The Flourishing Culture Podcast Series
“How Your Leadership Can Build or Break Trust“
May 3, 2021
Intro: Do you believe that having an unhealthy culture is creating roadblocks for your organization? That was the experience described by today’s guest. Listen in to hear how this ministry turned those roadblocks into pathways as they moved to a flourishing culture.
Al Lopus: Welcome to another episode of the Flourishing Culture Podcast, where our goal is to equip and inspire you to build a flourishing workplace. As we all face today’s leadership challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe having a healthy culture is more important now than ever before. We are here to help you eliminate toxicity, improve your employees’ engagement, speed up new innovation, and grow your organization’s impact.
And before we meet our guest today, I urge you to subscribe to this podcast. As a result, you’ll receive our action guide. It’s our gift to help you lead your organization’s culture to the next level. To subscribe, simply go to bcwinstitute.org/podcast. Hit the Subscribe button and receive our free action guide.
If you can share this podcast with others, and rate it, it would mean a lot to me. Thank you.
And now, let’s meet today’s special guest.
I’m glad to bring to the microphone Ezra Benjamin, the vice president of global ministry affairs for Jewish Voice Ministries. And Ezra, welcome to the Flourishing Culture Podcast.
Ezra Benjamin: Thanks, Al. Happy to be with you today.
Al: You know, your organization’s workplace-culture transformation is packed with insights, lessons, and solutions for our listeners. But before we look at this success story, tell us a little bit about Jewish Voice Ministries and what you’re all about.
Ezra: Sure. Well, we’re based here in one of the hottest corners of the United States, in Phoenix, Arizona. And Jewish Voice turned 54 years old this year, believe it or not. Originally started by a gentleman named Louis Kaplan, who was really a big-tent evangelist. He was a Jewish believer. And in that part of the 20th century, he identified as a Hebrew Christian, a Christian with a Jewish background, before the term messianic, Jewish, or Jewish believer in Jesus became widely used. And the Lord called Louis Kaplan, somewhat dramatically, in January of 1967 into Jewish ministry and said, I want you to reach My people, My Jewish people, with the Gospel, and I want you to impart the burden according to the Scriptures on My heart for Israel to the church so they can carry that burden. And so thus began what originally was a radio and then a television ministry, and since then has really blossomed under the leadership of our current president and CEO for the last two decades, Jonathan Bernis, into an international, missional, and para-congregational ministry, as well as still a television broadcast involved heavily in Christian media.
And, Al, what we’re really about is reaching Jewish people, not exclusively, but according to Romans 1:16, first reaching Jewish people wherever we go in the world with the good news of Yeshua, we say in Hebrew, or Jesus, with the Gospel. And also just imparting the unfinished business, if you will, that God has with Israel and the Jewish people according to the Scriptures, imparting that burden on the church so they can pray into that and even partner missionally with seeing the salvation of Israel come to pass. And so that’s what we’re about, continuing that work, obviously, in COVID realities, but working in former Soviet Union, in Africa, among emerging Jewish communities like the Ethiopian Jewish community and then some other groups in southern Africa and then also in Latin America and, of course, here at home in the United States and Canada.
Al: Well, it’s really interesting to see how you’ve grown from just being a radio and broadcast ministry, beyond.
Well, tell us a couple of stories of changed lives. What might be a favorite story of Jewish Voice Ministries that cause others to say, “Wow, that’s fantastic!”?
Ezra: Sure. Well, I’ll tell you one. Jonathan Bernis really came kind of into international recognition, at least in the messianic Jewish or Jewish-believing world, in the early ’90s. He was leading a congregation. And interestingly, that’s where I grew up as a kid, under Rabbi Jonathan Bernis, at a small messianic Jewish congregation in western New York. And the Lord called Jonathan to former Soviet Union, specifically to St. Petersburg, Russia, to, in essence, rent out the largest auditoriums, soccer stadiums, whatever he could find, and start sharing the Gospel as a Jewish believer with Jewish people. And so, Jonathan, kind of in blind faith, knowing this was the Lord, went to do this. And the first event in this auditorium, largest one he could find in the city, in St. Petersburg, it was packed with Jewish people who, under communism, weren’t allowed to believe in God, let alone acknowledge their Jewish identity; who had never heard the Gospel, let alone presented in Jewish context. And Jonathan shares his testimony, makes the Gospel invitation, and is wondering, “Okay, is one person going to come forward? Are 10 people going to come forward?” Al, almost every hand in the theater went up—
Ezra: —and Jonathan looked at his interpreter, and he said, “Let me try that again.” “I’m asking you, if you want to receive Jesus, Yeshua, as your Jewish messiah,” and thinking, “Okay, now people are going to understand the ask. We’ll have some more.” Again, every hand in the room, practically, goes up. And so thus began this decade of waves of Jewish people, for the first time, hearing the Gospel in terms they could understand, in the Jewish context in which those first-century believers originally presented it. And that evangelistic movement became a congregational-planting movement, and on and on we go. And just, that’s really been some of the most exciting stories even to date.
And then more recently, as I mentioned, we’ve been working in Africa, among the, what many might have heard of as, the lost tribes of Israel. And what we mean by that is Jewish communities whose identity was never lost to themselves, but who have, with the world becoming smaller with technology in the last few decades, emerged onto the world scene, saying, “Hey, we know who we are, and we believe we have a destiny in God and ultimately a destiny in the land of Israel.”
And that’s, Al, that’s actually how I got involved with Jewish Voices. I went as a volunteer on a medical-, dental-, and eye-care outreach in 2008 to Gondar, Ethiopia, and really was so struck by the passion and the vision of Jonathan and Jewish Voice for reaching Jewish people in their neighbors with the Gospel through practical care and humanitarian aid that I said I have to be a part of this. And so long story short, I came on staff in January 2010.
And later that year, maybe early the next year, we were doing another clinic in northern Ethiopia, and this Jewish community leader came forward, really antagonistic towards what we were doing. In essence, “Give us the medical aid, but keep your faith to yourselves. And in fact, we’re going to actively oppose you in community meetings.” And so we know this gentleman. Let’s call him Solomon to kind of protect his identity. Solomon’s a common name in Ethiopia because of their connections historically with Israel and Solomon and Sheba. But Solomon says, “Just give us the aid. That’s really all we care to receive from you.” And the next day, Solomon comes back, and I’m gearing up for this, again, another hostile encounter.
Al: Sure, yeah.
Ezra: And Solomon says, “Yeshua appeared to me in a dream last night—”
Ezra: “—and told me He’s the Messiah.” And in essence then said, through a translator, “What must I do to be saved?” And I’m thinking, “Is this the book of Acts? I mean, is this for real?” And so Solomon comes to faith and not only comes to faith, but very quickly is disciple and becomes a congregational leader leading other people in the Jewish community, in northern Ethiopia, and beyond to faith.
And so that’s just one story. I could go on and on. But I know this is a shorter podcast, so… Just we continue to be blown away by the ways in which the Lord is still moving among Jewish communities and their neighbors.
Al: Wow, that’s exciting. Yeah. I love the Solomon story, for sure. Wow.
Al: Well, you’ve come to know workplace culture, in your organization specifically, like the back of your hand. And it’s been something you’ve worked on for at least five out of the 10 or 11 years you’ve been with Jewish Voice. So, you know, in your mind, why is a thriving, flourishing workplace so needed, even necessary if you want to increase ministry impact? Do you see a link between the two?
Ezra: Yeah. It’s a great question, Al, because if we’re going to put so much effort—and I know all of those listening who probably participate or who are thinking about participating in the Best Christian Workplace Survey—are asking ourselves, “Look, we have a mission to do. Should we really be spending so much time and energy and in some cases money focusing on our culture? Can’t our people just do their jobs?” But what we realized at Jewish Voices, that an unhealthy culture actually puts up a lot of barriers and roadblocks to a ministry or a faith-based organization ever fulfilling their mandate in the first place. And what do I mean by that? I think what we realized is that a healthy or, more recently for us, a flourishing culture at Jewish Voice isn’t necessarily what’s present, but it’s what’s absent. And what’s absent are the corporate dysfunction, the widespread mistrust of leaders to employees and employees to leaders, the undealt-with conflict or the unhealthy conflict, the territorialism, the silos, the posturing, the politics, all these things that are present in an unhealthy workplace that are absent in a flourishing one. And with all of that junk out of the way, everybody who’s there can just kind of run forward unhindered and fulfill the mandate and the mission of the ministry, which is probably why most of our employees got involved with us in the first place.
Al: Yeah. Well, I like what you say. Unhealthy culture really provides roadblocks to ministry. That’s an interesting way of saying that.
When did your senior leadership really begin to see the truth and importance of what you just talked about? I mean, that’s not always been the case, you know. So were there are some concerns and questions about your culture? What were some of the answers that you were looking for as you began to explore the health of your culture?
Ezra: Yeah. Great question, Al. I want to say about 2014 or 2015, so six or seven years ago now, we had, actually our CEO convened what was our first “culture meeting,” and that’s actually what he called it. We weren’t involved with the Best Christian Workplace Survey yet. We hadn’t even established an executive leadership team and really begun to dig into the major, you know, the big rocks and smash them up and drag them out of the way. But what we realized was, on the one hand, our donations, our contribution revenue was growing. No problem there. We were continuing to have an effective presence on Christian television, getting the word out about what God’s doing with Israel and the Jewish people, what that has to do with the church. We had a growing staff. We were carrying out outreaches. But in terms of the enduring fruit and the effectiveness of what we were doing, we felt like we were hitting a ceiling. And it wasn’t for lack of funds and it wasn’t for lack of qualified staff and it wasn’t for lack of vision, but we felt like we were hitting this ceiling. And so our CEO began to realize maybe it’s actually the environment. Maybe it’s actually the culture of the ministry itself; how we do what we do, if you will, kind of breaking down the culture a bit, the way we do what we do on a day-to-day basis that was creating this ceiling.
And so Jonathan Bernis convened the culture meeting, and you could feel—it was a one-day meeting. I’m still remembering it. It’s almost like a hippocampus thing—you could cut the tension with a knife—
Ezra: —because everybody was coming together to acknowledge we have cultural baggage and we have cultural problems. But it had really not been dealt with other than in back-hall conversations and water-cooler gossip and triangulated interactions here and there. And so I remember, in a way, it was a terrible meeting, Al. I mean, people started pointing and shouting across the room, “You’re the reason we’re not succeeding. I have a problem with you!” and “I’ve had a problem for three years.” And one lady stood up, in a leadership position, and burst into tears and said, “Our ministry is so unhealthy, I can’t in good conscience recommend that any of my other friends called the Jewish ministry work here.” Mic drop. And it was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is terrible.” And so half of the room thought, “Get me out of here.” And the other half of the room thought, “Well, I’m glad we’re finally talking about it.” And I was probably somewhere in between, with a foot in both camps.
But that’s really what got us into this, is realizing, okay, we have some real things to deal with here. It’s not going to change in a day, but it’s going to take intentionality, and it’s going to take the leadership at the highest levels really getting behind a cultural change.
Al: Wow. I can just imagine a meeting like. So you had a culture meeting about that. That’s a great story.
So, then, we got connected. And you surveyed your employees with our Survey, and you saw the benefit of measuring the strengths and needed improvements in your culture. And you exchanged all the errors of guesswork—
Ezra: Sure, sure.
Al: —up to that point, and even people using anecdotal information to point fingers at each other, as you described.
Ezra: Right, right.
Al: And then you got some real data to build on, to build trust upon. So you weren’t going to build your culture on shifting sands anymore, right? I mean—
Ezra: Sure. Simultaneous to beginning our participation in Best Christian Workplace Survey, we also followed—many listeners may have read The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. And we got connected with the Lencioni group and also established an executive leadership team and established some organizational clarity. And that was important because, again, if a healthy workplace is the absence of barriers to fulfilling your mission, right, and running after your vision, well, first of all, let’s articulate what’s the mission and vision. Let’s get clarity around that. And are we, as a leadership team, doing an effective job of communicating and over communicating that clarity? If we are, now parallel to that, let’s start to look at the health of our workplace and understand what the key barriers are to achieving that vision, to achieving that mission.
And what we realized very quickly as we established the executive leadership team is, look, there’s wisdom in a multitude of counsel. We’re all leaders in the ministry because, hopefully, we’re competent, we’re committed, we want to see Jewish Voice continue to become a healthier place to work. But because we occupy leadership positions, we were actually blind to some of what was happening at the employer, the more grassroots, level. And so as we began rolling out the Survey and receiving real feedback—both the numerical feedback, right, the checkboxes and the score system, but also, in a way, even more importantly, the free-form feedback, where people can just tell us what they think and leave it anonymous if they want—we started to see, oh, there’s some real issues here that we actually didn’t see, because at the leadership level, we, in a way, had the luxury of being somewhat insulated from those, right? If you’re the people who have all the information and call most of the shots, you aren’t exposed to the insecurities, the mistrust, the confusion, the competing priorities, the territorialism that’s happening below you. So it was really an eye-opening thing.
And just one more thing I’ll mention is I read years ago, I read Boundaries for Leaders by Cloud and Towns, and everybody knows the book Boundaries, right, the New York Times’ best seller. And the quote that stuck with me most, Al, was that he said, the author said, “The only thing happening under your leadership is what you create or what you allow.” And so as we began to receive the BCWI results in years one and two, we didn’t just say, “Well, that’s how the staff feel.” We said, “Anything we’re seeing here that we don’t like, we either created it or we’re allowing it to continue. So how do we uncreate the dysfunction or disallow it?” And putting those kind of paradigms together with the great data we received from the Survey really started us on a different trajectory.
Al: Yep. You’re exactly right. Leaders are the architects of their culture. Whether they are willing to admit it or not—
Al: —they are the ones that create it or allow it.
So, Jewish Voice Ministries is now, you’re in the top 10 percentile of all parachurch and mission organizations that we survey, so let me say congratulations.
Ezra: Thank you so much.
Al: Your latest Survey results reveal that your culture is flourishing like—this is April—daffodils in spring. Your organization improved in five of the top eight factors that drive workplace culture and employee engagement. From rewarding compensation to inspirational leadership to life-giving work, you made great improvements. So choose any of these drivers and tell us a story about what you did to strengthen and improve your culture in that area.
Ezra: Sure. One of the—actually, the way we communicated the areas where we wanted to grow and improve, Al, came about from some of the real honest feedback we received from the Survey. And one of our blind spots was that our staff told us—both in the numerical data about the trust or absence thereof, right, between top leadership and managerial and non-managerial employee levels, and also through the free-form responses—was we just don’t feel like you’re shooting us straight. And that’s a little bit of a paraphrase. But we all thought, at the executive level, “Hey, we’re great communicators. We wouldn’t be in these positions if we’re not fantastic communicators, right? We like the way we say things because it means something to us.” And what our staff reflected to us was, “We don’t really feel like you may be telling us the whole story. In fact, maybe you’re kind of putting rose-colored glasses on some things that we’d rather you just tell us.”
And Cary with BCWI, who gives us some great feedback in response to our Surveys every year, we said, “Do we really need to say everything to our staff? Do we owe it to every employee in the ministry to know everything?” And he said, “Well, of course not. But here’s the reality”—and this was the light-bulb moment for us, Al—Cary said, “Here’s the reality. People are going to talk at the water coolers, and they’re going to talk about what’s happening in the organization that’s of import. The question is, Do you want to be a part of those conversations, or do you want to be absent from them? Because if you choose to be absent because people don’t ‘need to know,’ the narrative is going to spin with or without you present. But if you choose to insert what you can tell people and communicate that as widely and as real time and as straight talk as you can, you’re going to have more of an opportunity to inform those dialogs and even to shape the narratives with what’s really true.” And so that was something that we really went after in terms of inspirational leadership. I’ll say that was one of our lowest-scoring areas for several years in a row, and the main reason, Al, boiled down to communication. We think we’re communicating. “Look, we’re sending you everything you need to know,” and the staff’s saying, “Why don’t you tell us what you can tell us?”
And so we really, one, acknowledged that head on in spring of 2020, with the results of our 2019 Survey, and said we’re going to actively pursue changing the way we communicate with you, more real time, more organic, maybe saying a little bit more than we have to so that you know the whys behind the whats and so you have an opportunity to say, “Well, have you thought about doing this differently?” really giving our staff at every level audience to say, “Hey, I’ve been here eight years. I’ve been here 10 years, and maybe you haven’t thought of this other option that could really benefit the ministry and creating a place for that.”
And in hindsight, Al, it was providential that we committed to our staff to communicate in that way, because right after we did, or I’ll say even as we were, COVID happened—
Ezra: —and we had to transition a significant portion of our staff in only a few weeks—I’m sure many listening can relate to this—to a work-from-home environment. And so we said, “Look, we already committed to communicate with our staff, but now we don’t get to see them in 3-D anymore. So we’re going to shift that communication to virtual.” And we just became very intentional about communicating not only the good news and the big wins, but also the challenges. We had to eliminate a medium-sized department at Jewish Voice last year. And in the past, we would have just sort of quietly done that and said, “Yes, that happened.” But we actually got on the horn with all of our staff in a virtual communication and said, “Look, the department didn’t meet the objectives of the ministry. We love the people involved, but we can’t continue to invest resources in something that’s not checking the boxes, not taking us where we need to go.” And we didn’t know how that would come across. The feedback, Al, that we got was tremendous, was tremendous. People said, “Thank you so much for telling us the why.” And so that’s just the path we’ve been on, to give you one example.
Al: I trust you’re enjoying our podcast today. We’ll be right back after an important word for leaders.
What’s the one thing we all have in common that impacts the success of our relationships as a person, as a team, as a family, and as an organization? And what’s the one thing, if removed, will destroy the most influential leader, fruitful organization, or great relationship? Well, that one thing is trust. And at the core of any flourishing culture or flourishing organization is high trust levels between employees and leaders. So to learn great steps to improve trust in your own organization and relationships, join us for our next webinar, Creating a Culture of Trust Between Leaders and Employees. That’ll be on May 19 at 1:00 Eastern and 10:00 Pacific.
And now, back to today’s special guest.
Yeah, communication is so important, and again, getting to the point where people don’t feel like you’re spinning the truth, just kind of say it as easily as you can, but to really get to the bottom.
Well, the Survey revealed that your organization was, as Cary would say, crazy strong in areas like sustainable strategy, healthy communication, fantastic teams, uplifting growth. Just great outcomes. So which of these proved to be the true game changer for your culture, would you say?
Ezra: Yeah. Just to round out the conversation on communication, I think inspiring leadership and healthy communication, in a way, even while they’re distinguished in the FLOURISH model on the Survey, are two sides of a similar coin. What can we tell our staff versus what they need to be told was a key for us. That was a real game changer, and our staff picked up on that immediately, as seen by the significant uptick in scores on the 2020 Survey over 2019.
Another thing was just people really feeling like they’re on a team, and it’s a fantastic one. As I mentioned, we transitioned 75 percent of our workforce in March and April of last year to a virtual set up, which continues to this day, as I’m sure is probably the case for most of our listeners, right? We all said, “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” and that was about 54 weeks ago now?
Al: Yeah, exactly.
Ezra: So, anyway, the saga continues. But some real intentional communication and team bonding. And I’m just so proud of our managers and directors, our department heads at Jewish Voice. They really took the bull by the horns. I mean, people are having lunches online in virtual team meetings now. They’re asking get-to-know-you questions at the beginning of their meetings. Hey, what’s happening in your family, and how is work from home for you? Is your dog barking uncontrollably? You know, how is it balancing family while working from the living room? And so we’ve actually seen people feel more a part of a team, believe it or not, as shown in the Survey, working remote than they ever did cloistered away in their closed-door offices here in our headquarters building before. So that’s interesting.
And then I think, and many are going to be able to relate to this, but sustainable strategy. We had already, as I mentioned at the beginning of the program, we have reached Jewish communities primarily through large-scale events where we offer humanitarian aid or medical care or similar. And we had been asking the questions, Al, for several years, What happens if a day comes when we can’t actually get out and do big, large scale? What happens if the methodology we depend upon is no longer a viable methodology? And then COVID, right. We can all say, “And then COVID.” And so that forced us, in light of the cancelation of our large-scale outreaches, to really take a step back last June, July, August in preparation for our 2021 planning and budgeting cycle, and say honestly, “One, what are we really here to do?” More on that in a moment. But “What are we really here to do, and why? And then, two, what’s a strategy for running towards that vision over the period of five, 10 years, which can endure a COVID shutdown or political turmoil or the inability to get on a plane and go to a particular country because you don’t yet have the vaccine, or whatever it is?” So we realized we need a sustainable strategy, not just big words about what we exist to do, but how can we do that in a way that can endure methodological changes? And we got clarity around that at the executive level, cascaded that to our directors who heard it and said, “Thank you so much for telling us. I’m going to plan my 2021 plan and budget around supporting the sustainable strategy you just articulated to us.” And so by the end of the year, as we saw in our Survey, we had 60-something staff people who were all aligned around this multiyear sustainable strategy. Not just, What are we doing this year?, but What are we doing in the next decade that’s going to move the needle in terms of seeing Jewish people and their neighbors come to faith?
Al: Wow. When you look at sustainable strategy on the FLOURISH model chart, just off to the right, more than others, just really remarkable. Yeah. Wow, that’s exciting.
You know, leaders, when they are part of a workplace transformation like you’ve experienced, well, they experience it themselves, and they’re part of it. And so how has your leadership, your engagement, or even faith been reshaped and transformed through this process?
Ezra: Yeah. And nothing’s happening under my leadership except what I’m creating or what I’ve created or what I’m allowing, right? And so that continues on a daily basis to be a healthy challenge for me. But I’m realizing that the only way I and we in leadership at Jewish Voice—and I’ll say to our listeners, and we in leadership in the ministries and organizations we serve at—the only way we can move the needle on culture is if, one, we’re creating margin in our already-overpacked, extremely busy schedules to actually lead rather than do. And that was some of the most helpful and cut-to-the-heart feedback I ever received from another major ministry leader, who I got to know and who was sort of mentoring me. And he said, “You know, Ezra, can I give you some feedback?” And I gripped the edge of my desk when he says that. And I go, “Sure, you can.” And he said, “I see you doing a lot more doing than leading.”
Ezra: Right? Nobody wants to hear that.
Ezra: But I took stock of it. Like, “Oh, he’s absolutely right.” And so part of moving the needle in terms of workplace culture is that leaders have to have margin to actually lead. And what we’re realizing more and more at Jewish Voice is it’s not just checking the boxes and making sure people are doing their jobs. Chances are if we’re pursuing excellence, which most, if not all, of us are, we hire people who can do their job. And if they can’t, they’re going to move on, either by their choice or ours. So it’s not leading people to make sure they’re getting done what needs to be done. It’s actually leading behavior and modeling character. And that’s what really moves the needle.
And we started this process actually about two years ago. We said goodbye to over 25 percent of our staff, Al, not because of a financial crisis—praise the Lord. It wasn’t that—but we realized, you know, there’s some people here, even some of our highest, most-productive top performers who are actually lean outers. And what we mean by that is they’re at best on the fence about what we really exist to do, and they’re here because it’s a great faith-based ministry in the Phoenix Valley to work at and collect a paycheck, and they’ll do their job. But they’re actually either knowingly or in more cases than not unknowingly chipping away by their words and their behavior at cultural health. And so we really took the step, and that was the hard part for us as leaders, right, because we all want to be liked. But what we realized is some of these people are not going to be happy with us, but it’s necessary to grow Jewish Voice’s culture and improve our health is we have to start saying goodbye to and disallowing even top-performing, many-years-of-experience leaders and employees who are chipping away at the health of the culture, because behavior matters sometimes more than just getting your job done. And so that’s been a real lesson for me, is two lessons: creating the margin to lead more than just do, from where I sit, and also no longer tolerating lean outers and behaviors that create silos or break down trust.
Al: Yeah. I like the those that chip away at your culture, culture chippers, or culture busters is another way to describe it, to have no tolerance for that. And it’s been said the most difficult people in your culture are your high performers that don’t match your values.
Al: So they’re the ones that damage your culture the most. Yeah. Exactly what you’re saying.
So the executive summary of your most recent Survey results lays out five specific recommendations that you could, even at the level you are at, to improve your culture. Share with us some of these suggestions and why you believe it can be a winner for your culture.
Ezra: Sure. To stand out, one, and again, Cary, our friend at BCWI, who reviews our data and our results with us every year, said, “Let me try to boil down for you a lot of this data into one statement that’s going to challenge you, but I think it’s important for you to hear.” He said this to our executive leadership team. He said, “You need to figure out how to demonstrate openness and humility.” And he said, “In other words, demonstrate the character of believers in Jesus to the people you’re leading.” And right, again, thank you, Cary, for your bluntness. And we all bristled and said, “Well, of course, I’m demonstrating the character of a believer. I am one, and I’m a leader.” But he said, “Well, your people aren’t necessarily feeling it.” And so we grew a long—we grew significantly, thankfully, I’m thrilled to report, in the trust level, the trust between—and we all know that question. I think it’s notoriously low amidst other questions on the Survey every year among almost all ministries participating—but there is a high level of trust between leadership and staff at Jewish Voice. We grew a lot, but there’s still room to grow. And Cary said putting that together, kind of amalgamating that with your staff’s other feedback to you, what you really need to grow in is demonstrated openness and humility. So, easier said than done, but we really are going after that in 2021, not just what can we share, but how do we behave—it’s back to the behavior thing—how do we behave in a way that builds trust.
And then the second thing was that—speaking very candidly here, but maybe some listening can relate—we grew a lot in the trust between our non-managerial employees and our top-level leadership. Where we didn’t grow as much as we would have liked and still have a lot of room to improve is the trust between our management-director level, some might call it the middle-management level or the department leadership, and our executive team. So that’s something through focus groups, through honest dialog, through raising that issue to our managers and directors, really going after, because those are the individuals who are cascading the clarity and shaping the morale of their own teams. So if we think we’re doing great but our directors disagree, you’re still going to have a cultural block.
Well, Ezra, who else is going to say to you that as a leadership team that you could improve on your Christian character—
Ezra: Right, exactly.
Al: —and demonstrate that because your employees aren’t feeling it? Yeah.
Al: Yeah. Yeah. But what important feedback it is, and I give you a lot of credit. That’s the hardest feedback I can tell you for us to give any leadership team in a Christian ministry.
Ezra: Of course, of course.
Al: So, here we are in April, as you were mentioning, like, 54 weeks after we shut down for two weeks to bend the curve.
Ezra: Right. Right, exactly.
Al: So, we’ve got some light shining here at the end of the COVID tunnel.
Al: What would be one of the encouragement or challenges that you’d like to say to your fellow Christian leaders who are listening, pastors, heads of Christian-led companies? What encouragement do you have for them?
Ezra: I think from our own experience in really wrestling with this through a large part of 2020, my encouragement and really my exhortation for all of us leading faith-based ministries and organizations is to get back to the basics. Now, let me un-cliché that and unpack it a little bit. What I mean by that is the wheres, the whens, and the hows of what we’re all doing in our respective arenas of ministry are in a way that shifting sand. No matter how dependable they seemed before COVID and everything that happened last year, they’re shifting sand. And so if our confidence is only in our methodology, I think we’ve lost something. But I really feel like there’s an invitation from the Lord in this season in our leadership to really come back to the what and the why. What do we exist to do? Why did this ministry, why did this organization, why did this church or congregation get planted in the first place? To what end do we exist? And why? Really getting crystal clarity, either maybe establishing it for the first time in a specific way or reestablishing it where it’s been swallowed up in the hows and wheres and whens and really getting clarity there. There’s a real invitation in this kind of worldwide selah, if you will, this meditative pause that somehow we’ve all been afforded, like it or not. And so I think my encouragement is let’s view this season as we kind of look at coming back to normalcy or new normalcy towards the end of this year, Al, as well as a strangely wrapped gift. And the gift is we have the time and the room and this holy pause to get back to the true why and what, and let those things drive us. And if we can get that clarity for ourselves as leaders and then anchor our team, our leadership team, and those under them around that clarity, we can run into the next season looking for opportunities rather than bemoaning lost opportunities.
Al: That’s great advice, yeah. To come back to the what and why and to look at this time not as a problem but as a gift.
Al: I love those words. Yeah.
Well, Ezra, I’ve really enjoyed everything that we’ve learned. And I’m just looking back at my notes and how it all started with a culture meeting—
Ezra: Yeah, exactly.
Al: —at Jewish Voice. It was a culture meeting.
Ezra: A tense one, at that.
Al: And it wasn’t Christian nice in that room, is what it sounds like—
Al: —with finger pointing and all that. But then you really started to look into it. You started reading things like The Advantage and some of the Towns and material and great things. You realized, then, as you took the Engagement Survey, hey, there’s some blind spots that we’ve got, and let’s work on those. And how COVID really has been a blessing to you in many ways in terms of growing your culture, and particularly as you’ve really focused on the what and the why, the sustainable strategy.
Al: But, yeah. I really appreciate what you’ve reflected just about your own leadership. And I think, I mean, it just touched me, as you were saying, hey, are we giving time to leadership, or are we just doing?
Al: Are we focused on doing? And how we need to model the character that we need, to have the time to lead others. That’s the definition of leadership in a way. So—
Ezra: That’s right.
Al: That’s right. And then, you know, the lean outers, or the culture chippers or the culture busters. They have no place in an organization. And the strength—I know it’s the strength of will and character to have those hard conversations. So—
Al: —it does have just a tremendous result in an organization. So, yeah, that’s just—what a great conversation. Thanks, Ezra.
How about—what else would you like to add?
Ezra: I read this book also by Pat Lencioni—you can see kind of our mentorship as a ministry, as an organization, here in terms of our own thinking on leadership and in healthy culture, as well as the great feedback we received from BCWI on such a regular basis, and from our staff, of course. But I’m reflecting lately in my own leadership and in our leadership here that leaders have to be willing to overcommunicate clarity again and again. Even when we think something’s clear because it’s clear to us, it may not be clear to those we are leading. And so the willingness to kind of go out on that awkward limb and say, you know what, I know you’ve heard this before, but I just feel compelled to tell you again and again and again why we’re doing what we’re doing here at this ministry, at this organization, at this church, because there’s spiritual warfare, there’s cultural resistance, there’s world economic and political turmoil. There’s so many things that are going to come against what we’re doing that we need to overcommunicate that clarity over and over.
And then on an even more difficult note, perhaps, our own willingness to have difficult and awkward conversations. And a lot of leadership experts say, look, if you really want to boil it down, if you’re not willing, with the people you’re leading, to have difficult and awkward conversations for their growth and for the betterment of the organization you’re leading, then you shouldn’t even be a leader. And that’s like, oh, ouch. Right? And, Al, I think you were looking for me to say something encouraging and maybe people are going, “Well, that’s a real downer. That’s a real buzzkill.” But it’s true, isn’t it.
Al: Yeah, it is.
Ezra: We have to care enough about fulfilling what we’re called to do, to be willing to have hard conversations so that everybody can grow and so we can grow.
Al: Yeah. And difficult and awkward conversations because they never go smoothly, really.
Ezra: Exactly, exactly.
Al: I mean, there’s no way for it to come out smoothly, yeah.
Al: And I love your communicate clarity. I have a mentor who describes communication as like communicating to a parade. And when you’ve got a parade, there’s people joining the parade and leaving the parade at different parts.
Al: And when they start the parade, they don’t always remember kind of what they started out to do because of all that happens in the middle of the parade. So continuously communicating clarity.
Al: Yeah, that’s great.
How about, then, Ezra, I know you’ve probably got one final thought.
Ezra: Sure. Again, the idea of the strangely wrapped gift. And what I really feel like in my own growing as a leader, but also just personal devotional time, I really feel like the Lord’s just highlighting don’t miss what I’m trying to do in this season. And the idea, right, I think most of us, if not all of us, listening on the podcast today would agree God is on His throne, right? He’s omnipotent. He’s omniscient. He was not surprised by COVID. He was not surprised by a tumultuous political season. He is not surprised by the unprecedented division we seem to see in the United States, and the Gospel hostility that we’re seeing in so many parts of the world, the increase in militants among those of other faiths. The Lord is not surprised by any of this.
So if that’s true, then we need to be asking Him, “What is it that You want me to take out of this season, however long the season’s going to last?” the next several weeks, the next several months. Maybe there’s something we don’t see coming yet, just like we didn’t see COVID coming, and it’ll be a few more years. We don’t know. “But what is it, Lord, that You want me to take out of this season that’s going to make me and the ministry that I’m leading or helping to lead more enduringly fruitful?” because when we face Him one day, we don’t get to say, “Lord, I know you called me to x, but remember COVID or but remember the shutdown or but remember that I couldn’t go to this country and do that thing. He’s coming to the tree of our lives, looking for that fruit. He’s coming to the tree of our ministries, looking for that fruit. And so I just want to encourage all of us to be asking in this season, What is it that You want to develop in me and my organization that will make us more enduringly fruitful in spite of the circumstances around us?
Al: Amen, amen. Ezra Benjamin, vice president of global ministry affairs for Jewish Voice Ministries, thanks for taking your time out today and speaking into the lives of so many leaders. Thanks for being so open and vulnerable in your conversations, and thanks for your encouragement to communicate clarity and to have even difficult and awkward conversations, to be the one whose own behaviors, as we recognize, is influencing the cultures that we’re creating and allowing. So thanks for so much.
Ezra: My pleasure. It was an honor to be with you today, Al.
Al: Yeah, thanks.
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