Why "Just Turn Down His Microphone" is A (Really) Bad Leadership Strategy

When I began in ministry, the churches I served were small and traditional. So small in fact, that I actually sang in a choir.

Some Sundays there were as many people in the choir as there were in attendance.

The truth is (and there’s hardly anyone who would disagree with this)…few of us could really sing. (Ever been to a church/event like that?)

But being able to didn’t really seem to be a qualification for being in the choir.

It seemed that the only criteria for being in the choir was wanting to sing.

The choir didn’t last long. Within a few years we had a band.

But again we struggled with the question of qualification.

So here’s the issue everyone who has ever handled volunteers struggles with.

How do you determine who gets to sing, serve, or volunteer, when it’s pretty clear to everyone except them they don’t possess the gifts for it?

That’s a tough leadership question.

 

The Mess This Gets Us Into

It’s just too easy to find yourself in a situation as a leader in which people who:

Can’t sing are singing

Can’t play are playing

Can’t communicate are preaching

Can’t really lead are leading

What do you do in a situation like that?

Usually, you feel paralyzed.

How do I tell them?

How do I ask them to step aside?  

After all, they love doing it. And they really can’t see that few people share their enthusiasm for what they’re doing.

In the case of the band, usually you end up pulling the sound guy aside and saying, as discreetly as possible, “just turn down his mic.”

Instinctively you know you’ve caved in to cowardice, but you just can’t muster up the nerve to have the hard conversation.

So we come up with justifications for allowing people to serve significantly outside of their skill set:

But she loves doing it.

He’s been doing it for years. 

He asked…so what was I going to tell him?

Well, maybe for starters, you maybe you could have told him no.

 

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Too much actually. There are at least three long term implications of not confronting the issue of people serving where they are gifted:

 

1. You never have honest conversations

When you avoid the truth, conversations rarely happen with people. Instead, they happen about people. Think about it. Because nobody will talk to the person people end up talking about the person. The exact opposite of what should happen.

And then you feel forced to lie or duck issues when you talk to the person themselves. Not cool.

 

2. Everyone sidesteps the real issue

Even in the rare moment when the person in question comes to you to ask for feedback, you’ll be tempted not to tell the truth because you’ve already decided to sidestep the issue of their competency.

So when they ask you how it’s going, you shade the truth.

 

3. People never end up leading in the area of their gifting

As bad as lying is, this is probably the greatest tragedy: the person in question never ends up serving in the area of their greatest giftedness.

I believe everyone has a gift and has a ‘fit’ that works. Often people are a bit blind to that and need friends to help them find their fit. When you won’t have an honest conversation, someone might go through their entire life without discovering what they were created to do.

 

You Wouldn’t Settle for This Anywhere Else

Imagine going to a restaurant where people who were terrible cooks prepared the meal and where people with few social skills served your table.

Or imagine working in a business that was led by non-leaders, where project management was led by disorganized people and where the accounting was done by people who struggled with math.

Well actually, come to think of it, some of you have eaten at that restaurant and have worked at that business. And you left, didn’t you?

So if you’re trying to lead your organization well and with all diligence, why would you settle for something inside the organization you care about most that you would never settle for anywhere else?

 

3 Reasons It Makes Sense to Have the Hard Conversation

As difficult as telling the truth in these areas might be, there are some great reasons for pushing through with the hard conversations that need to happen.

In fact, if you do it regularly, everybody wins. Especially the person who needs to change what they’re doing. Here’s why:

 

1. Everybody is gifted at something

Serving in an area in which you’re not gifted may be what’s keeping you from discovering your true gifting. Grandma Moses, the famous folk artist, didn’t discover her gift for painting arthritis forced her to give up embroidery at age 76, and that after a life of working on farms. She didn’t want to waste the rest of her life, so she picked up a paint brush and painted until she died at age 101.

 

2. People who serve in an area that fits them always feel better about themselves

When you finally serve in an area in which you are gifted, you feel better about yourself. You discover what God designed you to do.

 

3. People who serve in an area that fits them always serve others better

The impact you have on the lives of others rises significantly when you operate out of your strengths.

The conversation still won’t be easy, but when you realize you’re helping, not hurting, it become much easier to have.  And if you have the conversation from a place of humility and seek the best interest of the person involved, they’ll often thank you for it down the road.

 

Inclusiveness or Effectiveness?

A final word about what’s at stake.

Every leader makes a choice between inclusiveness and effectiveness.

If your chief value is inclusiveness (everybody gets to play however they want), it may well compromise your effectiveness.

If you want to be effective, you need to be strategic about how you include people. Everybody will get to play in some way; it just might not be where they first think they fit.

On the other side of hard choices is freedom for everyone and effectiveness for your organization.

It sure beats always turning down someone’s mic.

And you know what? I don’t miss the choir.

And I’m not sure anyone misses my singing.

What are you learning about this? Leave a comment.

36 Comments

  1. 7 Signs Your Church Is Honestly…Mediocre on August 2, 2018 at 12:00 am

    […] If you want more, here’s some further help on this very tender subject. […]

  2. […] If you want more, here’s some further help on this very tender subject. […]

  3. […] An awkward reality of stuck and declining churches is that they choose inclusion over excellence. We let a not-very-gifted singer sing because no one has the courage to tell him he can’t. We let non-leaders lead because they’ve been there the longest, and they’re bossy, and we’re all afraid. (I wrote more about this dynamic that here.) […]

  4. Tom on February 12, 2018 at 3:56 pm

    We call this “Monitors Only”. I had “fun” with this at a military chapel where the guy that was “monitors only” was the Brigadier General’s friend. This leads to a third option, which is choose your battles wisely!

    • Tom on February 12, 2018 at 4:04 pm

      While choosing your battles carefully make for decent humor in the last post, it is also quite serious. Leading change is a process that takes time. How do handle a sition is more of the science of leadersship. When to handle a problem is much more the art. When I am working to change a church, i choose the battles with best impact compared to risk. Big fights for small impact are deferred and little fights for big impact are chosen. Over time you gain credibility and can make the harder changes. Choose which battle and when carefully, but do choose!

  5. […] An awkward reality of stuck and declining churches is that they choose inclusion over excellence. We let a not-very-gifted singer sing because no one has the courage to tell him he can’t. We let non-leaders lead because they’ve been there the longest, and they’re bossy, and we’re all afraid. (I wrote more about this dynamic that here.) […]

  6. […] I wrote about that in more detail here (see Why “Just Turn Down His Microphone” Is a Really Bad Leadership Strategy). […]

  7. Anonymous on October 29, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    I recently found out that the mic I and a few others rotate singing on is the mic that is always kept down. It’s so disappointing, especially since the worship pastor welcomes us on the team, but we’re sort of on the fringes, and we’re all from an old leadership system that has been replaced but we have wholeheartedly embraced the new leadership. The worship pastor hasn’t even heard us sing/auditioned us though we’ve been asking for months to do so and other people have auditioned and now lead. We haven’t gossiped or compared notes, this is completely based on what I’ve observed and the worship pastor has said about keeping that mic out of the house and the sound guy says about how in-eq’d that mic is. We don’t even get a chance. What do you say to a person who sings well, loves leading worship and is quite confused about this ongoing situation?

  8. Zachary Verbracken on February 26, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    I love the thoughts here. I heard you mention this post on the podcast episode on prolonged adolescence. Great, great leadership truths here. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Mary on February 9, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Here’s our scenario…I hope someone can help! Our church has two worship leaders, one for each of our two services. (I’ve been doing one for long time, but then we added a service and needed an a new person to develop the new service.) Our group for the first service is doing very well, and, in fact, some of the folks did double duty for a while. The worship leader of the 2nd service is the local band instructor, so he should be well versed, musically. Our pastor is also a great musician and our primary value is “hospitality” and a secondary value is “excellence.” A couple of the other members that were helping out the second group explained to pastor that it was not going well even before it started. There was no excellence. Pastor said that we’re doing it anyway. So, now we’ve been in this new format since September. It has not gotten any better. One of the big problems is that the worship leader thinks he is a great singer, but in reality he is VERY pitchy. He’s asked another girl to come sing, and she’s terrible! People are complaining. The leadership team has asked that we reconsider the service because it’s not accomplishing our goals, but Pastor just keeps saying it’s what we need! Argh! Our pastor has a way of changing one’s thinking after suggesting that we need to do something different. We all know it, but can’t seem to get him to see that something needs to change. Any help would be greatly appreciated!!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 9, 2015 at 5:15 pm

      Mary…thanks for this. Honestly…I think someone needs to have a very honest conversation with the worship leader, and a very honest conversation with the pastor. A new service can be ruined by a bad execution…so I think having a frank discussion will drill down on what the real issue is.

  10. David Lindner on January 21, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    I see what you’re saying, and I mostly agree. But not completely. I don’t think we should have someone who can’t sing, be a vocal leader because we’re not willing to have a difficult conversation. That’s just bad leadership.

    But, having spent a decade as a worship pastor, there’s also more to be considered. Those who have the ability to sing well, don’t always lead worship well. But there are those who lead worship well, who don’t necessarily sing well. I have had those who couldn’t sing well on stage without a microphone, or like you said, standing in front of a microphone they knew wasn’t on. But it was because they were great worship leaders in other ways. In a larger church, you might always have a great vocalist who is a great worship leader as well. But, in many medium to smaller churches that’s not always the case. So, sometimes you have to get creative.

    We don’t put them up there, letting them think they’re going to be vocalists, that’s deception. But, they may be able to teach the vocalists how to lead worship instead of simply singing.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 21, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      That’s a really great point David. Thank you. You’re right…the best talent doesn’t always equal the right leadership. I’d rather have a b+ skill set and an A+ heart than an A+ skill set and a C- heart. There’s a line, and each leader has to find it. Thanks for weighing in!

  11. Faith Bogdan on November 30, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    Great post! I’m still looking for the “tell me exactly what. to. say.” post. Yes, I can tell the sweet, sweet old lady that she is gifted in other areas, but please tell me the words to use to tell her why she can’t sing solos any more, especially when she has a whole pew of friends cheering her on. I have googled and read multiple posts like this one and agree with them all, but still feel clueless about how to practically carry out the mission of gracious honesty. Help! I don’t want to sound scripted for this hard conversation that needs to happen, and I agree it must be done in humility and love, but I’m at such a loss for what to say that I almost feel I need a script! (BTW, too late for auditions. This is where it gets more complicated. How to back peddle?)

    • Carey Nieuwhof on December 1, 2014 at 8:50 am

      That’s a challenging question. How about, hey X, let’s meet over coffee and have a discussion. And then maybe say something like “I’m incredibly grateful for your support of the mission and vision of our church, and so grateful for your hard work. Really. I wish we had more people with your level of dedication. I do want to talk about whether your current position is the best fit. I know it’s something you’re passionate about, but I wonder if we could find you a better fit elsewhere. Our music is changing, and our goals for next year are ambitious, and I’d like to have you serving in a new capacity off our music team. That could take a lot of shapes, and I’m happy to have that conversation with you… That could be the intro. Whatever happens, remain calm, remain gracious and remain empathetic. Does that help?

    • Tom on February 12, 2018 at 1:41 pm

      Faith, there is not a magic phrase or perfect set of words. The hard truth here is that some small groups can’t be led to such change. If she has a whole pew cheering her on and you demand change, it will probably be you who changes roles! I have learned that you choose battles you can win and you move on when needed so that you can achieve your own calling and be a good steward of your gifts. Keep in mind that you are likely asking such a person to change how they develop their self worth, not helping them to understand a point. You can’t “educate” your way out of such a situation if their self-esteem is the issue. They will prefer being wrong to being unimportant and logic will mean nothing. Speak to them sincerely and tell them. You will quickly know if they need direction or if you are at a crossroads with your job. I am cheering for you, but this problem is why so many small churches remain small. They want to grow as long as nothing changes. -FYSA I am a 25 year pastor and military chaplain. I have fought your battle many times and have the scars to prove it. I especially remember the one where the General’s friend was the singer we kept “only in the monitors, not the house” speakers. That was a battle we chose not to fight if you are wondering! You will learn and grow through this and you may have to change or move some. Unless you are content to maintain a small non-growing, retiree church (we need some of those BTW), you can speak up and lead change or speak up and find a new job.

  12. Tim on July 3, 2014 at 10:26 am

    This is so very true, but a reality that most leaders don’t want to face. I had to “remove” a volunteer because they simply weren’t doing what they had signed up to do and it was impacting other people, plus there were the “hallway” conversations about it, none of which was healthy. Having an honest conversation resolved all of the issues. Yes, you risk hurting their feelings, but isn’t it better that one person gently hurt their feelings and help them find another place to serve rather than an entire church do it in a hurtful way?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 5, 2014 at 7:20 am

      Exactly Tim. Well said. Thank you!

  13. Nate Woodward on April 4, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    There’s a good reason to have this conversation–“let’s get you serving where you really are gifted–and a bad reason “You’re embarassing the rest of us with your poor performance.” I agree that “turn down the mic” is a bad strategy, but the solution isn’t just telling people “you’re not good enough to do this.”

    In my experience, most church choirs are there exactly to be the place for people who love to sing. I directed a choir once where half the bass section couldn’t match pitch on a single note half the time. But it was full of love, enthusiasm, and encouragement for all who participated.

    And when we sang, we were proclaiming that in Jesus’ world, amateurs aren’t any less valuable than professionals.

    For me, there are two keys to keeping inclusion/participation and excellence in balance:
    1) continue to articulate excellence as a goal that we work inclusively and collaborative toward. This is why we work hard in rehearsal.
    2) have a balance of opportunities for people to use their gifts. You need to display both the preschoolers’ finger painting and the resident artist’s mural. There needs to be room for the no-audition choir AND the talented soloist sharing their latest song. Too often, I see churches that never let their artists shine but also subtly communicate the message that only the pretty people can serve here.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 4, 2014 at 5:31 pm

      I really appreciate your tone Nate. Thank you! I think it depends what your criteria is too. We may have different criteria, and that’s fine. I assume singing on stage or in a choir is for people who can sing…in the same way that people who teach should have the gift of teaching. You raise some good points. And as to ‘only pretty people can serve here’—with you 100% on that one. Thanks!

  14. Denise Sarna on April 2, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    While I was playing the piano at our small local church I had a pastor tell me a story about “a lady at another church he led” who wasn’t good but she had been doing it for a long time and he couldn’t tell her so. As the pastor had never told me 1 time “good job” I took this personally and was very hurt and stopped playing within weeks of the conversation. Honest conversations, handled in a professional manner work best.
    On the flip side I believe that when someone steps out of their comfort zone to do something for the Lord it should be encouraged.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on April 4, 2014 at 5:32 pm

      Ugh Denise. That hurts. Sorry to hear that. You are SO right…direct, honest, humble conversations are best.

  15. Elijah on March 25, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Can you write something about why “It’s not my problem / job” is also a bad leadership strategy? I have been hearing that too much lately and its so disrespectful. Also, you are fantastic. Thank you for your leadership and insights!

  16. Iloveworshipmusic on March 18, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    I really liked this post! It is so right on. I know it is a tough one. But for a worship leader to be really honest to someone who wants to serve about how they play or sing is far, far better then the things under 1, 2 and 3 in “What’s Wrong With This Picture” above. To me hearing where you are a better fit is hard, but a good part of their spiritual journey as well. Just because something is hard and maybe even hurtful to the person receiving it does not mean it is bad, there is a clear difference. Like what James talks about here:

    James 1:2-4
    New International Version (NIV)

    Trials and Temptations

    2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds,3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

    Also, I think it’s extremely important as leaders to give whoever is approaching worship to be given the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone wants to be a rock star and I think it can be a big misconception for some. I think it’s always best to put yourself in that person shoes and think about the reason why they are wanting to serve and direct as best as possible. They may think they are good at something, but only because they do not know what they do not know. It is still a vulnerable spiritual time for that person who is stepping out of their comfort zone, spending their extra time pursing serving the church. In my opinion the enemy loves to prey on people stepping out and serving in any way, so it is extremely important that the leaders take this matter very seriously.

  17. Jonathan Holcomb on March 16, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    Everything about this conversation is right on. great post!

  18. Ken Noble on March 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I don’t see how anyone could disagree with this. The hard part of this problem is that a lot of times, people who don’t know ‘jack’ in an area (especially singing or playing an instrument) actually believe they are good at it. That’s a hard nut to crack isn’t it?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 16, 2014 at 9:09 pm

      Thanks Ken…and everyone…for the encouragement. That’s the hard part, it’s people’s self-awareness that kills or jeopardizes the mission. And that’s what’s heartbreaking from both perspectives.

  19. Scott Breault on March 14, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing wisdom and perspective on this tough topic!

  20. Larry Lakey on March 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Carey, I read your posts regularly and consistently find them helpful. This one, though, might be my favorite so far. Many of us may instinctively know that the strategy of cowardice is failed leadership, but you’ve done a great job explaining WHY. Your pinpoint on the potential for gossip is especially insightful and describes servant-leadership in action; super job connecting faithful leadership to sound discipleship. I’ll be taking this to heart and sharing with my team. Thank you!

  21. Robert Hartzell on March 14, 2014 at 10:16 am

    This IS a tough one. I think you handled this topic well. It’s VERY difficult for communication to happen in these situations, especially in those smaller churches. But you’re right, a good leader is able to have those hard conversations. Great post! Thanks.
    Robert

  22. revtimbo on March 14, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Wow, went through this at this time last year. Had the hard conversation, but things blew up in the congregation. Had a congregational meeting to avoid the behind the scenes gossip and slander. They voted almost 100% to “turn the mic down.” As far as I am concerned, turning the mic down sends a message- “we hide things to keep ourselves comfortable.” That is what everyone hates about the Roman Catholic Church.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on March 14, 2014 at 9:34 am

      Oh wow…this is a tough one. It’s hard when an entire church votes to turn down the mic. I hope they realize it’s a choice that ultimately will leave them less effective in their mission. What a shame.

      • Ken Noble on March 15, 2014 at 9:56 pm

        Turning the mic down is even a bit of fraud. Ok, thats a bit harsh. I’ll use two less harsh words- ‘dishonesty’ and ‘trickery’. It can actually backfire if the person learns of it later.

      • Nate Woodward on April 4, 2014 at 12:07 pm

        Maybe the congregation said “inclusion is more important than excellence.” Who are we to say that’s not of the Spirit?

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