What’s with the eight legs, anyway? And what does that have to do with parish leadership? Well, we’ve done a lot of reading around here about leadership structures. Trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and why. I think we read books about leadership among the Navy Seals. Or maybe it was the Army Rangers. We read books by industry experts. And so on. Then we ran across the octopus. In our discussions it became clear that we ought to try and create a leadership structure that copies some of the ways the octopus functions.
It turns out that these animals are very different from the rest of the animal kingdom. Among other things, their brains are spread around their bodies. What? That’s right, their tentacles have neurons in them that are part of their brains. And they also have tasters built into some of the suckers on the bottom of the tentacles. When they’re moving across the bottom, these tentacle-tasters are letting the animal know, “move over here, there’s something delicious here,” and the beastie goes over to eat it. After all, they are predators! We don’t want to copy all the aspects of the octopus. Among other things they only live 3 years or so. But still, how does this diffuse neurological structure and odd decision making inform our parish life?
Around here, we want our place to be hopping with vitality. We want people to bring new initiatives all the time. We want to encourage people to share their gifts and talents. We want to participate in the construction of something great, alive, and new. But we aren’t big enough to hire all kinds of staff to do the work. And, we wouldn’t want to, either. In another reflection I wrote about “clericalism,” and how a big staff at a parish can be just as “clerical” as the padres in the bad old days. We don’t want a big staff because we somehow think that might choke off lay leadership. Also, we just can’t afford it!
Our tiny staff is sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of work that has to happen, and the lack of resources. Then I remember a story told by a youth minister at a conference somewhere. He had been complaining to his bishop that there weren’t enough resources to do youth ministry in the diocese. The bishop responded to him with something like, “Jim, the apparent resources haven’t ever been enough, ever since Jesus started this whole affair. But somehow things happen anyway.”
How do limited resources and diffuse leadership/decision making relate to each other? If you have a place like ours, you have to encourage the staff members you do have to be as autonomous as possible. You have to give them real authority to make decisions. And you have to back them up, both internally and publicly. That’s how you make a strong team. There can be no room for backbiting, no favoritism from the pastor toward one person over another. There can be no public reprimands. If one of the team members starts to fail, the rest of the team has to back the person up. As one of my friends commented to me about work environments, there can be no “high-school horseshit.”
How do we get to that? Believe me, we aren’t there yet. We’re working on it. What do we do? One of the things we attempt is “cross training.” As much as possible, we try and learn each other’s jobs. That helps with a couple of things. For example, we have phones, and we have to answer the phones. It’s helpful that we take turns answering the phone. That way, we all understand what it means when a parishioner repeats the same question over and over again. You end up spending 20 minutes on what should take 2! Or when someone gets angry on the phone. Or, you take over for a catechist in a classroom. Suddenly you realize what this volunteer is having to handle. We try and rotate through our jobs so we understand what the other person is dealing with. This also helps when something happens that knocks out one of our staff members. Someone’s sick. Or has a sick child. Or someone’s spouse is dying. We have learned to support each other. It’s kind of similar to what the Navy Seals do when they have a mission. Let’s say they’re supposed to blow up a bridge. Everyone in the group knows the mission, and a bit about everyone else’s job. That way if one of the soldiers is lost, the mission can still be done. So, cross training counts. An aside here… the management people don’t really like doing things this way. They’d prefer pretty tight job descriptions. That way you can “hold people accountable.” The trouble is that we don’t have enough people to do all the work. Not only that, we don’t have enough money to hire the top guns to work in our parish. What’s the old saying, “We don’t hire the qualified, we qualify the hired.”
Anyway, another thing we do is to go and have some fun once in a while. We took a weekend trip away a while ago. Lately we went to an archery range and learned how to shoot arrows. Who knew Monica was such a good shot? We went on a dinner cruise on the lake. We think it’s important to get to know each other, and we truly want to support each other. Our staff members take turns coming up with the next “fun” activity, and we enjoy all kinds of different things. Fun counts!
What does it look like, to support each other publicly and privately? An example might help… We have a young woman on our staff who one day will be running a fortune 500 company, I think. She coordinates our hall/courtyard rentals. We have a parish hall and a courtyard that are beautiful spaces and there’s a lot of demand for them. Someone has to explain the rules to potential renters. Someone has to explain the different rental rates (a Friday night baptism in the courtyard with 30 people isn’t the same price as a Saturday night wedding party with 300 people, etc.). Someone has to keep track of the calendar, and the money, and the deposits and the payments, and the cleaning crew and the set up crew and the garbage, and all the rest. That someone is Frida. She’s 19, I think.
Has she ever made a mistake in doing this job? Yes. Has she ever charged what we might have thought a rate that was too low? Yes. Have there ever been double bookings in our spaces? Yes. Imagine the bride turning into bridezilla. And then imagine the mother of bridezilla! Wow.
And nobody ever yelled at her. Why not? Pretty clearly she wanted to be doing a good job. Pretty clearly, most of the time she does! She’s a valued member of our team. And when some bad thing happened, didn’t she already feel badly about it? Sure. So chastising her would have been a very bad move. Instead, we have all pitched in to try and help resolve difficult situations. And, it’s worked! She’s gotten to be very good at handling the complexities of our spaces. Great! We privately support her, and publicly, too. We would never think of bad mouthing her (or any of our other staff members) to anyone, internally, or among the people we’re trying to serve in the parish. Support counts.