My first ministry began in 1980 in Boca Raton, Florida. I didn’t know it at first, but a few members of my congregation were working on a secret project that would have far-reaching results: a small team had begun designing the new IBM personal computer.
Working outside the usual, highly bureaucratic confines of the company, the Personal Computer Division achieved the impossible, by IBM standards, when, after just a year, in 1981 they rolled out a product.
I knew something was afoot—people with a secret like to drop hints, and sometimes drop them on their minister. IBM was in a hurry—nimbler companies like Kaypro, Osborne, Apple, even Radio Shack had beaten IBM to market. Big Blue had to come to market quickly with a standard-setting product. IBM had no experience writing software for microcomputers, so they hired a tiny firm called Microsoft to do it for them.
In retrospect, we know the IBM PC succeeded better as a standard than as a product for its parent company. Other firms quickly came out with “IBM-compatible” computers, and Microsoft supplied them with MS-DOS, its own version of the PC operating system. IBM’s plans succeeded in some ways, but failed by the key measure: making money.
Meanwhile, at the church, we struggled with a planning challenge of our own. We had reached capacity in a cramped, World-War II era building on a lot with parking for eight cars. A few years earlier, the congregation missed a chance to buy the property next door; now we were landlocked.
As usual in congregations, the hard part was not figuring out what to do—it was obvious to me that if we were serious about ourselves and what we were doing (and at 27, I was nothing if not serious), we had to find land or a building that would permit us to continue growing. The hard part was getting the church’s leaders to agree on what to do. That process was shaped, much more than I knew at the time, by the assumptions leaders brought because of their experiences at work.
The IBMers were one group. They were part of a well-funded effort to bring a product to market quickly for a company that had stood by while others took the lead. They were comfortable with group decision making and with spending lots of time and money fleshing out a range of possible solutions to a problem. They could get a little touchy when others got impatient with a planning process that seemed slow or overly concerned with numbers. Their motto: “Information is expensive.”
A second group were teachers, university professors, therapists, and others of like temper. Like the IBMers, they believed in planning by committee. They had less experience spending money to decide what not to do, and they tended to assume that once they had written up their plan their work was finished. At that point their interest often shifted to another problem, or (most irritatingly) to an alternate solution to the one they had just solved. Their slogan: “We need more information and more time to think this through.”
A third important group of players in our planning process was a cadre of retired entrepreneurs, men and women who had worked for themselves most of their lives. As small players in competitive industries, they were used to moving quickly, choosing options largely on intuition, and learning from experience more than from reflection or analysis. They liked to say, “I will do anything, just don’t ask me to attend committee meetings.”
And there was me. Like everybody else I brought assumptions from my work experiences and education. As a minister, I believed the church’s mission mandated us to grow—it didn’t occur to me that from the point of view of many laypeople, a given congregation has a “right size.” Lay people are much less apt to identify the growth of “the church” with the growth of a particular congregation. Unblinded by ambition, lay people see that our congregation can be and do only a few things. We never will have room for everyone, so in the end we must trust others to accomplish what we leave undone. I can write this now and half believe it—as a 27-year-old man making his first mark in the adult world, I would have disputed such a heresy till my opponents’ rolling eyes and shrugging shoulders signified defeat.
Around the board table, each leader brings a point of view rooted in subcultures he or she belongs to. Subcultures of sex, race, age, and nationality are often recognized. The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator can help a group to acknowledge and “normalize” such differences. We have barely yet begun to see how powerful our occupational subcultures have become. Each person around the table has learned at work how to behave in groups. Those learnings came with powerful rewards and punishments and exert great power, especially when they go unrecognized.
I didn’t know that as a young minister, but now I do. As a consultant I often ask, “What is your work?” At first I expected some resistance. What I often find instead is that my question opens up a rich exchange about strong and different convictions about how groups get things done, and how that kind of diversity might be a good thing.
By the way, in Boca, here is what happened: A committee, mostly of IBM and academic folks, began studying options. They looked at this land, they looked at that land, criticizing each. At one point I took a strong leadership stand in favor of a plot that would have been disastrous. I was talked out of it, and the process plodded on.
Meanwhile, Zack Osias, a retired real estate developer from New York City, following his nose identified a perfect spot—well located next to a park, with a church already built and space to expand. Zack came to church and told me he had put down $10,000 of his own money on an option. “You have six months to make your mind up. If you don’t take it, I will buy it for myself and sell it at a profit.”
It took many more committee meetings, but eventually we analyzed and criticized our way to seeing that Zack’s choice was right. We went, we built, we prospered.
Dan Hotchkiss is a senior consultant at the Alban Institute. “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned at Work” originally appeared in the May/June 2007 issue of Clergy Journal (www.logosproductions.com) and is reprinted with permission. For permission to reproduce, go towww.alban.org/permissions.asp.
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