Holding Your Staff Accountable

Published in INSIGHT - Fall 2017
Dr. William Wilson 

Whenever I have an opportunity, I suggest that the starting point for bringing health and effectiveness to a church’s ministerial staff is the critical work of clarifying mission, vision, and purpose in the congregation. That clarity then becomes the “north star” for every decision, every investment of resources, every staff position, every event in which a congregation chooses to engage. What comes next?

May I suggest that accountability is essential for a healthy and functioning staff?
We find that many times congregational staff members operate in a bizzaro congregational world devoid of healthy accountability. Without a thoughtful, rational system in place, evaluation and accountability disintegrate into personal opinion and judgments made without benefit of facts. Expectations are fuzzy. Ministers find themselves pushed and pulled by individual tastes and priorities. Congregational bullies show up and exercise inappropriate influence. Motives begin to be assigned. Facts take a distant backseat to innuendo and gossip.

Other times, congregations are victimized by clergy who seem to operate without rules or fail to practice rudimentary work habits. Clergy too often operate in silos, content to patter around their ministry corner without concern for the church as a whole. Clergy who are not held accountable make mistakes that no one calls them on and thus fail to learn valuable lessons. Boundary violations are inevitable, as most are reticent to “call foul” on a man or woman of God.
There must be a better way!

Accountability for clergy teams begins with healthy peer pressure. Patrick Lencioni  (The Advantage) goes so far as to say that “peer-to-peer accountability is the primary and most effective source of accountability on the leadership team of a healthy organization.” Rather than looking to the pastor or personnel committee as the primary source of top-down accountability, healthy ministerial teams hold each other accountable to common goals without fearing backlash or defensiveness. Such a culture is essential if a staff is going truly to function as a team, rather than independent contractors.

Peer-to-peer accountability requires high trust and a leader who is willing to confront difficult situations and hold people accountable himself. Lencioni notes that no one will engage in peer-to-peer accountability if he senses that the team leader “balks when it is time to call someone on his behavior or performance.”

Such a truth raises an interesting irony. “The more comfortable a leader is in holding people on a team accountable, the less likely she/he is to be asked to do so.”
I once came as pastor to a congregational staff that had never been given permission to disagree or hold one another accountable. Predictably, staff meetings were dreadful. Body language and attitudes said, “I’d rather be anywhere but here.” Our times together were perfunctory and subdued, with little genuine engagement and almost no give and take. Frustrated, I went to a trusted colleague and begged him to openly disagree with me about a proposal, just so we could show that we could have a vehement conversation and emerge with a better product.

At our next staff meeting, after I rolled out my latest marvelous idea, he simply responded, “I have a problem with this.” You could have heard a pin drop, as the group braced for the inevitable sharp response. Instead, we engaged in honest and heated debate that produced several excellent upgrades to the original idea. Finally, we walked out laughing together and went to lunch. From that point forward, staff meetings and the staff culture gradually shifted toward more honest feedback and accountability. Staff meetings and retreats became times we anticipated as our opportunity to build deep fellowship and connect to our mission and vision.

At the heart of accountability is a deep motive that cares enough about someone to say the uncomfortable word. Lencioni says we only hold accountable the people we love. “To hold someone accountable is to care about them enough to risk having them blame you for pointing out the deficiencies.” While we may think the kind and gracious thing is to let unwanted behavior slide, failure to hold someone accountable is ultimately an act of selfishness.

Far too often, clergy are ambushed by a dismissal that comes with no warning and no sense of having ever been confronted about their performance. There is nothing kind or loving about that.
Another key component of ministerial accountability is distinguishing between metrics and behavior. It is easy to note rises and falls in attendance or participation. It is more complex and profoundly more important to address concerns about behavior. The reason? “Behavior issues almost always precede or cause downturns in performance or results.”

Healthy ministerial teams develop good practices around holding one another accountable. They spend time affirming all the ways each of them help make the team better. Such “deposits” into our emotional bank accounts with one another make the inevitable “withdrawals” tolerable and even appreciated.

If you wish to inject health into your staff relationships, practice appropriate accountability.

Bill Wilson is director of The Center for Healthy Churches. He can be reached at billwilson28@gmail.com