Expectations are Everything

I got my first vocational (paid) ministry job in October of 2000. It wasn’t my first job, but it was the first job I cared about. It was my opportunity to step into the ministry and start the journey I believed God was calling me to take. It also wouldn’t be the last church I worked for over the next 20 years. 

The opening few months looked almost identical in every church and through each new transition. I spent all of my time not planning or doing ministry but learning what the written, followed, and hidden expectations of my new work environment.

See, whether you work in vocational ministry or outside in the secular/marketplace (including at my time at Apple), there is one principle that governs how your church or organization functions… expectations. Expectations drive everything; they dictate culture, workflow, limitations, possibilities, raises, time off, sick days etc. It always comes back to expectations. I know this because no matter the workplace, ministry context or even one of the largest companies in the world, I always heard the same thing, “That’s not how we do things here.”

Someone always gave this caveat before explaining how their church or organization handles a particular situation or expectation. Here are some examples of things I have heard over the years. 

  • “I don’t know where you’ve been, but here vacation days happen only after a year of work.”
  • “It’s great that worked for you, but years ago, we tried that here, and if failed.”
  • “We expect you to work evenings and weekends so we are flexible, but don’t forget to be at the morning meeting.”
  • “That’s not the ***Name Of Organization*** way.”

The reality is expectations are everything, but the problem is that they can be tough to figure out. They are a bit like a field of landmines. You know there are there, the sign says “danger landmines,” but unless you’re incredibly careful, there is no way to know where they are, and the odds are high you’re going to set one off anyway, either on purpose or more likely by accident.

There seem to be three categories of expectations that dominate most churches and organizations. The rest of this chapter is about identifying them and giving you a best practice for learning how to detect them before they blow up.


Written Expectations

The journey always starts with written expectations because they are typically found in the organization’s policy manual, employee handbook or even your job description. More often than not, when you start, you will be handed a series of papers explaining how the organization works and you are to function in that organization. The problem is the vast majority of people either A) never read it or B) haven’t read it since they were hired and thus have forgotten what it says.

For example, the odds are high that your job discretion contains phrases like “additional duties as assigned.” It’s usually slipped right in there at the end and is often missed. So when your boss/supervisor comes to you six months later and adds something new to your responsibilities, and you cry foul, they will say back to you, “additional duties as assigned.” This typically means you’re stuck with the extra work and probably no extra compensation. However, it shouldn’t surprise you if you had read the written expectations.

My best advice for not stepping on the landmine with written expectations is simple, just read them. Sit down and read through all of your policy manuals, employee handbooks and definitely your job description. No matter how thick or dull they may be, read them. The reason is that it will give your a foundation or a map to start working with as you navigate your new world. Because most people don’t read it, you might find that your current conflict or challenge has a simple solution. Or you may have agreed to it but didn’t realize. These documents will not cover everything, but they will get you started. Also, if something you’re reading doesn’t make sense, find the person who wrote it and ask them for clarity. It’s way easier to do that now than to step on a landmine later.


 Followed Expectations

Now that we have a map (written expectations), we need to figure out the pather we are expected to follow. That is done by watching what expectations are actually followed. See policy manuals, guides and job descriptions have lots of information, and sometimes it can be vague. That’s the difference between “written” and “followed” expectations. For example, I worked for a church with the following written policy.

“Pastors/Leaders are not to have private messages with students on Facebook. Write only on public walls.”

However, what was followed was slightly different.

“Pastors/Leaders are not to have private messages with students on Facebook and write only on public walls. Unless the student sends you a quick message about the ministry or program, you can write them back. However, if this persists, you should probably tell them to text you because that is safer than Facebook. However, we also don’t have long conversations over text.”

What was “written” and “followed” were not the same thing. In reality, the difference between them can sometimes lead to conflict or confusion. When you first start out, these points of conflict or confusion can be costly from a political or relational point of view.

My best advice for not stepping on the landmine is to observe, take notes and ask for clarification first. You need to watch how the world works for a few weeks, if not a few months. But while you’re watching, take note of the difference you are seeing (that’s why you need to read the documents). Then with your supervisor or someone you trust, ask for clarification. Why do we do it this way verse that way? Kind of questions. Do not just ask for permission after the fact. That will only cost you more political capital you probably don’t want to spend. Asking questions is a helpful way to clarify the difference between what is followed and what is written. 


Hidden Expectations

We have a map (written expectations) and a path (followed expectations), but now we have to deal with the unknown, the hidden expectations. These are the landmines you step on without knowing or while avoiding the thing you thought was landmine only to discover it was a rock.

Hidden expectations are killers and can end your time in an organization or seriously wound you or others. They can be as simple as a missed paced joke before you have earned the right to be casual with your group. It could be based on a lack of clarity or understanding around a core expectation, or it could be about a past hurt you knew nothing about. Regardless of how it happens, it usually involves someone lashing out at someone else.

For example, over the years, I have written a lot of talks/sermons about all kinds of issues and topics, and from time to time, I like to take an old sermon from one church and bring it to my new context. Usually, this works great, unless what you say triggers some past drama. At a recent church, I spoke on hearing God’s voice. I’ve preached on this topic many times and never been an issue. But this time, I used the words “listening prayer.” That was the trigger for someone. After a series of conversations, phone calls, emails, Elder involvement, I found myself in my supervisor’s office being asked questions about my theology and having no clue what was going on. I stepped onto a hidden expectation; we don’t say “listening prayer” at this church.

My best advice for avoiding the hidden expectations of landmines is to accept you’re going to step on a landmine called hidden expectations. The truth is that there is no real way of avoiding this one because you simply can’t know everything. In the example, teaching was an expectation of my job, and I was good at it, but the content was the trigger. It was fine in other churches, just not that church and that combination of words. There is no way for you to avoid all drama, triggers, past pains or dark corners of an organization. It’s just not possible, but you can limit the damage. You can respond with three simple words when you step on a hidden expectation landmine, “I am sorry.”


No matter where you are in your organizational structure, expectations are everything. Whether you are a volunteer each week or the CEO of a company, you need to read and understand the written expectations. That way, you can identify the difference between what is written and followed. In the end, you will step on the hidden expectations landmines because it’s inevitable, but the words “I am sorry” go a long way.

Finally, I want to close with an essential truth I don’t want us to miss. For those in primary leadership, we have written, followed and hidden expectations in our organizations, and it’s 100% our responsibility to help the people we lead navigate them to the best of our ability. 


CRITICAL QUESTIONS

I want you to reflect on the following questions and consider sharing your answers with someone you trust or your team. 

  1. What are the essential written expectations in my organization? Am I/we meeting or following them?
  2. What are the followed expectations in my organization? Do we need to adjust the written expectation to reflect what’s being followed?
  3. What are the hidden expectations in my organization that need to be addressed? How can I help people avoid these landmines?

ACTIVITY

The odds are high at some point; you have set off a hidden expectation landmine. It may or may not have been your fault, but Jesus calls us to ensure there is no animosity between two people (James 5). I want you to encourage, apologize or express forgiveness for any damage the hidden landmines may have caused. The goal here is to give it up and let Jesus take control of the situation. I know what I’m asking may be challenging for some of you. Please participate in whatever way you feel comfortable. Letting the hurt go or asking for forgiveness can be a powerful step in healing.

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