Management by Wishful Thinking?

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Personnel matters in ministry settings are almost always more complicated than in business, says church leadership expert Mike Bonem. He names the shifts in attitude needed to manage and develop staff more effectively, including a shift from wishful thinking to a more realistic and intentional approach.


Church leaders often carry a heavy responsibility related to staff. They are involved in hiring, training, developing, evaluating, promoting, reprimanding, rewarding, and firing. Even in small churches, matters related to personnel can consume a great deal of time and energy.

The best church leaders live in the tension of grace and stewardship, and they strive to achieve “both/and” as they relate to staff members. They give second chances, but they don’t give second chances for the fifth time. They understand that leaving someone in a position where they are floundering is not compassionate. They also understand that they have a stewardship responsibility, not just for financial resources, but also for helping staff members develop their gifts and succeed in their roles.

Wishful thinking allows a problem to grow, which forces a more difficult conversation down the road. Intentionality can nip that problem in the bud.

Personnel matters in ministry settings are almost always more complicated than in business. It is complicated when a long-time church member applies for a job and meets some, but not all, of the requirements. It’s complicated when a staff member who was a star performer doesn’t have the skills to go to the next level as the church grows. And it’s certainly complicated when you try to evaluate “effectiveness” for something that is inherently hard to assess, such as the quality of pastoral care.

Regardless of your background or your role, you may need to make one or several shifts in order to effectively manage and develop staff. Consider the benefits of shifting from:

  • Special cases to effective systems. When appropriate systems and policies are in place, leaders will spend far less time dealing with special requests.
  • A task-orientation to a relational emphasis. When a leader shows that he or she cares as much for the individual as for the task that needs to be done, those staff members will go the extra mile.
  • Confrontation to conversation. When a staff member’s performance isn’t meeting expectations, a conversation can uncover the real reasons for the shortfall and can lead to lasting improvement.
  • Supervising to coaching. The best church leaders see “management” as an opportunity to help staff members reach their full potential.
From Wishful Thinking to Intentionality

Another shift is equally important, and perhaps the most difficult to make in churches. It’s the shift from wishful thinking to intentionality. How often have you been in a conversation about a personnel-related issue that has been centered in wishful thinking? “If we just give our program director a little more time, she will get more organized.” “It’s just a busy season, so I’m sure that the workload for the financial office will be more manageable soon.” Wishful thinking often flows out of an over-emphasis on relationship and grace that neglects stewardship.

Statements like these may be accurate. The program director may get more organized. It may just be a busy season for the financial office. But often, the statements are simply a way to postpone a more difficult conversation. We may have hired the wrong person for the program director position. We may need to add a person in the financial office.

The shift toward greater intentionality starts with determining whether you are dealing with wishful thinking. A simple question can shed light on this: what leads us to believe that this statement is true? The program director may have been very organized in a previous job. The financial office may be closing the fiscal year and preparing for an audit. If the answer, however, sounds like, “I just think it’s going to get better,” then you’re probably dealing with wishes more than reality.

Sometimes it isn’t clear whether you’re dealing with wishful thinking. When this is the case, ask two other questions: how soon can we expect to see improvement? What would be the indicators that we’ve turned the corner on this issue? These questions accept the explanation that a situation is temporary, but they also establish a timeline for progress. If the timeline isn’t met, then it’s time for a different conversation.

Intentionality doesn’t mean being the bad guy or the gloomy doomsayer. It does mean saying, “I think we have an important issue here that’s not going away on its own. Can we discuss it and try to come up with a solution?” The solution may be training or administrative support for the program director. It may be a part-time person for the financial office.

Shifting from wishful thinking to greater intentionality isn’t easy. In the moment, it’s almost always less painful to accept wishful thinking. In the long run, however, wishful thinking allows a problem to grow, which forces a more difficult conversation down the road. Intentionality can nip that problem in the bud. Is it time for you to shift away from wishful thinking? 


Adapted from Mike Bonem’s book Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You’re Not in Charge), Abingdon, 2016. Used by permission. The book is available through Amazon and Cokesbury.

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About Author

Mike Bonem is a facilitator and consultant with Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF). Previously, he was Executive Pastor of West University Baptist Church in Houston. He recently wrote Thriving in the Second Chair: Ten Practices for Robust Ministry (When You're Not in Charge). He blogs at mikebonem.com.


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