Focus on excellence
By restructuring its organization around “excellence,” the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has increased its effectiveness and transformed its culture.
May 10, 2011 | The Rev. B.T. Williamson had seen the problem before, but now it seemed worse than ever. It was the 2006 appointment season, a time when the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church adjusted clergy assignments. Too many clergy were in “must-move situations,” Williamson said.
“We had disproportionately high numbers” of clergy who couldn’t stay in their positions for a variety of reasons, he said.
But rather than shuffle the pastors around as they always had, conference leaders decided that business as usual was no longer sufficient.
The conference, comprising 700 congregations in East Texas, was in the midst of a sea change that had brought a new mission and vision and a very public commitment to a new standard: excellence. And to Williamson, who was then the conference’s director of ministerial services, an assignment system driven by “must-moves” didn’t sound like a formula for excellence. They needed a new way.
"While [the term ‘excellence’] is also being used in business, it's a word that belongs in the Christian faith,” Huie said. “We needed to reclaim it for the purpose of reaching the mission field and making disciples for Jesus.”
In 2006, the new mission and vision took root when the conference changed its organizational and budget models. The restructuring, leaders hoped, would sharpen its focus on the new mission and vision, increase its effectiveness and transform its culture.
“We’re really talking about sanctification, growing deeply in the knowledge of what we do,” Williamson said. “It’s not about us but the challenge of making disciples and forming the world.”
Transforming a culture
At the heart of the organizational changes was a reorganization of the conference’s structure in 2006. Conference leaders created three new centers of excellence – the centers for Clergy Excellence, Congregational Excellence and Missional Excellence -- and placed a new emphasis on accountability and data. The centers’ directors also became nonvoting members of the conference’s leadership team, giving them a critical voice in the conference’s strategic direction.
The effect has been a shift in focus away from the sort of reactive problem-solving Williamson had routinely faced and toward mission-based decision-making.
Questions to consider:
- The Texas Conference faced a significant adaptive challenge that led to its focus on “excellence.” What adaptive challenges do you face? What can this story teach you about responding faithfully and effectively?
- How does the structure of your leadership team reflect your institutional priorities?
- Are your individual performance expectations linked to institutional goals? How do your performance review practices connect with the strategic vision of your organization?
- Gail Ford Smith mentions the importance of support and accountability in moving clergy toward “excellence.” What do you do to provide both?
- The Alban Institute consultant raised some questions about the conference’s approach and offered constructive feedback to the leadership. How do you receive feedback about the effectiveness of strategic initiatives? What do you do with the feedback offered?
Including the word “excellence” in the names of the centers signaled the importance of the goal.
“That’s as public as you can get,” said the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, the first director of the Center for Missional Excellence and now deputy general secretary at the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the denomination’s global humanitarian aid organization. “When you tell people you’re going to be excellent, that’s the expectation you set.”
The effect, she said, was clearer priorities and “a laserlike focus. … You’re making appointments where you’re putting the right people in the right places for the right purpose.”
Case in point: clergy assignments. As Huie wrote in a 2009 monograph, an appointment process “largely driven by must-moves” was “a significant deterrent to ‘vibrant, growing congregations changing lives and re-shaping futures for Jesus Christ’” -- the language of the new vision.
Focusing on excellence gave the leadership what Huie called “one of those ‘a-ha’ moments. We realized that [when making clergy assignments] our client was neither the pastor nor the congregation, but rather the field mission.”
The conference revised its appointment-making practices to identify pastors with strong records of excellence or the potential for it, as well as strategic and high-potential congregations, and focused on better matching them. “Must-moves” would be considered later.