Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Marriage Between System and Staff

Every church is a system. Or more accurately, it is a series of systems.

There is a system of worship: the coordination of greeters and/or ushers, the planning and scheduling of music, the liturgy and rubrics, the calling of people to help lead.

There is a system of governance: the governing board, committees or teams, how activities both routine and special are planned, how information is shared, how decisions big and small are made.

There is the interpersonal system of the congregation: who has power both stated and unstated, who is getting along and whose relationships are strained, who is connected to whom through blood, business, or friendship.

These and many other systems within a church change over time. Some evolve very slowly, others are subject to instability, still others healthily respond to changing circumstances. All have ways of handling anxiety and tension, some better than others. But there are nevertheless ways of doing things, handed down from one generation of leaders to another. Some are beloved and alive, others crusted over by time and inertia.

One thing that changes most often in church systems is the staff. This includes clergy, ministry coordinators such as those for Christian Education or youth, administrative professionals, and custodians. Some of these change more frequently than others. But congregations call and entrust certain work and leadership to individuals with credentials and skills and who are compensated accordingly.

And so new staff people enter established systems, and the two are expected to get along. This is where it gets complicated. Both are used to certain practices; both believe in a best way of accomplishing tasks and making decisions. Along the way, there is bound to be some give and take; some measure of compromise between the two in order to move ahead in ministry together. More often than not, it is the staff that are expected to learn the system before suggesting changes, which the system in turn may first attempt to process (and suppress) via its Anxiety Handling Mechanism. Enough diplomacy on the staff's part coupled with enough willingness to experiment on the congregation's part, and this can be overcome.

Sometimes, one or the other will go into business for itself. A staff person will discern that it will be more efficient and worth spending some social capital to handle something on his or her own. At other times, the system will change or be changed apart from the staff's input, and staff regardless will be expected to function successfully within the new arrangement.

Like any successful marriage, the keys to the system and staff working well together is trust and communication.

The system has been around for a while. It's not perfect by any means, and sometimes it's downright dysfunctional. But there are real people involved--at times caught up in it--with desires and dreams and uncertainties and hangups. And while they aren't perfect either, they're doing what they know how to do and have the best interests of the church in their hearts and minds.

The staff also know a thing or two. They have training, experience, and knowledge; they've been around. They certainly aren't perfect, either: they have just as many quirks as the people who have called them. And they, too, are doing what they know how to do and have the best interests of the church in their hearts and minds.

So if all of these imperfect people with their preferences, habits, and hopes are meant to work together, then they need to trust that the other knows something about what they're doing and discern when it's best to just let things play out. But that also entails communication, one to the other, about what needs to happen or what is going to happen. It entails talking to one another about what one thinks is best for the church's future, when one or the other is planning to move forward in some fashion, whether the change that one makes will really be workable for the other, and when it really will be best to go through the hard work of forging a new path together. This Third Way will involve a change in the system and the staff's preferred methods.

But if the two expect to be together for a while and want the other to succeed, then the Third Way will be worth it.