Creating urgency

Two-plus weeks into the new school year, our family is slowly getting into a groove. One big adjustment has been the loooooong afternoons. (My son got home from preschool around 4:00. At the end of his pre-K day, we’re pulling into the driveway by 2:20.) One of the gifts this “found” time offers is an opportunity to read. While L watches an episode of Nature Cat – the four-year-old’s equivalent of an evening at a NYC comedy club, judging by his laughter – I sit beside him and knock out a chapter in a book on systems theory, business, leadership, or practical theology.

I just finished A Sense of Urgency by John P. Kotter, a quick read that defines urgency and why it’s so important to organizational life. Urgency is an awareness in the head and heart that something must soon change for our church/business/institution to keep moving forward and that I have a role to play in creating that change. Urgency is the foil to complacency, which convinces us that things are fine as they are. True urgency is different from false urgency, which is driven by anxiety and characterized by busywork that has little to no impact.

I probably don’t have to convince you that a sense of urgency is very much needed right now in the church and in the world. Complacency keeps us from fulfilling our mission until that purpose is out of reach – or at least requires digging ourselves out of a sizeable hole. False urgency makes us think we’re doing something until we realize that all our busywork has actually been guzzling our energy and distracting us from moving toward our goals.

How, then, do we create real urgency as pastoral leaders? Here are Kotter’s tactics, reinterpreted for clergy.

First, feel a sense of urgency yourself and act out of it.

  • Focus on your specific call to ministry and on the mission of your congregation. Run everything you do through those filters.
  • Look for ways to shift or eliminate tasks and meetings that don’t relate to  personal or congregational mission. Unrelated “doing” likely falls into the false urgency category.
  • Tell others what you are doing and why. “Here’s how I’m spending my day. Here’s how those actions move us closer to our vision.”
  • Leave no open/loose ends. At the end of meetings, get clarity about who is doing what and by when.

[Note: much of ministry is “soft,” such as making pastoral care visits and dealing with contrarians. That doesn’t mean these tasks are not urgent. It is important, though, to connect these undertakings to the bigger picture.]

Second, communicate facts about the need for urgency in ways that speak to others’ heads and hearts.

  • Create spaces for storytelling. Data is important, but narrative is convincing.
  • Get an outsider’s perspective. Talk to the church’s neighbors. What are their gifts? Needs? Views of the church? Or bring in a panel of people who serve the community. In what areas do their needs for partners and the church’s resources meet?

Third, seize opportunities that come with challenges.

  • Reframe problems. Don’t deny the issue, but also note how it creates new possibilities.
  • Do things you can’t do during times of stability. Stability breeds complacency. Challenges shake up our perspectives and force us to act.

Fourth, deal with naysayers.

  • This is a huge issue in churches that merits a blog post on its own. Stay tuned for part 2 on creating urgency, coming next week.

Creative Commons image “Urgent” by Judith E. Bell is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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