Pastoring through change

[re-posted from the Wycliffe Canada President’s Blog]

We all know everyone responds differently to change. Some embrace it. Some lead it. Some react negatively at first but eventually come around. And some will never go along with it. Many have written on these various responses, and I have little to add.

The question I want to unpack is how we as leaders and colleagues respond to those responses. In other words, do we recognize accurately where our brothers and sisters are in their journey through a major change so that we have a tailored response rather than a one-size-fits-all approach? That’s not natural for managers to do, and it takes a lot of work, but it’s absolutely critical to the success of a change initiative.

Tuesday in our Leadership Team meeting, we took a look at Paul’s closing words in 1 Thessalonians. Among them was one verse my pastor in Orlando used often for training community group leaders:

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle [or unruly], encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thess 5:14 ESV)

I want to apply his words today to the context of change.

What happens when you misdiagnose someone’s condition and apply the wrong medicine? For instance, what happens if you encourage or help the unruly and disruptive? Or you admonish the fainthearted or weak? Obviously, the results of both could be disastrous. In the one case, you’d be enabling. In the other, you could crush their spirits. Like Jesus, we need to be leaders of whom it could be said,

a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench. (Isaiah 42:3 ESV)

But the distinctions between the needs of the weak and the fainthearted are slightly less obvious. To encourage the weak is like telling the cold and hungry, “be warmed, be fed,” and then walking away (James 2:16). To help the fainthearted is like my ham-handed attempts to solve my wife’s problems when she simply wants a listening ear. How often do we jump to the wrong medicine, based on a cursory diagnosis on our brother’s or sister’s condition?

In contrast, what incredible good can result when a manager knows where each of his staff members is on their journey through change and responds with just the right touch! Those who threaten to disrupt or sabotage the process are rebuked. Those practicing passive-aggressive resistance are admonished. Those who are weary of change are encouraged and motivated. Those who have lost their vision are re-inspired. And those who need strength — who don’t know what to do — get the help they need.

That’s the result we want, but I hope you can appreciate how difficult it is for managers to assess their staff members well. So let’s not put this solely on the managers. How can we do this for each other as well? If you’re together with someone else at the same spot in the journey, don’t let your conversations turn into gripe sessions. Encourage, admonish and help each other. If you’re ahead in the journey, find ways to use your own journey to bring your brothers and sisters along.

We’re not going to get it right every time. That’s why Paul’s last thought is so important: “be patient with them all.”

As Wycliffe Canada embarks on a change process and a restructure, we can’t face the future in isolation. We need each other. I believe God has placed the people around us who have just what we need to get through the changes ahead. That’s what community is all about.

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Gifted to lead

Let me loop back and unpack one of Tim Elmore’s seeds: leadership gifting.

In my experience with the Threshing Floor, I’ve seen all kinds of potential in leaders. Leadership is seldom positional at its beginning, though I’ll grant that some didn’t know they were leaders until they were thrust into the deep end. More often, the thing to look for is an interest in, gifting for or calling to leadership. I blogged on the subject last year, focusing more on interests and abilities.

But how do you identify leadership gifting? What are its earliest seeds? Does someone who’s gifted necessarily know it? In my experience, they don’t always know it, and it takes someone alert enough to recognize the signs. To show a lot of patience with a young person who asks lots of questions. To allow failure — even encourage it — in someone who shows a lot of initiative and then take the time to debrief and stir them to try again. To spot a learner who’s unafraid of feedback or even seeks it, and then to reward it with well-thought-out, specific feedback.

I remember a few years ago I sought out the opportunity to work with a collection of individuals that was discouraged but talented. When I considered taking this position, I looked specifically at one young leader who had a huge amount of passion and an amazing ability to encourage others, but for some reason rubbed some people the wrong way. He had a reputation for success, but was sometimes too quick to make an end run if he ran into an obstacle. I think it’s safe to say that some in leadership considered him a thorn in their side. Yet when I moved on to another position, his potential won out; he ended up moving up to take some of my responsibilities.

At one point I sent him to a week-long leadership event that utilized an anonymous 360 review. I decided to be very specific in my feedback, believing that to move to the next level there were some things he needed to work on and sensing that he would approach this opportunity with a hunger to learn. In talking with him afterwards, he thanked me for the feedback and suggestions I had made. He knew exactly which comments came from me. Why? Because he knew I would always be completely honest with him, and my comments stood out among the feedback he’d received.

Now, this was an individual who knew he was a leader. I’d love to hear your stories about how you spot leadership gifting in someone who doesn’t recognize their gifts.

Reluctant leadership seeds

Drs. Anthony and Crystal Gambino, in their essay on reluctant leadership, look for the following traits:

  • servanthood
  • teachability
  • initiative
  • passion
  • encouragement

Some of these characteristics are more fundamental to and may be observed even earlier in the process than Tim Elway’s suggestions. While initiative and passion are somewhat predictable — they’re often the points where we often first notice someone — the others are less obvious.

An interest in being others-focused is an excellent starting point. A willingness to serve and the companion part of it — noticing needs around them — are the foundation of leaders of integrity who support their direct reports. Likewise for a desire to encourage and lift up people around them.

I totally agree with teachability as an early sign of leadership. I’ve heard it said several times that leaders show insatiable curiosity and ask lots of questions. A desire to learn and grow eventually shapes a leader who is a developer of others. Teachability is a trait that can be spotted early and should be part of a leader until the day he dies.