How to adapt your leadership to include a wider range of voices
I was involved in an exchange on twitter recently about how we widen access and how we may need to adapt our assumptions and practices to allow a wider group to access leadership and begin to be heard. At the Upper Room we have leaders who suffer from physical illness and can’t sit down for long, can’t stay out late, have suffered long term mental illness and been out of work for a long time, suffered childhood trauma and abuse, had been away from church a long time or were brand new Christians. These suggestions probably apply best to the local charity and church sectors.
I was asked to explain how we’d gone about it and so here are my thoughts.
1. Accept that it flows from God and is important theologically.
For me, it matters hugely and is an issue of holiness because it seems to matter to God. The underdog has status with God and the Bible is full of examples – no surprise because it is an unchanging part of God’s nature to be a God of justice. The stories of Esther, Hannah, Ruth and thousands more all show a God that hears the voice of the stranger, the abandoned, the oppressed, the woman.
In the NT, we see Jesus embody that in his ministry, spending time with all who were excluded and ‘outside the camp’; the sick in body, mind and spirit, tax collectors, prostitutes who were also included in his genealogy. The calling of fishermen as disciples, the beatitudes that speak of the future when all these marginalised voices will be heard and gathered in. The banquet stories where all the right people failed to turn up and people from the waysides are gathered in instead. The entire Bible is pulsing with inclusion and tables being turned, and so living eschatologically as Kingdom people behoves us to start this way of living now.
2. Who is around you?
Look at who God has gathered to you already when building a new team or project – they may well be your eventual leaders. People often show their commitment by just getting alongside and getting involved in small ways; they may not look like people hugely skilled in governance, speaking or whatever you are looking for, but the fact is skills can be taught but passion and commitment cannot and these are of the highest value. Those who are quietly serving, making tea or clearing up, might be hoping to stay on the backstage and not be up front and centre. It’s possible God may have other plans for them, and it’s also true that a lot of leadership takes place from the back room anyway. The point is don’t disparage the gifts God has given you but look on the people you have as those with hidden treasure that you have to find.
3. Find the Hidden Treasure & Grow it
In the corporate world you may have the luxury of choosing a leadership team with a
wide range of gifts. In church or the voluntary sector, you usually don’t, so be a pragmatist and work with who you have. You all need to learn together about the strengths and gifts inside people as you see a team begin to form. Use the Belbin team profile tools – free online – and others that help people talk about and get to know what’s going on inside them, what makes them tick, what stresses them out the most, what do they love doing and want to do more of, what freaks them out and they will struggle with? We had an evening a few weeks ago talking about how change makes us feel, how we’re likely to react and what we can do to help each other.
Know that EVERYONE has gifts and strengths, and be intentional in helping uncover them. What have they done before and enjoyed? Why are they here – what is there about the work you do together that draws them? Use whatever tools are appropriate – StrengthFinders, Myers Briggs, LiveThrive, the Enneagram – there are so many free online versions of these tools available and they can be fun to do. Folk will need time to reflect on what the results mean, whether they feel right etc so have some debrief sessions if necessary. (Sometimes people can feel boxed in by them or misunderstand and they can undermine confidence if not talked through.)
Be aware that people learn through a wide range of life experiences not listed on a CV! People may have learned lessons and skills as a stay at home mom, a grandma, in prison, in a mental health institution, in the care system – life teaches us wherever it finds us and we can open up space and allowing people to reflect on what life has taught them and bring that to the table. I have learned most from the homeless people and those with mental illness we journey with and they have changed my life with their insight.
We do these things at trustee development days twice a year where all our leaders come together and focus on how we are working, what’s going well, reflect using theological reflection tools on what’s gone disastrously and what we can learn from it. Creating a learning and growing environment where we accept mistakes and failure are part of learning and growing makes a safe space for people who are not confident or experienced. These days are not at all corporate – we loll about together, eat cake, pray and dream about what the future might look like. Trusting people with the trust God has placed in them lets people relax and speak their mind.
We also set up a system of volunteer contracts so the people who volunteer for us can tell us what they like, why they’re here, what they would like from us in terms of equipping and support, how long they might stay, what new things they’d like to get involved in etc. This is a good forum for finding out where people are at and what more they might like to try. It’s an informal conversation once a year.
4. Develop confidence by breaking down tasks, giving clear instructions & establishing contingency.
If someone is trying a new thing they haven’t done before, support them in that in the way you lead. Express confidence in their abilities – give concrete examples of when you’ve seen them use these skills before if you have them. Break down what you want them to do, write it down if necessary. Nerves and stress can cause people to get muddled so don’t leave them floundering. Set a date together by which the task should be carried out and set a date to feedback and reflect on it together – did it go well, was it as they thought it would be, how did they feel, how did they handle any anxiety? Do they want to try it again, or something else?
Sometimes the only way someone is safe enough to take a big risk is if you can provide contingency for them. We have a lady who is a brilliantly gifted retired primary school teacher, but her anxiety about public speaking prevented her from offering the reflection on the Gospel passage in our communion service. I was desperate for her to try it again as the first time she blew our socks off with her insightful 5 minute teaching – people actually cried! So, we talked it over and aired the anxiety, chewed it around and pondered on how it could be made safe. She didn’t want to go on a course or a class as it was too stressful. In the end, I offered to prepare an alternative reflection myself on the same passage, and at any point up until the last second, she could gesture to me that she couldn’t manage it and I would step in. No-one would ever know. I sat where she could make a small gesture in the seconds before – my heart pounding as she smiled and confidently began to speak out her message. We’ve done it again since and I am still of the view that she is one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard. All of these are based on coaching models, used informally.
If someone suffers panic attacks as a result of mental illness, ask what they need and what is best to help them. Someone who works for us can be triggered by certain situations and so we meet before work to talk about how things are, how we are each feeling today and ask for what help we may need. We pray and ask God for help to do the work, but if things get tough during the day there are strategies that can be employed to take a few moments out to re-group and centre. Taking a breather for five minutes might enable someone to come back and cope well for the rest of the session. Or a longer break may be needed of 15 minutes. Either way, honesty is the key to this and it means people feel much less ‘trapped’ by the thought of going back to work after mental illness. A man who thought he was too poorly to come and work for us has worked consistently for almost four years now, taking only one day off due to illness, because we agreed this approach to offering what you can and asking for what you need in support.
5.Make use of appropriate training courses and classes
Sometimes you have to invest money and it will pay you back quickly in my experience. Last year all our leaders chose some training to go on. We had 3 people take the Mission Shaped Ministry course – it taught them that they know at least as much about mission if not more than many qualified church leaders and so did its job in increasing confidence and enabling them to relate to leaders in other churches.
One of our team came to CMS to do a module on the Pioneer Leadership course, and then came to some others skills based workshops and courses off the back of it. He wrote an essay for the first time in almost 40 years which passed with flying colours. As someone who had “failed” in the education system, this was a huge boost to his confidence. On top of that a range of practical skills based courses were undertaken, such as drug and alcohol awareness training, mental health courses, safeguarding training etc.
The important thing seems to be finding a range of appropriate resources – let the team join in googling what is available in your local area and regionally, check out local volunteer centres to see what’s offered free. Make sure the classes match the right level so they don’t undermine confidence and let people go together if they can’t go alone.
6.Adapt meeting practice to the needs of the people
- You can meet in the day if you have young mums or older people who loath coming out at night.
- Let people stay for the first half if they can’t manage all of it then catch them up via the minutes and a quick phone call afterwards – change the agenda round on the hoof so they catch their bits if you need to.
- Don’t use industry jargon and explain if people don’t know what you mean.
- Explain clearly what decisions you are asking people to make and provide information and reports – brief reports – in advance if they need to read through stuff beforehand.
- Have a break for the loo / tea and to let people move around who can’t sit for long. Find the most comfortable chair / chair of the right height and reserve it for them if that helps. Encourage people to stand / stretch / pace if they need to move.
- Don’t pack your agendas too full as then you may be under time pressure and not allow enough time for dialogue and explanation. If people have never done it before it can feel an enormous responsibility making governance decisions; allowing time is important for them.
- When taking on a new trustee, induct them well and give a pack that explains what the role is, how you work together, and ask what they need to be able to be a good trustee.
7. Celebrate the wins together
When stuff goes well, celebrate and congratulate each other. Remind yourselves that you do make a difference. We eat a fair amount of cake and drink Prosecco at trustee meetings or development days to celebrate gains and thank people for all their time and gifts – not paid for out of charity funds I hasten to add!
8. Always pay expenses for everyone
Charities that state in the annual report that they paid no trustee expenses are invariably run by rich people! If you want diversity you have to level the playing field so everyone can take part, regardless of their circumstances. Not everyone can afford fuel to drive to training or meetings. Others may need a lift. Do what you need to do to get people there, so you can hear their voice! Those who don’t need the money can give it back as a donation if they like – quietly and in a way that doesn’t denigrate those who can’t do that. It’s the perspective, experience and time of people you are receiving as a trustee board or management team.
9. When you hire staff, consider the way you draft the job specs
Is this a job that could be applied for by one of your volunteers? Could you draft it in a way that values volunteer experience equally to paid roles or qualifications? What kind of education is really necessary for this role – don’t ask for what you don’t really need to have. Word it simply and without jargon and make it clear you value life experience, self awareness and a willingness to learn too.
Similarly, does it have to be one full time post or could it be job shared or split into two or three jobs a day or two a week? A small charity like us might perhaps be better suited to a few part time local staff who have volunteered for and will grow with us, than one high powered person from the corporate world with a briefcase full of qualifications. That decision will enable a broader range of folks to apply and will keep authenticity in view.
When setting up a Home-Start scheme eight years ago we insisted on advertising for two people to job share the main post; this had never been done before and we were advised strongly against it. However we’d seen research indicating that people found it a very pressured role when one carried the weight of it, and we went with our guts and hired two part timers. It has been and is a huge success, enabling people to juggle the stress of the role and their family lives, and everyone has benefitted. Think outside the box a bit.
10. This will be hugely time consuming. Suck it up!
It may drive you wild at times – I have been for prayer ministry and to confession before now over my lack of patience and frustration at slow progress at times. But it is a process that does move and change and produce fruit, and the people themselves are really the end – not just the means to an end! It’s all discipleship and our job as leaders isn’t to do everything ourselves but to enable others to do and be what God has called them to.
The beauty of decisions that are made by this slow process makes me weep at times, as does seeing people step up into roles they never thought they would do. People are shiny and creative and ever fascinating as their grave clothes come off and they begin to embrace life in new ways and take risks. The decisions we make together are authentic and accountable, made by local people who have commitment, faith, passion and a whole heap of new skills and confidence to put to use helping others who are themselves coming through and learning to build the Kingdom. Amen.