by Eddie Pipkin

Image by majolala from Pixabay

Last week I wrote about the collision of different schedules and lifestyle logistics when people in the same household are visiting together over the holidays.  I made the argument that, rather than tension and drama resulting from the intersection of those differences, a beautiful synthesis of complementary rhythms can result in people making some unexpectedly beautiful music together.  We focused on families and friends appreciating and indulging one another’s idiosyncrasies as a way to promote harmony and togetherness, but what’s good for interpersonal relationships can be good for organizations, too!  This week we’ll look at how the same principles can apply to professional application and volunteer coordination, setting the stage for metronomic ministry magic!

Within ministry settings, there are large and small teams, and the talented people who make up those teams have different rhythms and work styles.  Figuring out how to integrate those variations in pace and approach can be the key to unlocking maximum productivity and joy in the ministry space.

Often, we undercut ourselves by trying to undercut the diversity of work styles by homogenizing a team’s processes:

  • We force everyone into one approach by glorifying “best practices” at the expense of individuality.
  • We force everyone to adapt the preferences of key leaders.

I’m not saying that best practices aren’t “best” for a reason.  And I’m not saying that the team doesn’t need a coach (and that part of the coach’s job isn’t to get everyone following the same script), but what I am saying is that we often use one or the other of those justifications (or sometimes both at the same time) to redirect the practices of others that we find irritating.  In general, we like a process and a timeline that conforms to our own personal preferences – of course, our way is the superior way! – and we love a best practice that aligns with that personal preference.

I’m not advocating for chaos.  Lord knows, we have too many ministries too steeped in chaos and confusion, and I’ve written plenty of blogs in this space about getting everyone on the same page and rowing in the same direction, but what I’m wanting us to consider this week is how indulging the different philosophies and work scheduling preferences of others can counter-intuitively lead to strong results (if managed carefully and sincerely).

We’re really talking here about a coaching style of leadership in which we are helping individual team members develop their maximum potential (to the benefit of the entire team and furtherance of the mission).  It’s a version of the SWOT model of organizational analysis (identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats), but one in which we lean into leveraging the strength that comes from letting those individual team members (especially key team members, staff, and volunteers) work at a pace and via a process that brings out their best and makes them feel most energized.

To give a ridiculous but simple example, if you host an early morning worship service, and you also host an evening worship service, and you have a staff member who is an early morning person by nature and a staff member who is a night owl by nature, it’s pretty obvious who should be in charge of which service, regardless of whatever other factors might come into play.

Likewise, some people on the team are likely deadline driven chaos junkies who love the pressure of decisions that must be made quickly and decisively.  Those folks get fidgety quickly when tasked with a slow research process.  Their opposites, however, when placed under pressure and collapsed timelines, stress out in unhealthy ways.  They feel much more comfortable with long range deliberative assessments and planning.  To each his own – to the advantage of the team!  One of these personality types should be hands-on running events.  One of those personality types should be doing vision casting and after-the-event reviews.

To reiterate what I wrote earlier, we weaken the team’s potential when we insist on conforming the team to our own work style and preferences.  I am, for instance, the kind of person who loves to “drink straight from the fire hose” of information, processing lots of material fast and moving quickly to an intuitive decision.  On the other hand, I have had very talented teammates who loathe that model and feel overwhelmed by it.  They need time to process new ideas and proposals.  They want to think things through, and only then can they offer sage counsel or find innovative solutions.  It is nonsensical for me to insist that my version of working the problem is in some way superior to their way, and in a world in which we are going to respect both approaches, the de facto solution is that I learn to respect their need to have more time.  When there is time to be had, making such a concession in no way compromises the conclusion I might have initially reached.  It just makes space for greater dialogue, an appreciation of disparate perspectives, and expanded insights.

The corollary of compromise on the part of “deliberative processors” is that when a quick decision is required, they will get out of the way and defer to my decisiveness.

There are plenty of ways that these differences in basic philosophical approaches manifest every day:

  • Slow vs. Fast.
  • Messy vs. Tidy.
  • Spontaneous vs. Calculated.
  • Emotional vs. Logical.
  • Direct vs. Obtuse.
  • Streamlined vs. Elaborate.
  • Words vs. Numbers.
  • Words vs. Pictures.
  • Whimsical vs. Serious.
  • Collaborative vs. Lone Wolf.

We need all of those things.  And we can get all of those things (in the right proportions) when we have diverse teams with multifaceted skill sets and varied passions: Skills sets and passions and diverse perspectives that we honor in giving each its turn at the helm!

Not only do these differing approaches and styles, executed in collaboration, result in fresher, more relevant results.  They widen the circle of people who want to be a part of what we’re doing, because the more approaches and styles we offer, the more we are communicating that the people who are wired in those approaches and styles are a valued part of our community.  It’s a classic win-win.

That brings us back to the concept of polyrhythm.  In case you didn’t follow the link, the definition of polyrhythm is “the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms in a single composition.”  Even if you’re not a musician, you have benefitted from the fun complexity of those overlapping, complex rhythms – they’re the backbone of some of our favorite songs!  (Here’s a simplified example from a percussion instructor, and here’s a deeper dive with lots of examples from popular music, including a snippet of “Chariots of Fire” at the 5:00 minute mark).  [I could not think of or find a polyrhythmic example of classic ‘church music,’ although these rhythms do show up in gospel riffs.  If you have an example that eluded me, dazzle me in the comments section.]

Musicians and songwriters have produced fun, inventive, and inspiring results with those polyrhythms, and we ministry practitioners can also chart new and inspiring territory if we meld our management styles, preferences, and synchronicities into a creative, purpose-driven composition.

How have you learned to appreciate the different rhythms of others and integrate them into your own routines?  How has understanding the different ways that people process information and work problems contributed to making your team stronger?  How could you do more to integrate and empower processes other than your own standard preferences?  How might this impact outcomes and environments?  Share your thoughts below!