Rethinking Your Role
by Bruce Dipple
Interact Magazine 1999
Volume 10 Number 3
It was Humpty Dumpty who said to Alice, ‘Words mean exactly what I want them to mean, nothing more and nothing less.’ The need to avoid the personalised interpretation of words was one of the reasons that role descriptions came into common use. They help everyone understand what they are meant to be doing, so that there are common expectations amongst all parties involved. But have they worked? Do those with role descriptions actually know exactly what they are meant to be doing from day to day? Anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggest that the answer has to be in the negative. In my own search to find something more useful, I was introduced to a different approach by David Cummings of Wycliffe Bible Translators. I have made my own simplifications to the approach and have found it very useful and encouraging.
Role descriptions typically consist of an indication of an individual’s areas of responsibility with specific tasks listed. These are good to have, because we need to know our areas of responsibility. But the difficulty comes when we try to work out if we are being effective in fulfilling those responsibilities. So let me suggest that instead of only looking at specific responsibilities, you take a moment to think through the broader functions that you are fulfilling. You can look through your role description if you have one, or just think through what fills your week. Do some of the items indicate an administrative function? What about a teaching function? Or a mentoring function? Communication? Public relations? Once you have identified a number of broad functions (no more than six or seven) it is time to get a piece of paper or hit the ‘table’ icon on the screen.
The aim is to prepare a matrix that lists the functions across the top:
Down the left hand side list all the specific tasks that make up your role description or your week’s activities. The list of tasks may obviously be quite long, but it is instructive to think through just what you actually do all week!
Then indicate on the grid the various functions that are being fulfilled by your tasks, by using a 3 if there is a direct correlation between activity and function, a 2 if there is some correlation, and a 1 if there is a slight correlation. Now add up the columns and identify your major functions.
This system allows you to gain a broader perspective of your ministry. Rather than seeing your days as being filled with a series of discrete tasks, or as being just ministry, you may begin to see that you could be fulfilling more than one function at a time. It may also help you see which function/s account for the bulk of your time, and give you the impetus to either maintain or change this.
Take a new sheet of paper or a new screen and put your major function as the first heading. Then write, ‘This function is being carried out effectively when …’
Now comes the real work. Think through what should be happening with regard to all the tasks you have listed. Try to express these in terms of outcomes. For example, looking at your function as a teacher and considering the task you have of preaching, you might write:
This function is being carried out effectively when:
each new sermon has a minimum of 10 hours dedicated preparation
I can identify the outcome that I desire in those hearing the sermon
the hearers will leave the service knowing that the Scriptures are the authority for what I say
the structure of each sermon was clear enough for a twelve-year-old to follow.
Or thinking of your administrative function and considering what you do in the church office, you might write:
This function is being carried out effectively when:
each phone message is responded to within 12 hours
each letter is responded to within 24 hours
the church bulletin is completed by Friday evening.
A long process? Yes, it is. But it is also a very valuable one, because when you have finished you will have an accurate description of what you are meant to be doing. To make the task less arduous, it is advisable to work through just one function each week, rather than trying to complete the whole document in one session. It is also useful to consult others as you complete each section. For example, you could use the first half hour of each leadership meeting to discuss together one of the sections and thus come to some agreement about expectations in that area.
The preparation of a function description like this has a number of benefits:
1. Sharing it with the elders, deacons or other leaders assists in clarifying expectations.
2. In a team situation, it helps each member to clarify and understand the contribution they and their colleagues are making to the composite task.
3. It provides a basis for self-evaluation, as you can sit down from time to time and compare what is written with what you are actually doing.
4. It provides a basis for an evaluation by the leadership. If there are expectations listed that are not being met, then perhaps something needs to be changed, such as reducing a load or adding a new person to the team.
5. It allows for the possibility of taking one particular function and passing that over to another person, with everyone being clear as to what is involved.
Confused expectations and vague role descriptions are the bane of Christian ministry and this process can help you to overcome this situation.
Bruce Dipple is Director of the School of Cross Cultural Mission at Sydney Missionary and Bible College and Associate Pastor at Heathcote Engadine Baptist Church.
© Rev Bruce Dipple (1 November 1999)