Victoria Atkinson White: Frankly planning for roadblocks is an advantage for pastors

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Church leaders can remain focused on their goals by anticipating challenges, naming them, and preparing for them, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

This has been a year of roadblocks and challenges -- one after another. And they just keep coming.

Sometimes they pop up out of nowhere and take us by surprise. Most often, though, the roadblocks and challenges we face are repeat offenders. While this may be annoying, their predictable red flags can give leaders cues for working through or around them.

I coached a pastor who felt challenged every time she went to a deacons meeting. She and I would talk the morning of this biweekly meeting, and each time, I would ask her the same two questions:

“What is the primary goal of the meeting?”

“What is Frank going to say?”

We all know Frank, also known as Frances, Francesca or Frankie. Sometimes Frank is a person. Sometimes Frank is a system or a committee. Other times Frank might be an oral tradition or voices from the past. The worst is when Frank is a voice in our own heads -- those recordings we play that remind us of past failures or times we haven’t measured up.

We all have a Frank. Every church, every institution, every meeting has a Frank. God bless Frank.

Frank is the one who will say in a meeting, “We can’t do that because …”

He will remind us how tight the budget constraints are and how few volunteers we have at this time of year.

Frank is the one in church who will say, “We’ve never done it this way before.”

He will remind us that the future is unknown and thus scary and that we should be afraid.

The Frank who lives in our heads says, “What makes you think you can do this? Don’t you remember when you tried …?”

He reminds us of our imperfect pasts and points out our shortcomings.

I asked the pastor the same two questions before those meetings to help keep her focused so Frank would not distract her.

“What is the primary goal of the meeting?” called her to stay on task and lead the conversation where it needed to go.

“What is Frank going to say?” enabled her to remain focused on the goal even when Frank put up a roadblock.

One of the gifts all Franks give us, unbeknownst to them, is their predictability. They typically have pet projects, and so they work themselves onto the right committees or places of power from which they can protect, preserve and perpetuate their particular interests. It doesn’t take long to see a Frank’s roadblocks coming. This is to a leader’s advantage.

When we know that a roadblock is coming and we name it, we instantly take away some of its power. It is no longer a surprise. Sometimes we can even guess when it will pop up in a meeting. This pastor could count down in her head: “Five, four, three, two, one -- Hello Frank, I’ve been expecting you.”

Once we name a roadblock, we can spend time in advance of the meeting planning how to either reframe it respectfully and productively or address it in a positive way.

By using your energy to imagine what Frank will say and how you will respond, you can stay focused on the goal of the conversation, positive and consistent in your interaction with Frank, and available in the actual meeting to meet the goal and perhaps unearth some good surprises and creative ideas along the way.

Effective leaders invest time preparing for meetings. This might look like creating an agenda, conducting pre-meetings with small groups, doing research and even preparing the physical setting for generative conversation. Great leaders enter a meeting with a clear goal to reach within a set amount of time.

How might your meetings change if, as part of your preparation, you spent some time with the second question? What if you imagined what roadblocks might arise and what your response to them might be?

You know who your Frank is. You likely know what Frank is going to say or do to challenge a new idea.

Frank isn’t going anywhere. If 2020 is showing us anything, it is that leaders must be equipped to face some of the most unexpected roadblocks and challenges -- ones too crazy even to imagine. Who thought we would be where we are last year at this time?

The challenges are going to continue to surprise us. We can be more effective, prepared and confident leaders if we name the roadblocks we know are going to arise and choose our responses to them in advance.

And frankly, we can all use fewer surprises in our leadership this year.