Observe, Listen & Reflect

In my experience, United Methodists tend to be problem solvers in search of the quick fix.  All too often, we wait until a challenge reaches crisis proportions, then we seek a simple, easy solution.  Frustration sets in and we begin looking around to see if someone else can solve our problem.  We neglect the gifts, skills and knowledge resident in our own community, and we explore elsewhere.  In the current environment, we herald “best practices” as the cure for all our ills.  The fallacy in this logic is simple: imitation, while the sincerest form of flattery, almost never produces successful results.  Industry leaders do not get where they are by copying others.  Leaders do not lead by following.  Preservation of the status quo never inspires innovation.  It is overwhelming the number of stories of pioneer leaders who, while they had mentors and teachers, report that it would have been impossible for them to succeed by looking to someone else to provide them with the insight, direction, thinking, and vision they needed.  Some of the most innovative and creative minds share that introspection, contemplation, reflection on values, ethical and moral meditation, and bridge-building (between people as well as between needs and opportunities) are key “intangibles” that cannot be formalized or delivered as simple prescriptions.  The inherent wisdom of “to thine own self be true,” should not be discounted.  One of my own favorite professors used to say, “Experts tell us that effective planning depends on action instead of reaction.  I believe the most effective planning depends on inaction that produces traction.”  What he meant by this is that being to quick to act (or react) is deadly.  Taking time to truly understand current reality is critical.

I cannot remember where I first encountered this idea (so if you know the source, please let me know…), but it has stuck with me for my whole adult life.  It talks about four types of planning errors.  Type 1 is a simple mistake — applying a good solution to the right problem, but messing it up.  We assume this explains most of our failures — just didn’t quite do a good enough job.  Type 4 is totally screwing up — applying a bad solution to the wrong problem; treating a symptom in a less than helpful way.  I just read a story about a father who beat his son to death for poor grades, claiming that his child was willful and stupid.  It was discovered that the child needed glasses and that his problem stemmed from his inability to see clearly.  A horrendous example of Type 4.  Type 2 is applying a poor solution to the right problem — pouring water on a grease fire for example, or in less dramatic terms — using a safety pin when a zipper splits.  Type 2 masks problems, ignores problems, sometimes makes them worse, but never truly solves them.  When we try something and it doesn’t work, we assume it is the solution that is somehow defective.  The human tendency is to assume we have diagnosed the problem or need properly.  We seldom question if we are addressing the right thing.  This is Type 3 — applying a fine solution, but to the wrong problem.  On close analysis, Type 3 is actually more prevalent than Type 2 — it is not that our solutions are “bad;” they are being applied to the wrong things.  For me, this is where The United Methodist Church currently is — applying fine ideas to all the wrong things.  Examples include: addressing qualitative decline with quantitative approaches (e.g., “how well are we making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?” is our key issue — “how many people attend worship/how many small groups do you have/how much money are people giving?” are our evaluative metrics), addressing our current identity/purpose crisis with marketing and “branding” campaigns, needing to work on global community and witness at General Conference and instead focusing on structure and polity, and more generically, needing to equip the people we do have to live their faith in the world, but using so much of our time and resources to become coffee shops with valet parking and child care.  Very busy, very active, trying lots of things — aimed at all the wrong issues.  Looking at the prior list, it is interesting how many of the “wrong” things have their own websites, books, and “we did it, you can do it too!” resources…

So, making sure we are working on the right issues is foundational, and the best way to do that is to observe and listen.  One of my seminary professors, David Graybeal, used to teach “OPATCO” — On Paying Attention To the Community.  I am not sure I learned anything more important in my seminary years.  Each community is unique, each is different.  Each has a unique history.  Each is a unique blend of gifts, knowledge, skills, talents, interests and achievements.  Each is a kaleidoscope lens through which Bible, theology, polity and spirituality is processed.  Each connects with a unique context.  Each unique community is a rich and varied ethnography.  For leaders, both clergy and lay, there is no more important instruction than this: KNOW those whom you serve.

Human beings tend to assume they are good listeners.  We need to test this assumption.  Certainly, we hear a lot, but truly listening takes work.  Madelyn Burley-Allen’s, Listening: The Forgotten Skill, is a simple book well worth the effort.  It is a basic, self-help guide to improving listening skills.  She speaks of three levels of listening: Level 1 – Empathetic listening; Level 2 — Hearing, but not truly listening; and, Level 3 — Erratic listening.  Level 1 is truly tuned in, concentrating, attending to verbal and non-verbal communication, seeking to understand and authentically respond.  This listening allows that what the speaker is saying is actually more important and interesting than our own thoughts and responses.  Level 2 is more competitive and superficial.  I listen to what I want to hear and I tune out what I don’t.  I spend as much time formulating a response as I do paying close attention.  I want the other person to be sure to understand ME, but I am not as interested in understanding him or her.  In Level 1 — listening is about the other; in Level 2 — listening is about the self.  Level 3 is just a mess — distracted, mind wandering, drifting, catching snatches here and there — tuning into what one already knows and agrees with, tuning out everything else.  Mishearing, misunderstanding, clueless, embarrassed (“Hmmm?  I wasn’t listening…”), annoying — we have all encountered Level 3, we have all committed Level 3.

In my experience, effective leadership grounded in good listening and observation is predicated on four or five key considerations.  They are:

  1. Every person, setting, situation has a story.
  2. Every story has multiple meanings.
  3. Lasting and transformative leadership depends on healthy relationships.
  4. Healthy relationships are grounded in deep understanding and rapport.
  5. There are absolutely no shortcuts to discovering, understanding and developing story in community.

Stories are like Rubik’s Cubes — they are many-sided, shifting, changing, twisting, turning series of thoughts, memories, events, aspirations, disappointments and celebrations that define and describe individuals, families, groups, tribes, teams, parties, affiliations and cultures.  While we are taught in elementary school that good stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, in point of fact, most stories are randomly connected bits of middle, weaving in beginnings and endings.  It is indeed a skill to be able to enter a story in the middle and be able to exert “authority” (ability to author).  Pastors, as newcomers to the story (and remember, you can be in your twelfth year of ministry and still be a newcomer…), benefit greatly from learning the previous chapters, the characters, the plot, the highlights and low points, and the key narratives before they do much messing with the next chapter.

When I teach my class on Ethnography and Pastoral Leadership, I talk about exploring nine narrative spheres.  Sphere 1 is the narrative of the individual’s personal call — who am I and what do I believe God wants me to do?  Every leader should be ready to articulate his or her personal leadership narrative.  Sphere 2 is the narrative of the “formal leaders” — those elected, appointed, hired and anointed to lead in the congregation.  Who are they and what do they believe God is calling them to do?  What are their guiding values?  Who and what shaped their lives?  Where did they come from?  Where are they going?  Why are they here?  What do they want more than anything else in the world?  What are they passionate about?  What makes them happy to wake up in the morning?  What are their favorite books, movies, TV shows, musical styles, hobbies, foods, places, and people?  This same set of questions applies to the next seven spheres:

  1. “Informal leaders” — matriarchs and patriarchs, favorite sons and daughters, connectors and influencers who don’t hold a formal position of leadership
  2. Congregants — those who show up to be served in the church; those who attend worship but not much else; those who have a history with the congregation, but as sheep rather than shepherds
  3. Constituents — those who receive service from the church, perhaps through baptism, confirmation, weddings, funerals, VBS, fellowship events, etc.  They know of the church though have never formally attached themselves as members or regular attenders.
  4. Community — who are the people in the neighborhood of the church?  Those within a ten block radius?  Within a ten-mile radius?  What is unique about our city, village, town?  Our schools?  Our arts?  Our businesses?  Where does our church connect and interact?
  5. Civic core — who are our real/potential partners?  What are the needs in our community?  What are the community priorities for our police?  our schools?  our Chamber of Commerce?  our Social Services?  Who are the movers and shakers in our area, and what relationship do they/could they have with our church?
  6. Local culture — what defines our lived reality?  What do people do for a living in our area?  What do they do for fun?  What is meaningful and motivational in our geographic area?  What about our region is good, beautiful, and true (moral compasses, artistic preferences, educational and spiritual commitments)?
  7. Dominant culture — what is our nation doing?  what are we watching?  what are we buying?  who are we giving to?  where do we spend our time and energy?  what is most important to our many races, creeds, ethnicities and cultures?  how are we shaped/influenced by what media?

Just reflect on this list.  How long would it take to get your head fully wrapped around a deep and broad knowledge of these narrative spheres?  Yep, it would (should?) take a while.  And the more we can know and understand the story, the better decisions we will make about ways to lead and to shape a new chapter in the meta-narrative.

Listening, observing and reflecting are NOT passive activities.  In fact, they are the bedrock upon which all future action will rest.  Build on a solid foundation, not shifting sand.  It’s Biblical.  The better we learn and understand the context in which we serve and lead, the more effective and transformational we become.

5 replies

  1. Dan, great post as are the comments following. We have a great tool available to the Wisconsin Conference, MissionInsite, that I’m not sure many people know about. This demographic tool gives us current information about the people in our neighborhoods and when combined with actually talking to our neighbors, gives us an idea for how to best reach them. You are correct, understanding our neighbors is neither quick nor easy, but until we do we cannot reach them.

  2. It is not the length of an appointment so much as the intentionality of engagement. The material in this posting is bread and butter to an intentional interim/transitional ministry specialist who is present for a “short” but important and clarifying time.

    The mantra of a long appointment can be an excuse to not listen well in the moment. Making an idol of either long or short-term appointments applies a technologic fix to a communal/relational experience.

  3. According to research that I’ve seen (when a member of a church staff) it takes 9 years for a new pastor to start to achieve any change or to have the congregation/church lay leadership buy into their vision. Within the UMC, with appointments of 4-6 years (where I am), I can’t imagine much being accomplished as the turnover rate is far too quick. The longest serving pastor in the church I attend was there 9 years, and the church was very active with missions and ministry. It’s worship attendance grew, the people were actively involved, apportionments were met, the budget grew (and was met) which allowed more funds to be available for outreach, etc. Prior to his being there, and since he left 10 years ago, the church has wandered aimlessly from program to program, to new concepts, to old ways of doing things. All with no success. As a result lay leadership is now afraid to eliminate things which are a drain on resources, and the current Sr. Pastor is simply putting in his time until he can retire, as did his predecessor who’s now the current DS (appointed from his pastoral position in that church). The end result? Lack of leadership on multiple levels.

  4. Dan, is this why shorter appointments can be difficult for leading the church forward? Ought we make longer lasting appointments (if it is the correct fit) to help us address this?

    • In my experience, there is a strong correlation between length of appointment and leading fundamental and lasting change. When I studied our healthiest churches at the turn of the last century, the majority of them reported that it took seven years to see real evidence of significant change, and between 10-13 years to achieve priority goals and objectives. While many congregations reported pastoral change during their planning process, none experienced multiple changes and all had one appointment lasting seven years or more.
      On the other side of the equation, many pastors in their fifth- to tenth-year in the same appointment still did not know or understand the narratives of the church they served. Without fail, these churches were declining or struggling. In the absence of clear and deep understanding of the context (which takes time), leadership and decisions are arbitrary at best, incompetent at least, and ineffective in perpetuity.
      So, length of appointment alone won’t solve the problem, but a longer tenure is essential for radical and lasting change — and the vision and plan cannot belong solely or mainly to the pastor. Laity leadership need to know and understand the story of the congregation as well, and continuity with laity leadership is crucial.

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