Q&A: Healthy Congregations, Part III

by Albert L. Winseman, D. Min.
Religion and Social Trends Editor

Q: In a congregation with multiple clergy/ministerial staff, is there value in measuring the staff's response to the 12 items of engagement? Can a "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" staff ever hope to have a more engaged congregation?

A: This is an important question. To answer it, we need to look at Gallup's research into engagement in workplace settings and the relationship between the engagement level of senior leadership and the engagement level of the rest of the organization's employees. We have found that there is a distinct relationship: Organizations with engaged senior leadership are far more likely to have engaged employees. The opposite is also true -- engaged senior leadership tends to lead to engaged employees. This is true across industry lines. Based on what Gallup has found in these other arenas, this is very likely the case with church leadership as well.

However, engagement is changeable. Just because a group displays a lack of engagement today does not mean it has to be that way in the future. We have seen, through well-designed measurement and impact programs, that levels of engagement do indeed rise and fall over time.

Q: Managing volunteers is different from managing employees. We can't fire volunteers -- or can we?

A. Yes, managing volunteers is different from managing employees -- but not as different as you may think. The one important difference, however, is that volunteers don't receive a paycheck, and their volunteer experiences need to have intrinsic value. Volunteers are the lifeblood of many congregations, and those organizations must find the right fit for their volunteers.

We know from our engagement research that those members who regularly have the opportunity to do what they do best in their congregations are far more engaged and spiritually committed than are those who do not have that opportunity. Leaders who invest the time and energy into finding the right fit for their members' natural desire to serve are going to unleash a powerhouse of potential within their congregations.

Can you fire volunteers? Absolutely. If a volunteer is not growing, if his or her service is not producing results, and if the area of service is suffering, then a leader must "hold up the mirror" and help the volunteer see that the fit isn't right. The volunteer probably already knows that it isn't a good fit, and the leader is performing a kindness by helping him or her find another area in which to serve.

Q: If spiritual growth assumes new personal discoveries, how can you prevent the problem of "pigeonholing" a person into an activity?

A: Again, the answer has to do with finding the right fit. As people grow spiritually, they will gain new insights, knowledge and skills. However, psychological research has shown that a person's innate talents and patterns of thinking about, and responding to, the world do not change very much during adulthood. While engagement can change, who the individual inherently is (emotional and cognitive traits), is less changeable. In other words, an individual will approach different jobs with the same patterns of thought, feeling and behavior.

As people grow in their spiritual commitment, they may want to take on different service opportunities as their interests change, but they will gravitate to the same types of opportunities in different areas. For instance, the Sunday school superintendent who had a life-changing experience during a mission trip in which she built a homeless shelter in Mexico may come back and want to be involved in a housing-for-the-homeless organization. It is very likely that she will take that organizing talent that made her such a good Sunday school superintendent and apply it to successfully organizing your congregation's homeless ministry.

The key is to get the right fit so that your volunteers can flourish and your service to the community and the world can flourish.

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