Communication, Communication, Communication!

communicationIn real estate, they say the three most important things are “location, location, location.” Well, when it comes to staff relations, I think the three most important things are “communication, communication, communication!”

Throughout this book, I’ve driven home the importance of consistency in nearly every aspect of HR. Nowhere is consistency more important than in this area of employee satisfaction. Back in the first chapter, I discussed how inconsistency can cause employees to feel they are being taken advantage of or treated unfairly. One of the best ways to proactively head off disillusionment in this area is with effective communication. Communication has the potential to literally make or break your employment relationship.

When an employee becomes dissatisfied, it is usually because a fundamental expectation is not being met, but sometimes the disconnect stems more from poor communication than from the actual circumstances themselves. Misunderstandings will inevitably occur, but how you respond to those misunderstandings can make all the difference. Approaching these issues with humility and honesty plays a critical role in keeping the lines of communication open.

Not too long ago, I was involved in a situation where a breakdown in communication caused a huge rift and significant dissatisfaction among staff. Two different groups from the same organization were sharing office space, but their needs for the space were dramatically different. Both groups reported to a different manager within the organization, and since both of the managers had their own significantly different ideas about the priority for the space, each group had expectations in alignment with what their manager had shared with them. Under the circumstances, the resulting conflict was not surprising.

By the time the situation was brought to my attention, claims of discrimination and harassment were being thrown around liberally. Since the staff in the group that had reportedly been claiming discrimination were primarily members of a minority group, it was no small matter. There was also talk of some staff being ready to leave because they couldn’t continue to work in such a negative environment. To complicate matters even further, the executive who had originally approved renting the space was no longer with the organization. This opened the door to both sides claiming they had the correct understanding of the intended use of the space.

The office in question was over fifty miles away from the main office, which only added to the layers of confusion. When I learned of the situation, I was shocked to discover no one had actually gone out to the office and gotten everyone together at the same time to talk it through. A zillion and one side meetings had been held to “investigate” the situation, but they had served only to waste time, muddy the water, and, in general, make things a whole lot worse. Everyone was being told by someone else what “the other side” was saying instead of hearing it firsthand together. While there are some situations where individual meetings are more appropriate, in a situation where there is clearly a lot of misunderstanding and opposing expectations within a group, you will never bring about resolution without meeting to find a place of mutual understanding. Talking to people, rather than talking about them and what you think they are saying, is usually a much more effective means of communication!

After getting a little background on the situation and talking briefly to the leaders involved (including the executive who was no longer with the organization), we set up a mandatory meeting for all concerned. The first thing we did in the meeting was apologize and acknowledge that communication had broken down with leadership and that the staff should never have been put in the situation they were in. We talked about ground rules for the meeting and that our goal wasn’t to determine who was “right” but rather to find a way to move forward that everyone could live with.

The meeting was a little tense at times. A little. But the bottom line of the story is after about an hour and a half of sometimes difficult but open and honest dialogue, we were able to resolve a situation that had been brewing and wreaking havoc for months. We immediately put a temporary solution in place that everyone bought into, while we agreed to look for an even better longer term solution. Most importantly, we didn’t lose any of the staff and they were able to work much more cooperatively together from that point forward. It wasn’t perfect and not everyone was 100% happy, but it did get us back on the right track.

Here’s the main point: The staff wanted the situation to work. They usually do. We (the organization’s leadership) needed to own our part of the fiasco—which was exceptionally poor communication and a lack of coordinated planning between the two groups from the beginning—and set a new baseline for moving forward. Once the staff felt “heard” and saw the sincerity on the part of leadership to commit to a workable solution, it was relatively easy to arrive at a solution from there.

How you communicate has the potential to aid, or hinder, your staff’s engagement and fulfillment. I’ve seen more employment relationships go south due to poor communication than almost any other thing. Poor communication directly affects expectations, and unmet expectations can lead to frustration and burnout. The sad thing about a lapse in the area of communication is that most of the time, it is absolutely preventable.

Although it is preventable, it’s not always easy. God has wired us with different personalities and a wide variety of past experiences. What we “hear” goes through our own unique filters, which makes communication with other imperfect humans a wonderfully tricky thing. Don’t assume that because you know what you mean, everyone else does too. We know our intentions, but everyone else knows what they actually hear, see, and experience. Do a little self-assessment in this area and ask others about your communication style. If you’re serious about valuing and honoring your staff, you need to know what they are really hearing when you communicate with them.

Effective communication is especially critical in times of organizational change. If your skill set doesn’t include being able to anticipate how staff might react to certain types of changes or information, seek the counsel of others who are more naturally attuned in this area (“feelers” are much more dialed in to these types of things than “thinkers”). With proactive, transparent, and compassionate  communication, I’ve seen employees willingly get on board with incredibly difficult adjustments, including cuts in benefits, changes in pay or position, etc. On the other hand, with poor communication, I’ve seen employees nearly riot over small and seemingly insignificant changes—sometimes even when the changes are to their benefit!

You can’t afford to take this subject lightly. It is one of the key issues that will determine the overall quality of your staff’s experience and significantly affects retention. And, whether you have come to realize it or not, employee satisfaction will directly affect the fruitfulness of your ministry.

This post is an edited excerpt from Chapter 8: “Employee Experience and Retention” from my book HR Matters.  Click HERE to get your copy today!

Spiritualized Dysfunction

spirtualized-dysThere are a multitude of them. So many that I think I could probably fill an entire book. They can be surprisingly creative or downright crazy. What are they? All the remarkably strange, yet somehow spiritual sounding, excuses I’ve heard for chaos and dysfunction within a variety of Christian organizations:

“Oh, we’re all workaholics. God expects us to work hard. We’re so dedicated that we just can’t go home until we drop!”

“We never know what we’re doing when we launch a new ministry. We fly by the seat of our pants and trust God will work it out. So far, He always has!”

“People had to work around the clock because our pastor decided to switch around that event at the last minute. It was total chaos, but the people who came were blessed. That’s all that matters to God, right?”

“We like to keep things loose. If we get too organized, we’ll lose the creative flow of the Holy Spirit.”

“Yeah, it would probably be a lot easier to do our jobs with better communication, but our leaders are so busy doing the things God has really called them to. We understand why they can’t take the time to fill us in.”

“It’s always crazy like this. We never have enough staff or resources, but somehow, God gives us the strength to keep going. After all, He expects us to press on and meet the needs.”

“You know, there is so much spiritual warfare that we can’t seem to get on top of things. We’d be much more effective if we weren’t always dealing with such opposition.”

“It’s our duty to protect that staff member because of their anointing. They cause lots of problems and get away with things no one else can, but they’re so gifted that we can’t function without them.”

And on and on and on it goes.  As Christians, it seems our ability to spiritualize (and therefore legitimize) our dysfunction is uncanny. It would almost be funny if it didn’t have such a profoundly negative impact on our organizations, our staff, the people we serve, and most significantly, on our witness to the world around us.

Of course, there is some legitimacy to some of these statements some of the time. Some of these things, some of the time, really can’t be avoided, and sometimes they represent the right and necessary way to go about things.

Sometimes.

But if most (or even a few) of these statements are true for your organization most of the time—or even a lot of the time—you may be veering into something that is not okay. Something that is not normal, not efficient, not good stewardship, and, most likely, not of God.

Is it possible that any of these statements are representative of cultural norms within your organization? Or maybe there are others, not specifically mentioned, that you immediately thought of when you read the list. Since these dysfunctional behaviors are established over time through agreement, the only way to tear them down is also through agreement. Those with authority within the organization need to break their agreement with the dysfunctional patterns and come into agreement with the truth of God’s Word on these matters. It is always truth that sets us free.

It is impossible to cover this topic appropriately in the context of a brief blog post, but I am highlighting it in this abbreviated format to bring awareness to the fact that it does exist and many of the not-so-excellent organizational behaviors that plague many churches and ministries can be at least partially rooted in the fact that we are engaged in a spiritual battle. While there are always many practical tools and principles to consider, the most important thing you can do on an ongoing basis is to pray for, and especially with, your staff. When you do, make those prayers count. Model transparency. Address real issues. Be willing stop tiptoeing around any elephants in the room and lay it all out before God. Search for Scriptures and promises that address the organization’s particular needs and situations and craft them into prayers you can declare together with your staff.

Perhaps most important of all, ask your staff to pray for you. Ask them to pray specifically that you will have the wisdom and grace to become (and remain) above reproach as an employer and that you will be absolutely committed to excellence in every area of your employment practices.

Because Jesus—and your staff—are worth your very best.

This post is an edited excerpt from Chapter 4: “Spiritualized Dysfunction” from my book HR Matters.  Click HERE to get your copy today!

Led by the Spirit or Just Bad Business?

3dIt goes without saying that churches and ministries should plan well, yet hold loosely to those plans so they can depend more fully on the leading of the Holy Spirit. But we need to ensure we really are depending on His leading and not blaming God for poor planning, insensitive management, and just plain sloppy business practices.

God gets blamed for a lot of stuff He doesn’t do. You might expect that from people who don’t know Him, but it gets a little stranger when people who do know Him—including ministry leaders—blame Him for some of their own questionable decisions.

Personally, I am not of the mindset that God would never lead you to do something outside of best business practice. He is God and He does what He pleases. The Bible is filled with examples of God asking people to do some very strange things. As much as I believe it is critical for organizations to have solid, consistently enforceable policies and sound practices in place, I value the leading of the Holy Spirit far above these things. Principles are essential, but His Presence is more essential.

However, just as the Spirit of God would never lead you to do something immoral or that is clearly spoken against in Scripture, the Holy Spirit will also not “lead” you into organizational decisions that are unethical or that serve only to demean and demoralize your staff.

Hopefully, things that extreme do not happen too often in a ministry setting, but what does happen an awful lot are a whole lot of questionable decisions in the gray zone. These are the decisions where it is possible that God could have led in a particular way, but equally possible it was just poor management. When similar types of decisions happen consistently and the result is your staff being thrown into a frenzied state of chaos on a regular basis, the issue may be more on the part of the decision maker and less on the part of God.

Here are two contrasting examples:

Example 1:

Church A is launching a new youth ministry and they arrange a kick off concert with a popular local Christian band. All the arrangements are in place. Flyers and social media blasts have been sent out and all seems to be moving forward relatively smoothly. The staff has worked hard and they feel prepared.

Less than a week before the event, they get a call from a local Christian radio station wanting to promote the event. The staff get together to pray and agree together that this is the favor of God, so they welcome the station’s offer. In doing so, they realize they may end up with a bigger crowd than they originally bargained for, but since these kids desperately need Jesus, they want to reach as many as possible.

Within twenty-four hours of the station’s first mention of the event, the church is bombarded with requests for information. It becomes clear that the church sanctuary will not be large enough to host the event. This leaves them with two choices: pull the ads on the station and turn away any overflow for the event or keep promoting the event but look for a new, larger location.

It is now only a few days before the event. Changing the venue is “doable” but will require tons of extra leg work. The pastor believes God is behind the huge interest in the event, but since the bulk of the work in making the change will fall on his staff, he allows them to make the final decision.

All the staff are in agreement, and they move forward with the location change. It involves significant logistical gymnastics and a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people, but with God’s help they pull it off and the event exceeds everyone’s expectations. Although all of the staff were physically tired after the event, they were also pumped up and amazingly energized after seeing God move in such a wonderful way.

Example 2:

Church Z is holding their annual VBS. The children’s director and her staff have settled on a theme that is approved by the head pastor. Z is a large church and hundreds of kids are expected, so arrangements begin months in advance.

Less than a month before the scheduled start date, the head pastor meets with the children’s director and says he has a “check” about this year’s theme. He shares a few reasons and then informs her that the Lord has shown him what the theme should be instead. The children’s director does not feel excited about the new theme and tries to share this with the pastor. She also explains the amount of work that has already gone into preparations and how difficult it will be for her and her staff to get all the necessary changes done in time. The pastor smiles and tells her that he has the utmost confidence in her abilities and knows she’ll manage with the Lord’s help. He tells her he will be praying for her and ends the meeting. This is the third time the pastor has made significant changes to the details of an event already in process in less than a year.

The children’s director and her staff work around the clock and manage to pull off a great VBS in spite of the changes, but it takes a toll on the staff and two employees resign shortly afterwards.

Both of these examples are reasonable representations of types of situations that occur with some regularity. I’m sure many will relate to having been thrust into the adrenaline rush of the first scenario. It’s both faith building and terrifying when God hijacks your plans and does something above and beyond anything you could have possibly hoped or imagined. It’s not at all convenient to follow Him into these types of adventures but so rewarding. While some staff may grumble about the extra work involved in such an endeavor, most will see the hand of God and willingly follow. In this case, the pastor was wise to get buy in from those who would be impacted before saying yes.

The second scenario is not quite so positive and exciting. I slanted the details to make a point, but sadly, I have personally been involved in several situations that were similar to the one I’ve described. Did the pastor hear God? Maybe. Who can say but him and the Lord? While he may have sincerely believed the changes he implemented were important and led by the Holy Spirit, his insensitivity to those profoundly impacted by his decision certainly indicate, at a minimum, a lack of compassion and effective leadership.

No matter how convinced we are that the Holy Spirit is leading, we can always do better than throwing our staff under the bus. God may lead us into some strange, unexpected, and even incredibly inconvenient adventures, but I believe He calls us into those adventures in partnership with our staff, rather than at their expense.

The post above is a slightly edited excerpt from Chapter 4: “Spiritualized Dysfunction” from my book HR Matters.  Click HERE to get your copy today!

Church or Business?

church-or-businessThroughout the years, I have had the privilege of knowing many extremely charismatic, gifted, and high energy pastors and leaders. These are the folks who can run circles around most people in the areas they are passionate about—whether it is reaching the lost, equipping the saints, caring for widows and orphans, or what have you. They have seemingly endless energy and compassion for the ones they feel called to serve, but those very same compassionate, effective leaders can be some of the most difficult and demanding “bosses” you may ever experience! Not only does their (tunnel) vision keep them from seeing the extent of the burdens they are placing on their staff but they also tend to have a difficult time knowing how or when to separate their roles of spiritual leader and employer.

Often I see leaders in these situations treating staff like “co-laborers” when they should be treating them like employees. For example, when it comes to wanting “buy in” and a high level of commitment, they assume all their employees are on the same page and that they can, and should, sacrifice anything and everything to get the job done. Noble as this may sound, it can get you into legal hot water when it comes to wage and hour laws and can also run afoul of at-will employment. Even if you manage to stay away from any legal liability, assuming staff should keep up with you may create expectations far beyond the job they are equipped and able to do—not to mention what they are actually being paid to do. When it comes to the number of hours being worked, whether or not they are compensated for extra time, and expectations for successful job performance, you need to ensure your expectations are in alignment with those allowed and advisable in your role as an employer and not those you may have for a co-laborer.

There are a multitude of other ways this scenario can play out, but it is mostly the result of expectations for sacrifice that go far beyond those that can, or should, be required of an employee.  (To be fair, sometimes it is the other way around and staff want to volunteer to go above and beyond in ways that can expose you to legal trouble.)  In general, it is good to keep in mind that paid staff always have certain rights as employees, and you always have certain obligations as an employer.

Other times, the confusion between being the church and being an employer moves in the opposite direction—treating staff just as employees when they should also be acknowledged and honored as brothers and sisters serving alongside you. While it is probably more common (and also has far more significant legal ramifications) to treat staff as co-laborers when they should be granted the rights and protections of an employee, it doesn’t mean there aren’t also serious repercussions when it goes the other way. There may be more legal ramifications if you miss an employee’s rights, but there are far more potentially negative spiritual ramifications if you fail to recognize and honor your staff as valued brothers and sisters who have an important role in the overall fulfillment of God’s plans for your organization.

Admittedly, the lines can be blurred and difficult to discern at times. There is definitely an art to knowing how and when to take the employer hat off and speak to a situation from the heart as a pastor, mentor, or spiritual leader, and when the more formal employer/employee boundaries need to be strictly maintained. In addition to taking into account the specifics of each situation, it is also helpful to know what motivates the specific employee involved (I’ll speak more to this in a future post). Even when you have solid guidelines and policies in place–which is always advisable–there are rarely any one-size-fits-all answers. But we do have a God who promises wisdom when we ask. Sometimes simply understanding the fact that there is a tension to navigate between the business and spiritual aspects of your organization can help you become more aware and discerning in your interactions with staff. That in and of itself is a huge step toward consistently keeping both the mission of the organization and the needs and rights of staff in mind in all situations.

The post above is a slightly edited excerpt from Chapter Two of HR Matters. Although I’ve only briefly touched on it in this excerpt, this issue of discerning  when it is wise and appropriate for a church or ministry to function as a business, and when the focus should be on our responsibility as the Church, is an area of great confusion. Sadly, I have often seen the roles reversed with many ministries acting as a “business” when it comes to making financial decisions that are to their staff’s detriment, but then using scriptural principals to manipulate staff into “submission” to unpopular, unfair, and sometimes even illegal, decisions. This may sound like a harsh assessment, but I’ve personally witnessed this phenomena far too many times to believe it is an infrequent occurrence or limited to certain types of organizations. My desire it to bring it into the light so ministry leaders and pastors can begin to ask the right questions when it comes to making decisions that affect their staff, and, as a result, can begin to make decisions that are both informed and compassionate.

Excellence, Not Perfection

Here is another brief excerpt from the first chapter of HR Matters that continues on with the theme of what it means to be “above reproach” as an employer:

Publication3To meet any goal, the goal itself needs to be clearly understood and defined. In light of this, what do we really mean when we use the expression “above reproach”? By definition, being above reproach means to be perfect and blameless. No one other that Jesus ever lived a life that was perfect and blameless, so certainly that can’t be the expectation for either our employees or ourselves! Instead, when considering 1 Timothy 3:1-13, I think what we are trying to say is that the expectation is for excellence of character—in both word and deed.

With this definition in mind, what does it mean to commit to excellence as an employer? As noted earlier, at a minimum, it must include a commitment to discovering and complying with the regulations and laws relevant to your organization (see Romans 13:1-7 for one example of our biblical mandate in this regard), but that is only the beginning. The dictionary defines excellence as “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.”  Considering this definition, meeting the letter of the law does not even begin to demonstrate excellence since you are merely doing what is fundamentally required. Instead, for the Christian employer, I believe excellence is an inside job that begins when the leadership of an organization consciously regards all of its practices—not just the ones that are directly specific to your mission or finances—as being “unto the Lord.”

This would include:

  • Your hiring decisions
  • Your compensation practices
  • Your policies and procedures
  • The way you treat your staff
  • The way you practice what you preach
  • The openness and honesty of your communication
  • The way you consistently apply standards

Jesus doesn’t expect perfection from us as His followers, and He doesn’t expect it from us as employers. He understands our fallibility and weaknesses. He knows we’re not capable of perfection. But He does desire our best because that is what excellence looks like.

I believe that’s what your staff is looking for as well. They don’t expect perfection, but they do want to see a genuine effort demonstrated toward excellence. For most employees, this translates as consistency between your organization’s stated values and your actions—especially actions that affect their employment.

Again, no one does this perfectly. Most employees are capable of extending tons of grace if you display ownership, honesty, and humility when mistakes and inconsistencies inevitably occur. On the flip side, if you turn a blind eye toward the fact that inconsistencies are occurring (and believe me, they occur everywhere), your employees are not likely to be so gracious on an ongoing basis. While they may choose to continue forgiving even if things are never acknowledged or recognized, most won’t continue to subject themselves to an unhealthy environment indefinitely (nor should they!). When there is an ongoing failure to recognize and acknowledge where improvement is needed, it negatively impacts your staff and diminishes the overall witness and effectiveness of your organization. Even worse, it can keep your organization from fulfilling its highest potential.

The simple truth is that being above reproach as an employer—or even more accurately, demonstrating excellence—is an intentional choice. You will not wander into it by chance. You will never “find the time” to figure it out. You need to make the time and commit to investing in the process. It is not likely to happen unless you are willing to see and take ownership for the mixed messages some of your current practices may be sending to your staff and those in your sphere of influence. I believe this anonymous quote sums it up well:

Excellence is never accidental; it is the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, skillful execution, and the wisdom to see obstacles as opportunities.

There are easier paths, but if you are committed to excellence before God in all areas—including your employment practices—then allow the challenges to become opportunities that compel you to press on for His highest. Press on, and keep pressing on, until you can say in your heart that you know that you know—you are above reproach as an employer!

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The whole first chapter of HR Matters is available to read online using the free “previewer” on Amazon. You can also purchase the whole book (either paperback or kindle) here.

Above Reproach?

This is a short excerpt from the first section of the first chapter of HR Matters. The whole chapter is available to read online using the free “previewer” on Amazon. You can also purchase the whole book (either paperback or kindle) here.

“It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, he must be above reproach.” – 1 Timothy 3:1-2a NASB

Publication3I’ve written a number of employee handbooks over the years and most of them include some sort of standards of conduct or code of ethics. When the handbook is for a church or ministry, the “standards” often contain some reference to the Scripture listed above. The context is usually that as representatives of the ministry, and even more broadly as representatives of Christ, employees are expected to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the calling. Accordingly, Eph. 4:1 (“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”) is also a frequently quoted text. These are great Scriptures and there is absolutely nothing wrong with requiring a high standard of conduct and character among your employees—as long as the same standard is applied across the board.

The staff of churches and ministries are usually among the most dedicated on the planet. Many have an extremely high level of personal commitment and calling to the ministry they are serving and they deeply desire to perform their duties as unto the Lord. These staff should be highly desired and valued. They are the ones who will follow you to the moon and back for the sake of the cause—until they start to feel they are being taken advantage of or treated unfairly. One of the fastest ways to cause staff to feel they are being taken advantage of can be summed up in one word: inconsistency.

Consistency is a big deal. Despite the fact that it can sometimes seem like there are laws for everything, employers really do have lots of liberty in lots of areas. As long as the standards you establish for your staff don’t create a discriminatory impact or otherwise represent a violation of federal, state, or local laws, you have considerable leeway in determining them. But once you do set your standards, they need to be applied consistently.

I will specifically address the importance of consistent application of standards among staff in later chapters, but for now, I want to address something far more foundational that can have a huge negative impact on your employees’ overall morale and effectiveness: requiring a higher standard for your staff than you are consistently modeling yourself.

Before you balk at that statement and assume it doesn’t apply to you, please hear me out. The vast majority of ministry leaders would never intentionally set out to inconsistently model the values of their organization. In fact, for most, setting a godly example is of paramount importance! Yet this is one of those areas where not knowing what you don’t know can—and does—significantly damage your credibility.

When considering the example you set as a leader, the character you model isn’t solely determined by how you conduct your personal affairs, or even by how effective and fruitful you are in fulfilling the areas you consider to be your primary gifts and calling. It is also determined by how you manage the organization (or your area of the organization) as a whole. In light of this, it perplexes and saddens me when I see so many sincerely devoted men and women of God demonstrating what can only be described as nonchalance and negligence when it comes to fulfilling their basic responsibilities as an employer.

When you communicate to your staff that the goal is to be “above reproach” in character and behavior, the same standard of excellence should apply to all operations of the organization. When viewed through this lens, can an organization that remains in the dark regarding legal compliance issues, or one that fails to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of its employees, possibly be said to be above reproach?

The answer, of course, is no, and your staff is usually quite aware of this fact—even when you’re not.

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