Identifying Critical Issues

It’s taken me a while, but I just finished composing the report from our latest Best Practices for Church Boards workshop held in November. It’s the product of an extensive process, adding reflections from interviews with participants to the compiled comments from the evaluation forms. It’s worth the effort. I always learn something from the effort, and the discoveries certainly help improve the workshop.

As I reflect on this Fall, one discovery stands out above all the others. One of the greatest challenges faced by many boards is the ability to identify the critical issue that deserves their shared attention. During the registration process, churches are asked to identify their key issue prior to the workshop. The expectation is that the lessons learned in the workshop will allow the leaders to gain some immediate and relevant progress with their issue in their working session.

While some churches are able to focus on a shared issue quickly, many stumble in finding their target. In the first working session, the Facilitators present the church boards with the issue that accompanied their registration. The question is then raised: Would you agree that this is the Key Issue that deserves your most conscientious attention?

There are a few boards that respond quickly. They’ve prayerfully discussed the whole range of issues before them and have agreed on the priority and importance of the one Key Issue as it relates to their mission.  That said, off they go.

More often than not, boards will pause as they look at their “key issue” with a degree of uncertainty.  It’s that moment of hesitation that has caught my attention. It illustrates a common challenge for church boards: the ability – or inability –  to identify the critical issue that deserves their shared attention.

TJ Addington, author of High Impact Church Boards, addressed the same issue in his blog this last Fall [http://leadingfromthesandbox.blogspot.com – October, 16, 2010.] One of the reasons why it’s a struggle is that leaders are tempted to become “enmeshed” in issues that are defined by personal agendas. He writes: One of the hallmarks of good emotional intelligence is that we are able to empathize with others without getting enmeshed in their issues. This does not mean that we do not care, provide counsel, pray and support. It does mean that we don’t allow the issues of others to become “our” issues.

It is possible for a Board to be consumed by issues that are more a matter of personal agendas than a shared mandate of mission.

George Bullard recently identified another reason that Boards struggle. Their attention tends to be so focused on past conflicts that it’s hard to identify the issue that will embrace the new thing God is seeking to do in and through him. In his learning article, Transforming Reactionary Church Boards [November 3, 2010, www.TheColumbiaPartnership.org] he wrote: When congregations are getting over a conflict, a less than excellent relationship with a senior or solo pastor who has now moved on, or an empowering vision that has diminished, policies and procedures to create more control are often put into place. Typically these changes are focused on correcting what was perceived as wrong or missing in the past … In other words, [Reactive Boards] move forward into the future by protecting yourself from what went wrong in the past … always looking for where you were rather than where you are going.

Whatever the reason, board leaders struggle with the ongoing frustration in knowing how to identify good targets to discuss. There is a need to recapture the heart of leadership that is capable of moving ministry toward a preferred future with discernment and intention.

One of the main responsibilities of a board, in particular – a board chair and a lead pastor, is to ensure that the most important issues receive the most significant attention. So, what steps could help solve this dilemma?

Any study on discernment, especially the type of spiritual discernment required for a healthy ministry requires a number of ingredients, not the least of which is time and prayerful attention. In his comments on The Art of Thinking Grey, TJ Addington writes: some people think it a skill to make quick decisions and they pride themselves in their ability to do so. The truth is that slow decisions that have had significant input from a variety of sources are usually far better than rapid ones. Embracing the task and setting aside precious time is an absolute necessity.

The second step is a matter of perspective. Stepping aside from personal agendas, a discerning leader always asks important questions. In their book Discerning Your Congregation’s Future: A Strategic and Spiritual Approach, Roy Oswald and Robert Friedrich describe four simple questions that discerning leaders ask throughout the congregation in order to gain a perspective: 1. If our congregation did not continue to ______, I would lose interest in remaining a member; 2. The things that concern me most about our congregation are _______,; 3. If our congregation would ______, I know I would call my friends and tell them what wonderful things they are missing; 4. If, with a stroke of a pen, I could change one thing at our congregation, I would ______.

Questions like that lead to discovery. They take us outside of ourselves and reveal viewpoints and opportunities that would otherwise lie hidden. They expose a variety of concerns that can suggest issues that God wants addressed.

As wise leaders reflect on those answers, the next step is to sort through the issues in order to find THE ISSUE, the one that matters most. And then, with a shared focus, that issue needs to be framed for discussion. Two of the instruments that we recommend for Time Stewardship as a Best Board Practice are forms for a Decision Profile and a Discussion Briefing. Both are one page summaries that present the necessary information to help a board focus on an issue.

In each case, the issue is stated at the very beginning in clear and concise language. Added to the statement is an explanation of its importance, how it relates to the strategic value of the church and its mission. The rest of the outline in each form flows from that point whether it’s relevant questions that will stimulate a meaningful discussion or optional recommendations that will provide a healthy solution. But, the best part, and the hardest part, is to define the issue and put it into context. It’s a skill that takes work and makes a difference.

In the article Transforming Reactionary Church Boards, George Bullard put it well when he said it is easier to state a solution than it is to deliver one. It’s one thing to suggest steps, it’s quite another to put them into practice. However, that shouldn’t stop us from working toward a solution, and as I seek to improve the Best Practices for Church Boards workshop, that’s my next improvement: to develop an aid – and an exercise – that would get the ball rolling. As a note, if you have a helpful suggestion to make, I welcome your comment.

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