Nathan Kirkpatrick: People want to know how their work matters

A compass with the needle pointing to the word "Mission"

Bigstock/donskarpo

Many leaders think they don’t have the time to help others understand their work within the larger mission of an organization. But they do, and they should, writes a managing director at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

In many of the developmental programs at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, we use a 360° instrument to provide our participants with feedback from their supervisors, direct reports and peers. For many of our participants, it is the most robust feedback they will receive all year.

Over time, we have learned that a significant number of these Christian leaders share a development need: they are weak in “contextual leadership.”

Despite its name, contextual leadership does not concern how effectively a particular person leads in his or her context. Rather, contextual leadership refers to the way a leader helps others understand their work within the larger mission and ministry of an organization.

Whether we are working with paid staff or volunteers, helping people frame their contributions promotes a sense of meaning and purpose, which in turn decreases turnover and increases satisfaction and morale. Simply put, people want to know not just that their work matters but how it matters.

Denominational leaders, nonprofit executives, ministerial staff, higher education administrators, program directors and other Christian leaders who attend our programs have demanding schedules. They set strategies, make decisions, attend meetings and manage crises. One leader recently told me, “Every day I walk into the office, I ask myself, ‘Who will I have to disappoint today?’” Leadership is often about triage.

Not surprisingly, many leaders feel they simply don’t have the time to help others understand the meaning of their work.

The leaders I know who do contextualizing work exceedingly well have found ways to integrate it into existing organizational practices. The intentionality this requires in the beginning, they report, becomes second nature over time.

For one of these leaders, a nonprofit executive, the initial step was to voice the unasked questions he imagined his employees and volunteers were carrying: How does my work or time make a meaningful contribution to those we serve? Would you notice if I was not here? How do my efforts allow me to better follow Jesus and seek and serve him in others?

In naming these questions aloud in one-on-one meetings and larger gatherings, he validated the desires behind the questions and opened conversations about the meaning of their individual and collective work. The millennials who volunteer at his nonprofit were especially grateful, he says, for the opportunity to talk about the significance of their volunteer efforts.

Another leader makes it a practice at the beginning of every staff meeting to remind her team of the meaning of the institution’s mission -- notice, not simply the mission but the meaning of the mission. She puts a face on it. She shares the story of someone whose life was touched or changed by their collective work. She reads a paragraph from a commendatory email or shows a picture of a time when her organization was faithfully living into its purpose.

Then she asks those present, whatever their role in the organization, to name how they played a part in that moment. If an individual can’t name his or her own contribution, the staff as a group identifies how that person contributed. It works because she has a small staff, but even a modified approach for a larger staff could be a valuable institutional practice.

A pastor who excels at this work incorporates it into his congregation’s worship. Before the offering every Sunday, he tells the congregation what they have accomplished the preceding week through their giving. He reminds them that they have dug wells in Africa, brought words of hope and comfort to the front lines of armed conflict through military chaplains, provided school supplies for kids who were without, fed families on Christmas. He’s noticed that since he started the practice, giving has increased.

A denominational leader who travels frequently keeps in her carry-on bag a box of notecards, a book of stamps and a list of the clergy and lay leaders who serve the congregations she oversees. As she travels, she writes notes to those leaders, expressing gratitude, offering prayers and naming at least one way their ministries are meaningful to her work at the denomination. It helps that she is long-tenured and knows these congregations intimately. Each note takes only about five minutes to write, but each helps invest the congregation and the denomination a bit more deeply in their distinct but mutual ministries.

It is a gift of leadership to help others see their time, effort and sacrifice against a different horizon -- to help them see how their work contributes to the development of a vibrant institution, to the cultivation of a thriving community, to something that points beyond itself to the greater reality of the kingdom of God, which is making itself known in our midst.