Small enough to do and big enough to matter

Employees need to know how to spend their time each day -- but they also want their work to intersect with their sense of vocation and contribute to an institutional vision.

Through involvement in four ministry start-ups, I have frequently felt overwhelmed by the tension between the vision of the founders and the reality of deciding what to do every day.

How does one start from scratch to encourage and strengthen Christian institutional leaders or the health of congregations? How does one know what to do at any given moment so those tasks add up in a way that results in progress over the long term?

I have come to think of this challenge as creating work that is small enough to do and big enough to matter.

With economic challenges facing a host of institutions since 2008, it seems that nearly every leader faces the challenge of appropriately scaling every job with “doablity” and impact in view.

As a supervisor, I have come to see such scaling a primary task. Employees need good work and such an appropriate scale is a key to generative organization -- generating creativity by organizing human efforts to a common end.

“Small enough to do and big enough to matter” requires ongoing assessment and dialogue. The capacities of individuals grow, shift and shrink as life happens. Commitments to family and education along with improvement and decline in health all must be considered. A critical dimension to this discernment is an ongoing conversation about vocation -- in the fullest Christian sense of that term as the call of God.

“The Atlantic” has been running a series of articles exploring the challenges that women face in the workplace that illustrate the impact of life events. Paulette Light tells her story of leaving a job to raise children and being stunned by seeing a study that 43 percent of women are in a similar situation. Many of the people who worship with us struggle with these issues.

The work to be done is also shifting. A corporate executive recently said that her business plan is significantly edited every six months. As I was telling family about a shift in my job responsibilities, my wife commented that she was not sure how many more big annual changes I could tolerate. I responded that these changes had occurred every six months over the past three years.

The cultivation of trust between colleagues is critical to having honest conversation about personal and institutional vocation. It is rare when an institution can craft a position that perfectly matches a person’s vocation. Most of us must do things at work that are outside the sweet spot of our passion and gifts.

One key to making jobs big enough to matter is connecting the job to the mission and vision of the institution. The more the colleagues share a passion for the institution’s work, the better the chance of the person having a sense of impact.

Many individuals and institutions have long seasons of wandering in the wilderness. Moses and the people of Israel’s experience in those 40-year stretches and all the conflict and tensions of the journey can feel familiar. We don’t always have a clear articulation of vocation; it can change over time, and we do wander about.

In these moments it matters who is with you on the journey. Having a community of colleagues in the institution and friends beyond it are critical. Sometimes no matter how skillful the manager or dedicated the employee, we don’t have enough clarity to make the job small enough to do or big enough to matter.

In my organization, we have some jobs that can be done in 40 hours a week. Others require 50, and a few regularly require 55 or more. Most of the time the salaries match the time (and skill) required. If one progresses up the system, the more one is expected to structure her or his own work. Often colleagues rely on each other, more than on supervisors, to sort out the questions of expectations, scale and output.

In striving for being organized in a generative way, we have found it important to constantly attend to the scale and scope of the work of every individual. What do you do to foster generativity? How do those efforts affect your support for colleagues and supervision of staff?