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Inside Group: Those Who Obstruct Ministry

Thom Schultz

You know Bertha. She's your third-grade Sunday school teacher, a veteran of 10 years. She's reliable. But she's standing in the way of effective ministry.

You and your other teachers are ready to move ahead with a new curriculum, but Bertha clings to her old, less effective ways. The kids in Bertha's classes are bored and really don't learn much. But Bertha shows up every Sunday.

So rather than risk upsetting Bertha, you put your new plans on hold and pray that Bertha will someday soften -- or retire.

It's a typical scene in churches and Christian organizations. It's dysfunctional. And it obstructs your ministry.

DIRECT TALK

Here at Group Publishing, the provider of ministry resources, we face similar temptations. Perhaps because we're ministry people, we don't relish the thought of confronting 'Bertha behavior.' We don't want to see people like Bertha hurt or embarrassed. But we've found that if we ignore Bertha behavior, our ministry -- and the rest of our team -- suffers.

So for the past 20 years or so, we've taught our staff about a key ingredient of our organizational culture -- direct communication. When an issue or concern arises, we encourage all staff to speak directly to the person involved. No complaining to others. No sending of obscure signals. No ignoring the problem with wistful hopes it'll disappear on its own.

When new people join our staff, they're trained in direct communication during our extensive orientation program. And they're reminded of it often. If people start to say, 'I'm really having a problem with Joe,' they're generally promptly asked, 'Have you talked directly with Joe about this?' This is now a natural part of our culture -- a culture that discourages behind-the-back talk and unnecessary obstructions to ministry. We strive to deal with issues in a direct, tactful, compassionate way that ultimately benefits the entire organization and our mission.

MISSION-MINDEDNESS

What's your mission? Why does your church exist? What are your priorities? How do those priorities affect your approach with Bertha? What's more important -- to refrain from confronting Bertha or to improve your ministry to children?

All too often Christian leaders are more willing to diminish their ministry than to directly handle an uncomfortable problem with an individual. Obviously, no one wants to see Bertha hurt. That's not the goal. But leaders' compassion for an individual sometimes clouds their view of the larger ministry. Sacrifice of an individual's feelings is often seen as an unacceptable price for more effective ministry.

Is it ever okay to sacrifice one for the benefit of many? We believe God answered this when he sacrificed his Son's life so that we all might live.

As Christian leaders we're called to lead with love, with courage, and with a clear focus on the ultimate mission.

CONFRONTING BERTHA

If Bertha is obstructing ministry, we need to help her change her behavior or move her to a better role. How can we handle this delicate situation with tact, compassion, and success? Here are tips we've found helpful.

  • Schedule a time to meet with Bertha one-to-one. Don't gang up on her. Arrange a time and place that offer respect and confidentiality.
  • Gather your thoughts and give yourself a break. When contemplating a conversation such as this, leaders often conjure up all sorts of monstrous scenarios. The truth is, the conversation rarely gets as dire as imagined. In fact, people like Bertha often already sense there's a problem. They've read the signals, but they're unsure how to extricate themselves. Though the discussion may be uncomfortable, they're often relieved someone is helping to bring resolution.
  • Begin by thanking Bertha for her efforts. Then move into your areas of concern. Focus on behavior, not on personality. Say, 'Your approach doesn't seem to be working well,' rather than, 'You're not a good teacher.'
  • If changing Bertha's behavior is not likely, discuss new options to better utilize Bertha's gifts within your ministry. Assure her that you want her to thrive in a spot where she can be successful.
  • Keep your priorities straight. Don't allow the conversation to weasel you into an outcome that diminishes your ministry. Remain firm in representing the best interests of your children's programs.
  • Outline clearly the next steps, your expectations, and your timeline.
  • Pray with Bertha.
  • If you've not done it before, now may be a fine time to institute finite terms of service with volunteers. Ask all volunteers to serve for six months, a year, or whatever is appropriate. Asking people to serve with no end in sight simply invites problems with those who under-perform. But definite terms offer opportunities to affirm those who perform well, and offer natural times to move those who don't. When a term is up, ask good performers to renew. But use the term expiration to propose that poor performers accept different responsibilities for which they're better matched.

Who is your Bertha? How could your ministry move forward after some direct communication with her? We encourage you to do what's right for your entire ministry. And then watch what God will do through you -- and through Bertha!


Thom Schultz is founder and president of Group Publishing, Inc. Joani Schultz is chief creative officer. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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