The “Noise” of Parish Leadership

“Oh the noise! Oh the noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! That’s one thing he hated! The Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”

Dr. Seuss writes this about the Grinch’s response to the Who’s Christmas celebration. We know how this turns out (spoiler alert) — the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes and he ends up carving the roast beast at the Who’s Christmas feast.

This line has been swirling in my head today not because it’s almost time for me to haul out my well-worn copy of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Rather, I’ve had a different kind of noise rattling around my head. A member of my parish vestry who does corporate leadership consulting often talks about the “noise” of leadership. She’s been a great resource as we’ve grappled with evolving leadership structures and governance models at the parish level. But she also knows that leaders deal with a whole other layer that demands daily attention — what she calls the “noise.”

The noise consists of the ongoing commentary, complaints, and suggestions that surround leaders. It comes through face-to-face conversations, e-mail, cell phones, and he said/she said triangulation. At its worst, all of this peripheral chatter distracts a leader from the big picture vision casting that is essential to an organization’s vitality. It can so subsume daily interactions to render the leader ineffective as he/she spends each day reacting to every minor crisis that bubbles up rather than the major one that may be lurking around the bend. It’s hard to keep a broad view when the minutiae of everyday life keeps drawing you back again and again.

As a church rector for the past decade, the whole notion of “the noise” resonates profoundly as I’m sure it does with most anyone who has served in parish leadership. I also think the noise in church settings is particularly emotionally charged — more so than a typical business environment. And thanks be to God for this! We all bring “our selves, our souls and bodies” into our interactions at church. That is, we bring our spiritual and human fragility right into the mix which can lead to emotional volatility born of insecurity and passion.

This weekend we had four services at St. John’s to mark All Saints’ Sunday — our new Saturday at 5 pm contemporary liturgy; Sunday morning services at 8 and 10 am (with five baptisms and the reading of the necrology); and solemn evensong on Sunday evening.

Following these liturgies I heard lots of conflicting “noise,”albeit most of it third-hand:

1. There were too many baptisms — it was distracting; I loved all the baptisms — it was exciting!

2. You used too much incense; Can’t you use more incense?

3. The joke you made during the announcements was offensive; That was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!

4. There were so many cars in the parking lot, I had to park way up the street; There were so many cars in the parking lot, I had to park way up the street!

At it’s best, all of this “noise” can lead to some constructive conversations. Perhaps the solemnity of reading the necrology (list of people who have died in the last year) — something that means so much to many parishioners — shouldn’t happen on a day that is so full of (loud) life. I actually love the juxtaposition but I don’t have to sit in the back of a crowded church.

Ultimately much of the noise I hear on a regular basis is a result of growing pains. I understand that and as long as that’s the source I hope it continues to be loud. The often elusive balance for a leader is to be responsive, sensitive, and pastoral in dealing with “the noise” without allowing it to compromise the church’s mission. On this score, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. And it’s at times like this that I’m particularly grateful to have strong lay leaders willing to engage with me and the entire parish.

In the meantime I’ll be headed back to my laboratory to work on that skin thickening agent I’ve been trying to develop for the past 10 years.


9 Comments on “The “Noise” of Parish Leadership”

  1. Grace-filled timing this blog is! Thank you for getting me a bit untangled.

  2. Father Tim says:

    I’m glad to hear it was helpful, Kelli. I know I needed to hear it myself!

  3. Cynthia Hallas says:

    Well said, TIm, as usual. If only we could make those “noisemakers” listem to themselves and one another without always expecting to filter through us.

  4. Cynthia Hallas says:

    …and sorry for those typos!

  5. janice says:

    Great piece, Tim! We sang “your” anthem yesterday at All Saints’ and I particularly thought of you — Janice

  6. Father Tim says:

    Thanks, Janice. We actually sang “In this place” here a month ago or so — our organist surprised me (he learned it for my installation in 2009). Thought of you and Kinny as well! Blessings, Tim+

  7. Mariclaire Buckley says:

    Oh how embarrassing! I’m so sorry I pokedrt fun at the contemporary service-I will make my best effort to keep my commentary to myself!

  8. amymccreath says:

    Send me that skin-thickening stuff, ASAP.

    I think the noise rises on feast days because people care so deeply. All Saints is tremendous. But think about it: birth (baptism), death (necrology), and gobs of tradition all stacked on top of one another. I let parishioners convince me not to sing all the verses of For all the Saints this year…. next year, I’ll wear ear-plugs.

  9. Father Tim says:

    You’re absolutely right, Amy. The emotions were swirling and it’s a good reminder for all clergy to be sensitive to this — it’s easy to forget amid the liturgical logistics!

    And, Mariclaire, if you ever stop with you’re wonderful, witty liturgical comments I’ll…send you an extra pledge card!


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