Who’s psychologically central?

I’m in the middle of reading “Executive Leadership,” by Robert Herman and Dick Heimovics, an essay in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (1st ed.). Herman and Heimovics carried out research to see who gets the blame when things go wrong in a nonprofit organization, and who gets the credit when things go right. Not surprisingly, Herman and Heimovics found that chief executives get the credit when things go right, and they take the blame when things go wrong. And when things go wrong, “board presidents and staff… saw the chief executive as most responsible, assigning less responsibility to themselves or to luck.”

For this and other reasons, Herman and Heimovics believe that we have to accept the “centrality” of chief executives of nonprofits. They are careful to state that their perspective “abandons assumptions of hierarchically imposed order” and instead their perspective acknowledges that what a nonprofit organization is and does emerges out of real-world interactions. They are empiricists: because their research shows that people in the nonprofit perceive the chief executive as “primarily responsible for the conduct of organizational affairs,” that means chief executives have to “accept the the responsibility for enabling their boards to carry out their leadership roles”; and boards have to accept this same fact.

What Herman and Heimovics also find is that if a nonprofit accepts this fact, the organization is likely to become more effective. They point out that “boards are much more likely to be active, effective bodies when they are supported by a chief executive who, recognizing his or her psychological centrality, is willing and able to serve the board as enabler and facilitator.”

My experience working in congregations leads me to think that congregations are no different than other nonprofit organizations in this respect. The parish minister (or senior minister in congregations with more than one minister) is the one with “psychological centrality.” Therefore, the parish minister serves the board as “enabler and facilitator,” making sure the board does its job: carrying out the mission of the congregation, and fulfilling the board’s legal and ethical obligations.

I’ll add something else to that from my own observations serving in a number of congregations.

Sometimes other staff try to partake of that “psychological centrality,” and it never works well. Co-ministers tend to confuse the congregation, and typically one of the co-ministers is perceived as “the real minister” (or, when the co-ministers are a married couple, you’ll inevitably hear someone in the congregation making a sexist remark about “who really wears the pants in that marriage”) — yes, you can have successful co-ministries, but success requires constant re-education of the congregation, and consequently requires constant extra expenditure of effort, time, and energy. Second ministers on staff (or a co-minister who is perceived as a second minister) may want to become more “psychologically central,” but congregations never seem to accept such a move, and may work actively to keep that second minister in a secondary role by minimizing compensation, respect, and affection. Other staff may sometimes try to become psychologically central — I’ve seen music directors, parish administrators, and directors of religious education (DREs) who have tried to elbow the senior minister out psychological centrality — but when other staff try to become central, they inevitably become destructive, so that even when they succeed in becoming psychologically central or even in getting the minister fired, the congregation will pay a steep price in loss of trust, organizational chaos, and decreased ineffectiveness of the board.

Two obvious conclusions: (1) Accept the fact that the parish minister is psychologically central. (2) Accept the fact that the parish minister is the one who has to enable and facilitate the board. And I think I’ll add three corollaries: (a) Parish ministers should be heads of staff; since parish ministers are taking the blame for staff failures anyway, we might was well give them the power of supervising staff. (b) Second ministers, DREs, music directors, etc., had better learn that they can’t be psychologically central (and we can help them learn this by having them report to the parish minister). (c) In an era of rising costs and flat revenues, we need to increase efficiency in our congregations, and by acknowledging that the parish minister is central we are going to make the parish minister and the board more efficient and more effective.

Next post in this series on ministers as leaders.

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