The Titanic sank for dozens of little reasons and one big reason. The big reason? It hit an iceberg. The little reasons? These range from a calm sea and no binoculars in the crow's nest to the wealthy taking up radio time sending messages and leadership not taking iceberg warnings seriously.
These last two little reasons the Titanic sank are perhaps the most important. They are where we may find our greatest lessons as institutions and organizations.
I've read that the Titanic leadership was warned seven times about dangerous icebergs in their path. Seven times. Seven.
I'm sure there were reasons for ignoring or taking too-small measures, but what could be more important than NOT hitting an iceberg?
The radio situation also had problems. Leadership never received some messages. Still others were ignored.
Some messages never got out of the radio room. It was a busy day. The ship was approaching land. The wealthy were making arrangements for arrival.
The workers in the radio room faced competing priorities and were probably chewed out by officers and passengers alike. They could have done better for the safety of all, but they had little authority. It takes a lot of courage for a low-wage worker to stand up to a wealthy passenger who is perfectly capable of destroying one's life in several ways.
Yes, the lackeys could have done a better job. They did have a responsibility. But, for the most part, they fulfilled their duties. The officers were the ones who did not respond appropriately. The officers were ultimately responsible for the entire ship. Even if the workers failed at their jobs, the ship is on the captain's shoulders.
What lessons have we learned from these errors? Gallons of ink have been spilt on this very question, especially in business books. And it's pretty apparent on the surface. But let's look at some examples anyway.
If I were the CEO of a bank, for example, I would want to make sure nothing happened to lose everyone's money (especially my wealthiest clients). I would have workers keep an eye on the horizon and an ear to incoming news. I would listen carefully to any and everything remotely sounding like danger. Especially repeated warnings of the same threat.
I would protect my workers from being pushed around by my wealthiest clients' fears. Those clients may "own" my "ship," but it is my ship to run. I would protect and respect my workers as if they were my own eyes and ears. I would find ways to make sure their voices were heard without being filtered through their "betters." And I would be responsible for sorting through the mountain of input based on the quality of data, not the quantity of clout. I might get harassed by my wealthy clients and my officers, but my ship would not sink. Not on my watch.
In a non-profit, it looks a bit different. The captain of the ship is a board of directors. The Executive Director or CEO makes the board's decisions reality. Responsibility is shared, the CEO guides the board in their decisions, but the buck stops at the board of directors.
If you've been moderately involved in your congregation or denomination for any length of time, you know these same risks for error happen in church too. Our "smaller" voices get drowned out, our wealthier donors' concerns carry more weight, our leadership can often delegate the hard work of listening to the mountain of multi-vocal information coming in.
Church congregations are, legally speaking, non-profits. Mainline churches ordinarily have a board of directors who are lay people and a CEO who is ordained. Like secular non-profits, the pastor guides the board of directors, but the buck always stops at the board of directors.
Such heavy responsibility can come as a jolt when we join our church's leadership. It can be a frightening realization that the entire ship could sink or sail based on the decisions and errors made by a handful of ordinary people. We can look around at each other and think, "I'm not qualified. I never even took a business class. This is too much responsibility." And yet, every church I know is set up like this. You are not alone. But you are responsible.*
I knew boards in some churches who abdicated their responsibility. Who refused to make tactical decisions and waited for someone to come and shut them down or tell them what to do. Thankfully, most church leadership boards do what they can, ask for help when they get stuck, and shuffle along reasonably well. Occasionally, a congregation gets gifted with capable business people committed to serving the church. Truly fortunate congregations have a plumber in the pews too.
As our churches grow smaller, our pool of leaders does as well. Lay leaders can become exhausted, and vital skills may leave a glaring gap. A part-time or unskilled pastor/CEO can complicate things too. An all-volunteer or part-time staff has the potential to get some needed work done but often lacks a full complement of business and leadership skills or, more likely, the time and authority to utilize the skills they have.
I think most of us have experienced at least some of this. We do the best we can, but situations like these can drag us into conflict and resentment, not to mention dangerous business decisions.
What to do?
There is much more to do than merely keeping the ship from sinking. But the first job we all have is NOT to let the ship sink. To NOT hit an iceberg.
The head of the board must accept they are the captain. Must assume full responsibility. Go ahead and feel the terror. Make a list of everything you don't have and don't know. Then delegate that list to your pastor, receive the information, and make a plan to get up to speed. You and the board will make the decisions. Your pastor will guide in some ways, but they will follow the lead of the board. So lead. Not leading means your ship is rudderless.
Listen to all the voices, including the staff and the least powerful. You are going to have to sort through a mountain of opinion and information. Take notes, work closely with your pastor as you sort, and be honest about "where" your voices are coming from: social media, the bookkeeper, the janitor, the bishop, the 90-year-old, the 9-year-old, the donor who 1/2 supports the entire church. You will "hear" each voice differently. Knowing that will help you sort through data while avoiding bias. Whatever you do, don't rely on just a few people to tell you things.
Hyper-communication and absorbing enough information to make decisions takes time. Get some advice on how to make this more efficient, and schedule time to do the work. Becoming overwhelmed leads to ignoring things, and ignoring things (like icebergs) can lead to unpleasant surprises.
Get help. Holler. Be the squeaky wheel. Start with free help. This isn't over-delegating, it's making you a better captain. Ask the congregation to recommend local people who can help here and there. For example, some CPAs look for volunteer work as a charitable contribution. Finally, when you find gaps in the help you need, find one-off assistance. Like me. You've done your due diligence. Your denomination may contribute to that cost if you've turned every stone.
Remember, Jesus is the actual captain. You're not alone. You're never alone. He's got this. So do you.
Leading the church is more than preaching or donating or voting on a capital campaign. It's more than NOT hitting an iceberg. But while we step deeper into leadership - all of us - let's start with NOT hitting an iceberg. It will be enough for now. It will get us down the road long enough to make better decisions.
How can I help you avoid an iceberg today?
*Things get more complicated at the denomination level, so I'm not going to address that here.
Photo by Paul Carroll on Unsplash