So many of the leaders I work with, whether they are pastors or corporate executives, have something of an obsession with retention, and a corresponding fear of attrition. For pastors, this is a fear of losing staff members, volunteers or parishioners, while CEOs fear losing employees or customers. They seem to have an almost unconscious desire to do whatever they can to keep anyone from leaving. And it’s a very dangerous thing.
Why? Because too often the desire to keep everyone makes leaders compromise their vision for their church or business. They weaken their strategies or water down their policies to appeal to the largest number of people possible, or more likely, to avoid offending anyone. Ironically, this actually creates the very problem they fear most as they end up discouraging – or worse yet, losing – their best constituents. In a company, those constituents are the most loyal and supportive employees and customers, the ones who are the company’s best recruiters and marketers. In a parish, they are the top staff members, volunteers and parishioners, the people who want to evangelize and disciple others the most, and who are willing to give so much of their time, talent and treasure. Let’s take a look at fear of losing employees first, and then move on to parishioners.
A hospital CEO recently told me about an important cultural change he had made in his organization to address the apathy and entitlement that had permeated the attitude of his three hundred employees. Essentially, he redesigned the compensation system to better reward performance, which created a significant amount of anxiety among staff members. The executive then proudly announced to me that the initiative had brought about a few improvements in productivity, and more importantly, that none of his employees had left.
My first reaction, and my question to him, was this: “Did the culture really change much? If no one opted out of the organization, then maybe the program wasn’t bold or dramatic enough. Do you really think that everyone belongs in the company?”
Now, I’m not a supporter of getting rid of a certain percentage of employees per year just as a rule. That seems arbitrary and cruel to me. But when an organization is trying to bring about an important cultural change, people opting out as a result of that change is generally a good sign that the program is effective and real. When leaders try to retain employees who aren’t ideal fits for the organization, they only dilute the culture and confuse their best people. Eventually, those “best” people look elsewhere when they realize that their commitment to the direction of the organization is less important than they thought it was. And losing our best employees is a death knell for an organization.
Now let’s look at the fear of losing parishioners. Trying too hard to keep every member of a parish from leaving often leads pastors and parish staff members to play everything safe and dilute their programs or messages, or even to continue with programs that don’t actually bring people to Christ. This creates great disappointment among the most committed and vibrant parishioners, the people who really want the parish to be a hotbed of conversion and discipleship. Eventually, these parishioners will leave, looking for new parishes that will allow them to actively, passionately seek Christ and bring Him to others. Pastors who play it safe usually end up with parishioners who also play it safe, and this prevents a parish from having unique and effective outreach to its community.
A strategic example from the world of fast food might be helpful in understanding how this works. In-N-Out Burger is a legendary fast food chain located in cities throughout around the western part of the U.S. The company has an army of loyal customers, as well as a very limited menu – just burgers. It refuses to add turkey or chicken sandwiches to its menu, because it doesn’t want to dilute what it does. As one of their senior executives explained to me, “Listen, we’re a restaurant for people who love burgers. If someone doesn’t like eating beef, we’re okay with that. We would never want to dilute what people love about us.”
Interestingly, one of the other most successful and loyalty-inspiring quick service restaurants, Chick-fil- A, won’t add burgers to their menu because it would dilute the clarity of what they do. They even play on that as advertising fodder, using cows to encourage people to eat chicken. Like In-N- Out, Chick-fil- A understands that the only way to attract and retain the right people is to avoid trying to please the wrong ones. Not only do these companies have loyal and fanatical customers, but their employees love working there too. The fact is, employees and customers alike are drawn to organizations that are absolutely committed to, and unapologetic about, what they stand for.
Pastors might understandably object to this by saying, “but we want to draw everyone to Christ and the Church. We can’t limit our work to a small group of people who have a preference for beef or chicken. How can we turn anyone away?” I understand that, and here is my reply.
First, what a parish must be fanatical and unapologetic about is not a certain flavor or approach, but rather about a complete love for Christ, His Church, and fulfilling the Great Commission, to bring the Gospel to every nation. Staff members or parishioners who think that is too much, or who believe that the teachings of the Church are silly, need to be loved and respected enough to be kindly told the truth. “This is who we are, and we can’t change that, nor would we want to. Join us!”
A well-intentioned pastor might respond, “but what about the staff members who aren’t there yet, who aren’t interested in sharing or actively living their faith? And what about the parishioners who disagree with Church teaching on some matters? We can’t push these people away.”
I understand this sentiment. I do. And I struggle with it too. And I’m certainly not suggesting that you go out and provoke people to leave with a vengeance. But here’s the thing. We can never justify trying to reach people by diluting the reason we are trying to reach them in the first place. When we do that, the result is always the exact opposite of what we wanted – we eventually drive everyone away.
Remember how it works. First, the best parishioners and staff members lose passion, and either check out or leave. Second – and this is as ironic as it is inevitable – the people who aren’t sure they want to be there in the first place lose interest too! That’s right. The people on the fringes, staff members and parishioners alike, are turned off by an organization that is tepid about what it has to offer. What attracts new people to an organization or movement is the same thing that keeps the best people in them – a sincere, unapologetic and joyful commitment to what matters most. I’m absolutely convinced of this.
Keep in mind that Jesus didn’t beg the people who turned away from Him because they were offended by the proposition of eating His body and drinking His blood to come back by diluting the truth. I’m guessing He didn’t say, “Good riddance!” And I would imagine that He was quite sad about their departure, for their sake. But He didn’t, and couldn’t, water down the truth to make them feel better or stay.
For those who still find this acceptance of attrition a difficult pill to swallow – and I feel for you, because I struggle with it too – perhaps this will convince you. Retaining an uncommitted staff member or parishioner may very well be a form of cruelty. When a person is unhappy in a given situation, what they often need is someone who loves them enough to call them to change. If they are not willing to change, enabling them to be stagnant is not a service to them, even if it makes us feel good about ourselves. Compassionately freeing them to leave, without animosity or bitterness, will actually increase the likelihood that they may eventually opt back in for the right reasons. That seems a lot wiser, and more loving, than retaining them for the wrong ones.