Donald Seibert has seen the inside workings of not only churches but high-pressure corporations. As chairman and chief executive officer at J. C. Penney, he gained a reputation as an effective organizer and peacemaker. And in peace, the company prospered.

In 1981, a year when most retailers were taking their lumps, Penney's earnings rose 44 percent on a mere 4.5 percent increase in sales. What was the secret? Business Week pointed to a new management style "keyed to group decision making … consensus management."

Seibert, architect of that new atmosphere, is now retired, but his philosophy remains unchanged: develop a team that can continue without a hitch when key individuals leave.

Here are his reflections from a lifetime of service within the complex organizations of church and business.

What leadership tensions are common to both business and the local church?

In business, tensions arise when the chief executive's objectives somehow differ from those of long-standing workers in the business. In the church, the same tensions arise when the pastor wants to do one thing, and some of the church pillars—Sunday school superintendent, chairman of the board of elders—want to do something else. The tensions are further compounded by misunderstandings about where the business—or the church—is really heading.

Can you give an example?

I was involved in a church that had a strong commitment to foreign missions—a high-profile missions conference, large missions budget, and so on. A few years after I joined, the pastor was succeeded by another man who shared the commitment to missions but also felt our church's involvement in local ministries was not what it should be. So he tried to motivate us in the direction of local ministries, and his effort was completely misunderstood as a denunciation of foreign missions. The situation grew dramatic, with people raising their voices in meetings. The whole problem could have been avoided if the pastor's intentions had been communicated successfully to all levels of the church.

So pastors have an obligation to articulate direction clearly, to educate the church on what they're trying to do and how they want to do it.

Exactly. At J. C. Penney, whenever our management team prepared to issue a statement, whether it was a press release or an internal memo, we asked ourselves two questions: (1) Is this easily understood? (2) Can this be misunderstood? These questions are quite different, and often our original statement failed the second test and needed to be rewritten.

How do you measure whether you as a leader are getting your ideas across?

We use a number of techniques: attitude surveys, informal visits by members of the senior management committee, discussions with people at different levels of the company. If you take time to ask questions, you find out quickly what your people understand and do not understand.

Isn't this all rather basic?

Yes. Communication skills are based on common sense. But often they're so simple you ignore them.

Suppose a pastor communicates to a church that God's purpose for them is to live holy lives and preach the gospel to the world. They decide to send out x number of missionaries, build new Sunday school facilities, etc. What happens next?

First, as the pastor, I would want to know exactly how equipped I am to handle these ministry goals. If Sunday school facilities are inadequate and need expanding, I put that down as a goal. If my missionary outreach needs expansion, I put that down. I find out how financially able the church is to meet these goals, and whether we have the potential to raise the money. I ask specific things like, "Is labor available in the church?" "Will we have to hire outside help?"

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