What makes for a healthy ministry organization? Having worked in a few and led a few I would suggest that there are some clear markers that we should look for when exploring a ministry job – and which we should work toward if we are in leadership of a ministry organization. Each of these markers – their presence or their absence – will make a difference in the health of the ministry and the satisfaction of those who work there. Of course, there are no perfect ministries. There is, however, a wide variation in the health of ministries. Most overrate their health and underrate their dysfunction.
Marker one: we have great ministry clarity. Clarity on why we exist, what our non-negotiables are (guiding principles), what we need to focus on all the time (central ministry focus) and the culture we want to create are all significantly important. Specific answers to these questions are far better than general answers because the clearer we are, the better we know how to best live within the parameters of the ministry. In answering these questions we actually define the culture and ethos of our organization. Ministry organizations that have significant dysfunction usually have not taken the time to proactively determine their culture and ethos by clarifying these questions and then intentionally living them out.
Marker two: we drive a missional agenda all the time. The missional agenda of our organization is the process of living out our mission, guiding principles, central ministry focus and culture through specific ministry plans and initiatives. It is not just about doing ministry but it is doing ministry that is in alignment with our clarity so that what we do on a day to day basis reflects the convictions and aspirations of our ministry. Thus our ministry plans and strategies are designed to help us achieve the clarity we have defined. Our actions (ministry plan) are consistent with our intentions (our clarity).
Marker three: individuals, teams and leaders are in alignment with our clarity. Alignment does not mean we all do the same things or use the same strategies to achieve our desired ends. It does mean that we are committed to achieving the same ends with the same non-negotiables. Many ministries are really only a gathering of nice people who like the days of the judges in the Old Testament, “do what is right in their own eyes.” Alignment around core principles (marker one) allows us to align all the arrows of the organization in the same direction even though we fulfill different responsibilities or pursue different strategies. Non aligned ministries often live with significant conflict because there is not clarity on what set of tracks to drive down. In an aligned ministry there is significant commitment to the same convictions coupled with flexibility on strategies to fulfill those convictions.
Marker four: we have an open and collegial atmosphere. Strongly hierarchical organizations will not attract the best people today. The best staff members want a place at the table and their voice to be heard. Indeed, the best organizations understand that a plethora of voices speaking into the strategy is far better than any one or two of us. Thus they seek to bring multiple voices to the table, encourage a huge degree of interaction and dialogue to find the best ways to deliver on the missional clarity we have determined. This does not mean that leadership is by committee. It does mean that we are open to the views of others and have a culture of collegial cooperation, interaction and collaboration.
Marker five: we encourage robust dialogue. Robust dialogue is the ability to disagree and state one's convictions as long as there is not a hidden agenda or personal attacks. Many would call this healthy conflict. It is in the conflict of ideas that better ideas emerge than either party had before the robust dialogue. Robust dialogue is not a smokescreen for hidden agendas, personal attacks or cynical attitudes. Healthy organizations call those behaviors for what they are – unhealthy. It is the ability to go at issues that need solving with vigor and conviction with an attitude of humility and care for others.
Marker six: we do our best but don’t pretend to be the best. Great ministries have high standards for clarity, ministry results and having the greatest influence for God’s kingdom as possible. At the same time, great ministries don’t fool themselves that they are the best or have a corner on the ministry world. They are humble about their place among God’s many workers, humble about their need to continue to learn, humble enough to collaborate with other ministries (many are not) and humble about what they don’t do well. Arrogant organizations go it alone while humble organizations go it with others.
Marker seven: we are candid about our success and failures. This follows from a humble attitude. How many times do you hear a ministry talk about its failures or weaknesses? How many ministries overstate their success? Healthy organizations are candid about where they are seeing success and where they are struggling. It is that very candidness that allows them to learn from others or collaborate with others from whom they can learn. Ministries are like people, they have strengths and weaknesses. Humble ministries collaborate with others where they are weak and don’t pretend that everything they do is a success.
Marker eight: we encourage innovation. Trying new things, rethinking old strategies, allowing the freedom to fail (some new things will fail) are signs of health. Ministry tiredness has set in when we are afraid to take a risk, afraid to fail, and settle into what is familiar rather than being willing to step into the unfamiliar. There is something deeply refreshing when people try new strategies and break old rules. Just as Jesus broke many of the traditions of the Pharisees, healthy ministries love the break the old rules as to “how it is done.” They encourage innovation, new ideas and give people freedom to try and even fail. They understand that if you always do what you always did you always get what you always got and they don’t settle for that.
Marker nine: we love to get people into their sweet spot where they are using their gifts and are in their right lane. Healthy ministries don’t fill ministry slots with available people. Rather they find the best people and then design ministry lanes that are consistent with the gifting and wiring of those great staff members. When staff are in the right lane, when they are playing to their strengths rather than their weaknesses, morale and productivity are high.
Marker ten: we empower people and hold them accountable. Empowerment means that we are clear about the results we seek and the convictions of the ministry and then set people free to achieve the missional agenda in line with their creative gifting. The other side of empowerment is accountability for results and living within the convictions of the ministry. Great staff love empowerment and are committed to accountability.
It takes the commitment of everyone to build a healthy ministry. It is not simply the job of leaders – they can help set the ethos but making it happen is the responsibility of every staff member all the time. That commitment pays off with a great place to work, colleagues we trust and appreciate and ministry results that give us energy.