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Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Five

As leaders you will develop a more empowered community by being clear, in general and in particular situations, about what leadership style you are using.  And, the more you tilt toward the group’s participation the more empowered they are likely to feel.

Leadership Styles

For the past 61 years, leaders in a variety of organizations, have used the work of Robert Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt to guide them in deciding on whether to be more or less democratic in their leadership. The Harvard Business Review printed “How to choose a leadership pattern”  in 1958. It was reprinted as an HBR Classic in 1973 and has been used since then as an effective tool for organizational leadership. They proposed a range of possible behavior from “The manager makes the decision and announces it” to “The manager permits subordinates to function within limits defined by the superior.” On the one end there was more use of authority by the leader and on the other more freedom for the employees of members. Over time the spectrum has been modified by leaders and consultants. Here’s a form I’ve used with parishes and non-profit organizations – a PDF.

That approach used a range of six styles:

Tells … Leader makes decision and announces it.

Sells … Leader has made decision but wants to have others buy it.

Tests … Leader has made tentative decision, wants to test it with others to get response

Consults … Leader wants group ideas. After receiving ideas, leader makes decision.

Enables … Leader enables group to make the decision. This may include the leader setting limits regarding what the group may consider and/or establishing procedures and processes for the group's work.

Joins … Leader acts as participant in the group. Group makes the decision.

Parish rectors are rarely clear about their leadership style. In our time, most think vaguely about how inclusive and democratic they want to be and are. But when introduced to something like the Leadership Style Spectrum they seem less certain; especially when they consider specific situations they have faced. Their lack of theoretical clarity muddies things, for the parish and in their own mind.


A case

 Recently I sat through a meeting of parishioners who had been invited by the rector to meet around a proposal for a change in liturgical patterns. About 40 people were there. That’s pretty good for a parish with an average attendance of around 150. 

The rector began by explaining the process to be used – anyone could pose a question, they would be written on a white board, and she and others would do their best to respond. On the leadership spectrum this was a “Sells” position. The rector and vestry were making their case.  In the HBR article they have a  place on the spectrum, “Managers presents ideas and invites questions.” So, below I call the style “Sells-Q&A”

A number of questions were offered and written on the board. Most were about the logistics of the proposal. One was about how the decline in attendance related to the proposal. The rector did a good job of responding to most questions.

As is common with this style, it didn’t take long before people started making comments and offering their own ideas and concerns in more detail. My experience is that the “Sells-Q&A” style works better in either a very hierarchal organization or in a classroom when the instructor is gathering everyone’s questions up-front so she can see if there are connections among the questions and provide a better response. 

As more and more comments were made voices were raised. There was some push back on the rector from one person when the rector got some facts wrong about how things were in the past. The rector's anxiety showed in not acknowledging the correction.

At first, the rector did well holding her own. The rector asked other staff members to offer responses. My hunch is that the few vestry members in the room got anxious and wanted to support the rector (or maybe what happened was planned in advance, I don’t know). They started to jump in. Each made some part of the case for the proposal and how everyone they had talked with was fine with it. To me in felt defensive. 

People pretty much stayed respectful. The basic questions were answered, and the issue of attendance decline was for the first time placed before the community.

However, everybody walked away without any real idea of what most people thought. The rector and vestry could say we had a productive discussion. Those who were more critical could say there was significant resistance to the idea. But because of the process used we don’t really know what most people in the room thought. Also, the discomfort of many people was obvious. It was more contentious than many expected it to be.


If they wanted more participation and ownership

A big thing

How could the process have been slightly changed in order to get a better read on the group’s views? What’s the one big change that would have helped?

Let’s begin by accepting the use of the Q&A format. It’s true that a different process would have improved things. That coming at this from a "consults" stance might have been a better choice. But even if we disagree with the rector and vestry’s decision to use a “Sells-Q&A style”, let’s accept it as what we were dealing with.

And, let’s assume that the rector or a warden provided a clear, thorough presentation of what was being proposed.

What I would’ve done is use a spectrum at the front end of the meeting, after the proposal had been laid out, and then use exactly the same spectrum at the end of the meeting. That would have given the leadership and the group a sense of where the group was on the issue. It would also tell you whether the “Sells – Q&A” with the group generated comments and moved people in one direction or another. For example:


If I was leading the meeting and saw that response I'd know there was going to be some resistance. And, if I was functioning out of my better self, I could remember that resistance is something to learn from. That proposals get improved when you listen to the resistance. And that people feel respected when we show we are hearing them.


An appropriate closing would be for the rector and/or a warden to offer a paraphrase of what they heard the group saying. "I hear the group saying ...."  And then allow a few minutes for any clarifications from the group.


Small things

They could have jump started the process by having people talk in groups of three for 5 minutes about the questions they had. When that’s done everyone comes up with something. You get more questions and you have also activated people’s thinking so they tend to be more present. 

Using a white board may have limited the number of questions offered. Whether using a white board or newsprint there is a tendency for the group to stop offering questions or ideas as you come close to running out of room. Newsprint pads are usually the better choice. As you come toward the end of a page, tear it off and hang it. Write “page 2” on the next sheet and wait for more questions or ideas.

Accept that there will be some anxiety and that things may get contentious. That's what usually happens when you change anything related to worship.

Manage the flow of questions and comments by having the group in a semi-circle and going around the circle. People could pass if they didn’t have anything. That also helps the energy in the room feel safer and more managed. The more introverted, and those inclined to avoid or accommodate in the face of disagreements, are give more space for their participation.

Provide members of the vestry with ways to engage the concerns of others in a manner that showed they were listening and that validated the person’s feelings and concerns. A bit of role playing prior to the meeting might be useful.



Clarity and good judgment about what leadership style is needed in each situation will build trust between the congregation and the parish leaders.

The willingness to maximize the amount of consult, enables and joins processes will create a more empowered community.




Shaping an empowered parish community: Part One

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Two

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Three

Shaping an empowered parish community: Part Four