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5 Rules of Thumb

Pat Verbal

Get a handle on these five filters for effective problem solving in your ministry.

It was appalling! A board member in my church wrote weekly critiques to our children's ministry leaders with a negative tone that attacked the program and people's character. I didn't do anything about it, but I prayed and sympathized with my injured coworkers -- until the day Sam's literary critiquing got personal. This time, it was about me! I stormed into my senior pastor's office waving the four-page letter, ready to tell Sam what I thought about his misguided opinions. And I'll never forget what my pastor taught me that day, because it's one of the most powerful truths in ministry leadership.

My pastor said simply, "Your reaction to the most difficult person you minister to will shape the quality of your leadership."

In other words, if I couldn't be "Jesus" to Sam, I couldn't be "Jesus" to anyone -- adult or child.

What a challenge! It didn't matter how patient and loving I acted with every child in my church, because I could be rightfully judged by my poor reaction toward this one "thorn in my flesh."

I left my pastor's office that day with a changed attitude and a new perspective on leadership. I learned that Sam had deep hurts in his life that others couldn't see. And I realized that while some issues need to be confronted, wise leaders use prayerful compassion and childlike faith when facing every problematic situation.

Don't be surprised when you face a challenge such as this. The higher your name on the organizational chart, the more troubleshooting, con flict management, and interpersonal issues you'll deal with. Effective leadership is essentially effective problem solving. And problem-solving strategies come in many shapes, sizes, and levels of effectiveness. One pastor I served with hated conflict. He declared staff meetings as "problem-free" zones.

Another pastor said, "Don't walk across the street to answer a criticism. If the charge is true, it'll land on your doorstep. If it's false, it'll walk on by." Still another told me to attack a problem as quickly as possible and deal with it before it grew. Very different strategies...so what's your problem-solving strategy?

You can't hide from issues. They range from irritating joy-stealers to haunting defeats. As Jesus said, "Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows" (John 16:33).

Despite all this, you can create a "thumbs-up" ministry by instituting these filters -- or five rules of thumb -- for tackling ministry challenges.

RULE #1: Know Yourself

Your thumb represents the first step in problem solving -- taking a look at yourself. No matter the problem, first you must objectively examine your role in the issue. Ask yourself these questions.
• What's my involvement in this issue? What should my involvement be?
• What do I need to do to effectively resolve this issue
in a Christian manner?
• What is my responsibility to God, my team, my church, and my pastor?
• Am I contributing to the problem? If so, how?
• Is my relationship with God healthy, allowing me to be an effective problem-solver?

"The decision to serve as a spirit ual leader signs one up for conflict," says Reggie McNeal in his book, A Work of Heart. "Unfortunately, many spiritual leaders prove to be conflict allergic. Unless they develop a strategy for dealing with conflict, they may withdraw from the battle."

Part of your problem-solving strategy is to know who you are in God. Another part is being self-aware and able to view situations -- no matter how volatile -- objectively.

"My biggest stumbling block was thinking I wasn't capable," says children's pastor Jelynda Simpson. "My thinking was wrong. Only when I truly knew that I was called by God and could make a difference did God teach me about not giving up under pressures. I learned to ask for wisdom as it says in James 1:4-6 and to have faith without doubting."

For years Cyndy Salzmann, founder of Family Haven Ministry, felt that Haggai 1:5-6 must've landed in the Bible just for her: "Look at what's happening to you! You have planted much but harvest little." Reflection on that verse led to a dramatic change in Salzmann's leadership. By "giving careful thought to your ways," she opened the door to honest self-assessment, which ultimately helped her become a better leader.

RULE #2: You're Not Alone

In the midst of problem solving, we often forget to look to the people we've assembled around us-a big mistake. Ask yourself these questions.
• Who is legitimately involved in the issue? Who should be involved?
• How can other team members directly or indirectly help the situation? hurt the situation?
• In what ways can I use the talents and gifts of my team to resolve this issue?
• What procedures or policies can be instituted to discourage such a problem in the future?

God is all about teamwork. The Trinity is a team. Jesus called the Twelve, taught them, and sent them out in pairs. The church is called the body of Christ with many parts. Your team is made of people with different talents working in harmony to get the job done. When you're facing a troublesome issue, look to the people you've carefully assembled around you. Maximize their talents and lean on their experience when appropriate.

And don't forget to shore up your "built-in" support. Invest in the health of your team. Ask your volunteers how you can pray for them. Demonstrate God's love. Keep an open and healthy relationship with your staff. Share their ministry burdens, and when it's your turn to need support, they'll be there for you. Remember: You're a key player on a team that empowers people to serve God.

RULE #3: Leaders Stand Together

Your middle finger, standing tall, is a reminder that leaders need each other. As you grapple with a problem, ask yourself:
• Who in your leader network has had a similar experience?
• What other leader has expertise in, or is a good source of support for, this situation?
• How can you make a more informed decision with
the input of other leaders?
• In what other area of ministry or life have you seen
someone lead a successful resolution to a similar problem?
• What traits do you admire in other leaders that you can emulate now?

Maintain a balancing act between confronting issues that truly need attention and building trustworthy relationships with those in authority. Your relationships with other pastors and your senior pastor can be some of the most vital when it comes to the effectiveness, success, and longevity of your ministry and your ability to lead.

"I truly believe my pastor tries to understand children's ministries and the importance of this ministry in the overall church plan," says children's pastor Michael Jester. "We still struggle with things because church and ministry are messy and complicated. We understand this and live in grace as we share the load together."

In 25 years I've served with six senior pastors, and I learned unique lessons from each. H.B. London always thought of the other person during a conflict. He taught me to be cautious when discussing problems because he demonstrated his care and concern for others so intentionally. Gordon Coulter told me I wasn't tough enough. He taught me to have courage during conflict and to stand up for what I believed to be the best solution. Other pastors taught me other things about myself and about leadership in ministry. I believe I also brought something to these gifted leaders, because relationships are reciprocal. Leaders really do stand together.

RULE #4: We All Have Weaknesses

The ring finger "can't stand alone," so it reminds us to bring our weaknesses to light. Ask yourself these questions.
• Specific to this problem, in what ways is our ministry
weak? strong?
• How do these weaknesses impact our volunteers,
children, parents, leadership, and congregation?
• What would it take to remedy these weaknesses?
• How can we learn from our strengths to improve our
weak areas?

I honestly tried to buy into the concept of the One-Minute Manager when the bestselling book came out. But when the follow-up, The One-Minute Teacher, hit the shelves, I knew my first instinct had been correct: It takes time to become a successful leader. It also takes commitment, flexibility, and a willingness to acknowledge that we have weaknesses-as people and as programs. That means looking critically at your ministry, your people, your programs, and your leadership.

A strong leader pinpoints and shores up weaknesses quickly. In the midst of problem solving, examining weaknesses is easy to overlook because we're busy trying to remedy the ailment at hand. But without seeking out the root of the issue, we'll probably find ourselves battling the same problem again soon. Be "cure"-minded rather than "remedy"-minded in your problem solving. Years ago, I heard a keynote speaker talk about the nervous breakdown she'd had while serving as a children's pastor. Conflicts and burnout drove her to a threemonth stay in a psychiatric hospital. I'll never forget her admonition.

She said, "Talk to whomever you need to talk to, whenever you need to, about whatever it is you need to discuss." Her weakness had been a resistance to direct communication. As you assess your ministry weaknesses, first look at one of the most common causes of problems in ministry: communication breakdown. Communication seems to be the weakest link in all human relationships. We're not born with communication skills, but learning them and teaching them to others is vital to a harmonious ministry.

Motivational communicator and children's pastor Craig Jutila offers these techniques for better communication.
• Use "I" statements when you confront someone.
• Restate what you hear before you reply.
• Reflect empathy when you talk to hurting people.
• Avoid dirty-fighting tactics. Don't use gross generalizations or attack the person rather than the problem.

"When you're both sure you're hearing each other, the communication keeps going deeper," says Jutila in Leadership Essentials for Children's Ministry. "Most of our problems...stem from our reluctance to be direct. After all, this calls for us to bare our souls to some extent, to reveal who we really are."

Communication is only one weak spot that can lead to problems in your children's ministry. Be willing to take a brutal appraisal of every aspect of your ministry. Ask outsiders for their opinions. Ask your volunteers for feedback. Ask other leaders for insight. And use what you
learn.

Every children's ministry needs a conflict-resolution policy. Employees and volunteers all review and sign our church's policy each year. We purposely based the policy
on Matthew 18:15-16. We believe it helps everyone stay focused when confronting relational issues.

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