Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Let Squeaky Wheels Squeak

When it comes to leadership, some of the axioms of conventional wisdom are pure baloney. Take, for instance, the old saying “the squeaky wheel gets the oil.” This idea is faulty to the core from a leadership perspective – especially in churches - and often results in poor decisions.

Spiritual leaders are called to care for the flock, but there is one group of people in churches who are best treated with disregard – the “squeaky wheels.” You find them in every church, sometimes on the fringe, other times sneaking into staff and leadership roles. But unlike other people with occasional legitimate complaints, squeaky wheels are never happy, and they make sure everybody knows it!

The natural response of most leaders and leadership teams is to oil the squeaky wheels. We alter our plans and give these folks extra attention in the hope of silencing their criticism. Unfortunately, it seldom works. Most squeaky wheels keep on squeaking for one simple reason: they don’t squeak for a lack of oil; they squeak because it’s their NATURE to squeak.

Most church leaders are slow to grasp this lesson. In their zeal to maintain peace & unity and holding on to everyone who comes through the front door, they allow a tiny group of chronic complainers to have an inordinate impact on their decisions and ministry.

One man, whom I’ll call Billy, held a pivotal up-front role in the early days of our ministry. He was good at what he did. It was hard to imagine our church functioning without him. But I also couldn’t imagine why he always had so much angst and negativity. Whether it was our song selection, a program change, my preaching content, or our budget, Billy was always uptight about something. Every time I talked to him I came away emotionally exhausted. Even when he didn’t have an issue to complain about, he always knew someone else who did.

Listening to him you would have thought our church was on the verge of disaster, with large segments of people ready to leave. For more than three years I put up with this man and his “the sky is falling” fears. Even though Billy’s negativity was legend in our church, a lot of people genuinely liked him. I did too, when he wasn’t driving me nuts. He had a lot of credibility chips stored up, or so I thought. I wondered how people would react if he ever got too upset about something or if, heaven forbid, he left the church. I wondered if they’d all leave too.

I came to the conclusion that Billy was a squeaky wheel and he would always be unhappy no matter what. So I quit listening to his complaints and distanced myself from him. He threatened to leave. I took him up on his threat.

Sure enough, Billy and his wife soon left the church. But the crisis I dreaded never materialized. We found somebody of equal talent to take his place almost immediately. As for Billy’s influence, it was overblown. His departure barely created a ripple.

The fact is, squeaky wheels can be hazardous to a church’s health. Leaders who place too much emphasis on keeping squeaky wheels happy risk abdicating their leadership. Instead of asking, “What does God want this church to do?” they ask, “How will so-and-so react to this?”

It also sends an unspoken message to the rest of the congregation. It tells everyone that the best way to have influence around here is to complain, and the louder are more often you complain, the more power you’ll have.

No comments: