The Short List

by Dan Hotchkiss

Sometimes it’s the simple ideas that are the most useful. I am continually struck by the way multiple priorities, distractions, interruptions, and alternative perspectives cloud my view each day. It is part of ministry, of course, to be “accessible”—which is to say, open to interruptions—but over months and years it is important to maintain sufficient focus to be able, at the end, to say, “This is what we did.”

The Short List is a concept I use to keep myself on track. The basic idea is that no one can keep in mind more than three or four major priorities at once. The larger the group, the more important it is to keep the list short. Most of us know, in preaching, that the old three-point sermon is dull, trite—and more effective than most of the alternatives. This is because it does not tax the congregation’s memory. Here are some areas of ministry where I have found the concept of the Short List useful:

Goal setting

It is hard for any group to say no. Good religious people everywhere especially hate to say no. Consequently when we sit down to set goals, we like to collect everyone’s ideas and “affirm” them all. The result is a laundry list. Since we lack an automatic washer-dryer for ministry programs, this kind of goal-setting leaves the organization to select its goals according to the tastes and inclinations of those doing the work. Generally this means business as usual, a congregation that resembles an ameba—possibly a healthy organism, but without a cutting edge.

A better approach is to burden the goal-setting body with a Short List of its own, for instance:

1) We will select no more than three specific, concrete goals for the coming year.

2) The selection of a goal shall not mean that other priorities are unimportant or may not be achieved this year.

3) But we will achieve the goals we do select, come hell or high water.

A leader or goal-setting body that adopts this discipline will set its congregation up to succeed, and just as important, to know that it has succeeded.

Staff supervision

The same approach works well with staff. With a church secretary, for example, it may make sense to sit down late in the spring to make a Short List for the coming year. Early in my ministry, I created a Short List with a secretary that looked like this: 1) Get the newsletter in the mail on schedule every week. 2) Go home promptly on time almost every day. 3) Apply firm, consistent discipline to train the minister to turn materials in on time. It was a wonderful year!

Clergy evaluation

The same approach works with professional staff, including the clergy leader. I have found it difficult, most of the time, to get the board to sit down and create goals with me in advance. The great thing about the Short List is that it can be applied unilaterally! I simply let everyone know that this is how I work, announce my Short List over and over, and invite feedback.

During a brief interim ministry I did while I was starting my consulting practice, my Short List went like this: 1) I will provide consistent, high-quality Sunday worship, 2) I will be faithful in pastoral care, 3) I will contribute to morale among the staff and top lay leadership. Did the church hand this to me? Of course not — I handed it to them at my first interview, and they helped me to refine it.

In a longer ministry, it is important to connect the Short List to board goals and clergy evaluation. Ideally the board would buy in to the Short List at the beginning of the year, and the evaluation would essentially relate to whether the list had been achieved. Secondary items (e.g., whether the minister is a good or a bad person) are relegated to their proper low priority.

Giving campaigns

Brilliant fundraisers like Kennon Callahan and Clif Christopher return again and again to the central importance of three things: 1) articulating a vision, 2) asking for money 3) earning donors’ trust. The vision for a giving campaign is a Short List of what would happen if the campaign succeeds. The emphasis for the vision is on new, different, sexy items: include the new piano for the sanctuary, skip the replacement of the footings for the furnace room. We worry a great deal, typically, about what is left out of the vision, and end up throwing in false items — things we’d like to do, but do not really plan to do. Better to have a short, credible list of things that will visibly and promptly happen if the campaign meets its goal.

Asking for money is by far the most important factor in fund raising, and it is—you guessed it—a Short List. No one “ask” can be appropriate for every family, so an effective ask has to be inclusive, offering some alternative ways to say what you are asking members and friends to contribute. One church this year is asking for 1) a $2400 pledge, 2) a $400 increase from last year’s pledge, or 3) at least five percent of family income. Many denominations still use complicated income-and-percentage charts that look like IRS Schedules X, Y, and Z. A more up-to-date approach is to give people a Short List, something they can focus on and say yes or no to.

Trust builds only over time. By consistently delivering on our promises, managing and then meeting expectations, and handling conflict and dissension gracefully, leaders give people the feeling that they mean what they say. If they say, “These are our goals for the year and here is what we need in time and dollars to accomplish them,” the people know that if they live up to their side of the bargain they will see the promised results. If this mean the goals need to be a bit more modest, that’s all to the good.

1) Goal setting, 2) Staff supervision, 3) Clergy evaluation, 4) Giving campaigns. I’d better quit before the list gets any longer!

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