Options and Audibles

Two things I learned (again) this week.

Forgive the football metaphor, but it’s my best current means of talking through this.

American Football’s offensive scheming is based in set plays, often quite complex. The many moving parts are called to serve the goal of forward progress, down the field and toward the goal line. But within a set play there are often options – a choice or variable enacted after the play has started and based on unfolding conditions. The quarterback receives the ball from center and pursues one of those options – usually a choice of running back or if a passing play, downfield receivers. Sometimes the option is running the ball himself.

All good.

Because everyone knows there are options. Even the most particular aspects of their own role and training lead them to this state of readiness. The outcome is a wonderful dynamic, allowing for reaction and spontaneity.

Audibles, on the other hand, are a literal reset of the play that has previously been called. Based as well in unfolding circumstances, these are also known and practiced.

Both can work well in ministry.

Both fail miserably when sufficient preparation and training is missing.

Preparation can be a rhythm. A known cycle in which options or audibles are expected.

Training can be a mindset. Or a practiced and clarified set of values.

So, here’s my takeaways:

  1. Audibles and options are not the problem. One might argue they are a natural and desired aspect of Spirit-directed ministry life. You can send the running back onto the field with the understanding he is going to get the ball and then shift to a passing play at the last minute. He is now a blocker and will be required to take on the defensive end twice his size. But you can only do that so many times. And you certainly can’t do it all the time.
  2. The very best way to implement options and audibles is through a game plan. A ministry game plan looks alot more like a rhythm of planning and resourcing than it does ad hoc initiatives. And that approach can certainly allow for a combination of preset plays and those awaiting their particular circumstances.

What steps can you make in the near future to prepare your staff and key leaders better for the possibility of options and audibles?

I think you’ll see far less injuries and enjoy more downfield momentum.

Something We Already Know

Patience wins the day.

The file showed up, exactly where we’d hoped and with the proper @ tags for staff next steps.

Specifically, it was the weekly study questions for our connect group leaders. Previously it had been distributed via email attachments, produced as a blog post and uploaded to our app and then stored locally on everyone’s hard drives. Email reply closed the loop. Pretty standard.

Over the last eighteen months we had been developing a centralized ministry planning approach that linked to dynamic project pages, file uploads, and targeted communication strings within those pages. Everything in one place. Everyone needing to know, directly prompted. And anyone else just wanting to know, with the capability to find what they needed in very quick fashion.

This was the first time this particular task was pushed through the new system. A palpable sigh arose. Not earth-shaking, but really nice. One more step for a sense of team and subtly showing the merits of the system change.

Here are three quick things about church systems change you already know, but might be nice to review:

1- Systems change is change

Thanks, Wayne. 

But it’s true. And it’s doubly-true when we’re talking about an environment (church) in which the primary focus (as it should be) and primary skillset (as it should be) are set on God and people. Tools come second. Sometimes third. Sometimes way, way down the list. Pastors are people whose sense of calling everyday is in the realm of ideas and relationships. They measure their accomplishments in those arenas. Tools are necessary, sort of. To make a rapid move to another form of getting their work done is a big ask. No, it’s a big, big ask.

2 – Make the case and then wait for the next opportunity to teach and encourage

Eighteen months. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a huge pebble in the shoe kind of thing for the support ministries team. We were okay with the extra steps and indirect nature of the previous process. And, it wasn’t like we had been asking for this specific workflow for eighteen months. But when this (small) win appeared, it did provide a sense of moving forward, together. It was the right moment for the ministry leader to catch the value of the new method. Anything earlier would have been less than what we’re hoping for. Which, of course, is mission momentum–in unity. No one gets dragged (or nagged) into that.

3 – Senior Leadership is the Icebreaker

And that’s a good thing. We’re not going anywhere without them. At least not anywhere good. Church staff coups, as one might imagine, are a non-starter. The writer of Hebrews gives clear direction:

“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.” (Heb. 13:17)

The better way we might see will never achieve its highest good when implemented via emotional pressure or quiet constituencies. God has placed leaders where He’s placed them. Other than the exceedingly few reasons for removal of senior church leadership, we only have one directive. Work alongside them joyfully. Patiently. Thankfully.

For more thoughts on church systems change management see Flow: The Surprising Role of Systems in the Health of Church Staff and Key Leaders.

One More Meeting. Really?

I know. I know.

It boggles the imagination that another slot on your calendar should be sacrificed for a meeting. It’s a big deal. In fact, Megan McInerny—in an excellent talk on project leadership—describes the calling of a meeting as one of the “single most violent acts” you can levy against another human being. You’re literally taking time from their one, brief lifespan. It had better count.

Setting unbridled naturalism aside for a moment, let me assure you: the one more meeting I am advocating will very much be worth it for your church staff and key leaders.

Event Consults

This meeting is called an event consult and it does what its name implies. 

All ministry events and initiatives have an associated number of details, plans, production, and communication. The normal routine for this work is various email strings, phone calls, and a few hallway conversations. The timeframe in which these variables are raised, considered, and settled could be days. More likely, it’s a few disconnected times over the course of months. And then there’s the not-unexpected deluge the week-of the event or ministry start.

Does the work get done? Yes. Quite often it does.

Is there a better way? Absolutely.

Four Basic Components of an Event Consult

  • 1 – All ministry events | initiatives schedule an event consult 60 days prior to first/only date or restart date of ministry.
  • 2 – Ministry leader invites representatives from operations, tech, and communications.
  • 3 – Consult covers/confirms:
    • Event name, date, time, and location
    • Room setups, equipment, and operational requirements
    • Communication plan
    • Production Assets plan (graphic design, video, print materials)
    • Registrations and recruitment plans
    • Whether an event-ready (2 weeks prior) will be helpful or event consult locks details.
    • Group prayer for God’s hand and presence in the event | initiative
  • 4 – All above are logged into an easily-referenced public source.

The time-suck varies. Some require fifteen minutes. Some are more on the order of forty-five. But think about this. The very people you would reach out to over the course of an undefined time period are now in the room, giving best counsel and confirming your needs, and then praying together. No confusing email strings where it’s near impossible to find who said what when. No easily misconstrued emojis. No lost post-its with scribbled room setups.

It’s almost like ministry staff and operations are a team. A real team.

Yes, it’s one more meeting. But it’s the one meeting that will replace formerly scattered methods while removing the ongoing burden of details from leaders who want to focus on people. Don’t like admin or logistics? Awesome. Get it done and move on. 

You’ll be so glad you did.

For more principles on ministry planning see Flow.

This one is funny. Seriously.

Probably difficult to get an accurate count on the number of books, courses, and talks aimed at the interaction of creatives | presenters and those that support them. Here’s a video you’ll love, from the ops side of things.

If the link fails you, search for “Piano Guys Studio C.” 

You’re welcome.

For more principles on a healthier approach to church staff teams see Flow: The Surprising Role of Systems in the Health of Church Staff and Key Leaders.

Healthier Ministry May Require a Different Rhythm

Lead Pastors, tell me if this sounds familiar:

You seek the Lord.

You gain a sense of direction.

You develop an approach.

You implement.

And then carry a nagging sense that the impact was less than you’d hoped.

Here’s one of ministry’s unchanging truths: our efforts are not the agent of life-change. But that’s not to say the ways we go about ministry are neutral actors. It is quite possible that a portion of your impact disappointment may be connected to a very fixable staff team dynamic with steps forward that are quite achievable.

Ministry Rhythms

The four phases above are your ministry cycle. On average the seek-sense-develop-implement cycle happens 5-7 times per year. These are mostly teaching series but you may throw in one or more discipleship or other initiatives. So, maybe 8 or 9 times a year, this is your rhythm.

Now, let’s ask the cycle-frequency question for your staff and key leaders.

Childrens: maybe 5-7 as well, but likely not parallel to yours.

Youth: same, with a couple of conference/retreats and maybe a missions trip.

Missions: 3-4 short term trips and likely a handful of partner visits.

Groups: maybe 1-2 if there’s a pattern of training for leaders and/or groups on-ramps.

Worship: more directly tied to yours but with a few events or special projects as well.

Okay. Let’s go a step further.

Every cycle hopes to access two main capacities.

1 – Fixed-limited resources. 2 – People’s hearts.

The first is fairly easy to imagine as having a cap. Only so many rooms, staffing hours, tech and creative support options. The second is tricky. But think of it this way. It’s very difficult to capture people’s hearts if we can’t command their attention. Communication is a capacity. We only have so many moments and ways in which we can transfer vision and call to action. There is a real threshold at which that resource diminishes rapidly.

So, what do we have?

A group of people working very hard to seek-sense-develop-implement but on very different timelines and needing to access the same resources, but on very different timelines and–this is really important–with no means to know which cycles might be driving and which might be passengers.

“… our efforts are not the agent of life-change. But that’s not to say the ways we go about ministry are neutral actors.”

Lead Pastor, you think of your cycle as setting the pace.

If the above describes your team, it may not be. In fact, it may be very difficult to find the kind of impact you are praying for without making some changes. 

Two Healthier Approaches

Our first option is simply called margin. 

If you really want your team and congregation to engage, you’ll need to find a way to limit the other cycles. You can not run everyone at 100% and then expect them to remove themselves from their cycle in order to join yours. The practical side of this would look like establishing the other cycles on your team at something less than 100% and then training them to join yours at the moments you need it. This also helps with availability of fixed resources, leaving an established % unspoken-for.

So, good step. But it doesn’t really solve the issue of offset cycles. And it’s some measure less than the kind of team effort at which you’re probably aiming.

Option 2: Establish a livable ministry rhythm that is knowable, repeatable, and driven by initiatives that move the whole as opposed to the pieces. 

In Flow, I suggest and outline a rhythm of two six-month horizons. It’s a simple structure.

Jan-June: seek-sense-develop for July-December (implement)

July-December: seek-sense-develop for January-June (implement)

Each 6mos period has four months of ministry-level preparation and then two months of all-staff coordination. Then you live out six months of the good plans God has given you. Together. On the same rhythm. And with an agreed approach to resources.

I know this feels foreign. Likely a bit restrictive. Maybe impossible.

Different, yes. Impossible? No.

This may just be the way the huge, all-ministry initiatives begin rising to the top. And ultimately—like we all dearly hope—going deeper in and further out. 

For more ministry rhythm principles and a suggested approach, see Chapters 6-8 of Flow: The Surprising Effect of Systems on the Health of Church Staff and Key Leaders.

2 Quick Keys to Project Proposals in the Church

I felt a little tired.

The meeting was fine, nothing unusual. Still, something lingered in my heart and mind. Not the keep you up at night kind of thing. Just that vague sense of the important-but-undone. Well, actually more like the important-but-undefined.

The next morning, it only took me twenty minutes. But I felt much, much better.

What made the difference? I spent the time writing a summary of the “problem” in the form of a project proposal. A very limited proposal. More sketch than anything else. But it had the necessary elements to move me from grey to green.

Here’s two quick aspects of church project proposals that can propel you from good concern to helpful action.

1 – Build a Common Structure

It doesn’t matter what your structure is, but you need one. And it needs to be everyone’s structure. The main reason projects in the church bring so much angst is because everyone starts, runs, and completes them with varying steps, language, and sense of when we’ve done the thing we said we were going to do. While that kind of personalization works okay for project leaders, staff in more than one project group will be living in chaos. And senior leaders will have a very hard time making sure things are moving forward across the ministry. Projects are the place we collide or collaborate. It’s really our choice. A common structure sets us up well for the latter. 

2 – Include These Key Components

Projects are really just opportunities to leverage people’s skills and perspectives toward the common good. So, right away we’ve hit the two biggest components of any project proposal: team and outcomes

Get the right people in the room. Clarify the future win. 

Not everyone needs to be in every project, but every project needs the right people. And the win is not simply the completion of the project. We’re more concerned with how the completion of the project will positively affect God’s people and His Kingdom purposes. In fact, the longer and more complex the initiative, the more potent the future win should be. Otherwise we’re investing much for something much less.

Okay, team and outcomes. What’s left? 

Timeline. Steps. Budget. Potential hurdles to overcome. List these as bullets, not paragraphs. Enough to get the party started but not close it down before anyone arrives.

A first swipe at a project proposal (a v1 in Flow language) doesn’t need to be comprehensive. It just needs to call the right people to the right cause, with a simple outline of the right next steps. And it will absolutely help you shift some unnecessary weight off your shoulders.

“… it had the necessary elements to move me from grey to green.”

Church isn’t about projects. It’s about God, His purposes, and His people. Well, surprise. It’s filled with all of the above.

Establishing a common project proposal structure with these basic components will get you moving toward the things that matter and joyfully accomplishing them in greater unity.

For more thoughts on project management in the church and real-world examples, see Flow – Chapter 3-4 and Appendix B.