Working Smarter As A Church Leader: Optimization

I recently read an article by Scott Belsky entitled "Why You Should Be Optimizing" on Work-Smart Strategies that was posted on

[For clarification, is not connected in anyway to the Occupy movement---quite the contrary.  This site promotes creative, emergent leadership, art, culture, etc.]

Belsky identifies three areas of reflection regarding organizational optimization that leaders should take up.   I thought that I would reflect on Belsky's article (which you can find here) in the light of church leadership.  

1. Tinker With What Works
Belsky writes, 
"When you make an error, you are likely to persevere and keep trying until you get it right. But when you get it right – when you hit a home run – the human tendency is to rejoice and then move on to the next challenge. Despite research that encourages us to build on our strengths, we spend more time fixing what’s broken than optimizing what works. Why? Because any measure of success impairs our ability to imagine something better."
Church systems are notorious for this sort of behavior.  I can't count how many times in my role as a pastor that I have experienced resistance when I've suggested "improvements" to established programs, worship services, etc. that are viewed as "successful."  The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to church life is very comfortable for church boards and congregants alike.

  •  Changing the worship time of your growing contemporary worship service to start 30 minutes later in order to reach young families who struggle to attend at the earlier time. 
  • Placing the text to all of the prayers and liturgical elements in the bulletin of your thriving traditional worship service in order to be more inclusive to visitors. 
  • Periodically changing the format of your popular weekly e-newsletter so that your readers will keep "noticing" it.  

2. Make Incremental Tweaks, Not Drastic Changes
According to Belsky,
"Optimization isn't about making drastic changes. Introducing too many risk factors into a successful project or system IS dangerous. The key to optimization is making incremental tweaks in a controlled and measurable way."
There are times in the life of a church when drastic change is absolutely necessary for the continued life and vitality of the church.  But in terms of optimization of what is "working," I think the key phrase here is "controlled and measurable."

This takes a degree of patience that visionary leaders often struggle to maintain.  This is why it is important to have a great staff, or a creative team that will work with visionary leaders to find ways to optimize without causing undue strain to the system.

3. Conduct Some "A/Me" Testing
Back to Belsky,
"We should optimize not only our projects but also ourselves. Just as you might run A/B tests on your products, services, and marketing efforts, you can also optimize your own workflow. Doing "A/Me" testing involves you comparing the way you always work "Me" to a slightly tweaked approach (the "A" in this case)."
The idea of A/B testing refers to when a company puts out product "B," which is really an optimized version of product "A," but does it in conjunction with continuing product "A" so their customers will continue to be served.
Make sense?

For church leaders this could be as simple as:

  • Slowly phasing your primary leadership role out of a few church committees so that your laypeople can learn to lead more effectively.  Your newfound time and energy may inspire you to let go of more. 
  • If your worship services are heavy on clergy and light on lay leadership, pick one service and slowly phase yourself out of everything but preaching.    The change in one service may inform how you act in the other.   

By slowly and incrementally making transformations, you will begin to see what works and what doesn't and you can do this without appearing to make drastic changes.

Belsky asserts that whenever we begin this kind of tinkering, we need to have three practices of optimization in mind: 
  • Seek forms of measurement. The more quantifiable the outcome, the better. 
  • Introduce only one change at a time. Remember that, by introducing too many changes at once, you will increase risk and lose the ability to track the impact of a particular change. Sweeping change is not optimization.
  • Don't assume that just because something works it can't be better. On the contrary, efforts to optimize should be spent on your strengths. The difference between 95% and 100% is small tweaks. Find your 95% and bring it home, because this is the area where you are most likely to change the world.
Each of us who is called to the ministry needs to be ready both "in season" and "out of season" to fulfill our calling and to join Jesus in what he is doing in the world around us.   To that end, we must be prepared to do this well and to the best of our God-given abilities, which requires constant self-assessment, continued training and a willingness to be transformed in order to be transforming.   

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