By Eddie Pipkin
We were on a road trip this past weekend, and I was treated yet again to an interstate phenomenon that seems to me to have become more of a trend in the past couple of years: the unexpected awkward-side overtaker. Imagine yourself on a three lane stretch of high-speed asphalt, and you’re the driver in the left lane (the fast lane / the passing lane), when suddenly, out of nowhere, a car comes zooming past you on the right. This disturbing effect is magnified with even greater intensity if you happen to be in the middle lane and not only are cars overtaking you on the left (as intended) but also, occasionally, out of the blue and at high speed on the right. I call these aggressive right-side passers “slingshot drivers.” They can be terrifying. And yet as supposedly responsible pilots of fthe ministry messaging machine, we pull that same disorienting maneuver on our ministry partners all the time!
The problem with cars passing you on the right when you are cruising along at the 70-mile-per-hour speed limit (or maybe just a couple of miles above that so as not to hold up the fast lane, if you know what I mean) is that it flummoxes your mental expectations. Cars are supposed to pass on the left side. As we settle into our autonomic driving mode on a long trip and mentally become fully absorbed in our “80s pop sing-along” musical play list, our brain is fully comfortable with the cars whizzing by on the left – that’s where our brain anticipates that activity will happen. But our poor brains are discombobulated by the right-hand pass. More so because it is not a gentle slow-speed pass, oh no. If you’re doing 70, this vehicle is doing at least 90. And odds are they whipping in and out of the lanes, dodging back bumpers by inches and squeezing into improbable spaces like a NASCAR driver who just chugged a case of Red Bull.
In such an environment, as a driver we are unable to ever fully relax. We are constantly on edge, dreading the appearance of the next slingshot driver. Our fingers never loosen their grip on the steering wheel. Our eyes are constantly scanning the mirrors, anticipating the advent of next the asphalt maniac.
That’s a (ridiculously) extended metaphor, but I employ it to make a colorful but pertinent point. If we treat our ministry partners – or frankly, our life partners – in the same manner – if we act as slingshot communicators – we keep these poor people in a state of perpetual unease. In terms of our habits of team interaction, we have two choices: We can follow the rules of the road that keep everybody safe and tranquil on their journey, or we can be agents of chaos.
Here are the ways in which we shift into chaos gear:
- We announce major changes randomly and with no warning.
- We launch new initiatives out of the blue.
- We take a small, preliminary conversation about a given topic – maybe an aside at the water cooler or something mentioned at the bottom of the sixth paragraph of an email – and we suddenly present this kernel of an idea as a completely fleshed-out and collaborated-upon-extensively decision.
- We change our minds and act without explaining ourselves (assuming the change should be obvious to all and a logical step or presuming that our authority gives us the power to upend everyone else’s life, because, you know, we’re in charge).
- We have a bold epiphany about dramatically changing the direction and purpose of our organization, and we expect everyone else to immediately be as excited about it as we are.
- Whenever someone suggests that perhaps, just maybe, we should slow down a little, we give a speech about how, like the tech bro heroes of Silicon Valley, everybody knows that to be innovative and effect great change you have no choice but to “move fast and break things.” (This is a great week to send Silicon Valley a text and ask the tech bros how that’s working out for them.)
If we routinely communicate in these unhelpful ways, we will have partners in ministry (and life) who are always gripping the wheel in dread and anxiously checking their mirrors in anticipation of what craziness comes next. They will not be comfortable and secure on their journey. They will not feel entirely safe. They will not be able to concentrate on the work at hand, and they will never be able to trust what the future holds.
Instead, we should be like those bicycle riders who ride in large packs in their colorful spandex uniforms, the peloton. The lead rider in the peloton has specific responsibilities that involve helping every other rider experience the most productive, efficient, and safe ride possible. This means each individual rider performs more optimally than they could ever do on their own. This also means that the team achieves its highest goals together, accomplishing far more than a disconnected group of individuals could pull off separately. There are two vital components of the peloton leader’s strategy:
- Maintain a pace that pulls the rest of the riders along at their maximum output, but not so fast as to leave anyone behind.
- Carefully signal any obstacles that obstruct the route ahead and give clear advance notice of approaching turns, slowdowns, or stops.
As responsible communicators, we can keep those strategies forefront in our minds.
We should think purposefully about how we want to communicate to our team members, those whose support is vital to carrying out our vision, and all those who are interested in what we’re up to and where our organization is headed:
- We should use our regular communication processes to give clear messages if we are thinking of making a change, and we should carefully explain why we think such change makes sense at this moment in time (not just presume either that people will follow our internal logic or that they will embrace the change just because we, the leader, are suggesting it).
- For any major changes or big, new ideas, we should carefully lay the groundwork for any shift in philosophy or vision. Give people a chance to see what we see. Often, we communicate the outcome of what for us has been a long process of meditating on an issue. We give them the conclusion we have reached without providing any of the underlying experience or research that led us to the conclusion. We should give them the full picture if we really want them to see what we see.
- Give people time. This isn’t always possible; sometimes we have to think fast on our feet and act with determination and speed. But, honestly, often we present decision-making that way, when in reality we are just being impatient. It is a great gift to our team members and partners to give them time to process a change or embrace an unfamiliar idea.
- Give people a sincere opportunity to provide feedback. My wife likes to talk to slingshot drivers (out loud), and while I point out that they can’t hear her, she says it makes her feel better. How much more so do the people we are working and living with feel when they can respond to our abrupt shifts and crazy new ideas in ways that authentically honor their concerns. We sometimes even find that they can improve on what are thinking.
How do you evaluate yourself as a communicator? Are you a slingshot driver or the leader of a peloton? How do you remind yourself to communicate in ways that help people get where you’re all headed with a sense of safety and collaboration? Can you think of times when you’ve seen communication done terribly and times when you’ve seen it done with care and helpful style. Share your stories!
This struck home with me as an SPRC chairperson in this season of appointments of new pastors to our United Methodist Churches. Announcement of an impending change announced on a Sunday morning without any prior warning is surely one of these slingshot passings. I do not have a solution to this phenom but there must be a softer, more gentle way to inform a congregation of such a major change.