How to Keep Your Staff Focused and Engaged
Sometimes our best staff members leave us because they're disengaged from their work - and we're often to blame. So what can we do about it?
BY STEPHEN BLANDINO
Why do pastors lose their best staff?
That question is a source of frustration for thousands of pastors. Some staff members leave because they want to be closer to family. Some accept an opportunity better aligned with their gifts and passions. Others are emotionally spent and need time to recharge. And, of course, some claim God told them to go. (Like it or not, sometimes He actually does.)
While all of these are legitimate reasons for staff transitions, there’s one reason we don’t like to admit. Sometimes our best staff members leave us because they’re disengaged from their work — and we’re often to blame.
So what can we do about it? In a world where opportunities abound, organizational Attention Deficit Disorder is rampant. As I’ve led staff in both large and small churches, I’ve come to the realization that focus and engagement sharply increase when a triad of elements converges around the power of conversation. These three elements — clarity, connection, and culture — held together by the glue of strategic and systematic conversations, form what I call The Focused Engagement Pyramid.
Each element in The Focused Engagement Pyramid has three unique strategies driving its effectiveness. When all of the elements come together, teams gain extraordinary levels of focus and engagement.
Clarity: Is Our Church Focused?
The first element in keeping your staff focused and engaged is clarity. At the risk of sounding painfully obvious, your team can’t focus if you’re not focused. As the lead pastor, it’s your job to ensure clarity in three ways.
1. Develop a clear and contagious vision. Unclear vision is the biggest complaint I hear from staff members in local churches. Unfortunately, committees often hijack vision formation, producing a bland, vanilla-flavored rambling of foggy verbs and adjectives. More times than not, the vision looks like a carbon copy of another church. To capture a clear and contagious vision, consider Nehemiah’s story.
Nehemiah asked his brother two soul-stirring questions: What’s the condition of the Jews who returned to Jerusalem, and what’s the condition of the city (Nehemiah 1:1,2)? God used those inquiries to deposit vision in Nehemiah’s heart. What questions in your soul, and needs in your community, are unsatisfied?
Next, Nehemiah discovered the intersection of problems and passions. When Nehemiah heard the condition of the city and its people, he wept (Nehemiah 1:3,4). The weight of the problem intersected his passion for the people. The same will be true for you. Vision is like a Venn diagram with three intersecting circles: community problems, personal passions, and church passions.
Finally, Nehemiah spent time fasting and praying. The prayer recorded in Nehemiah 1:4–11 is likely a summary of a four-month season of prayer. This solidified the vision in Nehemiah’s heart, and God opened the right doors, with the right people, at the right time (Nehemiah 2:1–8).
2. Determine your strategic disciplines. Answer this question: “What must we do every day or week to ensure we’re making progress toward our God-given vision?”
We’ve identified six strategic disciplines at 7 City Church that align with our vision to see cities transformed by inspiring community and influencing culture. Every week we strive to do these things:
- Identify, pray for, and connect with the influencers of our city.
- Develop people over programs.
- Produce weekend experiences that inspire people to know God, engage in community, and influence culture.
- Help guests make 7 City Church their community of faith.
- Encourage people to take their next step.
- Relentlessly execute with excellence.
Consistently carrying out these strategic disciplines leads to systematic progress toward our vision. Later I’ll explain how to keep these disciplines in focus.
3. Identify short-term thematic goals. The final piece in gaining clarity is what author and consultant Patrick Lencioni calls a “thematic goal.” A thematic goal answers the question, “What is most important right now?” It’s a singular, qualitative, temporary goal the leadership team shares. It’s the one thing you must accomplish in the next predetermined number of months.1
At 7 City Church, we’ve adapted this idea into a single, unifying, short-term goal chart. In the example given, the goal is to: “Develop a relationally-driven guest and next-steps experience.” The thematic goal includes specific objectives. Under each staff member’s name, we list tasks to accomplish the objectives.
Develop a relationally-driven guest and next-steps experience
Target Timeframe: January–March
Review & Refine Guest Assimilation Process
1 2 3 4 5
1 2 3 4 5
Create “Next Steps” Area in Lobby & Website
1 2 3 4 5
Promote & Launch 14 Comm. Groups
1 2 3 4 5
Implement Next Gen. Assimilation
1 2 3 4 5
Progress & Proficiency Scale
5 = We’re ahead of schedule, and things are great.
4 = We’re on schedule, and things are good.
3 = We’re doing okay, but we’re not where we should be.
2 = We’re falling behind, and things aren’t looking good.
1 = We’re way behind, and we may not catch up.
This has proven to be an extraordinarily effective tool in keeping us focused and aligned with our church’s priorities. It eliminates silo thinking and gets everybody pushing in the same direction. I’ll explain later how we use the progress and proficiency scale.
Each element — vision, strategic disciplines, and thematic goals — is essential to establish clarity. Without them, your team will lack focus and wonder what constitutes a “win.”
Connection: Is Our Team Engaged?
The second ingredient in keeping your staff focused and engaged is connection. Connection is all about employee engagement. Considerable research suggests that disengaged employees significantly reduce forward momentum. Here are three steps to ensure your staff is connected and engaged.
1. Establish strengths-based, vision-centric roles. Your team will deliver its best outcomes, and exhibit the greatest engagement, if it gets to play to its strengths while focusing on a unifying vision.
The building of the tabernacle in the Old Testament is a perfect example. God used Bezalel and Oholiab “to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts” (Exodus 35:32,33).
The roles of the tabernacle team leveraged their strengths while remaining true to the vision God gave Moses. When roles are strengths-based and vision-centric, staff members make meaningful contributions that are actually needed and necessary.
2. Develop team-friendly systems. Author and pastor Nelson Searcy says a good SYSTEM “Saves You Stress, Time, Energy, and Money.” Systems impact the behaviors of your staff — and volunteers. If you don’t like their behaviors, examine your systems.
A great biblical example of systems is the structure Moses established with the help of his father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 18). This system saved Moses, and the people, significant stress, time, and energy. It successfully met the needs of the people and helped Moses focus on his highest priorities as a leader.
You have systems for hiring staff, communicating with volunteers, assimilating guests, and a hundred other things. The question is: Are your systems efficient, effective, and team-friendly?
As you evaluate and create systems, ensure they deliver three things: effective results aligned with your vision, greater employee engagement, and efficient use of your church’s time, energy, and money.
3. Measure employee engagement. Paul wrote, “And masters, treat your servants considerately. Be fair with them. Don’t forget for a minute that you, too, serve a Master — God in heaven” (Colossians 4:1, The Message).2
The only true way to know how you treat your staff, and how engaged they are in their work, is to ask them. Assuming you’ve developed a trust-filled culture (which I’ll address shortly), you can usually measure employee engagement by asking a series of questions about how energized, encouraged, equipped, and empowered they feel.
Culture: Is Our Culture Healthy?
The third ingredient in keeping your staff focused and engaged is culture. When you enter a foreign country, you’re immediately introduced to their culture. Language, customs, and laws contribute to how a country does things.
The same is true in your church. Your church has a way of doing things that shapes its culture. But is it healthy? To develop a healthy culture, embrace three practices.
1. Foster staff relationships. Nothing builds morale like healthy relationships. While it takes time, the fastest way to develop relationships is to model trustworthiness and have fun together. Trustworthiness encompasses character qualities such as truthfulness, respect, forgiveness, and empowerment. Having fun together builds cohesion and a sense of family. Remove either of these, and your staff relationships will become nothing more than a professional formality.
2. Cultivate a culture of candor and care. Teams tend to fall to one of two extremes. At one extreme, staff members are so blatant about their opinions that everyone feels guarded or downright angry. At the other extreme, team members don’t share how they truly feel for fear of causing offense, being humiliated, or arousing accusations of disloyalty. Good leaders cultivate an appropriate balance of candor and care.
The best way to move toward a culture of candor and care is to allow your team to push back on your ideas without you barking back. Swallow your pride by giving them permission to challenge your perspective and stretch your thinking with new ideas. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”
An honest staff is not your enemy.
3. Develop an aggressive learning environment. The final part of a healthy culture is a growth-focused learning environment that makes everybody better. Empower staff members to create a self-directed personal growth plan, engage in staff-wide growth activities, and access practical coaching.
Conversations: Are We Having Systematic, Strategic Discussions?
The final ingredient in keeping your staff focused and engaged is conversations. As the centerpiece of the pyramid, conversations are the glue that holds the entire process together. Clarity, connection, and culture contribute to long-term focus and engagement only through strategic and systematic discussions. You can foster these conversations around the three corners of the pyramid.
1. Clarity: Leverage strategic conversations in weekly staff meetings. While many leaders dread weekly staff meetings, they can be among the most effective way to create focused, aligned movement toward your vision, strategic disciplines, and thematic goal.
We use the following two-hour agenda to maintain clarity:
- Staff prayer: We allocate 30 minutes every week to staff prayer. This isn’t part of our staff meeting, but it happens 30 minutes prior to our staff meeting.
- Metrics: We take the first 5 to 10 minutes of the staff meeting to do a quick review of our weekly metrics, such as attendance, salvations, and baptisms.
- Rapid fire: The next 15 to 20 minutes is a rapid discussion of housekeeping items, such as the calendar or topics relevant to the entire team. This is where most teams spend their entire meeting, but it has the least engagement.
- Strategic reviews: The next 15 to 30 minutes is dedicated to a review of one of four strategic areas: personal growth plans, vision and values, staff development, and strategic disciplines. Some of these discussions are opportunities to share stories of life change and churchwide wins, while others focus on personal development. We rotate through the four areas once per month.
- Focus: The next 25 to 40 minutes are dedicated to our current thematic goal. Each staff member uses the progress and proficiency scale to rate our performance on each objective from one to five. Then everyone quickly shares his or her scores, and we discuss our progress. This weekly practice forces us to have candid conversations about our most important priority. It keeps everybody focused, clarifies next steps, and increases the speed of overall progress.
- Next steps: We devote the final 5 minutes of the meeting to clarifying next steps. We answer the question, “Who will do what by when?”
Using this format focuses time on your priorities. Your job as the pastor is to ensure you don’t drift.
2. Connection: Leverage strategic conversations around staff reviews.
The second type of conversation measures employee engagement. This conversation happens through an annual or semiannual review. A good review evaluates employee progress with church goals, personal growth, and leadership competencies.
You should also use a review to seek written feedback about how energized, equipped, encouraged, and empowered your staff members feel in their role and work environment. Finally, discuss how you motivate and demotivate your staff, their present concerns, future goals, and how you can help them.
3. Culture: Leverage strategic conversations around cultural dynamics. Three cultural dynamics contribute to this final conversation: relationships, feedback, and coaching. First, provide fun opportunities for staff members to develop relationships with each other so they can build memories and cultivate heartfelt conversations. Second, seek genuine feedback during meetings on the most important issues facing your church. Third, spend time formally and informally coaching your staff in areas that will enrich their lives, leadership, and ministries.
By leveraging The Focused Engagement Pyramid, you’ll gain clarity, improve connection, create a healthy culture, and foster strategic and systematic conversations. As you do, your team will increase in focus and engagement. This will reduce staff turnover and keep your team aligned with the church’s God-given vision.
1. Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 121–22.
2. Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.