What Makes for a Strong Partnership?

by Dan Hotchkiss

Nothing is more important to a congregation’s dynamism than strong partnership between the clergy leader and the governing board. In my last post, How to Give Away Your Power, we focused the question, “How can I get people to take more responsibility?” Today we’ll ask, “What makes for a strong partnership?”

By a strong partnership, I don’t mean one in which the partners are necessarily comfortable or happy all the time. A strong partnership is one that produces results in keeping with the congregation’s mission. To accomplish that, the partners need to agree about the mission and their plan for achieving it. They need to know what to expect of one another, so that over time they can build trust. They need to communicate frankly about what is going well and what needs fixing. And they need a way to make decisions that allows the work to move ahead.

In many congregations, sadly, partnership between the clergy leader and the governing board is not strong. Instead, it is marked by watchful wariness that bogs everybody down, or camaraderie that is not focused on the work, or friendliness that covers hesitance to give frank feedback.

What makes for a strong partnership? No doubt it’s partly a matter of compatibility, shared values, and emotional intelligence. It’s hard to dance with a partner who steps on your toes all the time. It helps to have sound beliefs about what strong partnership requires.

One unhelpful belief, held by too many leaders, especially in liberal congregations, is that partnership requires a really fuzzy allocation of authority. Terms like “shared leadership” arose out of the need to grow beyond a world where clergy dominated laity, men dominated women, and wealthy people dominated everybody. Many congregations have become more democratic and egalitarian, which is good. In the process, many of them became less effective and efficient and less mission-driven, which is not good.

When I consult with clergy and boards, I sometimes ask, “What decisions does the pastor make? What decisions does the board make?” In many congregations, the group’s first response is to object to the question. “We share leadership,” they say. So on newsprint, I create a category of decisions shared between the two, and the group puts almost everything into the third category!

In real life, thousands of decisions need to be made each week; it is impossible to share them all. And so the people on the scene make the decisions that need to be made—then check with others to make sure they made the right decision. Or they refuse to make decisions on the excuse that they have to check first. What could be a dynamic, mission-driven system becomes a system whose first principle seems to be that nothing gets decided until everybody’s fingerprints are on it.

Some clergy know how to take advantage of this kind of system by controlling the board’s access to information. By putting two or three challenging but often trivial decisions onto the board’s agenda, they conceal thousands of decisions—some of them quite important—they made on their own that month.

Some boards know how to enjoy this kind of system by becoming the complaints department and continually second-guessing everything the clergy leader does. They train members to believe that the congregation exists to please everybody by treating a complaint as if it were a sign of failure. But complaints can also signify success. Whenever congregations start to steer in one direction, the first sign of success is that somebody complains. At that moment, partners need to have each other’s back.

Partnership begins with a division of authority. When everybody knows what buck stops where, nobody needs to worry about hiding information or defending turf. People can move closer to each other when they are not worried about losing power if they enter into give and take.

Effective boards accept the awesome, ultimate responsibility the law accords them and the limitations that arise from being a group, being volunteers, and meeting only a few hours a month. Effective boards focus on a few work products that will make a serious difference over the long haul. These include, in declining order of importance: a short list of annual goals for the congregation and a budget that supports those goals, a strategic plan for the next three to five years, and a useful, lasting statement of the congregation’s mission.

Effective clergy leaders accept the awesome spiritual power accorded them by even their most secular parishioners, who know that if they die, or someone they love dies, their clergyperson will be there to help them through that passage. And they accept the limitations that arise from being—at least for the first 20 years or so—a newcomer, an outsider whose influence, if any, has to be granted and re-granted by the elders of the congregation.

So the clergy, too, must focus, in their role as institutional leaders, on a few important work products that will make a serious difference over the long haul. These include, in declining order of importance: building trust by keeping promises and setting an example, drawing in a cadre of devoted leaders who together transform lives, and excelling in the standard skills of preaching, teaching, and the cure of souls.

When such partners sit together, they don’t worry about interfering in each other’s business. They know what to do. The clergy leader helps the board and gives them leadership as they struggle to state what the congregation’s mission calls for. The board firmly and compassionately oversees the daily work—not to undermine the clergy leader but to ensure that he or she remains on track.

Standing side by side before the congregation, lay and clergy leaders let the people know what mutual respect looks like, what it looks like to be seized by mission, how true partners honor one another’s roles and help each other—not because there is no boundary but because the boundary is so clear it can be safely crossed.

(c) 2014 Dan Hotchkiss

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