A Recurring Ministry Problem
One of the great dangers in church leadership is the temptation to work harder and longer because we think that’s the only way to make a difference. But according to this book from the world of business, that’s rarely the case.
I want to discuss a book with a title that might put you off. It is called, Great at Work. The subtitle might make things even worse: ‘How top performers do less, work better and achieve more’.1 But don't let that stop you.
Why? Because the author, Morten T. Hansen (who cooperated with Jim Collins to write, Great by Choice2) puts his finger on one of our recurring ministry problems. That is the tendency to think that if we just work harder and longer, we must make a difference.
Some of us do this to cope with ever increasing demands upon us. Some of us do this as we begin to see the church grow. Some of us do it because we are driven people, others to gain recognition for our efforts. But whatever the reasons, many of us are trapped by long, and ever longer, working hours.
So what does Hansen discover as a way forward? It is important to say that he doesn't primarily recount a series of stories from successful highflyers. Rather he reports the findings from statistical analysis of over 5,000 respondents. This objective analysis is backed up by helpful anecdotes to substantiate his points.
From this work, he describes seven practices which typify those who perform as the book says: they do less, work better and achieve more. As far as possible he wants to ground his points in objective insights about the behaviour patterns of those who outperform others without working exceptionally long hours.
Being able to work smarter and achieve a better work/life balance, without the organisation suffering ill effects is a good thing. It would be wise for us to overhear the conversation and listen up.
1. Added Value
Hansen’s number one feature is the importance of not only prioritising work by saying, ‘No’ to some things (a common feature in time-management advice). But also, “to obsess over the things which really add value.”
Value is defined as a result that benefits others, and along the way doesn't hurt anyone else either. Interestingly, benefit and value isn't reduced to ‘better pay’ or ‘more sales’, or ‘higher dividends’, but to people being helped.
It won't be hard for church leaders to think about really making sure they add value by obsessing over their priorities – prayer and preaching (see my articles on communication). There are other issues leaders need to obsess over, such as ensuring that members’ meetings and office bearers’ meetings are the best they can be. Or that visits to people really make a spiritual difference to them.
2. Redesigning Work
His second factor is to think seriously about, “redesigning the way work is done” so that it produces more value. It is so easy to slip into the, “We have always done it this way,” which means we don't ask, “Could this be done in such a way as to create better outcomes?”
Take the seemingly trivial example of what happens before church services. Typically leaders are ensconced in a vestry or equivalent. They may be praying, they are often chatting. At my church, we moved the preacher and service leader out onto the front door to welcome and greet. This has led to some better outcomes. So now the preacher locks eyes on everyone, and they on him, before the sermon, creating (we hope) a positive first impression.
A warm welcome may have helped the beginning of an emotional bond of care. The preacher also knows who is there and who may need extra help after the service. Now he doesn't just say, “goodbye” as people flock out afterwards. It’s a redesign of a small practice that has paid dividends. It is working smarter, and not necessary longer or harder.
What could that be for you?
How about the way you run leaders’ meetings? One leader I talked to recently felt that neither the devotional time and prayer, nor the working through of the agenda got handled well in regular weekly leaders’ meetings. I suggested he might arrange it differently. Why not have one regular meeting wholly devoted to the word and prayer, and then the other could prioritise the agenda that needed attention.
In that way both things would be done well fortnightly, rather than half-badly every time they met. A small redesign.
If you are not sure where to start with something like this, Hansen argues that you could head for the pain points, those things which you and others find frustrating, and then work on them. Plenty of those in church life!
3. Feedback Loops
His third practice out of seven was, “Don't just learn it, but loop.” He means that you need to establish fast, nimble, feedback loops. Don't wait for an annual appraisal, or an occasional poison pen letter for that matter. Get into the habit, in all you do, of getting input from others so that you build positive ways to change. This will also help you develop an internal apparatus that is always thinking, “Could I do this better and smarter?”
4. Passion & Purpose
The fourth area is to marry “passion and purpose.” Hansen wisely points out that not all advice to, “Fuel your passion and live your dream” is helpful. Far too many people self-define as ‘destined for a platform’ even if they lack the gift or grace for that.
Rather, what smart workers exemplify is a combination of passion (internal desire) with purpose (an effect for good on others). We need to be doing something worthwhile. He regales the sad story of how we can fulfil a task faithfully, but actually make no difference:
A finance clerk had driven himself to fill in and send off on time a quarterly report (and was proud of his regular achievement). But the head office he sent it to had long ceased using his figures for analysis! His work was fruitless, even as he achieved his task.
We have to ask, “How does what I do make a difference, and what is that difference?” We will get the best out of ourselves and others if we are committed to an end with a result.
That leads him to move on from describing personal work to group and team activities. This issue is gaining ever increasing prominence. Workers are urged to collaborate, and “tear down the silos” between themselves, their departments, and other organisations. No longer are authoritative hierarchies with a command-and-control structure the way forward. Rather ventures must “enlist all the talents.” Hansen is a bit more cautionary about all of this. He points out that some organisations have lost a great deal because they haven't “worked smart” over teamwork.
5. Forceful Champions
His first quality marker for teamwork is, “forceful champions.” He argues that positive change needs people who advocate (not impose) a way forward by properly enlisting strong emotional engagement.
Such people show that we cannot stay in the present, for it is a generator of negative emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, resentment, disgust and anxiety. The forceful champion then shows that the future is the place for excitement, joy, passion, thrill, ecstasy, and delight.
He reports what happens if these emotions are reversed. One company, to save some money, cancelled its workers’ free coffee. What did this generate? Fury over a future state (no free coffee), and nostalgia for the status quo! The thought that: “Never again would there be the delightful aroma of freshly ground coffee wafting in our corridors” meant the plan backfired as the emotional fuel was spilt all over the place.
Do some of your members’ meetings resemble that confusion of emotions?
6. Fight & Unite
This is very interesting. Teams need to have a diversity of viewpoints presented, and have a frank and honest debate if they are to get a best way forward. Fighting must be fair and not what he calls ‘political’. It must not be personal or vindictive.
Christians are not good at this at all. We either smooth our differences over, walk away disgruntled, or seek to undermine a decision after a meeting. His key insight is to really fight, then truly unite, even if the decision isn't your preference. All leaderships and church memberships would benefit massively from this one chapter alone.
7. Under & Over
Finally he looks at “the two sins of collaboration – under and over,” and tells you how you might discern whether you are doing one or the other.
He concludes the book with some reflections about what you should do with your life as you begin to work smarter, and particularly how you should spend the extra hours you may gain from the practices he advocates.
The book is not overtly Christian, his analysis is from the business world, and it may seem a bit remote (they are all examples from the US).
But it is a wise, timely, and helpful series of insights that can help anyone, or any group, prone to either overworking or underachieving. Well worth mining for the gems it contains.
1. Morten T. Hansen, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better And Achieve More (Simon & Schuster, 2018).
2. Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen, Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All (Harper Business, 2011).