Episode 89: “Managing Congregations in a Virtual Age” featuring John Wimberly Jr.

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Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 89: “Managing Congregations in a Virtual Age” featuring John Wimberly Jr.
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Are virtual meetings and work-from-home staff part of the new normal in your church? John Wimberly discusses best practices for working with staff and volunteers in a hybrid era.

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Are virtual meetings and work-from-home staff part of the new normal in your church? In this episode John Wimberly discusses best practices for working with staff and volunteers in a hybrid era.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel and I’m one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter and I’m your host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks Podcast. I’m talking today with John Wimberly who for many years was the pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Now he consults and advises congregations primarily on issues related to management and staffing and volunteers and teams, first with the Alban Institute and now with the Congregational Consulting Group. He’s the author of several books and his most recent book is Managing Congregations in the Virtual Age. And that’s the subject for our conversation today. So welcome to you, John.

John Wimberly: Thanks for having me.

Ann Michel: Your book begins with the observation that the transition to the digital world that most congregations made in response to the pandemic was relatively easy compared to the issues of managing staff and volunteers in the virtual sphere which has received considerably less attention. Could you explain why you believe that to be the case?

John Wimberly: Well, any pastor listening is going to object to the idea that it was easy. Nonetheless, compared to managing people it was easier. I’ve got to hand it to clergy and congregations across the country, small to large, who made this transition so quickly. It’s really stunning how quickly they did it and how well they did quality. But that was technology. And so, you bought things, you learned things, and you learned how to applied the technology you had. As a preacher, you had to learn some tricks about communicating with a camera versus communicating with a live audience. Those kinds of things. But it’s nothing like managing people. Managing people is always going to be the most difficult thing and the most fun thing, frankly, that we do as clergy. And so that’s why I would describe one as significantly easier than the other.

The other thing is, very few seminaries really teach much about managing people while we’re in seminary. Wesley, Columbia, a few others have done a really good job of educating clergy once they are out in the field. Maybe it’s one of those things you have to be in the field doing before you can learn it. I don’t think so. But at least you’re doing it. A lot of seminaries never do. And so managing people is something you either learn to do or fail to do pretty much on your own.

In my first book, The Business of the Church, I spend a lot of time in that book on managing people, too, because it’s so important, because your whole ministry can fall apart if you don’t manage staff correctly. As a consultant, I work with congregations all the time where typically the senior minister has made some kind of mistake in managing people. And it’s created all kinds of tension within the life of the congregation. So the way I frame this whole thing of managing people in a virtual setting is that most clergy weren’t very good at managing someone who was down the hall in their office. So what happens when they were across town or maybe in another state if they chose to go someplace else, which many people do? It just amps it up.

Ann Michel: Can you name some of the issues that should be top of mind for churches in this era when many of their staff and volunteers may be opting to connect remotely? What do people need to be thinking about?

John Wimberly: The number one thing has to do with output productivity. So, what do we expect from people? And that should have been the issue when the person was down the hall as well as when the person is across the town. Because when they were sitting down the hall, they could have just been sitting in there going on Facebook on their computer in their office. It’s not like the first time they had the opportunity to use the computer for less than work-oriented reasons was when they moved to work from home. They can do that in the office, too.

So how do you do that? You create very clear productivity outcomes. “This is what we want you to do.” You don’t tell them how to do it. You hire people who’ve got an entrepreneurial, self-starting approach to reality and to work. And then you let them do it. But you have to be clear about what it is you want. And then the hardest thing for the church in general to do is hold people accountable for whatever that output standard is. So if they said that they were going to do X but they did Y, then there has to be a conversation. And that’s no easy conversation. “What happened to X? That’s what we asked you to do and you ended up doing Y.” So the accountability. The church and accountability just have such a bad relationship.

Ann Michel: That’s a point that comes through loud and clear in your book. As staff have moved to remote work, a lot of people are really worried about whether they really are working and how can you hold them accountable. And you make the very important point that how churches hold staff accountable has always been an issue in congregations. And not just whether they’re on Facebook on their computers, but whether their work is really accomplishing what churches hope and expect that it should. So, what are some of the ways that congregations can hold their staff accountable, both in person and in virtual spaces?

John Wimberly: Well, the first thing is defining the output. So you have to say, this is what we want you to do, and this is the quality of work that we expect. And then there has to be some kind of timeframe, so say in three months or six months or a year. It kind of depends on the task as to the timeframe. Some things take a year to get done, some things take a week. But you say, “We’re going to evaluate this.”

I’m not a big believer in annual performance reviews. In fact, I don’t believe in them at all. And there’s a lot of research to back my statement up which I referred to in the book. There has to be an ongoing performance review. So I’ll go into a church and be doing a staff design. And the senior pastor will say, “We’ve got one person who’s really not very effective. She’s a wonderful person. And the congregation really loves her.” And I’ll say, “How long has the person been working there?” “Thirteen years.” “You’ve had somebody on your staff not functioning at any kind of a respectable level for 13 years?” How can you run an organization by tolerating such people? And I don’t think we’re doing any favors to the person who’s been there and under functioning for 13 years, either.

Ann Michel: I ‘m very fond of the book by your colleagues Gil Rendle and Susan Beaumont on staffing, When Moses Met Aaron. And they make that point loud and clear that churches so often hold foremost the values of grace and compassion and don’t understand that in an employee-employer situation there are different standards for what the nature of the relationship needs to be. I want to get back to this issue of the reality of managing in a virtual time, which is the title and main focus of your book. So what are some other issues that need to be top of mind beyond this issue of how staff are held accountable? What other issues do people need to be thinking about as we were in this new way of engaging?

John Wimberly: I wrote the book during the pandemic and I interviewed a lot of clergy, both rabbis and Christian clergy. And they said that the single most difficult thing for them was the lack of what I would call “hallway conversations.” And one rabbi — I think I relate this in the book — talked about the fact that their staff were getting irritated with each other because certain things weren’t happening. And they couldn’t quite figure out why. And they realized that they had been coordinating a lot of their work as they walked by each other in hallways, or as they met in the office, or saw each other in the parking lot. So one of the issues about being virtual is that there has to be some very strong intentionality about communicating, on a daily basis probably, so that those kind of tasks don’t get lost. One of the stories he told me was that there wasn’t any Challah bread. And he couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t any Challah because there had always been Challah. It turned out the associate rabbi always brought the Challah. But he never told her that, because he thought it would be insulting to remind her. So there’s going to have to be some stuff which at the beginning will feel kind of awkward.

I’m convinced that a lot of staff stuff is going to become more virtual rather than less virtual. It’s the same thing with meetings. People have figured out they don’t have to drive 20 minutes to the church to go to a one-hour meeting and then drive 20 minutes home. I don’t see that happening ever again. They will get together for big meetings like  council meetings or church governing board meetings, things like that. But a lot of these meetings where people drove to the church to have the meeting, they’re gone. They are going to be virtual. So managing all of that stuff and building a communications system in which everybody can stay connected to each other, is going to be a challenge.

Ann Michel: I think that’s not just in terms of staff and leadership. I think that’s going on churchwide. In the church I attend, I feel like people who always were “in the know” about everything don’t know what’s going on, for the very reason that you described. And it’s created a real communication challenge. There are all these small groups that are together virtually. But the connector points, the informal communication that kept everything together, is just kind of missing. And it’s weird.

John Wimberly: Yeah, it’s true. The staff feel disconnected. The amount of anxiety in the air right now is crazy. Because we’ve lost a sense of what it’s like to be connected that way.


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Ann Michel: Since we’re talking about digital meetings, let me ask, whether this is for clergy who lead staff or volunteer leaders who lead different ministry teams, what do they need to be attending to differently in these digital meeting spaces? How is the function of managing a group different?

John Wimberly: Right, so my consulting business just went crazy during the pandemic. And I was constantly attending to this particular issue. I did a lot of reading from the business world about things to do and things not to do in virtual meetings. One of them is that in a lot of companies, you cannot go off screen. And in church meetings routinely people will go off screen. And you say, “Well, what’s the big deal with that? It’s a privacy issue.” Well, the big deal is most of us sit there and think, “I wonder what they’re doing? I wonder if they are even there? Are they even attending the meeting behind the thing that’s got their name on it in the Zoom box?” So, setting some rules about what you can and cannot do is extremely important. As the person running the meeting, (the extroverts always have the upper hand in terms of jumping into stuff in any kind of meeting) you have to pay extra attention to making sure that everybody is asked, “Do you have anything further that you’d like to add?” Especially somebody who has said absolutely nothing. Even in groups that are small — six to nine people — I will ask a question and then say “Let’s use the breakout room feature and go into groups of three and then come back and we’ll have a discussion about what we talked about in those small groups.” That gives the introverts an opportunity to speak in an environment in which they’re comfortable.

All things considered, I think the virtual meeting has a lot of strengths. In the book I make the point about diversity. For example, a lot of seniors don’t like to drive at night, so they can Zoom in on a meeting and they don’t have to drive at night. A lot of young parents don’t want to have to pay for or set up childcare to leave home and go to the church or the synagogue for a meeting. Using virtual meetings they don’t have to. Same thing could be said with people with various kinds of disabilities. People who are working can just step away from work and get their phone and come in that way. So the opportunity to include people who otherwise might not participate is exponentially larger.

Ann Michel: We have people in my church who have moved away, some are even living overseas, who now all of a sudden have reconnected with the church because they have the opportunity to do so. That’s been one of the blessings. This has brought so many challenges, but it’s also brought a lot of opportunities. Are there other ways in which you see this as advantageous and positive?

John Wimberly: Absolutely. So along those lines, two churches I work with regularly are located in vacation spots. So they have a large seasonal attendance. Those people are now attending year-round because they can. They’re in Florida in the winter. But now during summer, they’re attending worship virtually. So, it’s helping that way. This is why churches should not let off the gas on livestreaming. If anything, they should be investing to improve the quality of the livestream.

I’ve been contending for a long time that people church shop virtually first. What I meant by that previously was they would go to the websites of the churches they might be interested in. And they would read sermons, or they would listen to sermons, or they would view sermons, based on the technology the congregation is using. That was like “pre-shopping.” And then, they would narrow their list and then go and visit those churches in person. Well, livestreaming just takes that up a notch. And I’m actually seeing and hearing about this. The pastor of a church I worked with in Fort Collins just told me this week that they have five or 10 people — somewhere in that range — who started attending worship via livestream during the pandemic. And now that the church has gone back to face-to-face worship, they’ve started attending and they’re going to join the church. So there are some real evangelism opportunities here in terms of making it easy for people to hear and see what you’re about, what’s your understanding of the Gospel, if you’re Christian.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think people used to go to your website first to check you out. And then they would eventually visit in person. I think a lot of people are wondering if new people now will ever get to that point of coming in person, whether some of the new people connecting virtually are going to remain comfortable in that digital space and never actually cross the threshold of the church building. It’s hard to know.

John Wimberly: My guess is it’s going to be a both/and. Fifty-one percent of the U.S. population are Gen Zers or millennials. Half the population. And that’s a fact most churches don’t know. If you look at those two generations and the way they act, they have both virtual communities and friendships and they have face-to-face ones. My granddaughter is 22 and she is an example of that. She’s friends with people in New York and she’s two hours north of New York. And she feels as close to them as the people in her town that she gets together with in-person. So I’m a big believer in both/and just as a general approach to life. My guess is that it’s going to be both/and.

Ann Michel: I want to ask about the trust factor. I’ve done a lot of work around group dynamics and teams, as I know you have, also. And almost all of the research points to the key variable of trust being essential to a well-functioning group. And I don’t think it’s just teams and small groups. I think that’s true for our congregations at large. If there isn’t trust, it just doesn’t work very well. So I wondered whether you think the critical task of building and maintaining trust is compromised or different in virtual spaces?

John Wimberly: That’s a really great question. And there’s obviously no simple answer to that. I agree with you. You know that famous book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team? Well, they are also the five dysfunctions of a congregation. And so trust is definitely the toughest thing to build under any circumstances. I’m working with a congregation right now where the head of staff said, “John, I’ve been using your book about teams with my staff and everybody’s in agreement. But the fact of the matter is we don’t trust each other. And I just don’t know how to build that trust with this particular group of people.” I think the virtual age is going to make the trust thing both more possible and more difficult. More difficult in that everybody’s got access to information, some of which compromises trust. But if you’re transparent as an organization, and every organization has to be transparent in the twenty-first century, you can build trust. For example, by making governing board minutes or financial records accessible on your website, at a minimum, to all the members. And some of the congregations make it accessible even to the public at large. So one of the ways to build trust is to make sure that everybody has the same information. But again, paying really close attention. You used the words group dynamics. And that’s what it is. Paying really close attention to group dynamics. Because there is so much research, as you know, in this field about how you build trust in groups. But few of us are skilled in it. And few of us have even read significant amounts of the literature about that absolutely critical factor.

Ann Michel: In March of 2020 when we all were thrown into virtual meeting spaces, virtual worship, virtual church, I realized I had the benefit of moving from the in-person space to the virtual space with people I already knew and trusted. I realized what an advantage that was. It was much easier to move to the virtual space with people when I already had a relationship with them. And I thought about how hard it would be to start a new group or to onboard new people where you weren’t coming into that space having had prior experience working together in a different way. What are some best practices for onboarding people or creating new groups, given that key variable of trust, when you’re working in a virtual space?

John Wimberly: I don’t know if we know any best practices, because it’s so early. The stories I heard were either really good or really bad. I worked with one church that brought three new staff people on board during the pandemic and they met face-to-face for the first time about two or three months ago. And in that situation it worked really well. There was another congregation where they brought in a key staff person and it just totally blew up, and a lot of it was over the trust issue. So I don’t know that we know best practices. But just going back to basic group dynamics that you were talking about, my guess is it’s probably the same as bringing a person on board in a live face-to-face setting. What I mean by that is, when you bring somebody on board, you have to spend a lot of time in the early part bringing them on board and then pulling back as they figure out what they’re going to do. Because they just have a lot more questions in the beginning. So I think the key would be having more meetings than one would like with Zoom or equivalent kind of virtual technology to make sure that the person understands what they’re supposed to do. I also would narrow the scope of the job. I would get real tight about, “Okay, this is what we really need you to do during this period. Your job is going to expand once we once we can meet face-to-face. But right now, what we need you to do is this and just concentrate on this,” so they can stay focused. Because one of the problems of working in general is staying focused. But I think during this entire pandemic period, now in the hybrid period, staying focused is even more challenging. And you’ve got all the anxiety about the pandemic itself, and the anxiety of being at home with other people 24/7. I’m just so grateful I love my wife and she loves me! I can’t imagine going through this with someone I didn’t like or who didn’t like me.

Ann Michel: So a clear subtext in your book – it’s not even a subtext, it’s an overt message – is that, as different as things may feel during the pandemic period or as we transition into more virtual encounters, the same principles and rules really do apply. Good group dynamics are good group dynamics. Good staff management is good staff management. Good accountability is good accountability. And as we think about the impact of the pandemic, it just sort of points back to some of the fundamentals that have always been true in so many areas of church life.

I want to begin to wrap this up. And I know nobody has a crystal ball. It’s hard for me to think two weeks ahead, right now. But where do you think we’re headed in terms of the balance between remote engagement and in-person engagement when it comes to the programmatic and administrative life of the church?

John Wimberly: So, as I said, I think meetings are going to be overwhelmingly virtual. I think education is going to be the field that changes the most as a result of this. One church I worked with had the biggest adult education program I’ve seen. They have about 500 people in worship, and they have 120 adults in Sunday morning adult education classes. So I called them several months into the pandemic and asked, “How’s that going?” They said it didn’t go well at first because most of the folks in those classes are older. But they all managed the technology, with the grandkids or somebody showing them how to do this stuff, which has been kind of amazing. The older folks actually managed the transition fairly well, and now they have more people attending classes because of the ease of it, and they also have people who aren’t members attending classes, as well.

And the same thing is going to go on with kids and youth. For a long time, I’ve been arguing, “Why do we think that kids’ Sunday school can only operate at 10:00 in the morning on Sunday when most kids are out playing soccer?” I mean it’s just crazy. And so, because they couldn’t do that and the kids couldn’t play soccer, a lot of religious educators got very creative. I think a lot of religious education going forward is going to look a lot like homeschooling. It’s been going on for the past year and a half  with the pandemic. So, instead of setting up classrooms, religious educators are going to be setting up all kinds of video material — creating material or finding material that they can feed. This also means that the parents are going to have to get much more involved in this. It’s not going to be dropping the kids off at church and then coming back and picking them up an hour later. They’re going to have to find an hour during the week that they spend with their kids working virtually with educational materials. From a program perspective, that’s what I think’s going to be most affected.

Ann Michel: That probably a really good thing, ultimately, to get parents hands-on in terms of their kids’ religious education.

John Wimberly: Just to bring up again this thing about 10:00 or 11:00 on Sunday morning, too — you know that model has been dead for 20 or 30 years.

Ann Michel: This has been a fascinating conversation, John. And I really appreciate the clarity you bring to so many of these issues. I know our listeners will, too. So again, the book is Managing Congregations in the Virtual Age. And thanks to you, John, for producing such a helpful resource and for talking with us today.

John Wimberly: Thanks for all you do at Wesley and beyond.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Priscilla Pope-Levison about models of evangelism.

Thank you for joining us, and don’t forget to subscribe free to our weekly newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.


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This article is excerpted from Managing Congregations in a Virtual Age by John W. Wimberly Jr. (Fortress Press, 2021). Used by Permission. The book is available at Fortress Press, Cokesbury, and Amazon.

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About Author

John Wimberly

John W. Wimberly Jr., former pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., is a consultant for the Congregational Consulting Group.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. Currently, she works as one of the co-editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.