Laura E. Everett: Low-budget leadership development

Jar of pennies

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How do you develop leaders in your organization without funding? The executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches offers 10 ideas for leadership development on a shoestring.

Editor’s note: This reflection is part of a series on leadership development.

Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In my experience, those of us who lead Christian institutions say we treasure leadership development, but we don’t set aside funds or time for this work. Perhaps our heart is set on leadership development, but our treasure is yet to follow.

I find myself in this position at the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Currently, we have no budget line item for leadership development. Maybe one day we will shift our financial resources, but the institution I inherited had not put funds behind these efforts.

In the meantime, we are trying low-budget leadership development, improvising how, when and where we develop the people who make this organization work. (I comfort myself with the thought that Jesus and the disciples didn’t have a line item for leadership development either, but somehow they made do.)

I know I’m not alone with the dilemma, so I thought I’d share the ways in which we are attempting cheap and scrappy leadership development. How do you form committee members, board leaders and staff for leadership without any funding?

Here are some ideas:

Beg (from anyone and everyone)

If you can’t host your own leadership training, invite yourself to other organizations’ events. Take advantage of neighboring colleges and nonprofits. Regional denominational and ecumenical institutions are poised to offer more robust leadership development than an individual congregation. If another denomination in your area is holding an intriguing leadership development opportunity, take advantage of your ecumenical relations and ask to attend.

Borrow (from other fields)

The vice president of our board is a successful lawyer who runs a local firm. When I asked him how he retains young employees, he said talented first-year associates stay if they are given “meaningful work” in their first year and are not limited to shadowing senior lawyers. By discussing the leadership development practices of a law firm, I was able to see more accurately that my own institution has had a de facto probationary period for new board members before they are allowed to do meaningful work. We now intend to bring in new board leaders with specific, meaningful projects in mind and not simply redshirt them for a year.

Steal (from colleagues)

Once a year, I meet for a retreat with the directors of councils of churches from around the country. This is a great place to pick up good ideas and learn about mistakes to avoid. My colleague at the Wisconsin Council of Churches, for example, shared with the group that he holds an annual lunch for his past board presidents. I brought this idea back from our retreat, and our executive team loved it. Historically, we have rotated our presidents off the board and then done a mediocre job of keeping a relationship with them -- the leaders who were most involved in the work. This June we held our first ex-presidents’ lunch in Massachusetts. Our turnout was great, and it generated a lot of goodwill for little money. We are already planning one for next year. Now I will circle back to my Wisconsin counterpart to tell him what we learned and thank him.

Read

Reading is one obvious low-budget way to learn. More specifically, read something on leadership development with other people so you can discuss and practice what you read in community.

If you don’t have money, spend time

MCC doesn’t have funds for leadership development, but we do have a curious provision in the personnel policies that offers “study leave.” When a local college held a daylong series of lectures about leadership at Vatican II, I decided to seize the opportunity as a “staff study day” for some continuing education. The lectures gave my colleagues and me a common experience to discuss as we reflected on our own work. Even if you don’t have time set aside by personnel policies, aim to create times for intentional study and leadership formation.

Find or create a group to learn in community

In person and online, intentional groups of colleagues provide the context for meaningful growth and change. The ELCA bishop in New England, for example, has created a Facebook group for his pastors called “Try Something New in New England.” Pastors are encouraged to experiment and “tell your stories -- good, bad, and ugly.” Similarly, but in person, three pastors in a rural setting in our state recognized their need for social media education. They got together on Tuesday afternoons and watched online videos. It wasn’t fancy or particularly high-tech, but they were learning together and had colleagues to hold them accountable to their aspirations for growth and change.

Expand your definition of leadership development

We’ve found fruitfulness in expanding the areas where we can develop leadership. For example, we are cultivating more church leaders to think strategically about stories we can pitch to the local media. We aim to develop media-savvy church leaders as part of our commitment to the vibrant, ecumenical church. So when I prepare to pitch a story, I post to Facebook about what I’m thinking and invite people to help me refine the idea. This draws in new ideas, creates a stronger pitch and demonstrates publicly what constitutes a newsworthy event. My long-term goal is to equip local pastors to make these pitches themselves.

Don’t try to be the expert in everything

As a generalist running a small organization, I’ve learned to look to colleagues with more particular skills. I have a board president with tons of experience who has a very clear sense of what is staff work and what is board work. I look to her for these distinctions. I have a colleague who is exceedingly wise about staffing models. I look to him for wisdom about our restructured staff plan. I no longer feel I have to be the expert in everything.

Take advantage of opportunities to let others lead

A nearby seminary wanted to partner with us to host a visiting scholar for a community event. Unfortunately, this was scheduled at a time when I was to be on retreat. Instead of passing on the opportunity, we are experimenting to see what it’s like to host an event without me. My lack of availability on this day is inviting some greater leadership out of others.

Volunteer elsewhere

I’ve got an Episcopal colleague who runs the most productive meetings. I’ve also watched her cultivate impressive leadership out of younger colleagues. I want to learn to lead like her. So when the opportunity came up to serve on a board with her, I jumped at the chance. It’s an expense of my limited time, but I want to learn how she leads -- and how another organization runs. Find a good board that looks like the board you’d like to have and offer to serve on it.

These are some of the things that have worked for us at the MCC.

Do you have tips of your own to share with other Christian leaders? Post them on Faith & Leadership’s Facebook page.