Back when "Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations" was published, we coined a new verb: "to Schnase." To "Schnase" someone was to quote his book to them, so you could say, "Of course, for our hospitality to be truly radical it would have to carry us outside of our comfort zones ... and now you have just been 'Schnasied.'"
So imagine my delight when I was invited to host "Bish Schnay-Z" on my blog to talk about his newest book "Just Say Yes!" I mean, it would be an ENTIRE BLOG POST that was just ONE GIANT "SCHNASE!" Amazing!
He is doing a "blog tour" of sorts, talking about his book - he was on Hacking Christianity a couple weeks ago. And I truly think it is a wonderful book, with lots of helpful thoughts about ministry and I commend it to you all. And so now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls - the one and only, Bishop Robert Schnase...
Thank you, Andy, for inviting me to post a guest blog as part of a Blog Tour to introduce my newest book, Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry. Here’s the question you sent me:
“Sometimes there is so much happening in the congregation I serve that I’m informed of an ongoing ministry that I knew almost nothing of. I really don’t think there is anybody in leadership who knows everything that’s going on. At the same time, I want the activity of the congregation to align with the mission and vision. Each ministry must be held accountable to the mission, which implies that someone has to know what’s going on in that ministry in order to hold it to account.
- If a system that says “yes” really does “cease being a reporting organization,” then how does it achieve the “high accountability” that is expected?
- Would you say a little bit more about what it looks like to not be a “reporting organization?” Isn’t that really just “communicating?”
- How will the ones keeping our ministries accountable to the mission know enough about the ministries in question unless there is a fair amount of reporting going on?”
Some years ago, a natural disaster drew the attention of the nation and the church. The United Methodist Church’s response was immediate and generous, but it was not without problems. General agencies duplicated the work of sister boards, some offices tried to restrain the work of others, conflicting messages were sent out about what was needed most, leaders disagreed about who could authorize special offerings, and appeals for help went public using inconsistent nomenclature. United Methodists were tripping over one another in their eagerness to help. Government agencies and other non-profits suffered similar confusions in the face of overwhelming human need. A level of chaos is the very nature of crises.
A few months later, the Council of Bishops received reports on United Methodist work related to the natural disaster. Leaders from various levels of the church talked about the volunteer teams that responded, the amount of money raised, the number of blankets and flood buckets and health kits distributed, and the long-term plans for follow through. United Methodists did immeasurable good. At one point, I raised my hand, stepped to the microphone, and offered what I thought was a common sense suggestion. I wondered if it might be wise to gather the conference leaders and bishops most affected, along with the agency staff and response teams that were involved, in order to process together how the UMC responded: what worked, what didn’t, what was helpful, how we might avoid miscommunication and duplication in future disasters.
The president of the council said, “Thank you, Bishop Schnase.” Then he looked around the room and said, “Is there any other business before we adjourn?”
I returned to my seat feeling embarrassed and chastised. As a newbie bishop, I didn’t understand the reason for the not-so-subtle dismissal I received. A retired bishop leaned my way as I sat down, and said with a wink and a smile, “Young man, you just learned the difference between a reporting organization and a learning organization!”
Andy, I value sharing information, excellence in communications, and transparency of operations. These provide the oil that keeps the machinery of an organization running smoothly. They contribute to trust and accountability. But when an organization does nothing but reporting, as in the example I gave above from the Council of Bishops, it avoids the most important tasks of leadership. In the time we spend merely reporting what happened in the past and what’s coming up next, we could be participating in significant decisions, learning about challenges that limit our mission, processing together how to approach difficult issues, and generating fresh ideas.
I’m writing this blog the day after presiding at a meeting of our conference Mission Council. Fifteen elected people, most of them laity, join with me and the five conference directors for four hours. We do this six times a year. After a devotional, each director presents what they are working on, as does the lay leader and the dean of the cabinet. By following this agenda, we cover all major areas of ministry of the conference.
A folder of material is sent to members ahead of the meeting which includes written reports from all the directors. The reports include the numbers, dates, happenings, graphs, and stories that I would call reporting. For instance, the director of finance sends a budget summary, an outline of changes to health insurance, and upcoming dates for training sessions. The director of connectional ministries distributes revised sexual misconduct policies, mock ups of new communications materials, and a summary of evaluations from the annual conference sessions. Much communication between directors and the mission council is done before the meeting even begins.
As we move through the agenda, each director talks about what they are working on, and also presents challenges or questions that they are wrestling with. They invite feedback and conversation from the Mission Council and from the other directors. For instance, following the summer’s mobile camping success, one of the challenges is how to scale up this ministry at a responsible rate while dealing with the disappointment that churches will feel who request a mobile camp but don’t receive one next summer. Nearly all of the 10 churches that participated this year want to repeat the experience, and another 29 churches have already expressed interest. The Mission Council processes the issue, discusses alternatives, and makes suggestions for how we might learn from other conferences who have done this. Another director highlights the complexity of the next annual conference and the challenge of identifying an appropriate theme, given that this is the bishop’s last annual conference, that General Conference will be on peoples’ minds, and that we’ll celebrate the 200th anniversary of Methodist conferences in Missouri. Another director processes the opportunities and challenges of starting congregations that rely on languages other than English, including our new Congolese and Vietnamese congregations. The Mission Council had a lengthy conversation about strategies for my last year as bishop. How should I best use my time? What loose ends need to be tied up? How best can I prepare the conference for new leadership? Questions were asked, insights were offered, priorities were clarified, and the group generated various scenarios and next steps.
The Mission Council only takes one or two votes a year, other than approving minutes and other perfunctory actions. How would you describe what goes on in the Council? It’s not merely reporting, because most of the statistical and factual communication takes place before we arrive and less than 40% of our meeting involves presenting information. It’s not legislative, because votes are seldom taken. Our meetings are generative conversation, creative engagement, problem solving, and learning. They are interactive and participatory, and they provide guidance and support to the people who lead the ministries of the conference.
Accountability relies on more than what happens in administrative meetings. It begins with clarity of mission and well-defined expectations, involves careful recruitment of staff and volunteers, includes regular evaluation of programs and staff, and on-going learning, mentoring, and improvement. When complemented with these other elements, the Mission Council contributes to a culture with high expectations and great accountability, more so than if we were merely a reporting organization. On behalf of the conference that elects them, the members of the Mission Council gain ownership in our ministries and make contributions that shape the conference. These benefits would be lost if we merely went around the table telling what happened and what comes next.
The last hour of most Mission Council meetings usually involves an explicit learning component related to big picture challenges that affect our mission. We use a book or an article that we’ve agreed to read prior to the meeting. These conversations challenge assumptions, cause us to shift perspectives, and make us continually reevaluate what we do as a conference. For instance, our next Mission Council will discuss Gil Rendle’s essay entitled, “Waiting for God’s New Thing,” (downloadable from the Texas Methodist Foundation website). Rendle challenges the fundamental notion of congregations as the principle way of fostering faith for people who mistrust institutional religion. Conference leaders need to be familiar with such issues, even though they challenge our basic operations.
I want members of the Mission Council to drive home after a meeting mulling over ideas, pondering new insights, searching for better approaches, and feeling that they’ve contributed to next steps and new directions. These outcomes can’t be achieved with an agenda of sequenced reporting to passive people. The congregational leadership teams we formed when I pastored a local congregation followed a similar model—less reporting, more learning, greater problem-solving, more mutual support.
You asked how church leaders can know enough about all the various ministries to keep them accountable to the vision, values, and practices of the congregation. Some congregations hold semi-annual gatherings with the leaders of all their ministries—the chairpersons of committees, the leaders of mission teams, the teachers of bible classes, the sponsors of children’s ministries, etc. They fill the fellowship hall on a Saturday with all the leaders and leaders-to-be to worship together and to express appreciation for the effort leaders pour into ministry. Then they repeat the vision of the congregation and rehearse the values that every leader and teacher exhibits. They teach leadership and answer questions and offer suggestions to help team leaders with common small group issues. By re-enforcing a common vision and common language (excellence, fruitfulness, radical hospitality, etc), accountability is pushed deeper into the consciousness and practice of the whole organization. One person, operating from a vertical top down manner, doesn’t have to know everything that is going on to hold the system accountable. Rather, accountability is maintained by dozens of people, horizontally, who hold one another accountable.
Just Say Yes! Unleashing People from Ministry reminds us how churches say No in thousand ways to new ideas, ministry initiatives, and creative people. Creative ideas face systemic resistance because of the labyrinth of committees, steps, and policies. Congregations don’t realize that they have created a default of No, which leaves them simply repeating ministries the way they’ve always been done before. Our countless meetings to report and review and rehash has a dampening effect on creativity and causes us to avoid the generative and missional conversations that leadership requires. We can do better.
Thank you, Andy, for the conversation. And thank you for your support of Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry. Later this month, additional downloadable resources will be available to help local congregations unleash people for ministry, including supplemental videos, invitational postcards, a leader retreat guide and a 7-session devotional guide.
Thanks for your good work, and for your thoughtful questions.
Yours in Christ,