Good Leadership, Part 1

It is not easy to lead change in any organization, but it is especially hard in a church. Churches are formed around community and one of the key elements we long for in community is stability. Therefore, it is understandable why congregations naturally resist change. But churches and denominational bodies must fight this resistance to change and our leaders must be remarkably self-aware in order to lead us through difficult times. Change is a reality. Congregations can lock into a “no-change” mindset, but they will find it will only lead to decline and ineffectiveness.

Leadership is key in managing change. Making hard decisions in the face of difficulties are not the requisite of a strong leader; a leader’s greatest gift is enabling and teaching their organization to learn. Jesus was the greatest example of this. Jesus modeled the kind of life he desired his followers to live, but Jesus also enabled his followers to learn and grow. They were able to carry on his mission and calling after he was gone. They became leaders in his absence. The great failing of any leader is to live under the haughty assumption that the organization, or church in our discussion, can’t get it right without them. If one of the key aspects of leadership and change management is creating learners, then we must first and foremost be learners. A leader is at his or her best when they are able to engage in the learning process with others, recognizing the mismatches they themselves contribute to in the organization. How can a leader expect followers to learn if the leader refuses to learn?

Chris Argyris, in his book Knowledge in Action: A Guide for Overcoming Obstacles to Organizational Change, states, “Learning occurs when we detect and correct error. Error is any mismatch between what we intend an action to produce and what actually happens when we implement that action. It is a mismatch between intentions and results. Learning also occurs when we produce a match between intentions and results for the first time.”

Learning is an integral part of change and leaders (and followers, for that matter) must understand that if we are not learning we are not leading. Effective learning, within our Christian context, does not happen in isolation. We must have advisors, mentors, and even “ruthlessly, compassionate partners” who come alongside us to help us see when we are becoming defensive. If a leader lives in isolation and never receives critical feedback about whether or not their intentions and actions are in line, they do more harm than good in their church or organization.

Argyris goes on to say that learning is an active concept. Learning is not just about ideas or new insights. Learning requires effective action. We must identify and correct the errors. Identifying errors alone is not enough. It is much easier to identify, but much harder to correct errors. This is key in leadership and this is also where most leaders fail. How many times have you heard leaders in our society diagnose our problems? They are easy to identify and there is no innate gift of leadership required to see the problems we face. Correcting problems on the other hand is difficult work and this is where the leader makes their contribution.

The unfortunate problem in our churches is that many of our leaders are leaders in title only. They are unable to correct error and teach others to correct error. The great question to ask of any leader, to determine whether they are effective or not, is this: How do we know that you know what you say you know? When you can produce what it is you claim you know. Claiming to know something is useless. We have untold numbers of blogs and writings from people claiming to know a lot about a lot of things. There is only one problem. Most of these writers have never actually been able to accomplish the things they write about. Most of these writers have never actually corrected the errors they see in their churches or organizations. When they fail, they blame the membership or the culture or the previous administration or the lack of money or the community or whatever other excuse they can find to absolve their ineffectiveness. Do you want to define effectiveness? Effectiveness is the ability to detect error AND correct it. Without the ability to correct the errors, we are simply prophetic blowhards.

Here are three elements from Chris Argyris that are helpful for the leader as they seek to detect and correct error and teach their church/organization to learn and grow.

First, Argyris says, “there will always be a gap between our stored knowledge and the knowledge required to act effectively in a given situation. In order to fill the gap, learning about the new context in the new context is required.” What this simply means is that whatever worked for you in the past in your previous context is not the same thing that will work in your current context. The context is different. The culture is different. The leader must have enough agility in intellect and action to recognize that they cannot bring the same template to a new context. Some elements may come forward, but they are never the same. There is a gap between what you know and what will work where you are. Recognize that and be humbled by it.

Second, “even after the knowledge gap has been relatively closed, it is unlikely that the action we design and implement will be adequate. Most contexts or situations that concern us are constantly changing. We cannot assume that other individuals or groups will react as we had thought they would when we designed our actions. There is a continual need for vigilant monitoring of our and others’ actions.” Even after the leader claims to ‘know’ the context and is ready to lead, they must have enough humility and self-awareness to know that people within this context will not respond as people in other contexts. We need help from others to monitor our actions to help us see what we do not see. It has always amazed me that pastoral counselors and psychotherapists all have their own therapists to help them process things they do not see clearly, yet pastors, district superintendents, and bishops seem to think we don’t need help monitoring our leadership and responses.

Third, and finally, “learning is not only required in order to act effectively; it is also necessary to codify effective action, so that it can be reliably repeated when it is appropriate.” When I came to my new appointment at a large congregation on St. Simons Island, one of the first things I did was spend time on developing an employee policy handbook, wedding policy, and facility usage policy. Our church is an amazingly beautiful sanctuary on a beautiful island on the coast of Georgia. Through the years, they have encountered all sorts of issues with employees, facilities, and weddings and they had dealt with most issues but they had never written any of it down. I hate policies and it wasn’t what I wanted to spend time doing, but the process helped me learn the context and it has saved trmendous amounts of time in the following years because our learning is now being transmitted to new committees and employees causing less stress and strain. We are now better able to make disciples because we spent time on some organizational codification. I never thought that would be the case, but it is true.

One last note, leaders are decision makers. Every expert on leadership and organizational culture agrees that leaders should have monitors, advisors, and “ruthlessly, compassionate truth tellers” who can help us identify when we become defensive. One of the greatest problems a leader faces is defensiveness because it keeps the leader from seeing things honestly and clearly. All leaders should encourage trusted advisers to confront them when the advisers see them behaving defensively. I have a few people on staff and in my church that I have encouraged and given permission to be my advisors in my journey. I know they are people who speak freely and honestly and will not spare my feelings but rather share my passion for the good of the church I lead.

It is not easy to lead change, but the church of the next century needs leaders who can teach their churches to learn, grow, and change.

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