By Eddie Pipkin

Masks have been in the news a lot.  Wearing them or not wearing them – which early in the pandemic seemed like a straightforward, simple option to maximize protection from the virus – has become one of the most controversial topics of this election cycle.  It’s a strange and unexpected development, this polarization of something that seemed so anodyne.  The reason for all the drama and debate is that leaders have offered conflicting advice and ambiguous guidance.  With no clear counsel for how they should act, there is no coordinated response.  This is always the case when leaders can’t get straight on a unified, effectively communicated message.  It’s true when we’re talking about national policy, and it’s true when we’re talking about ministry leadership.

We hear a lot of concern about teams that aren’t “rowing in the same direction,”  “paddling towards the same shore,” “shopping from the same shelf” (okay, I made that last one up, but you get my drift).  It’s a problem in any organization, whether it’s an entire nation or a local church, when people “can’t get on the same page.”  Most often we define this problem from the top down – and most often that where most of the credit rightfully lies, as noted in this blog post from Wired to Grow:

I frequently hear leaders complain about their people and how they’re all doing their own thing, they’re not in alignment, they’re not executing the strategic plan, etc. But I rarely hear leaders say, “And it’s my fault.”

Yet isn’t that the essence of what you and I are supposed to do as leaders? Aren’t we supposed to be the ones who set the direction and cast a compelling vision to our people? Aren’t we supposed to pick the right people and coach/equip them to make sure they can successfully complete the mission? Aren’t we supposed to motivate and inspire our teams to produce great results? Aren’t we supposed to ensure that everyone and everything is in alignment so we can complete the plan we set? Absolutely!

So, if our teams aren’t all rowing in the same direction, who’s responsibility is that?

It’s a fair question.  And the blog’s author lists some steps to increase the odds that all that rowing is oriented towards common coordinates [and I’ve summarized tips for odd-increasing steps at the end of this article], but sometimes, even when the leader is of courageous heart and reasonable wit, things can get off track. The missteps to disorientation can be subtle.  There are three ways to lose one’s way:

  • A lack of a shared definition of the problem/truth.

To stick with the mask metaphor, whether you’re getting your medical advice from Anthony Fauci or Tucker Carlson matters.  I won’t pick sides in that high-profile slam down, but I will note that the debates get equally hot and heavy in many the church leadership meeting.  It’s important to define the current problem / challenge / kerfuffle / strategic opportunity with terms everyone can agree to.  If we can’t get this part done, we are building a weak foundation to any endeavor, literally laying the groundwork for instability and more likely failure down the line.  Of course, data can be interpreted in a number of ways, so it’s important to build a shared narrative around the data you’re sharing – failure to build an agreed upon narrative which defines the problem or opportunity means that the disgruntled among us are going to use their competing narrative to stir up disaffection later.  Sometimes we skip right to the part of creating the shared narrative of the vision going forward, but we skip the part about the shared narrative that defines the original problem or opportunity.  One gives energy to the other when we’re spreading the word to those whose buy-in will be critical to success.

  • A lack of a shared definition of the path forward/vision.

Here’s the part where we settle on a strategy that everyone can agree on.  It doesn’t mean everyone starts in the same place or that everyone has the same opinion, it means we work on our vision / solution / strategy with buy-in and open conversation that honors and incorporates all perspectives.  We dialogue and negotiate until we produce a shared vision / solution / strategy, and then we solemnly agree upon and pledge to support it.  (This is an excellent example why consensus is a far superior governance method than majority rules, winner-take-all voting.  Most church leadership still functions with the voting-based decision process – and frequently have the post-decision, disgruntled drama to show for it.  Far fewer churches work with a consensus model – it can be harder, more complex, and more time consuming, but it sure creates a smoother glide path going forward.)

By the way, as churches, we have some built-in advantages when it comes to building consensus and crafting shared vision.  First, we are called as disciples to a higher standard of listening to and respecting one another.  Secondly, we can and should involve prayer in the process (a stellar focusing and calming tool).

  • A failure to agree upon a communications strategy.

Once we have forged a shared vision / strategy, it can’t take hold in the general populace (or church community) unless we have a solid plan for communicating it.  Obviously, this means writing articles, making announcements, and coordinating all of the normal channels by which people get their information about what’s going on (and how to respond to what’s going on).  Sunday worship, newsletters, e-news, special emails, twitter shout-outs, Facebook and other social media posts, even old-fashioned snail mail: all play their parts.  Just a few reminders: Communication has to be done on all these platforms; communication should take multiple, interesting formats (not just dry announcements: stories with personal perspectives; stories which explore issues more fully; stories which give background; stories about what impact this vision / strategy will have); communication should be repeated and repeated and repeated – this lack of repetition and platform saturation are the most common reasons why people miss the message.

I also wand to comment here on the leadership and staff role in effective communication.  The aforementioned pledge to not undercut the shared vision / strategy is huge.  People should agree (in public fashion) that they will support the message and will help spread the message in all their circles of influence.  If they have regular communication with ministry teams and volunteer groups, they should actively make communicating the vision / strategy part of their regular interactions.  This also means that they should spend time getting to know the nitty-gritty of the vision / strategy, even though it may not be something about which they are naturally enthusiastic.

  • A failure to focus on the why (not just the what).

Even with all the above steps in place, people like to know why they’re doing what they are doing.  It’s not enough to give them behavioral directives.  It’s not enough to present a beautifully illustrated timeline.  Strategies are most effective when we give people the necessary background to understand why we’ve chosen the strategy we’ve chosen.  If we can articulate (by bullet point reasoning, but also by narrative illustration) our underlying reasoning, the values that formed the decision, we can move beyond grudging compliance to active enthusiasm.  This is also an aspect of firing up our leadership: we start this process with them, and we reinforce their ability to tell the same story at every opportunity.

  • A failure to name an enforcer.

Whip hand, trail boss, overseer, circus master, chief mechanic, coxswain, whatever pithy title works for your crew, somebody has to be in charge of being the chief cheerleader, facilitator, and accountability steward.  Most churches default to the lead pastor to serve in this role.  The lead pastor, of course, carries the most weight in any discussion of vision / strategy, but the head honcho – whose enthusiasm for any vision / strategy carries appropriate extra heft – doesn’t have time to get into the daily weeds to make sure the communication plan is working as designed (and even if he or she had time, it would be a poor use of that time).  There are people with that skill set and a passion for that detailed work who would be thrilled to be called upon to fill that role.  Whoever fills the role, it means articulating a clear plan to all the stakeholders, riding herd on the plan’s execution, and reminding leaders to continue to share the vision / strategy in their areas of leadership.

If there is not a competent point-person to manage such a communication project, the project will falter.  And if the communication plan falters, the vision / strategy can drift.

If we do these things, we have a good shot at not just getting folks rowing along together towards the same destination, we have them excited and enthused in the process, maybe even singing hearty sea-shanties as they go.

I promised a summary of some tips for leaders (credit to the Wired to Grow blog I linked earlier) for doing their own work as they help their teams get oriented:

  • Be sure of your own vision before recruiting others to make it happen.
  • Once you’re sure of it, share it as often as possible.
  • Gauge its progress with short, easily defined metrics.
  • Hold people accountable to progress.

How is your team doing articulating strong vision / strategies with a single, organized voice?  Do you have a process for identifying a shared definition for problems / challenges?  Do you have an established process for getting all leaders on a unified communications program?  And do you have effective people in place to manage the details of that communications program?