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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Supervising Staff

This week's question...

Got any special advice about supervising staff, especially male staff? I am finding that I approach things too personally but when I pull back and deal in strictly business, the criticism is that I am controlling. Some might use the "b" word behind my back.  So they want me to be strong and hold this staff accountable but then accuse me of being picky or micro-managing, etc. 

Crimson Rambler was our sole respondent:
First response to this situation would be – if you are the person in charge, then you set the tone and the tempo of your conversations and interactions, and stick to it.  Be clear about expectations.  Be positive.  Be prompt in response with either praise or correction.

Some other observations.  First, a story. The summer when I was a deacon left in charge of the parish in the HOS’s vacation time, a very senior visiting clergyman came to officiate at a wedding – and was rude to our secretary while making the arrangements beforehand.  I didn’t witness it, but the secretary noted it in conversation.  I spent most of a WEEK dithering about my response – and whether I’d respond at all.  Finally came a moment of insight.  “I am the Person in Charge; and if I don’t interpose between my staff and this kind of unpleasantness, if I don’t defend her, then I have no ground to stand on to expect her to do what I ask her to do.”  So on that basis, I tackled Rev. Rude – and he growled at ME, true, but I survived the growling – and he apologized to our secretary in writing.

When I shared the story with the military branch of my family, I was quite surprised to find out that my epiphany was not a new discovery: “that’s an OLQ! You demonstrated an OLQ! [Officer-Like Quality].”  From there the conversation went to an appreciation of On War by Karl von Clausewitz.  On my bookshelf, he’s the Third Karl – next to Barth and Rahner.  All you need to know about healthy and effective leadership and command in ANY context is there…maintenance of morale (concrete and specific praise), lines of communication (CLARITY), lines of supply (make sure they have what they need to do their work), command and control (beginning, as always, with command and control of oneself).
Highly recommended reading.  If it seems an impossibly macho project, take heart, the general gave the lectures; but his devoted wife wrote the book from his notes.

That said, I still haven’t found anything that establishes the right kind of authority more readily than protecting your staff from mistreatment.  It works enormously well with volunteers also, by the way.  When people know that the Old Lady, or the Old Man, has their back…they perform better, more confidently, and much more happily.  You may still be a “b” in their minds, but you’re THEIR ‘b”.

Part of the work of the shepherd…is to deal with the coyotes when they show up.

Word!  Now let's open the conversation wider...share your experiences and insights below.

May you live in God's amazing grace+



  1. A resource that might be helpful... I wrote a post awhile back about Manager Tools:

    Not everything translates to the church context but a lot of it does. The podcast focuses on good communication, giving feedback, and running effective meetings.

    1. Thank you so much for this recommendation! I've listened to probably six podcasts in the last two days and WOW! they will definitely change the way I do ministry.

  2. I love this question, and I love QR's answer. (I grew up with military metaphor...true, whether or not a good thing). :)

  3. Great answer, CR, and I just discovered that Amazon has On War available free for Kindle! Just got mine. Thanks for the rec!

    1. Do you have a link? because I didn't find one when I when looking...

  4. To me, this points up (once again) that each of us has her own way of being a leader. For some, that may be barking like Patton. For others, it might be quiet private conversations. For still others, it might be a lot of team conversations, with shared goals and expectations articulated. We each have to find the way that works for us. That said, Crimson Rambler's points about clarity and consistency seem to go to the heart of the matter. That, and recognizing that we will not always be agreed with, liked, or respected for leading, and when that happens, it is rarely about us.

    ...and this is why I am hoping my DMin project will address leadership styles other than "I'm the daddy and I'm in charge."

  5. that's what's so intriguing --fascinating -- about von Clausewitz, mibi -- you would think, "a Prussian of the Prussians" but the leadership is not in the barking stereotype. The leadership is in the competence and care. (Von Clausewitz would not have admired Patton.)

    Right next to "On War" on the shelf -- of course -- should be "The Psychology of Military Incompetence" (Norman F. Dixon)-- it translates to ecclesiology too. I'm indebted to Richard Holloway for that reference.

    And at least a military model gives us a break from the all-pervasive BUSINESS model...sigh.

    1. lol! The military model for churches...who woulda thought.

  6. I replied to this week's question by explaining that I didn't feel I had enough information to respond in a helpful way. Where's the criticism coming from? From staff? From the congregation? Is criticism expressed to the pastor or about her? I think there's a difference between how one handles direct criticism and indirect, and whether the criticism is coming from the supervised or from the congregation. It's true that this is a leadership question, but there are nuances and contexts to how we exercise our leadership.

  7. well, my hope is that you will come to some degree of fondness for Onkel Karl also. He fought Napoleon in the Russian campaign of 1812... and he THINKS, about things like why what looks utterly simple in the planning stage curdles up with difficulty on the way to accomplishment...he's a good friend to have,in the work we try to do.

  8. As a bivocational pastor and CFO, and late to ordained ministry, I've supervised a number of people in my career.
    I don't know if Clausewitz covers these things, :-) but I have these rules of thumb about supervision.

    Praise in public, rebuke in private.
    Try to do both of those as close to the event as possible.
    Have their backs. (This was part of the charge to the congregation from my ordination, but it works well in the other direction too.) It goes with shepherd/wolves metaphor above. Defend as necessary (being mindful of calling people out in public), and if you can't defend them, make sure the scolding is as private as possible.

    Thank people for the work they do, both big things and routine things. Every day. "In everything, give thanks."

    Apologize when you're wrong. "If there is something between you and your brother or sister, ..."

    Tell your staff that you don't like surprises, and neither does your boss. (I think that works in a congregation or with a board viewed as the "boss" as well as in my non-profit setting.) This allows you to nip problems in the bud.

    In supervising a "problem" employee, you as the supervisor have to take the initiative to keep dialog and information flow going. Ask them what they have planned, get clarity on their goals and projects, stop by every morning to check in with them. Face to face is better than other alternatives. Otherwise, if they have a problem they will avoid you. Seek them out instead.

    If you don't like confrontations (and really, who does?), view those as a hat you wear. I think about putting on my black hat and dealing with the ways that people are being or causing problems. I don't have to be confrontational all the time, I just need to have this one discussion.

    Try to understand or figure out where people are coming from, and if you think a staff member is causing you problems, respect your gut and protect yourself. Yes, there are young rising stars who would be happy to use you as door mat or stepping stone, but as Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

    Accept that you, yourself, have power, and that's threatening for many men and women who have 1920's views of women's roles in the church (or in authority). We are called both to feed the flock and to lead the flock.

    I used Walter Wink's Engaging the Powers in my sermons the last couple of weeks, pairing selections from the Sermon on the Mount with the admonitions from Ephesians 4 & 5, and perhaps we might work to find theological leadership examples as well as business or military ones? Is there a "Third Way" to deal, not fight or flight?

    Okay, I'll stop before I start ranting. I haven't been posting on my reflective blog much, but did put my recent supply sermons up on a separate blog:, so you can see what I did with Engaging the Powers. Perhaps this long comment is a sign that I'm ready to think about writing again.

    Blessings on the tough job of supervision!

    1. LOVE Walter Wink. And I deeply appreciate and second what you say about putting your hat on, because this is what we're there for.
      Military or Business or Theology -- we have to be prepared for conflict whenever we're dealing with other persons especially in directive/supervisory relationships -- and for what von C calls "friction", by which (I don't know what the German word was, I'm reading it in translation) he means "the inevitable tendency of human situations to deteriorate/go south/complicate themselves/fall apart." He's brilliant on situations, plans, strategies, aims that look perfectly simple and then just spontaneously become DIFFICULT -- and how to be ready for that so it doesn't disable or stymie us.
      Wouldn't it be good if ministry education included the repeated overt acknowledgement that "IF IT CAN GO WRONG IT WILL GO WRONG IN MORE WAYS THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE -- and it is your job to see it coming, take it in stride, KNOW what to do next and do it."
      I would add one rule to your excellent list -- don't waste your subordinates' time. A good general does not waste troops' lives. We shouldn't waste them either.

  9. This is the "military branch" (more of a twig, really) of the Rambler's family, using her computer while she is otherwise occupied.

    The truth is that all of the points made above are entirely consistent with leadership, as it is known in (successful) military or other circles. Protecting your people, correcting in private, *not* barking at people are all Officer-Like Qualities or OLQ's (pronounced "oily-queues").

    On my basic officer training (which took place while the crust of the earth was still cooling) I was taught that von Clausewitz's ten Principles of War were really the ten Principles of Life. The mnemonic is AMASS EFFAC

    Aim: Select and maintain achievable aims.

    Morale: Maintain Morale (starting with your own). As Trollope said, it is a grave mistake to ordain an unhappy man.

    Activity: Practice concurrent activity as much as possible; there is no time to do one thing at a time.

    Security: Maintain security at all times. This includes security of information (the confessional, etc.) and putting a grip on the collection on Sunday mornings.

    Surprise: Surprise others; do not be surprised yourself.

    Effort: Maximum effort at all times. While you're resting, the devil is working.

    Force: Concentrate force on the decisive point. Put your sweat where it will change things. Any busy person knows the spread-too-thin feeling that the army calls being defeated "in detail."

    Flexibility: No plan survives contact with the enemy. (Although it is also true that no one without a plan survives contact with the enemy.) The situation will dictate what is possible. To quote MGen David Fraser on the operational planning process, "Don't forget that the Taliban gets a vote." Do not continue to pursue things that are not working. This is called "reinforcing failure." It does not work.

    Administration: It's amazing how quickly talent, enthusiasm, skill and planning go down the drain if the paperwork is not done.

    Command and Control: At all times maintain command and control, starting with yourself. If you are not in control of yourself, you are not going to be in control of anything else.

    All applicable to military science; all applicable to vestry meetings.

  10. I wouldn't worry about being called the "B word" behind your back (or to your face).

    As Tina Fey says, "People say that she's a bitch. Yeah. She is. And so am I. And so is this one. Deal with it. Bitches get stuff done!"

    1. For the record, I don't like how the video sets up a false choice between "black" and "bitch"... but I do like it as a pep talk regarding the kind of reaction strong women get from the public!


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