my faith community, my church, engages in preparations for our large Neighborhood Family Carnival and our Vacation Bible school, I am also drafting advance plans for ministry tasks for next Fall and on into next summer. I am asking tough questions in the midst of current experiences.
Does VBS continue to work in our church in its current form? Does it need to change? If so, why? How? When?
What if we were to adopt a backyard Bible club approach, utilizing neighborhood relationships on a smaller scale for a more generative approach to evangelism and discipleship?
Given the apparent success of basketball camp, what does this portend for next year? Are we willing to do what it takes to allow for an increased volume of kids? What changes will need to be made to our gymnasium? At what cost?
What about soccer camp? Drama camp? Choir camp?
What are the needs of the community? How is our church postured to meet at least some of those needs? What changes need to be made attitudinally? Financially in terms of budget? Practically in terms of structure, leadership, ministry focus?
All of these are the kinds of things I am grappling with as I engage in advance planning. I identify the essentials as the bedrock core of ministry programming, and then I focus on one or two entrepreneurial ventures which require a bit of calculated risk based on much prayer, discussion and careful consideration of variables. It is a cyclical process which continually requires refinement.
Frodo Baggins rose up to the challenge of bearing the burden of the ring. He did so in the midst of escalating conflict among the emmisaries to the Council of Elrond. Frodo’s willingness to bear the ring was devoid of the partisan machinations of several of the companions, not least Gimli, Boromir, and Legolas, although they too would acquit themselves well in the end.
And so it is that leadership means selflessness. It means setting aside personal agendas which set ourselves in the best possible light in favor of protecting the reputations of those falsely accused. It means honoring others above ourselves. It means pouring our hearts and lives into emerging generations, even when they might not appreciate it. It means considering the needs of the many and the needs of the few, rather than simply an either/or dichotomy. It means joyfully laboring in obscurity, often with little visible reward. It means caring for the welfare of the marginalized, the destitute, the forgotten. It means bringing others alongside to help, as in the Fellowship of Nine, so that all may make their needed contributions for the sake of their beneficiaries, known and unknown. It means sacrificing some of our own priorities so that hope may be realized for others. Yes. Leadership means selflessness.
Leadership means conflict resolution. Whether it involves dealing with strife between children, parents, volunteers or church staff, or some variation thereof, conflict resolution is an necessary factor for leaders of children’s ministries. Below I should like to offer several basic principles, in no particular order of priority, to take into consideration as you prepare yourself for those times when conflict resolution will become necessary.
- Prepare emotionally: When dealing with conflict between others, try to take a step back emotionally. You want to have compassion and concern, but you do not want to lose objectivity.
- Give benefit of doubt: Assume the best about others until proven wrong. And even then, still love them while taking measures to address issues that need correction.
- Avoid transference: It is easy to make assumptions about what people mean when they behave in certain ways or when they voice their opinions. Often these assumptions are based on our own past experiences. The problem with transference is that by assigning what we perceive to be reality to the motives underlying another person’s behavior, we risk placing filters on our perspectives, skewing our understanding of their behavior. Only God knows all and see all, including the motives of the heart. Who are we to assume that we can know the deepest issues of another person’s interior, when we are hard-pressed to gain a surface understanding of our own? While I agree that God does grant discernment, I would hasten to add that discernment finds its source in God’s knowledge, not in our own.
- Agree on rules of engagement: Whether you are fielding a complaint from a person about yourself, or trying to help two or more individuals work through their conflict, it is important to set appropriate parameters for rules of engagement.
- Consider validity of criticism: Sometimes others will have valid criticisms, even when it is cloaked by problematic attitudes and behavior.
- Focus on issues, not personalities: Sometimes it is hard to discern the line separating the two, especially when the issue might very well be the character or personality of one or more persons. In any case, it is helpful to work through disagreements by placing the central focus on the core issues of conflict.
Case study: For example, consider a parent who thinks a child should be able to remain in a classroom even after hitting the teacher and the children’s pastor, and the children’s pastor who disagrees, saying the issue is one of safety for all concerned. It would be easy to focus on the personalities involved. The parent wants her child to feel accepted. The teacher and children’s pastor want to stop being hit as well as desiring to bring the child to a place of well-adjusted behavior. So what to do? Focus on the issue. All concerned want the child to be safe and feel accepted, but there are deeper issues percolating under the surface which might require outside intervention. In this particular case, the parent would not listen objectively, removing her child from the church. Later the child was removed from her home on account of attacking her. What might have happened had she listened to the issues being raised at a earlier time, rather than making it about personalities?
- Avoid triangulation: Don’t get involved in he said/she said. If someone has something to say about someone else, invite them to go to that person directly. In certain cases it might be appropriate to accompany them according to the principle of Matthew 18:15-17.
- Find common ground: It never hurts to finds those areas upon which you may agree. For example, in the case study above we all agreed that we wanted what was best for the child. In the case of the parent, however, she did not believe the teacher or children’s pastor held that view. Nevertheless, seek to find common ground as a basis for a constructive conversation which focuses on the relevant issues.
Some questions to ask yourself
- Is the complaint is about an issue over which I have direct control? If yes, I keep listening and attempting to discern the validity of the complaint.
- Is the complaint about an issue over which I do not have control? If not, I then invite her to approach the most likely person who could field her complaint. Depending on the governing structure of a specific church, this could vary. It could be the Senior Pastor, or an elder responsible for the Children’s Ministry. When in doubt, invite the person to ask the Pastor to direct her to the right person.
- Is the complaint is about a person and does it involve personality conflicts? If yes, I would invite her to take it directly to the person with whom she has a conflict in order to explore the preferred outcome of reconciliation. What I try to avoid is triangulation as stated above. By that I mean I do not want to get caught up in a three-way he said/she said situation. It too easily leads to hurt and misunderstanding. It is better for the two to hear and work out their differences personally, if possible. Sometimes this will cause a person to take a step back and pause from expressing a complaint, especially if all she had wanted to do was vent and not actually deal with the issue proactively. The key for us as leaders is to learn how to discern between those who tend to be negative and frequently complain and those who genuinely have a valid concern.
If she, for whatever reason, does not feel she is able to approach the other person directly, then I would advise her to make an appointment with the pastor about it. In my situation, I have occasionally coached teachers through interpersonal conflicts so that they can come to a resolution and move on without further strife. Yet the coaching usually revolves around the basic understanding that they need to go to the persons with whom they are in conflict and talk it out. But in situations which seem a bit more problematic, I invite them to go directly to the pastor.
Where there are people, there will be problems. Human beings are a needy bunch of folks who tend to be a tad selfish, notwithstanding Paul’s exposition of Jesus’ life and character in Philippians chapter two. We will always face some element of problems in terms of issues or interpersonal conflicts. My encouragement to us all? Don’t allow the inevitable difficulties to get us down.
Leadership means keeping it real because we should be more concerned with substance than with appearances; more concerned with authenticity than with temporal accolades, imagined or otherwise. At some level, each of us has a need for affirmation in what we do as leaders. We want to conduct ourselves with excellence and to experience a corresponding measure of validation as a direct result. That is normal. It is human, although cultural, personality, and character factors quickly come into play.
Ironically, it is very easy to succumb to the temptation of self-promotion, especially in the context of people-intensive ministry. I have always been taught that I should never give myself accolades or praise, or seek out others to pat me on the back. This has served me well over the years because it has meant I am disappointed far less often. Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips (NIV).” Ultimately, there is something far more satisfying when others provide unsolicited words of encouragement about a job well done than anything I could say to promote myself. By maintaining a vigilant sense of perspective about who I am and what I have done, I am better able to keep it real and to avoid becoming arrogant. Although I readily admit, my own tendency for selfishness makes this a special challenge.
Similarly, by gaining a healthy perspective I am also better able to avoid an undue poverty of encouragement. It is easy to look at the other ministry, the other leader, the other thing going on and to compare it to my context, myself and the thing we have going on, casting my own situation in a negative light. How depressing. But why bother with comparisons? Why not keep it real? God has made us who we are. He has placed us where we are. And he has provided for us the resources and giftings to do what he has called us to do. Sure, we can learn from others so long as we keep it real, avoiding a jealous regard for their victories or dismissive disregard for their challenges. To the measure that we maintain a biblical equilibrium of humility and confidence in Jesus Christ, we will be able to conduct ourselves in authentic, empowered and encouraged effectiveness in our communities. So let’s keep it real, learn from others and be encouraged in knowing that others may learn from us so long as we maintain an authentic humility after the example of Jesus Christ.
Leadership means servanthood. My pastors, Phil and Priscilla, have modeled an ethic of humility and service in their thirty years at Portland Open Bible Church and their 40+ years of ordained ministry. During the twelve years I have known them, it has become clear to me that for them service is not simply a theoretical construct. It is their way of life. By virtue of their ethos of giving, they quietly set an example which powerfully impacts those whom they serve. Whether it is the mundane tasks which routinely crop up in maintaining the church ground and facilities, the frequent opportunities to minister to the hungry by providing for their needs, or the spiritual responsibility of making themselves available to minister to the hurting, Pastors Phil and Priscilla consistently model servanthood and, in so doing, they lead.
Some people feel that leadership is an outflow of their own good looks, charisma, charm or education. Those things are fleeting if not accompanied by bonafide character. I appreciate serving along side a couple who understand that the conduct of their lives is an outflow of the character which Jesus Christ is forming in them as they follow Christ’s example set in the biblical record, not least, that which is expounded by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:1-16. I am hopeful that I also can learn to be a servant even as I attempt to follow the example of Jesus Christ along with my pastors. Won’t you join me on the journey?