Investing in staff in a time of change

The national staff of the Reformed Church in America practices on a zip line as part of a once-a-year gathering at a retreat center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Photo by Beth Heinen Bell

Christian leaders need to nurture talent in their institutions. Our series will help you do that. Learn from leaders in a variety of organizations, including the Reformed Church in America, about training, evaluation, goal setting, leading amid uncertainty and more.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series on leadership development.

As a database manager for the Reformed Church in America (RCA), AnnAlissa Ellens is used to serving as a trainer for staffers mining troves of electronically stored information.

But this year, in a twist that speaks volumes about the RCA’s methods and ambitions, she’s on the other side of the table. She’s being trained, both formally and informally, for new roles in a massively restructured organization, even though it’s not yet clear what those roles will be.

In August, Ellens was one of about 30 RCA employees -- more than a third of the 80-member staff -- to attend the Willow Creek Association’s two-day Global Leadership Summit, an event previously open only to top RCA executives. Afterward, she took part in a three-hour debriefing, led by RCA General Secretary Tom DeVries, to ensure that new insights would get put into action.


AnnAlissa Ellens sings at a staff
retreat.
Photo by Maria Orr

Then in September, with encouragement from her colleagues, Ellens stretched further on a personal level. She sang with a choir at an RCA staff retreat and mustered the courage to share her faith testimony before a crowd of co-workers.

“Giving a testimony is not something I would have ever done before this leadership summit,” Ellens said. “Now I’ve come to ask, ‘What can God do through me as a leader?’”

Ellens, like her workplace peers, is increasingly challenged to grow on the job these days. As part of its year-old Transformed & Transforming initiative, the RCA has overhauled how denomination staffers work with congregations and with each other. The denomination is relying largely on personnel development processes -- past, present and future -- to keep bearing essential fruit.

For the past year, this evangelical mainline church of 233,000 members and 1,061 congregations (including new church plants) has been reinventing what a denominational staff exists to do. Gone is the assumption that staffers must focus on generating “outputs” such as materials, largely in print format, for local churches to use in Sunday school, adult Bible study and elsewhere. Indeed, the RCA dissolved its publishing arm last year.

“Our churches don’t want denominational programs anymore,” said General Secretary DeVries. Religious goods and services aren’t necessarily what people want, he notes, from either local churches or denominational staff.

“We’re really now beginning to move toward producing processes that help congregations identify their needs, their local vision and call, and how they see that being lived out,” DeVries said.

Learning opportunities, formal and informal

In preparing for career paths with unexpected turns, RCA staffers are building on an organizational history that’s fostered a culture of learning.

Shaping influences in staff development haven’t come solely from instructional programs. When top executives at the RCA meet, they identify individuals who show potential to engage and lead beyond the scope of their current job descriptions. Those named to this list become go-to people when new, often unforeseen opportunities arise.

One example is the career of Christina Tazelaar, the denomination’s manager of communication. She started at the RCA as an editorial assistant upon graduation from college nine years ago. As positions opened up, she climbed the ranks to managing editor of RCA Today, the denomination’s magazine, gaining responsibility with each move.

Like Ellens, the database manager, Tazelaar has had opportunities to stretch beyond her specific job description, such as when she staffed an implementation team for a new confessional statement that the RCA eventually adopted. Now she oversees a staff of four who join her in bringing communications know-how to all 10 of the RCA’s newly established, goal-oriented teams.

“It’s a chance to grow each of these people with a new opportunity, a new experience and a new role,” she said. “They’re passionate about the ministry areas that they’re supporting. So it felt like a growth opportunity for them, one that had not existed before.”

Or consider the path of Scott Engelsman, a fundraiser for global mission and one of many staffers with an evolving job description. When he took the job of development coordinator two years ago, he never planned to be helping local congregations figure out whether God might be calling them to particular mission fields. Nor did he expect to be coaching technology-shy older missionaries on the art of storytelling on the Web.

But he’s doing both these days, in part because that’s what the current situation calls for. Giving to the RCA’s global missions fell more than 20 percent after 2000 (it is between $7 million and $8 million for fiscal year 2013 including disaster-related giving; the RCA’s budget is $18 million), as donors steered dollars instead to parachurch groups such as Samaritan’s Purse.

Under Transformed & Transforming, his approach involves working actively with individual congregations as they clarify their missions and explore how the RCA offers fitting opportunities for mission outreach.

Though he hasn’t trained specifically for his expanded duties, he’s proved ready for them as he leverages past experiences for a new time. He’s participated, for instance, in the Foundations of Christian Leadership program from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, where he studied “traditioned innovation” to provide creative guidance while preserving treasured institutional foundations.

He draws on those skills learned at Duke when he works with seasoned missionaries to teach new communication methods.

“I say, ‘Look, guys, I’m not asking you to change anything you do,’” Engelsman said. “‘I’m just asking you to change the way you talk about it a little bit.’… So the tradition isn’t changing at all, but we’re going to do it a little bit differently so that it fits better culturally for today.”

Depending on God

Current staff development efforts also build on a theological understanding that’s given rise to a robust culture of learning in the RCA over the decades.

As Reformed Protestants, RCA members emphasize how fallen, myopic human beings depend on a providential God to reveal plans and purposes, especially through those who’ve been touched by grace.

This translates into a staff development philosophy that focuses on getting people ready -- often, through nontechnical training that encourages broad, creative thinking -- for a future that only God knows.

“The danger of strategic planning, as it’s normally understood, is that we as humans remain in control of the plan,” said Ken Eriks, the RCA’s director of transformational engagement and an overseer of training initiatives. “Staff development might be better understood for us as strategic preparedness, not strategic planning. You’re not necessarily preparing them for a specific job, as much as it is a sense of preparedness.”

For this new time, staffers are adopting a new, missional approach. It involves “coming alongside” congregations, witnessing what God is already doing there and asking how that might be built up. The hope is that in these processes, congregations will unlock the potential within their ranks and reverse 48 years of decline.

To advance the project, the RCA has completely redesigned its staff structure. Six departmental silos have been dismantled, as have their respective chains of command. Staffers no longer report to one boss but instead serve on at least two of 10 teams. The denomination has numeric goals, such as engaging 150 churches in establishing new pathways to leadership by 2018. But figuring out how staff will be evaluated in the absence of yesteryear’s productivity benchmarks remains a work in progress.

It’s a risk. Half of all organizational restructuring initiatives fail, resulting in a cost-intensive restoration of the previous structure, according to Michael Hein, the director of the Center for Organizational and Human Resource Effectiveness at Middle Tennessee State University.

What’s more, DeVries estimates that the RCA’s 10 new teams have only four more years to demonstrate tangible progress if they’re going to sustain the church’s confidence and trust. After that, the five-year deadline they set as a benchmark for showing early results will have expired.

Nor has change been easy. Tumultuous change over the past year, including new job descriptions across the board, has taken a toll on RCA staff. Thirty percent have left and are being replaced, while others who’ve stayed on continue to struggle with all the flux.

“For some of our staff, this season of muddling around has been disconcerting, frustrating and anxiety-producing,” Eriks said. “That’s been part of the tension. Morale shifts depending on people’s need for that kind of clarity and definition.”

Comfort with ambiguity

Despite the turnover and uncertainty, the RCA hasn’t grown cautious about investing resources to develop the ranks. Instead, it’s doubling down in that arena -- and winning plaudits from outside experts for doing so.


RCA staffers gather once a year for team-building and
leadership training.
Photo by Maria Orr

Nearly half the staff was invited to take part in the Willow Creek Association summit, which was offered via video at more than 300 sites, with expenses paid by the RCA. Earlier in the year, the RCA spent nearly $40,000 -- on top of its annual $50,000 allocation for staff development -- in order for all staffers to receive a Kolbe Index assessment and access Kolbe analytics.

The Kolbe results have helped them categorize their own work styles and better understand their colleagues’ styles. The hope is that such insights, pegged to a color-coded scale, can keep teams from getting flummoxed when differences or conflicts arise.

“I can say, ‘I’m low red, and you are high red, so this is why we’re different in this process,’” said Kristin VanKampen, the denomination’s coordinator for volunteer engagement. “Those kinds of organizational personality tests help give a common language.”

Leaders and followers

Some worry that the RCA is going too far in ascribing leadership potential to people across the board. Skeptics raise eyebrows when emergent, grassroots learning communities are charged to prioritize the raising of all manner of leaders (deacons, elders and pastors) and when the majority of denominational staff is invited to attend a leadership summit.


Ken Eriks, center stage, addresses RCA staff at a retreat.
Photo by Maria Orr

“If you talk only about developing leaders, who are going to be the followers?” asked George Brown, professor emeritus of Christian education at Western Theological Seminary, after a meeting of an RCA team dedicated to fostering transformational experiences among the rank and file.

But others believe that the RCA is making the right moves by plowing resources and energy into opened-ended forms of staff development. The success or failure of organizational restructuring hinges largely on the staff’s buy-in, according to Hein of Middle Tennessee State, where he is an organizational psychologist. Leadership training can advance those goals, he said, and it bears fruit even when participants don’t go on to take up managerial responsibilities.

“You can learn a lot about how to be a good follower by going through leadership training,” Hein said. “Goal setting is a two-way street. You have to set goals with your employees. If the person you are working with also understands goal setting, they can help you do it right.”

Patience and other virtues

The need for cultivating patience, openness and other virtues is great in this environment. When team members from around the country met at the RCA’s Michigan Regional Center in early September, they discussed how they’ll guide local churches to come together, form learning communities and chart their own paths for mission and making disciples in their communities.

For team members, it seemed, comfort with ambiguity was a prerequisite.

For example, staffers were reminded not to bring an agenda but only to initiate a process that lets congregations figure out their own missions and determine benchmarks for success. They must exercise skills that come with training and practice, such as listening for common themes and helping the faithful identify God’s voice in the cacophony.

The challenge was on display when team leader Blaine Newhouse addressed a group tasked with equipping local congregations for engagement in local missions.

“How do you gauge success, growth or engagement in engagement?” he asked. “That’s something, I’ll just be honest with you, that I’m still praying about and would solicit your input about -- how to measure what matters.”

The RCA’s doubling down on training at this pivotal juncture stems in part from awareness that shedding hierarchy and replacing it with a system of accountability to multiple teams and leaders is not for the faint of heart. The logic holds that people must be equipped to handle change and uncertainty if they are to thrive amid ambiguities and keep their morale high.


Christina Tazelaar takes a
turn on the zip line.
Photo by Beth Heinen Bell

The RCA is already looking very different than it did a few years ago. When Tazelaar joined the staff in 2005, she was one of only three employees under age 35. Now about half the staff is in that age bracket, she said. The composition has become more diverse as well, as recent turnover has helped bring more women and minorities into key positions.

If the RCA succeeds, it will have a new set of metrics to tout as vindication of the process within five years, such as engaging 150 churches in advocacy efforts and mobilizing 5,000 new volunteers.

The denomination has reason to expect good results, Hein said, because it’s investing wisely in staff development. And that’s expected to continue as top managers trust that more is yet to be revealed.

Eriks conveyed as much in a prayer with his Transformational Experiences team.

“Lord God, thanks for your provision for us in so many ways, for the added wisdom that is in this room,” Eriks said. “Help us ever be humble enough to learn, ever be humble enough to learn, from you and from one another.”

Questions to consider:

  • The RCA has taken steps to ensure that its staff members speak a common language. What vocabulary does your organization have for vision, mission and purpose? How are new people immersed in the language?
  • What jobs in your workplace require leadership skills? Which skills are most valued in your organization, and how are they cultivated?
  • As the conditions change for your constituents, how do you identify needs that are emerging and those that are diminishing? How do you prepare yourself and others to adjust the work?
  • In what ways do you address the uncertainty that is natural in such circumstances?
  • Once you have developed a strategic plan, how do you know that it's working? What do you measure? Who keeps track of the numbers and how they are interpreted to others?
  • The RCA has identified the importance of patience and openness in its transition. What virtues are most needed for your organization at this time?