Natasha Jamison Gadson: How I lead from the middle

Illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

Serving as the second chair can sometimes devolve into micromanaging, but an AME minister employs three practices to help carry out a clear, consistent vision for her church.

One of our newest members looked completely bewildered as we stood outside the locked church in the rain.

A ministry leader had neglected to inform me about a last-minute change in the meeting schedule, so we were left waiting outside for 20 minutes until the church sexton arrived.

“You don’t have a key to the building, but you’re second in charge?” she said. (The senior pastor actually had suggested that I get a key, but we had decided to wait until after all the locks were changed.)

This member's reaction speaks volumes about the paradox of my role as minister of leadership growth and development at Turner Memorial AME Church.

Some members have the erroneous perception that I wield authority and influence over everything that happens. Others feel that since I am not the pastor, they do not have to be accountable to me.

The truth falls somewhere in the middle, the place from where I am called to lead.

Leading from the middle can be challenging and often frustrating. The AME Discipline dictates that the only person “in charge” (besides God, of course) is the senior pastor. In fact, associate ministers are not even mentioned.

Yet my contract clearly states that my responsibility is to assist the senior pastor with administering all facets of the operations of the church.

This puts me in a situation where I have to lead people and manage the work of ministry when the perception of my authority does not always match my level of responsibility.

As a practical matter, this means I have to continually follow up with ministry leaders, ask the right questions and frequently check in. I constantly wrestle with the question, “How do I provide effective leadership without micromanaging?”

In my 16 years of experience in ministry and as an organizational communication consultant, I’ve learned to employ the following general practices to lead effectively from the middle -- and to avoid the micromanagement trap:

Articulate the vision clearly and consistently

In our annual strategic planning meeting, every ministry team meeting and every one-on-one meeting that follows, we ask the question, “Based on the preaching, the teaching and what you have heard communicated, what is your understanding of the vision God has given us as a church?”

My senior pastor uses this question to ensure that our ministry leaders understand the articulated vision and to address any misperceptions they may have about our general direction. I too have found it to be instrumental as I work with ministry leaders to ensure that initiatives remain consistent with our overall objectives.

Currently, all of our ministry initiatives are focused on physically going into the surrounding community with our gifts, health screenings and other resources and – most of all -- the word of God to make an impact and transform lives.

A huge aspect of my role is evaluating ministry effectiveness, which at times can feel like micromanaging. The articulated vision helps me by serving as a guide for evaluating the work of ministry.

Is this ministry initiative consistent with the articulated vision? How does this activity relate to our core values and accomplish our objectives?

A thorough understanding of the vision equips leaders to examine these questions with their teams and evaluate their work before I enter the conversation. This eliminates the perception that I am limiting a ministry’s activities when in fact they do not align with the vision.

Use the tools of processes and guidelines

Earlier this year during our annual day of strategic planning, I covered all policies and guidelines in painstaking detail. I explained the process for everything -- from requesting a flyer from our graphic designer to obtaining approval of dates on the church calendar.

The administrative team and the various leadership boards of the church spent about a year compiling our standard operating procedures, a portion of which I also covered in our annual meeting.

Processes and guidelines that are efficient and make sense are my best tools in managing the work of ministry. While some ministry leaders may think these are created for the purpose of keeping good ideas bogged down in red tape, the real reason they exist is to keep things in order.

Order helps all of us operate with excellence, particularly in a church with a lot of moving parts. If multiple ministry teams are planning initiatives or the use of church funds at the same time, processes can help us make decisions without involving personalities or preferential treatment.

Good processes ensure that all the pieces fit together for the good of the church. Processes also ensure that every ministry’s needs are met, or at least addressed, and that all ministries are held accountable equally.

Not long after our strategic planning session, our highest-functioning ministry team and an underfunctioning ministry team both requested a special consideration that would have delayed finalizing the budget and the calendar for the year. Both requests were denied -- showing that it was the process, not the personalities, that determined the response.

Follow a sound model of leadership

As I provided some direction concerning the plans for an upcoming event, a colleague jokingly remarked, “You sound just like your pastor.” Hearing those words felt profoundly similar to that moment you realize you have somehow become your parents.

Just as I have done with every senior pastor with whom I’ve served, I have spent a significant amount of time learning the preferences, thought processes and decision-making patterns of my current senior pastor.

He often says to the staff, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” If we trust that he is talking to God and trust him as our pastor, then we ought to have some trust that he is presenting a good model of leadership.

Doing so has allowed me to address issues and identify solutions with the confidence that my leadership is bringing about consistency and not conflict. Most of the ministry leaders know at this point that my language and my perspective will be consistent with what has been communicated by our senior pastor.

As I grow as a leader, my senior pastor’s task-oriented approach sometimes feels counterintuitive to my more relational style. Yet I am aware that his 20 years of experience in the senior pastorate offer insight and perspective beyond my degrees and training.

I try to gain wisdom from observing, asking questions and engaging in conversation whenever opportunity arises. Many times, I have questioned my pastor’s decisions and actions only to find later that his methods were effective and -- more importantly -- Spirit led.

In the times when I strongly disagree with my senior pastor, I remind myself that he holds the position and I have a commitment to respect his decisions. Yet I also make a personal resolution to be open to different decisions when I find myself in the senior role.

If we are to do ministry effectively, I have learned that while we can have a clear vision and efficient processes, the leadership we provide must be inspired by the Holy Spirit.