This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Monday, August 3, 2020

When Business Experience Meets Ministry Work

My entry into a business career was not planned. I studied ministry, having dreamed since I was 17 of becoming a minister. What really inspired me was a mission internship in Brazil, in 1997. That changed my course from minister to missionary. It didn't work out as I would have liked, either as a missionary or minister, and I had a family to support. Looking back I can only be impressed with how far I got without having ever interned in a company or taken a single course in management or business. Just 10 years ago I wouldn't have understood what someone meant by 'project management,' and now I can imagine being in any other field I've learned so much, and it has made such a difference.

"People spend so much time at work that they get a lot of their beliefs and assumptions about organizations from the workplace." 1

Dan Hotchkiss wrote this as a point of concern for congregational governance. People pick up habits and processes from work that they often try to replicate in business, even when they aren't particularly happy with how things work at the office. We bring valuable experience to board and committee meetings, but we also drag in assumptions that are at odds with those of others around us, and which might we not fit the work of a congregation.
"Around the board table of a congregation, you can occasionally spot the flabbergasted face of someone learning for the first time that the lessons of his or her workplace are not universally accepted truths. When that happens, pausing to discuss the different occupational cultures board members bring can be worthwhile." 2

This is all true. There is a need to be open-minded and adaptable when entering a different context. I reported to someone in a prior place of employment who had been there for over 20 years. The bulk of her work experience as an adult derived from that place. She was a terrible manager, in my opinion. She couldn't fathom other ways of doing things, and as far as I could tell was more interested in doing things they way they had always been done than in learning new, potentially better ways. She didn't see value in going to trainings or working on any extra education for herself, because she said it "wouldn't be relevant here." Fortunately, she was "promoted" to another role without any direct reports, and I got a better manager out of the deal.

At the same time, I can say that my experience in office work has contributed greatly to my ability to manage other situations. I graduated from Harding University with a Bachelor of Ministry degree in 1999. In working toward that degree I took courses in counseling, preaching, and Bible. Along the way from high school graduation to college graduation I supply preached for countless churches and preached regularly for two. In all that, so far as I can recall, I never received any training or gained any experience in church administration or governance. And so, both on the mission field and in the United States, understanding the business of doing church work eluded me. 

If I were put into a congregational worship service I knew what to do. I could handle myself. If I were placed into a board or committee meeting, or asked to head up a task force, I was out of my depth. I did my best to leave leading that type of meeting to someone else. In my experience, church meetings were sprawling, disorganized affairs because no one else knew how to conduct a meeting either. In many cases there was some level of adherence to Robert's Rules of Orders, as best people understood them, and yet still the meetings seemed to drag on forever, going off topic regularly.

In New Mexico I had an office at the church, but no office assistant. I was in my mid-twenties and only really used the office to prepare sermons and Bible studies, or else to meet with people seeking pastoral counseling. Someone came in once or twice a week to sort mail, and someone else came over Saturday nights to photocopy the bulletins. I had no concept of organizing an office, reviewing budgets, or thinking strategically. 

I left the full-time ministry in 2005, not long after my father's death. 14 years later I was asked to conduct the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association at the General Assembly in Spokane. This was an event I had attended the year prior, and it had made me uncomfortable with how loosely it was run. As VP of the UUHA, it was my duty in 2019 to step up and guide us through our agenda. We started 5 minutes late, allowing time for stragglers to join us, and I concluded the business of our evening with 5 minutes to spare, allowing time for people to chat before heading off to the next event. We had done completely everything on the agenda. Someone afterwards told me afterward that I had run the meeting with 'ruthless efficiency.' I took that as a compliment, which is good because he meant it as one. This event woke me up to the fact that I had changed.

Now, as I'm taking the initial steps back into ministry, I'm grateful for my time at startups and major corporations. All that office time has taught me more than managing meetings or projects, as important as those are. I've also learned how to use my resources, build teams, and think strategically. Putting my ministry together with my profession, I'm looking towards a future engaging in community development. This was a fundamental dream I had when I was 17, though I didn't know how to articulate it then, and it wasn't made possible until I was brought along through experiences that taught me certain essential skills. So, I believe it's not all bad news when work culture is brought to bear on ministry.

1 Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership Paperback, by Dan Hotchkiss, p.23
2 ibid p.24