Leadership: Leaders Understand the Importance of Good Process

Leadership Blog


My mother-in-law made excellent ham loaf. I count it as a high honor that she chose me to be the next generation ham loaf maker in our family. In taking on the mantle of family ham loaf maker, there was a ritual as part of the transition. Not only did I receive the recipe, but my mother-in-law also wanted to show me HOW she made the ham loaf.


I can still remember the day she came to my house to teach me how to make ham loaf. Not only did she bring the recipe and the ingredients, but she also brought all the bowls, tools, and baking dishes necessary to make the ham loaf. 


She showed me the recipe. She showed me the ingredients. And she showed me the process. For my mother-in-law, the process was the most important. If done in the right way, the ham loaf would be delicious.


In decision making in congregations, we can have the right ingredients and tools, but if we follow a failed process, the result will not serve the mission of the congregation.


A leader understands the importance of good process. Leaders who understand the importance of good process are those who can create a culture in their congregation in which mission can thrive.


Who Makes the Decisions

The right people, making the right decisions, for the right reasons serves the best interest of the congregation.


I remember when my wife and I were dating. We could never decide where to go for dinner. The indecisiveness was not because we didn’t have preferences. It was because we didn’t want to step on each other’s toes. What would happen if I said I wanted to eat at the taco place, but she wanted to eat at the Greek restaurant? Would we fight? Would we break up? One could never know.


After the fact, we called this the “Decision Dance.” We didn’t want to tell the other what to do, so we danced around each other with “I don’t know, where do you want to go?”


Fortunately, my wife addressed our indecisiveness. She said to me, “Let’s promise that we can be honest with each other and just say where we want to go, then say yes or no to that option. And we don’t have to worry about each other’s feelings.” 


To get through life, one must make decisions. In a congregation, decisions need to be made, but not every person in the congregation is the right one to make the decisions and not every person in the congregation has to be involved in the decisions.


Congregations can also fall prey to the Decision Dance. If one were to draw a continuum, some congregations would fall at the end of the spectrum where no one wants to decide and live with the consequences. At the other end of the continuum, you have people fighting over the power to make the decisions.


I am not sure that either end of the continuum is best for a congregation. I advocate for a process where it is clear who makes what decisions, at what times, and for what reasons. In that process, the overall leader of the congregation, while most likely having the power to make all the decisions, better serves the congregation by making sure a functional and healthy decision-making process is in place.


A healthy decision-making process is one in which the right people are making the right decisions for the right reasons.

  • The right people are those designated to make the decisions.
  • The right decisions are ones that are prudent, wise, and serve the mission of the congregation.
  • The right reasons are acting in the best interest of the congregation and note based on likes and dislikes.



The Mission Statement of a congregation names its values and gives its people the authority to act.


A Mission Statement names the purpose and the context of a congregation. In doing so, the statement identifies what the actions of the congregation are to be and with/for whom they are done. When members of the congregation know its mission–knowing its purpose and context–they are empowered to act. In essence, they are given permission to act if what they do is consistent with the mission.


For example, a congregation identifies its mission as settling refugees in their community. This statement of mission helps the staff/leaders of a congregation who have the responsibility to coordinate building usage make responsible choices for the use of the building. So, if a group that works with refugees asks to use the congregation’s building, those leaders can say yes or no without a board having to approve every rental or building usage request. They can use a set of criteria consistent with the mission to inform their decision. 



To have authority means to have the responsibility, permission, ability, and opportunity to act.


I have many pet peeves about driving—well, about how others drive. At the top of my list is what people do when they see a police car along the side of the road. I will see brake lights come on as people slow down. And usually, when people slow down, they slow to below the speed limit, as if somehow, actually going the speed limit is wrong and will earn them a traffic citation. A posted speed limit is not only a limit to how fast one is to go, but it also gives permission for a person to go that fast without repercussion. To go the speed limit when a police officer is watching is to claim one’s authority.


Having authority is a key component of the decision-making process. Someone with authority has the capacity to make decisions. Having authority means that a person is responsible for making certain decisions, has permission of supervisors/boards to make those decisions, has the ability to make the decisions because of having the knowledge to do so, and has the opportunity to make the decisions.


Values, Goals, and Objectives

To have clearly stated Values, identified Goals, and specific Objectives clarifies who has decision making capacity in each situation.


Values are broadly stated claims to what is important to the congregation. For example, “Our congregation values civil public discourse.”


Goals are the desired outcome of acting in a certain way based on the values. For example, “Our congregation will promote civil public discourse in local politics.”


Objectives are specific, stated action steps that identify who will take what action by what deadline so that the congregation will accomplish its goals while being in line with its values. For example, “Our congregation will gather a task force of experts in relationships, theology, and communication to develop a plan by the end of the year to educate people in how to have civil conversation in politics.”


An organization that has Values, Goals, and Objectives clarified is an organization that gives authority to leaders to make decisions in their area of responsibility.


Power and Control

Power and control have a difficult to detect influence over decisions.


We might be Christian, but that does not mean we are perfect. Our motivations are not always based on Jesus’s call to us. In fact, most of our decisions are based on our personal preferences. Personal preferences are useful when choosing a restaurant and what to eat and drink. They can be helpful in buying clothes or choosing a paint color for ones’ living room. Personal preferences are not the best criteria to use for decisions in congregations. The key words to listen for to identify personal preferences at play are “I like” or “I don’t like.”


As Christians living in grace, we can acknowledge the biases we bring to every decision. Our corporate confession names this in biblical and theological language. “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”1 One of our biases is the need for power and control. 


The bias toward power and control leads people to make decisions based on a person’s preferences and ego needs instead of what is in the best interest of the congregation.


Humans have a wonderful capacity to give good and noble reasons for doing something. In reality, their choices and actions are based on their biases—such as the need for power and control. 


A Church member once asked her pastor if those being removed from the church membership roll due to inactivity would receive a letter telling the person they were removed. This church member referred to the protocol in the church constitution requiring this notification. What went unsaid was that the person being removed was her ex-son in law. Angry at him, she wanted the ex-son in law to know he had been removed from the church membership.


An Aside. Rule of Thumb–When the constitution and bylaws of a congregation are invoked by someone, its usually means the person is asserting power and control.


There are various factors that give people or groups power in a congregation. 

  1. Longevity equates to power—The longer a pastor serves in a congregation, the more power they gain. The same can be said about lay staff members and lay members of the congregation. 
  2. Size of congregation gives power—The larger a congregation, the more power the lead pastor of the congregation will have.
  3. Status in the organization gives power—A person that is perceived as wealthy, important, or has high status in the community will be given power in a congregation.
  4. Bad behavior can gain power for a person—A person’s previous behavior controls the decisions of those around them. If a person got angry, yelled, or cried at one point, others will be tempted to refrain from doing things that will make that person angry, yell, or cry again. 
  5. Association with others in power gives a person power—Many times people who want power align themselves with those who are perceived to have power.


For those who want power, having power and control is the endgame instead of the well-being of the congregation. The result is chaos, which we look at next.


Chaos and Self-Appointed Leaders

Chaos is when a person takes responsibility for that for which they are not held accountable.


Many times, in congregations, there are the elected leaders and there are the self-appointed leaders. The self-appointed leaders will normally claim that their actions are to preserve and protect the well-being of the congregation. This is another one of those moments where the motive seems honorable, but the purpose is power and control. 


Leaders who are self-appointed create chaos and undermine good decision making. If the decisions they make are wrong or harmful, they are not the ones blamed for the problem for they are not the ones held accountable for the action. In fact, they will normally be the ones who blame the elected leaders for failing or making a mistake.


For example, a member of a congregation decided that his church should be involved in a certain project. He proceeded, without checking with the elected and designated leaders, to raise money for the project by making private requests of members of the congregation. Unfortunately, the elected leaders of the congregation were making a push to pay off the remainder of a capital campaign at the same time. They were reaching out to the same people the self-appointed member was recruiting. As result, the campaign to pay off the debt did not meet its goal. The self-appointed member blamed the leaders for not doing a good job in raising the money. He did not admit that he had already asked those members for money and that is why they didn’t give as much to the campaign.


The Importance of Process

Every congregation has a process for decision making, the question is whether it is a good process.


What is process? Process consists of the steps that are to be taken to accomplish a task—such as decision making. Process also consists in naming who is responsible for which steps and the order in which those steps are to be taken. Also process names who has the last and final say in what is done.


What is a good process? A good process is one that is clearly outlined prior to an activity or the decision making process. The process establishes lines of accountability and communication. It identifies who is responsible for what decisions. A good process is one that follows these criteria.


What is the role of a leader in good process? The temptation of every leader—especially ones with much power—is to make all the decisions. I do not think that a leader is called to make all the decisions. I think the leader is called to make sure that a good decision-making process is in place, and the process is followed. 


How is good process maintained? First, a good process needs to be outlined. One cannot follow a good process if one is not in place. Second, the lines of accountability must be honored. This means that information is shared between those who need the information, and that a leader understands to whom they report and who reports to them. 


How do I recognize a breakdown in good process? First, I recommend looking for chaos as described above. Second, I recommend you listen for the line, “We have a communication problem.” Nine out of ten times, when someone mentions a communication problem, it is really an accountability problem. Third, look for blaming. Normally, if good process is followed those responsible for mistakes and failures will claim them and adjust. If there is significant blaming and no accountability, the process most likely had a breakdown. Finally, pay attention to those who offer themselves as solutions when there is a problem. They seek out the weak points in a congregation and claim to be the one who can make it all work.



For mission to thrive in a congregation, leaders are called to understand the importance of good process.


To understand the importance of good process, leaders make sure that:

  • The right people are making the right decisions for the right reasons. 
  • The mission statement of the congregation names its values and gives members the authority to act.
  • To have authority means to have the responsibility, permission, ability, and opportunity to act.
  • To have clearly stated values, identified goals, and specific objectives clarifies who has decision making capacity in each situation.
  • Power and control have a difficult to detect influence over decisions.
  • Chaos is when a person takes responsibility for that for which they are not held accountable.
  • Every congregation has a process for decision making, the questions is whether it is a good process.



1 Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006, Augsburg Fortress, page 95.