By Eddie Pipkin

My wife and I went out to breakfast before church last weekend, and we stopped in at one of our favorite diners, a bustling, homey spot. We had just settled in with our eggs when we realized something unusual was happening.  People were looking out the window and laughing and pointing.  Well, not customers so much – but employees!  My wife and I were at an angle that meant we couldn’t see out this window, and we could not figure out what was going on as more and more kitchen staff came to check out this mystery event firsthand, so I finally asked our server to clue me in.  “Oh,” she said, laughing, “The owner just got pulled over by the cops right in front of the restaurant.”  It was obvious the boss was never going to hear the end of that one!  And it got me to thinking about how we are always being closely watched — for good or ill — by the teams we are called to lead.

Now, first of all, let me say that it was obvious by the demeanor of the staff we observed that once the boss came in that morning, the teasing that followed was going to be good-natured.  This speaks volumes.  The organizational leader in this case was clearly someone who was humble, who had a sense of humor, and who had  built a culture of camaraderie with the team.  (It is not hard to imagine an alternate scenario in which the team smirked with glee at the misfortune befalling their leader.)

For an outsider coming into our space — our meetings, our events, our behind-the-scenes moments — what is their sense of the “spirit” of our culture?  And how does that spirit change — if it changes — when the leader is present in that space or absent from that space?  Whenever you have the opportunity to get an outsider’s objective impression, you should always seize that opportunity.

Of course, we know people are watching us as leaders, and we know that leading by example is a fundamental part of the leadership package.  This is a unique part of our responsibility as Christian leaders, an outgrowth of the public responsibility of all disciples (what we commonly refer to as our witness).  But it coexists sometimes uneasily with our sense of “calling” and the institutional focus on authority and hierarchy that can make ministry workplaces very different from regular work environments.  This can lead to some bad leadership habits, an unfortunate tendency to “lord it over” others.  Thom Rainer, for instance, writes about “Fourteen Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders,” and includes all the classics: bad communication, imperiousness, thin-skinnedness, and outbursts of anger.  I can feel you nodding at your screen; if you’ve been in ministry for any length of time, you’ve experienced those kinds of toxic workplaces.  The leader sets the tone.

But this blog is not so much about catastrophic leadership disasters.  It’s about the subtle ways we reinforce a healthy, positive ministry culture.  Trisha Daho, business leadership consultant, writes about the power of these cumulative small things in the article, “When You Are a Leader, Everyone Is Watching”:

Your facial expressions, your voice, your sighs, your grunts, ALL of it!  This part is really hard, because we are all human.  I’m not asking you to be an automaton.  But what I AM saying is that all those little things about how you are showing up every day are telling a story about you as a leader, and they all matter.  I may be a little manic on this point, because it happens to be what I do for a living, but I think strategically about nearly every interaction I have with other humans.  I ask myself what I want to accomplish, how I want to represent myself and my position, and how I want the person to feel and act when I am done.  Some people would call this mindfulness, so if you are so inclined, call it that.  I also think about how each interaction went after the fact, and how I could have done better.  This includes EVERY interaction:  live, by telephone, through email, even text.  It becomes second nature, so don’t worry that it’s way too much brain space to do this.

There are big-picture things and small-picture things, and a leader who talks constantly about big-picture, visionary concepts but then undermines them with day-to-day bad habits unravels her own best efforts.  If we send out emails touting the value of creativity and innovation, but then we roll our eyes at unique proposals or balk at giving team members free rein to try out new concepts, we send a clear message.

  • If you want people to show up on time, you need to show up on time.
  • If you want an environment in which people are clearly communicating, you need to set the standard (not by proclamation, but by example).
  • If you want your team to be good listeners, you need to model that behavior.
  • If you want meetings to be an effective use of time, you need to model preparation and organization.

Etc.  If there are elements of your organization that are frustrating you, the first and most important response is to hold up a mirror and take an honest assessment of how you are modeling those elements.  And just as important as “hard skills,” as Trisha Daho observed, are the “soft skills” of leading.  I love her focus on discretely analyzing every single interaction.  Attitude matters.  Body language matters.  I love her micro-approach of previewing each interaction (whatever the mode of communication) for what she hopes to accomplish and then evaluating it afterwards to gauge how she did.  For we followers of Christ, what she terms mindfulness we would interpret as an opportunity for prayer — perhaps a micro-prayer before and after each interaction that keeps us focused on the individual relationship and the mission of the moment.

Because, as Kimberly Macneill reminds us at Ministry Matters, ultimately we do have an additional layer of responsibility that sets our work apart from secular work:

As the team leader, members have been placed under your authority, but more than that, they have been placed in your care. Of course, a strong, cohesive team needs a vision and mission, a strategy and plan, effective alignment of action and tasks, and motivation and passion. But more than that, a strong, effective team needs nurturing, encouragement, and personal spiritual direction. One could assemble a team for the sake of a task only, but the fact is, serving is a spiritual practice: a ministry team that serves sees Jesus work through them, and experiences Him working within them.

It’s all tangled up together, isn’t it?  And while we might experience that constant “window on our world” as a source of anxiety, it can counter-intuitively be a source of gratitude.  Every new day and every new encounter are opportunities to grow in our faith and our leadership abilities.  It’s like “reps” at the gym.  We get stronger.  Our teams get stronger.  Our ministry gets stronger.

Confession time: what’s a good story about a time your team busted you as a leader?  What is an old leadership habit that you worked to change?  What are some good “small things” leadership habits that you would encourage in others?   Do you find the idea that everyone is watching you to be intimidating or inspiring?  Share your triumphs and your stumbles in the comments section.