A well-designed process is key to leading change

Mapping out a clear decision-making process enables stakeholders to track progress and identify places where people are stuck.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts about the keys to leading change.

A pastor invited me to explain to 12 church leaders why they needed to use a church consultant. I asked, “Will you provide the nails, or should I?” In my experience, such a conversation results in getting nailed to a wall because it puts the focus on what the outsider will do rather than what the church needs to do.

Outsiders, like consultants, denominational executives or friends, most often provide perspective and process. My consulting mentor would ask churches, “Do you know a dentist who does her own dental work?” No matter the dentist’s skill level, she lacks the perspective to do certain work.

Sometimes we need a different perspective to move forward, but more often congregations need help figuring out how to do the needed work together. When I got to the meeting, one angry church leader asked what I could do that they could not do for themselves. I replied, “Nothing. My question is, Will you do it?”

Congregations generally know what they need to do. For example, they know they need to minister to their community, but how will they do that? What will be most effective? For big, difficult and complex decisions, the congregation sometimes does not know how to manage the tensions of deciding, experimenting, adjusting and experimenting again. The path of least resistance is to do nothing, which often creates additional complexities. Effective leadership is the ability to chart a way forward. The issue is not whether or not to use a consultant.

One element of the challenge is that many congregations have a decision-making process that assumes clear and known choices. Robert’s Rules of Order is a time-sensitive way to decide yes or no.

There are difficulties on both ends of the process. Clear options must be developed in order to use Robert’s Rules. After the vote, a group can feel divided into winners and losers, which divides the energy necessary to do whatever is decided. On critical issues where the answers are not clear, a different sort of process is needed.

A good process functions as a map that outlines the stages and movements between the stages. Following the map lets others track progress and identify places where folks are “stuck” and need help moving forward.

At Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, we developed a map for creating learning experiences. The stages include nurturing relationships, imagining services, aligning and connecting with other services, designing outcomes and methods, recruiting, developing and preparing resources, executing the services and evaluating. We can track progress for each service and know what questions we should be asking and what comes next.

Maps help leaders deal with the “ocean temptation.” When dealing with a big challenge, leaders struggle as if walking from the beach into the ocean’s surging surf. Once leaders are beyond the breakers, they are able to float and get their bearings. In that dangerous but calmer spot they sometimes realize what needs to happen.

The temptation is to announce to the folks on the beach what needs to happen and invite them to jump in with the leaders, forgetting that everyone must make the journey through the breakers. The map lays out steps in that journey.

I once chaired a denominational committee that was appointed based on the way members voted on the previous year’s budget -- four in favor, four opposed and me.

I consulted with a friend, and he recommended a process of spending the first committee session listening to each other’s stories. What was really important to these folks? The staff assigned by the denomination to the committee was very nervous. The committee had a huge job and a tight time line. They thought the recommended process would waste too much time.

I decided to trust my friend and take the time. When we presented the budget, not only were we ready, but we were also unified. We received overwhelming support from the previously divided denomination. I credit the character and convictions of the people involved and a process that allowed those qualities to surface early.