Disrupted: Leading Your Church Staff From a Distance

March 21, 2020

You probably didn’t sign up for this, leading or working with a team that you aren’t sitting in the same room with. Most church leaders, communicators and pastors are used to working face-to-face and they tend to be relationally-minded. Within the last week, many churches in the U.S. found themselves caught up in the ripple effects of a global pandemic, leading them to cancel in-person services and sending their teams to work from home for weeks at a time. 

You aren’t alone if this feels entirely overwhelming. We’re all trying to figure out ministry, work, e-learning with our kids and where to get toilet paper in a season unlike any other we’ve experienced in our lives. 

The good news is that remote work is something that many organizations have been doing and research has been collected on what works best for many years now. We can rally, we can learn from and lean on each other and we can rest assured that God has given us everything we need for today. 

For four years, I worked for the YouVersion Bible App and was part of a team of roughly twenty-five team members. Partially remote, about half of us worked in the central office, with the other half being spread out across several states (and one in France). We also leveraged the time and talents of over 400 volunteers from dozens of countries, working in more than thirty languages and providing user support, translation and software development. My experiences taught me a lot about leadership, especially when it comes to collaborating and leading with people who aren’t in the same room.

Here are a few principles and lessons I learned in that time. My hope is that this post helps you find a new rhythm and builds your confidence as you continue to put your whole heart into the work of building God’s Kingdom. 

Trust is the essential foundation. 
If you only have confidence and trust because you can see people do their jobs with your own eyes, this is going to be a big change for you, but one you can make. You need to work from a foundation of trust, that your team is responsible, trustworthy and just as motivated to continue doing good work like you are. Any time there is a gap between two people–whether that’s a communication gap or a physical gap like only being able to connect through video or phone calls–you have a choice: fill the gap with trust or with mistrust. By choosing trust, you give people confidence and empower them to make good choices. If you choose mistrust, they’re more likely to get defensive, feel protective of their role or territory and reflect mistrust back to you. Deciding to trust first is what great leaders do, because it has a positive ripple effect that impacts every other aspect of your leadership and the work environment. 

 

Create predictable rhythms of communication. 
Churches across the country are in the midst of massive changes in rhythms, routines and expectations. While you communicate to your congregation and staff what is changing, you need to start building in predictable rhythms of communication. Plan regular, scheduled times for the whole team to connect by video if possible. For some teams, this will be a daily rhythm (that’s what it is for the Fishhook team, a quick 30-minute check-in each morning). For others, it may be every couple of days. 

The full team should be connecting at least once a week. You may also want to set up a weekly 30-minute check-in with each individual team member. During these times, don’t just focus on work–ask how the person is doing, what their family needs and pray with them. Your staff is part of your church and need pastoral care in this season as much as anyone. We also have a worksheet to help you think intentionally about the questions and conversations you have during one-on-one meetings any time of the year. 

Consider other ways you need to communicate as well. If there are weekly decisions being made about an online service, service opportunities or other ministry decisions, commit to an update day and time where everyone can anticipate final decisions and directions for the week. In this season, you honestly can’t overcommunicate. People are comforted in the midst of uncertainty by clarity and confidence. Be honest about reality, but be clear about how and when you’ll be making decisions, communicating changes and providing updates on important information. 

Establish some new norms early on. 
One reason why it may be hard to be productive for a week or two after dramatic changes to your work environment or routine is because we don’t have a sense of normalcy that helps us focus. If you are used to having a commute, sitting at a particular desk or drinking a certain type of coffee, then your brain is having to process all this new information and can’t spend as much energy focusing on the work you still have to get done. So you need to create new routines and norms as quickly as possible. 

Create a new morning routine and stick to it. If you don’t have a 30-minute commute now, resist the temptation to sleep in and get up at the same time each morning, showering, getting fully dressed and eating breakfast like you would if you were going to head into the office. 

If you’re working from home, set up a specific spot to work from rather than moving from the couch to the kitchen to the dining room table throughout the day. Help your brain know that when you sit in this particular place in your, whether it’s a makeshift office in the corner of your living room or in a spare bedroom that you’ve taken over, that you are ready to focus and do work. 

Not everything has to be rigidly scheduled or structured. It can’t be, especially if your kids are on perpetual e-learning days and crawling around at your feet every thirty minutes. Pick a few things each week to establish as normal and let those be anchors that help you build a new sense of routine and stability. Then, roll with the punches and own the fact that things are simply going to be different for a season. 

Limited communication channels doesn’t have to mean limited communication. 
You don’t have a watercooler or lunchroom and you likely aren’t grabbing coffee on Sunday morning, but that doesn’t have to mean your team has to be less informed or connected. In fact, research shows that having a limited range of communication methods doesn’t mean overall communication effectiveness will decline. What does have a negative impact? Infrequent, vague, unpredictable communication. That’s true in any environment, even more so when you can’t see the people you are working with. Make it clear that communication is a priority by establishing a rhythm of communication, formal and informal, that fosters personal connection and clarifies goals, progress, feedback and success.

If your team is new to digital communication (beyond email), here are some tools you can check out. Pick one or two, communicate how you’ll be using them, and only keep using them if they’re helpful. 

*Zoom - video conference, one-on-one or group calls

Marco Polo - popular mobile app that is a combo of texting and video chats

Loom - record your screen, voice, and face to create an instantly shareable video 

*Slack - communication platform with plenty of integrations

*Basecamp - project management and communication platform

iDoneThis - daily tool to share progress and increase transparency

Know Your Team - designed to help mid-sized teams stay connected

15 Five - weekly check-in platform to increase dialogue and transparency

*currently used by Fishhook

Your leadership style will probably need to shift. 
Many who are leading a remote team for the first time find their default style falls flat or isn’t as effective as it usually would be. Leading a remote team takes almost everyone out of their comfort zone, at least initially. The impact of how a leader leads is magnified in remote environments, for better or worse.

Leaders who just want to get stuff done (i.e. “transactional leaders”) make remote work harder for individuals and the team. Leaders who demonstrate inspirational or transformational leadership qualities (evoke enthusiasm, loyalty, and trust; leverage positive emotions; demonstrate empathy and active listening) are much more effective and successful. In fact, research shows that inspirational and transformational leaders can actually be more effective in a remote environment compared to when they lead in a traditional face-to-face environment. 

Look for opportunities to empower “informal leaders,” those on the team that rise up to support, encourage and develop the team through their own relational connection. Because you will likely have less interaction with each person, great leaders understand that informal leaders play an important role filling in gaps you won’t be able to fill single handedly.

Establish some new goals so everyone gets to succeed.
While spring break plans are getting canceled and other plans are being put on hold, disappointment and grief is very real for most people in some way right now. It’s likely that Easter may look very different for most churches this year as well.

As a leader you need to find a way to help your team (and your church as well) feel a sense of satisfaction and progress. People like to win and having a sense of progress toward success is motivating and good for our mental health. You may need to come up with new ways of measuring success as a team. Invite your team to brainstorm things that will be a success each week and then celebrate when you hit the target. These can be just for fun (most laps walked around your neighborhood) or they can be ministry-related (meals served, phone calls made, Facebook posts responded to, etc.). At the end of the day, especially in ministry, you want to continue to point people to your mission and celebrate stories of how you are living it out as a staff and as a church. 

Emphasize grace and flexibility. No one imagined most churches across the country would need to shut their doors and go online for weeks at a time. These are such unprecedented circumstances. That makes it even more important to practice empathy, grace and compassion for others. This includes your team and your co-workers.

If there is flexibility in work hours or being accessible by email or phone, communicate that. Where you can offer people the comfort of knowing they aren’t being expected to be as productive because of the circumstances we are all wrestling with, encourage people with that perspective. Don’t assume anyone knows where things are flexible or when an expectation has changed. Keep an ongoing conversation about the kind of culture, values and relationships you want to see being created within the team, even at a distance. 

 

As you step into the coming days and weeks, give yourself space and grace, to slow down and stay connected to Jesus so that you can sustainably continue serving your church and community. 

Fishhook is here to help. If you need a sounding board for ministry ideas, help building a communication strategy for social media or your website or if you are looking for leadership coaching in this season, we’re ready to jump up in and support you all the way through.

Author
Adam Bouse

Communications Strategist