Trust the Process, Work the Program

by | Oct 8, 2019 | Reflections Blog

Let’s talk about group dynamics.

If you’re a typical reader here, you’ve seen the backlash when a small team springs an initiative on a larger group without careful rollout. The team has done its homework and is sure of the plan’s wisdom. But the larger group resists. Interested parties resent not being consulted. Moderately involved members want their questions answered. 

Eventually the larger body puts off approval, requiring more information first. The initiating group leaves feeling dishonored and dismayed. Why didn’t everyone trust them?

By contrast, typical readers have also seen what happens when a team keeps the larger body informed. The team brings regular updates. Key speakers press ideas forward and circle back. They remind their hearers of what they’ve done. They encourage input. And when the proposal is fully formed, if they have been especially thorough, some onlookers will ask, “Didn’t we decide this already?”


Circles of Influence & Hours of Commitment


Why does this happen?

Every organization has circles of influence. The closer one is to an issue’s “inner circle,” the more one understands the issue.

So ordained officers and paid staff usually know much more about church life than the average congregant. At the presbytery level, committee members spend tens of hours on a decision before a typical presbyter sees a pending action. 

That one word—“hours”—may tell us why some rollouts stumble and others succeed. I have no data, but I want to propose a hypothesis: for any circle of connection to an issue, the members of that circle require a certain number of hours of exposure to the issue in order to agree to the outcome. (1)

A second follows the first: under ordinary circumstances, a person in a circle closer to an issue will need more hours. (2)

If these two rules are true, they form the basis for appropriate delegation. Good committee members ought to spend more time on their committee’s decisions than the average congregant or presbyter. After all, they are more committed (double meaning intended) to the issues. Typical congregants (or presbyters), in turn, will set aside the need to master all the details. Refusing to do so prevents effective action.

But notice where this reasoning leads. It would suggest that some of the most change-friendly people may seem more resistant than they actually are. They have required fewer hours to get to “yes” than others. But because those hours have been spread out over more weeks, the large group can look like foot-draggers. And if the inner circle doesn’t let them engage enough, they will resist.


Healthy Working Tips


Circles in a Circle by Wassily Kandinsky [Public domain]

You’ll notice that I’ve described healthy interactions between a delegated task group and a larger final authority. You’ve probably seen unhealthy alternatives. At one extreme, a larger group neglects its oversight responsibilities and rubber-stamps everything. At the other, one or more members rehash every detail of every proposal before the larger group, long after the body is satisfied.

Though these extremes exist, I’m not worried about them for today’s column. I’ve chosen instead to address the natural tension between committees and their oversight bodies. Even at their healthiest, that tension remains. For them to work well together, then, I’d suggest a few encouragements.

For committee members—and especially committee leaders: Do the work. Explain the work. Explain the work again, more than you think your audience needs. And exercise patience when the outer circle is moving more slowly than you wish. Remember that they’re logging the hours they need, even as they interact with you.

For congregants and presbyters: Review the work—before it’s time to debate. Work for understanding. Listen for when a task group seems to have lost its way, and speak up if it has. But do give your committees the benefit of the doubt. Remember that they’ve logged many more hours than you, so that you wouldn’t have to.

And regardless of the circle(s) you occupy, a good word might boil down to two popular phrases in American culture: Trust the process, and work the program. 

Somewhere along the Way—





1. Research in sociology or organizational behavior may have already established this idea and I’m just not aware of the findings. I’d be happy to hear if you of such research.  (Back)

2. Put in simplest mathematical terms, these two statements might read something like h = k / c, where h stands for hours necessary for ownership of an idea; k stands for some constant (as yet unknown); and c stands for the circle of involvement.  (Back)

(It is far more likely, of course, that the required number of hours does not drop off in exact inverse proportion for each circle of separation from the issue. A person in Circle 3 likely would not require exactly 1/3 the time of a person in Circle 1 to be satisfied with an action. But mapping the relationship more precisely is beyond my skills—especially since I don’t have any good guesses regarding the actual nature of the drop-off.)