“It doesn’t mean a thing unless it’s in writing.” I don’t remember hearing this statement before I went to work for Kenneth Woods at Bethel Life Center in1992.
As the Music Pastor of BLC, I learned lots of people skills very quickly. The number of quick-witted, but poignant statements my pastor and boss would throw out at staff members are too many to recount. But I’m amazed at how, in just the right moment, an applicable platitude full of wisdom comes rushing back.
Pastor Woods was a stickler for writing. He wrote well. He communicated well, especially in writing. He wasn’t one to make snap decisions just because a staff member burst into his office with an awesome idea. He was a processor as a leader…and boy did that trait get driven deep within me.
Ministry is a very active exercise, especially on Sundays when most of the church people have gathered. Well-meaning people whom you haven’t seen in at least a week can and will come at you fast. “Hey, can you give me call this week?” “My aunt is having surgery on Thursday, can someone visit?” “I get off work tomorrow at 5:00 PM, will you give me a call at 5:05 so I can discuss something with you.” (These are the easy ones…the tough ones I’ll leave alone for the moment.). It’s okay…but the pressure to remember and make people feel prioritized is very real. Nothing feels worse than someone needing you to be there for them and you blew it off. Never intentional but deflating all the same.
Therefore, as a staff member, I quickly learned the power of sticky notes. Remember, in 1992, no one had cell phones that texted and messaged back and forth. I didn’t even have a computer in my office at that point.
I learned the importance of writing things down. Leaving my boss a note or memo (or sticky note) in his box was the preferred method of communication. My idea may have been awesome. I may have had the next great revelation to thrust the church forward. But if it wasn’t in writing it didn’t mean anything.
One of my favorite written communications received from Pastor Woods usually happened during our weekly staff meetings on Monday mornings. After a couple of hours of reviewing the calendar, talking through challenges, preparing for coming ministry, a yellow sticky note would slowly make its way from his desk, through his secretary, then around the circle of chairs finally landing in my hands. (After a while, some rolled eyes and chuckles usually accompanied the note from my co-workers.) They understood that it was his usual simple note with a golf course name and tee time for that afternoon which he had already made. Remember, it didn’t mean anything until it was in writing.
I eventually got very good at reminding others, “Please don’t hit me up with a question just before I walk on the platform to minister. I simply can’t promise I will remember it.” But if it was jotted down, I never forgot. Still don’t.
Today of course, we email, text and message with great speed. And that method of written communication has actually become preferred. “Hey, text me. Shoot me a message and remind me.” Or “I’ll text you and give you details later.” Works so well.
But there’s a much deeper harvest to glean from this tidbit, something that can save one’s bacon in a big way. It certainly rescued me in my time of distress.
After becoming a Sr. Pastor in 2001, I carried on the mantra: “It doesn’t mean anything if it’s not in writing.” I quickly became a veracious recorder of written information. “Document everything” became my theme.
I was young and a bit suspicious. I came into pastoring with a bit of paranoia due to the very public fall of a local pastor just a few years before my arrival to Hillside Assembly. The reason I was keenly sensitive was that our church quickly began to grow with many who were closely involved and victimized by the scandal. I knew these people because I used to attend church with them prior to marriage and settling into church ministry. I loved them and they loved me. However, I knew they had been hurt and their pain was something I wanted to help heal. I also was desperate for people to trust me and overcome their horrible experience and not carry that baggage into our small but growing church.
I went overboard by documenting everything. I never wanted anyone to ever be able to question decisions or think I was ever moving forward unilaterally without board consent. I insisted on an Employee Contract that would detail my agreed upon income/benefits/bonuses as the church grew. I kept very detailed copies of every Board Agenda and Board Meeting Minutes. I actually used to bore myself talking so much at the beginning of each Board Meeting trying to answer questions that were never asked.
This habit, in which I’m still very committed, saved me and my family twelve years later when I entered a difficult conflict with our church board and subsequently stepped away from the church. Every negative comment, every ounce of hyperbole or exaggeration (even just complete misinformation) could be easily accessed and explained away by strong documentation. Even when the church board decided to engage legal representation for counsel and I was forced to do the same. The minute the attorneys were made aware of how thorough my documentation was, the conflicts were resolved, and everyone stood down. (Praise God for that!). Understand, I made mistakes, made assumptions and in the final couple of years of my tenure there, did not communicate clearly enough. I was burned out, functioning in a fog and had poor judgment in several areas of my leadership. I freely admit that. But I’m glad my first Sr. Pastor taught me the power of documentation. (More on my burnout in another article).
It’s funny. The most important things I’ve learned in ministry were things never taught in theology classes. I have often thought that universities and seminaries should require classes in business, interpersonal communication and social work for those seeking degrees in ministry work. Those are things that offer such value and protection to young pastors.
Side note. As the age of technology was shifting communications from verbal to digital I was blessed to have hired an incredible young man as our Media Pastor. Without my knowledge, he had set up all of my email communications to automatically back up into my personal Gmail account. As I waded through lots of my own Word files of Agendas and Minutes…I stumbled upon an archive of literally every email I had sent and received tucked away online “in the cloud.” I had no idea he had set that service up and thought I no longer had access to all those pieces of communication until a year after my departure from BT. The day I found those files I wept. All of the interactions, requests I had made, responses I received and offered to others was right there. The things I thought I couldn’t document were there! I’m so thankful. That kind of discovery may not mean much to you, but it was golden to me. It gave great peace to my heart to see, in black and white, what I had only known in my head but could never prove. Thanks GB! I owe you.
My wife and I have kept copious notes through all our children’s educational journeys, especially for our child with special needs who struggled with school. Teachers and counselors were always surprised when we would walk into IEP meetings with notebooks full of printed off notes, emails and research.
So, remember, it’s good to make phone calls, have meetings, confer on decisions, cast vision, even dole out discipline as a leader…but write it all down in the moment. Send the email to review and follow up. Keep copies of EVERYTHING for your own personal records. And if you haven’t already…get very familiar with The Cloud. Because it doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t in writing.