Leadership: Leaders Can Balance Productivity and Compassion

Leadership Blog

Leaders Can Balance Productivity and Compassion

I have seen volunteers quit a task group for 2 reasons. 

  1. They did not feel the leader of the group and other group members honored them and cared for them. 
  2. They did not feel the group was getting anything done. 

I don’t think I have ever heard someone offer both reasons for quitting.


This means that there are 2 forces at play in a task group. I call those 2 forces productivity and compassion.


For task groups in the congregation (or the secular realm for that matter), there are 2 primary functions. The functions are: 

  1. Get the work done for which the group is being held accountable.
  2. Care for and support each other in the task group during that process.

A leader will be able to balance the two functions.


Productivity and compassion live in tension with each other. It is important for them to be balanced. When that balance is maintained, an environment is created where mission can thrive.


What is a task group?

In a congregation, there are various types of task groups. 

  • Study Groups: A study group engages in a learning process exploring areas such as Worship/Music/Prayer, Scripture/Theology/History, Serving, Giving, and Witnessing.

  • Program Groups: A program group meets regularly to perform certain tasks such as sewing, quilting, singing, caring ministry, parenting support, and outreach.

  • Administrative Groups: An administrative group has responsibility for areas such as property, finance, endowment, and personnel.

  • Policy or Governing Groups: A policy or governing group holds the fiduciary responsibility for the congregation and puts policies in place that guide all processes of the congregation. There is usually only 1 Policy or Governing group in a congregation. Normally people are elected to this group. Please note: There are people who assume power and control in a congregation who are not the elected leaders. This may become problematic if members of the congregation defer to them.


While the tasks of each group will vary, there is something they have in common. Each group exists to complete a task or tasks and the group exists to build relationships among members of the group. Task groups require both the functions of productivity and compassion


What is productivity?

Every group has a purpose. The purpose is “what the group exists to do.” A group is said to be productive when it accomplishes its purpose.


Here are some things to consider about productivity:

  • Productivity does not always mean that the end goal is achieved immediately. Progress toward a goal is also productivity. The first time a choir runs through an anthem, they are not ready to sing it for worship. They consistently and patiently work on the anthem. After each rehearsal, if notes are being hit, crescendos and diminuendos are in place, and there is a blend of the parts, progress is being made.

  • Productivity means stating the purpose up front. It is best if the purpose is clearly stated. The purpose could be as simple as “meet monthly to have breakfast” or as complex as “invest or oversee the endowment of the congregation.” Groups where the purpose is not clearly stated will have a more difficult time integrating new people into the group or bring dysfunctional behavior to the group.

  • Productivity is best measured by Mission, Goals, Objectives, and Evaluation.
    • For most task groups in a congregation, the mission of the congregation is the mission of the task group but applied specifically to the task group’s purpose. So, if the mission is to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, the finance task group would have the mission of making sure the annual budget is consistent with the mission of sharing the Good News.
    • Goals are broader statements of what the task group will do to serve the mission of the congregation. Goals for a budget would be stated as such: To fulfill the mission of the congregation, the Finance Task Group will be sure that the Annual Budget of the Congregation (a.) Makes faithful use of the gifts of the members of the congregation; (b.) Allocates funds for the furtherance of Mission; (c.) Tells others our priorities for Mission; (d.) Generously supports staff members as they lead the congregation in its Mission.
    • Objectives are measurable steps that will be taken to accomplish the Goals that support the Mission of the congregation. So, an objective for “generously supporting staff members” would be “make sure that both cost of living and merit increases are made each year for each staff member based on performance.”
    • Evaluation is identifying the time and way each objective will be measured for its success. So, if the objective is to provide cost of living and merit increases for staff, evaluation would happen each year to determine if cost of living and merit increases were implemented.

  • Productivity can be enhanced with an appropriately sized task group. Certainly, there is a rationale for larger groups. For example, a church choir that is larger can have a larger repertoire. For most Study, Administrative, and Policy Groups, 5 to 7 members help with the functioning of the group. With that number of participants, all members can have time to engage in discussion. It is also recommended that the group have an odd number of members. Should a vote be required for a decision, an odd number of members removes the possibility of a tie.  


What is compassion?

The apartment complex where I live has a workout room. I use that room for my morning workout.


Each morning, I can be found doing strength training or running on the treadmill—because I am a cold weather wimp and won’t run outside. When I get to the workout room, the ceiling fans are running, which makes sense. About 20 minutes into my workout, a man walks into the workout room, takes off his coat, and immediately turns off the fans. He does not take into consideration what is happening in the room. He simply wants the room to be the way he wants it to be.


Leaders often do the same thing. They walk into the room oblivious to what is going on and insensitive to the needs of those in the room. Quickly, any chance of a positive group dynamic is diminished. When a positive group dynamic is diminished, the productivity of the group is also diminished.


In attending to the compassion needs of the task group, a leader attends to the dynamic of the group when they enter the room and regularly while they are in the room.


Compassion can mean “to feel or to suffer with.”1 In addition, there is a sense that compassion is “to be with in strength.” It indicates that a compassionate person is aware of the emotional state of the other person and desires wholeness and strength for that person. The words and behaviors of the compassionate person serve the purpose of moving a person to wholeness, health, and strength. 


Of the words compassion, sympathy, and empathy, compassion is the oldest (going back to 1340) and sympathy (having a similar definition as compassion) the second oldest (going back 450 years). Empathy did not come into use until the 1930’s. Originally, empathy was used in the arts community in Germany, literally meaning when a person was “projecting oneself into a work of art [and how that] would enable a view to appreciate better the creation being observed.”2 After 1950, the word empathy “jumped from the realm of art appreciation to that of human relationships.”3 Taking on the meaning of “to feel in,” empathy took on the notion of feeling the same emotions as the other person. This “would enable one to understand the other person fully, to be more sensitive to his or her condition, and to better appreciate his or her dilemma.”4 So, instead of showing a person compassion for the purpose of their wholeness, health, and strength, a person showing empathy becomes like the other person and feels the same feelings, and as a result, can be overwhelmed by those same emotions. 


This is why I use the word ‘compassion’ instead of ’empathy’. The people in a task group must perceive themselves in a safe and healthy place in order for them to function at their best capacity.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need

I know it’s old school psychology to talk about Maslow and his Hierarchy of Need, but this hierarchy helps us understand a basic concept about people. When people are in an environment where their basic needs are met, they will function at a higher level. When they are in an environment where their basic needs are not being met, their capacity to function diminishes. The basic needs outlined by Maslow include:

  • Basic Physiological Needs
  • Safety Needs
  • Love and Belonging Needs
  • Esteem Needs
  • Cognitive Needs
  • Aesthetic Needs5


When these needs are met, a person can function at their highest capacity. It’s a basic concept, but one that leaders forget. If those with whom they work do not feel safe and honored, they will not perform at their best. This demonstrates why compassion is important for productivity


Think of it this way. Normally, you have no problem getting your car keys out of your purse or pocket, unlocking your car door, getting in, and starting the car. However, if your car is parked on a railroad track and a train is on the way, you will have difficulty doing those basic tasks. The fear and anxiety of the moment diminish your capacity to perform.


Balancing Productivity and Compassion

It is important, however, to understand that only paying attention to the emotional needs of those in the task group will keep the group from productivity. It is quite easy, especially in anxious times, to have a complete shut down of task groups due to fear and anxiety.


The solution is not finding a leader who is focused on productivity or a leader that is full of compassion. The solution is to find a leader that has the capacity for productivity and compassion and can adeptly move back and forth between them.


I think that attending to nonverbal cues is the best gauge to determine the need for either productivity or compassion. Discomfort is shown in a myriad of ways in a person’s face and body. Furrowed brows, flushed face, shaking hands, leaning back with arms crossed, and rapid speech are indicators of a person’s discomfort. One of the challenges for a leader is to determine if the discomfort that is being shown is because a person is uncomfortable with the idea being discussed, or if the person is frustrated because nothing is happening. The work of discernment must be done for the task group to do its work.


Micro-aggressions and micro-affirmations are also helpful indicators for leaders. Does everyone in the group roll their eyes or sigh when a certain member of the group speaks? Do certain members of the group get full eye contact and head nods when they speak while others don’t? Are people closing their tablets or notebooks or watching the clock? Are they fidgeting in their seats? Each subtle action by another tells the leader whether the group is for or against others in the group.


Please note: Just because 1 or 2 members of the group show signs of being against another member of the group, doesn’t mean that the one they are against is wrong. Many times, a newer member of the group or one who is willing to think outside the box will experience micro-aggressions from others in the group because they don’t want change or to think about anything new.


Challenging Unhelpful Behavior

Compassion does not mean that leaders allow others to behave badly. Even church people behave badly. (I am sure that none of you are surprised by that.) It is not that difficult moments won’t happen in task groups, but how we handle the difficult moments when they arise. Will we, as leaders, make the situation better or worse? In a subsequent blog, I will address this more directly. At this point, I want to offer a few suggestions for when someone is behaving badly:

  • At the first meeting of the task group or at an annual reorganization meeting, outline expectations of task group behavior. Put in front of them positive activity that will benefit the group.

  • The way you carry and present yourself will keep some conflict from happening in the first place. I am 6’5”. Ceiling fans are problematic for me. However, I know that I won’t face as much unhelpful behavior simply due to my stature.

  • If it can wait until after a meeting, privately address the person who is being unhelpful. To address it in front of the group can humiliate a person. And fascinatingly, when someone is humiliated in front of a group, others will come to their defense, even if the person did or said something wrong.
  • When talking with a person about their behavior, stick to talking about specifics. Don’t psychoanalyze the person and offer your diagnosis. Don’t make the person responsible for your feelings and discomfort. Name the specific behavior and the problem that is it creating.

  • And finally, if there is an unhelpful comment during a meeting, I would encourage to simply ask the person making the comment, “How is that helpful?” It names the behavior and requires the person to think about what they said. 


What are some best practices for balancing productivity and compassion?

Here is a short list of best practices that can help you balance productivity and compassion:

  • Use the Agenda as a tool for balancing the two.
    • List what will be talked about in the agenda. This gives a tool for evaluating how much was accomplished.
    • Empower members of the task group to share responsibility for opening devotions and prayer. The depth of the reflections that members of the group offer can be amazing.
    • Include sections of the agenda that allow people to share what touches them. For example, start a meeting off with having task group members answer the question, “What is right and good about our ministry?” This will be a challenge for people at first, because we are much better at naming what is wrong.
    • Include a section in the agenda that seeks to answer the question, “What are our growing edges?”
    • Put time limits on each part of the agenda. That is, in a column on either side of the page, list the time allotted for engaging the subject at hand. For example, if a meeting starts at 7 p.m., list Opening Devotions and put 7 to 7:10 p.m. on the agenda.
    • Allow time in the agenda for teaching, especially in Administrative and Policy Task Groups. Identify a leadership skill you want the group to attain and teach them about it.
  • In task groups, people play various and important roles. There is the person who leads the meeting; the person who is putting ideas on the table; the person who is clarifying what is being said and making sure everyone understands; the person who plays the devil’s advocate (These people may be annoying, but they are remarkably helpful.); the person who monitors the group to determine how everyone is feeling and if everyone has had a chance to offer input; and the person who sees how the work of the group fits into the larger picture of the congregation. Groups that have people playing these roles function at a higher level. Not everyone will be throwing out wild and crazy ideas, and not everyone will be making sure everyone talks. All are needed.

  • Help grow the skills of those in the task group. Many times, in the church, we talk about gifts. Certainly, some people are much better at things than others. However, using the language of gifts can lead people to assume either they have them or they don’t. I prefer the language of interests and skills. A person will develop skills in areas where they have interest. So, if a person wants to sit on the Finance Committee, but they don’t know how to read a spreadsheet, I won’t immediately say no. If they are interested, I will put them on the Finance Committee because I know they will learn the skills to do the job. An aside to pastors: Learn how to read a budget and financial statement for your own credibility!
  • There will be times when you get the balance between productivity and compassion wrong. There are times when I patted someone on the back to encourage them when I should have challenged them. There have been times when I have challenged someone who needed a pat on the back. You will make mistakes. That’s ok. Own the mistake. Name the mistake to others. Tell others how the mess is going to be cleaned up. Clean up the mess.

  • There are times when an immediate and definitive extraction of a person from leadership is necessary. In those moments, which are rare, be decisive, communicate clearly, be ready to clean up any messes that come from it, and keep the big picture in front of the group. The time when extraction is necessary is when a person creates chaos. For me, chaos is when a person takes responsibility for something for which they are not held accountable. For example, a member starts giving specific instructions to ushers, but the person is not an usher, not an usher coordinator, nor will be the person others complain to when the ushers make a mistake. Ushers start to wonder what they should be doing. This is chaos.

  • Consider Time and Task Specific Groups. The running joke is that the only way a person gets off a church committee is to die. Is it not surprising then that people, especially those who are younger, will not commit to a standing committee of the congregation. However, if a person knows of a task that needs to be performed, when the task is to be performed, how long it will take, and the end result, a person is more likely to offer to help. This is where Time and Task Specific Groups are most useful. The group gathers, performs its task, and then disbands. I have seen the highest volunteer involvement in congregations when there are time and task specific events. Not every ministry—probably not most—need to have a committee that meets every month until the return of Jesus.

  • Teach your leaders that the decision made by the group becomes the group’s decision. The task group makes a decision. There may be people who disagree with the decision and even vote against it. However, after the vote and meeting, every person in the task group is expected to support the decision. They will speak well of the decision, support it, and encourage others to support it as well. The head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, calls this Disagree and Commit.6

  • There are times when productivity needs to be the priority. The furnace in the worship space stops working on a Friday afternoon. The Property Task Group gathers. The priority is the get the worship space warm for Sunday services. There will be much less attention to feelings at that point and more attention to resolving the problem. In situations like this, I suggest using what I call a Stand-Up Meeting. For Stand-Up Meetings, the group gathers in a room but does not sit down. They stand in a circle, name the problem, talk through alternatives, make a decision, determine who is doing what and when, and adjourn.


1 Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 2007. Church Publishing, Inc.: Hew York, New York.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Wikipedia, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”.
6 Chin, Cedric. Managing Up: The Hard Thing About Disagree and Commit, www.managementforstartups.com.