By Neal Michell
What do you do when you’re not the leader of the organization? There are a lot of books aimed at helping the leader to lead, but what of the second- or third-level staff member, particularly the staff member who believes that one day he or she will be “in charge?” Here are my observations and learnings from when I was on a staff and not “in charge.”
In my priestly ministry I had never served on a church staff as a subordinate staff member until I became the Canon for Strategic Development in the Diocese of Dallas. I had always served as the deacon-in-charge or rector. Not being in charge was a new thing for me. I had to learn how to follow the lead, values, and direction of my bishop whom I had only met when I first interviewed for the position two months prior to accepting it. As a rector for 21 years and a staff member for 11 years, I want to share a few observations that I have learned about how to navigate the challenges of being a staff member and not “in charge.”
- Never speak ill of your boss. In parish ministry particularly, it sometimes happens that parishioners will find the assistant as more approachable than the rector. Or, they may disagree with the rector or with some of her initiatives. As a result, some parishioners may then come to you and whisper in your ear, “You could do a better job than [the current rector].” Don’t let this flattery go to your head. You will likely be a rector one day, and you will want to give your current rector the same respect and support that you will want from your future staff member when you become rector.
If there is currently major conflict in the parish you serve and your rector ends up leaving, and you are named as interim rector of the parish, the chances are very high that those same people who sang your praises when you were the assistant will now turn on you once you have to make the major decisions. Church problems are very rarely about one person.
- A corollary: never contradict your boss in public. You’ve likely heard this before, but it is still true, because the damage you could create by speaking ill of your boss behind his back is immense. You owe your job to him. If you find serving him to be too uncomfortable, quit. Of course, I have in mind here areas of mere disagreement. In those cases where abuse or serious harm are occurring, other steps may be needed.”
- See the world and the organization through your boss’s eyes. In other words, practice trying to think like your boss. When you have a list of items you present to your boss for her decision, before you submit those questions, imagine what you think your boss’s decision will be. Your rector or bishop likely has issues and knowledge she’s dealing with that you don’t have. Imagine you were in your boss’s shoes and see the issues in terms of how it might affect the whole organization. For example, who are the stakeholders to whom your boss is responding in her mind? What is the history of this program that you may not be aware of? The point is: if you have questions or concerns about your boss’s decision, you should go first to your boss with your questions and not triangulate with another parishioner or staff member.
I recognize that this area is fraught with exceptions. Most judicatories and businesses have protocols for reporting abuse by coworkers and supervisors. Any such instances of abuse should be reported to the appropriate authorities. If this sort of abuse occurs in a church situation, report your concerns to the diocesan Canon to the Ordinary.
- Be aware of the challenges you face in your role as an emerging leader. In all likelihood, you are already an effective leader; otherwise, your rector would not have hired you. And, you are a leader who has subordinated your own opportunity to lead a parish on your own in order to furthering your boss’s vision of the parish. There will likely be times that you would make a decision different from your boss’s. Be aware of what you would do differently, make note, but don’t ever broadcast it.
- Keep one ear to the ground and another ear to your boss’s concerns. There are two opposing problems for top-level leaders. On the one hand, the larger and more complex the organization, the harder it is for the rector to know what people are really thinking. People often will assume that the rector doesn’t have time for casual conversation. As the assistant, you will hear things that the rector will not hear.
On the other hand, it is easy for you and your boss to be an echo chamber and thus it will be possible for the rector not to hear people’s real concerns. Be a good counselor to your boss, be an encourager to her, and to find ways to challenge her if or when appropriate in a kindly way, but be wary of group think. (Remember that the prophet Nathan rebuked King David of his adultery with Bathsheba in a way that allowed King David to repent.)
- When you meet with your boss, have a written agenda. When you have a personal meeting with your boss, send a memo of the topics you want to discuss, along with any necessary information. Your boss will be busy and concerned with a lot of details. Giving him a “heads up” about decisions you want him to make will give him time to think about your concerns. This is especially true if your boss is an introvert. Introverts don’t generally like to make on-the-spot decisions. Having an agenda also keeps your time together from becoming a gab fest.
- Before you accept the position:
- Talk to two predecessors or two or three persons who have your same position on another staff about their experience; ask what they wished they knew then that they know now, and what counsel they would give you.
- Ask each of those two predecessors to answer the question: “Why should I accept this call?”
- Ask each of those two predecessors to answer the question: “Why should I not accept this call?”
- Ask each of them to give you an oral history of what occurred in the parish or diocese during their tenure. Knowing the corporate history will provide you with great insight into future issues.
- At the beginning of your tenure, ask your predecessor for all of the files that pertain to the execution of the job. This will allow you to get started more quickly on significant programs.
- Keep notes of the things you’re learning as a person not in charge and what you are learning about leadership from your boss, both positive and negative. Leaders must be in a state of continuous learning. Experience is often the best teacher. Knowing leadership lessons you learned as an assistant will make you a better supervisor in the future. Reminding yourself of these real time leadership lessons will help you in future years.
- Upon leaving:
- Make sure your leaving is a win-win situation for both you and your boss. Don’t burn any bridges.
- Beware of leaving too soon or hanging on too long.
In his classic book, Max DePrees tells us that “leadership is an art,” whether one is the person in charge or an assistant who supervises other staff and volunteers.
The Very Rev. Dr. Neal Michell was born and currently lives in Dallas, Texas. Until recently, he was prebendary in the Diocese of Dallas and dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. He currently serves as Visiting Professor for Pastoral Ministry at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.