The Power of Yes to Release Unique, Innovative Gifts, Part 1

Creativity is severely inhibited when surrounded by a chorus of “no.” Robert Schnase has released a short, powerful book titled Just Say Yes! Unleashing People for Ministry that identifies some of the ways to overcome “No.” Schnase, a United Methodist Bishop, writes to help local church leaders tap into deep wells of latent congregational creativity. His insights help anyone working in an organization and struggling to be creative. The Bishop and I recently dialogued about his book. Here is the first of two posts on our conversation.

As an introduction, let me say it’s great to dialogue with you about this much needed book. I love your topic because a solid “yes” is the front porch to desperately needed creative thinking and innovation.

Thank you, Len, for inviting me to a post as part of our blog tour to introduce the book, Just Say Yes!  Unleashing People for Ministry. 

My blog readers will be able to watch your introductory video and read the back page copy here, so they’ll have a general overview of the problems the book addresses and the promises it makes. Let’s start with something about your motivation. What did you experience that specifically led you to write this book?

I’ve seen people give up on the church, not because they abandon their faith or disagree with our mission, but because they feel stifled, restrained, shut down, and closed out by archaic and impenetrable systems and by defensive and controlling leaders who are averse to change. People leave to channel their charitable impulses into endeavors that are responsive and effective, where their contributions and ideas shape outcomes. And they search for community in other spiritually sustaining relationships outside the church because they find congregations unreceptive to new ideas, new approaches, or bold initiatives.

The decline of many churches can be recorded as a succession of No votes.Robert Schnase
In contrast, a consistent quality of clergy and lay leaders in healthy churches is an openness to innovation and change. Growing churches manage to say Yes to ministry initiatives that declining churches say No to. In fact, the decline of many churches can be recorded as a succession of No votes through the decades. I want to name this phenomenon and give leaders a vocabulary for describing what they experience in a culture of No.

I think it is Pip Coburn who is credited as saying, people only change when the pain of the current situation exceeds the perceived pain of moving to a new situation. Yet some churches refuse to change in spite of overwhelming evidence of mortality. From your position, what do you say to congregations and to pastors whose “No” goes beyond reason? 

Imagine a church that says No to alcoholics anonymous meeting on their property because “we don’t know who they are,” and No to a basketball league because “they’re not our children anyway,” and No to a divorce recovery ministry because “that’s so negative,” and No to forming a hands-on mission team because “we’d have to amend the budget by $1400.” A consistent pattern of No reduces ministry, avoids human need, and narrows engagement. People begin to expect the church to say No, and so they stop trying.

And yet, even in the most intransigent churches, people have ideas, passions, callings, and spiritual yearnings. These are the people Just Say Yes was written for. How do we foster an autonomy and self-determination that gives them the permission and freedom to initiate ministries without winning countless votes from church leaders who aren’t interested in their ideas? The freshest energy may come from newcomers or people at the margins of the congregations who have not been drawn into the negativity and complacency.

Imaginative pastors and lay leaders must feed the new while starving the old.Robert Schnase

Imaginative pastors and lay leaders must feed the new while starving the old. New people are the greatest collaborators and co-conspirators for change. If we can’t get the congregation unstuck, we can at least give permission and freedom to those at the edges to start ministries and experiment with new groups, perhaps without pushing every idea through the formal structures for approval.

To address the resistance of formal leaders unwilling to change, one strategy is to shift the conversation. Stop asking them to approve new ministries, implying their support and agreement. Instead, begin to ask if they would merely withhold their disapproval. Give others a chance. If you can’t say Yes, at least refrain from saying No. Unleash people for ministry.

I love this quote from your book:

Missional churches shift a “no” culture to a culture that helps people cultivate their calling and creativity.” Let’s talk about the issue of leadership and control. You write that “a subtle clergy-centered attitude provides unseen downward pressures on creativity” and that “pastors deaden the impulse of their most creative people by needing to be at the center of everything.” 

These ideas suggest a need to develop a priesthood of all believers, not a priest class, per se. Later, however, you reference Jim Collins on the diffused nature of authority in a congregation, where the lack of a single voice inhibits ideas. I agree with both of these statements on their own, yet they seem contradictory. How do you reconcile them, and how do you teach the leaders in your care to handle their influence?

Author of Just Say Yes!

Bishop Robert Schnase, Author of Just Say Yes!

I’m not so sure these are entirely contradictory ideas. The warning about pastors exerting too much control draws attention to the way a leader can limit organizational innovation and change by the need to vet and influence every decision. If everything requires the approval of the pastor, then a defensive, territorial, or anxious pastor restrains innovation and slows change.

On the other hand, Jim Collins’s observations about the diffused nature of authority in non-profits is not a call for embedding more authority in a single leader.  He doesn’t suggest that the lack of concentrated executive authority inhibits ideas. Widely dispersed authority only inhibits creativity if leaders let the diffused nature of the organization contribute to unclear outcomes, convoluted systems, and a confused sense of purpose. Collins reminds us that the path to greatness in non-profits is not to become “more like a business.” Most businesses, he argues, are mediocre.

Rather, leaders of non-profits who lack executive authority must use other means to shape culture and lead change. For instance, pastors and key laypersons do have the authority to convene. They can call together whomever they want to work on issues or generate ideas.  They also enjoy the authority to select leadership and to set the agenda and to develop coalitions of passionate people to initiate ministries. And creative leaders provide a buffer that protects new voices and rewards experimentation. They also have the power to establish vision and adopt a common language. Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations was an attempt to demonstrate how a common language can change church culture.

I think pastors (as well as bishops and other church leaders) have plenty of structural authority. At issue is how they lead organizations and mobilize people toward the mission of the church.  Top down, hierarchical, centralized structural authority is risky and can lead to great harm, and it’s not nearly as affective as building consensus around a few essential points of focus and practice. Persuasion, appeal to common values, humility, prayer, personal example, preaching, teaching, staff development—these are a few of the many tools available to mobilize people toward the mission without demanding more control.

You write, “the best leaders dance on the edge of their authority. They meet enough of the existing expectations to operate with authority and stay connected with the community while also following God’s call to move beyond what is expected.” Love this quote. It suggests that we need more of what some have called “number ones”, or visionary types, and less “number twos,” or manager / administrators. Large churches, if staffed correctly, can attempt to have both. Small churches need it all in one person, which seems impossible. How do you handle this in your role as an overseer of many churches?

I also love “dancing on the edge of our authority,” a concept borrowed from Marty Linsky. If we only operate within the authority given us and according to the expectations of the organization, we will never lead the change that is necessary. The community will fail to adapt to the changing environment and will slowly die.  Complacency and stagnation wins. We have to exceed our authority in order to lead the organization toward places it will never ask us to go. That’s vision.

On the other hand, if we don’t give proper attention to the existing expectations and fail to do the work the organization has authorized us to do, we’ll be rejected. We must meet the fundamental expectations so that we don’t lose trust, disconnect, and become leaders without followers. Managing expectations involves maintaining and improving existing systems, and this is important work. Leaders tend to be rewarded for caring for the organization and working for “what is” rather than for stimulating change and focusing on “what is not yet.”

“Dancing on the edge of our authority” involves meeting enough of the existing expectations to stay connected and to foster trust while also pushing the organization to boldly take initiatives that fulfill the mission.

While pastors may have a greater gift for one aspect of leadership than another, leading requires us to offer both vision and competent administration. In United Methodism, we speak of a ministry of both word and order, of discerning and proclaiming the will of God while also ordering the life of the community for ministry.  Vision means we use our spiritual discernment so that we lead the church to do the right things. Administration means we pour our best into doing things right. Both require creativity, and an attention to effectiveness. Pastors have to nurture the self-awareness to see how their own leadership style requires balance. A healthy balancing of vision and administration can be achieved through staffing, deeper collaboration with the ministry of laypersons, and through the use of teams, mentors, and the counsel of colleagues.

The rest of this conversation will appear in a second post, coming soon.

To learn more about and buy Robert Schnase’s book, click here.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).