As Christian organizations, we often assume that our mission is so clear and compelling that employees will flock to be a part of the “Lord’s work” that we are advancing. We do indeed often have an advantage in attracting employees because they genuinely feel called and resonate deeply with our missions. However, many of us have seen that initial spark of excitement and anticipation darken and wane over time until we find that an employee is no longer performing with passion or excellence…or worse, that a once passionate employee has moved on to more compelling pastures. This loss of engagement is costly and can deeply affect the morale and culture of our organizations.
The challenge of engaging employees is something that we cannot afford to ignore. All businesses large or small, for profit or nonprofit, ministry or secular, recognize the importance of attracting and retaining the best talent. Having the right people on the bus and in the right seats, according to Jim Collins’ Good to Great (HarperBusiness, 2011), can make the difference between success and failure.
If we wish to increase the impact of our organizations, it is imperative that we leverage the work of each employee as they run our programs, interact with our stakeholders and take the mission to the world in their various roles. Executive management can lay out an inspirational mission and vision, and then create strategies to move the organization into the future, but without the dedicated workforce to execute in a focused way, the organization will flounder and fail. If we suffer from apathy and high turnover, costing our organizations valuable time and money, movement toward our vision is stagnated.
We recognize the importance, so why are we not doing a better job of engaging our employees and maintaining that engagement? Surprisingly, employee engagement in nonprofits has been measured by some surveys as even lower than that of for-profit businesses. This is shocking, given the long held view that nonprofit work environments are “more laid back” and that the mission of a nonprofit to benefit society versus just lining the pockets of executives and shareholders is compelling to many employees.
A report “Engaging Nonprofit Employees” published by Quantum Workplace had this surprising finding: “In 2015, only 58 percent of nonprofit employees were engaged, as compared to 65 percent average across all industries. Subpar engagement means employees are less likely to put forth extra effort, preach organization love, or (here’s the real grabber) stay employed in their current roles.”
What is an engaged employee?
The concept of employee engagement is hardly a new, its’ genesis can be traced back to the work of William Kahn in 1990. Kahn theorized that that each worker would be more productive if they could “bring” a part of themselves to their work roles. That is, if their work was reflective of their passion, interest and giftedness, it would be more satisfying. However the definition has has changed and morphed over the years from the simple concept proposed by Kahn, focused on the individual, to one encompassing the how the employee relates to the organization. One more recent definition of an engaged employee from Wikipedia is: an employee who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so takes positive action or goes above and beyond to further the organization's reputation and interests.
What will help employees engage at higher levels?
Research has shown that employees are compelled to new levels of engagement by initiatives that emphasize alignment, belonging and growth. They desire to feel that the organizations values and goals align with theirs and that they can genuinely contribute. They perform better if they feel secure, that they belong and that they can trust those they work with and work for. Additionally, they want support from the organization to grow and develop.
In pursuing initiatives to address these employee needs, we do have the advantage of some insights that have been gained by almost thirty years of fits and starts in employee engagement efforts. Some key success factors have emerged. To see a genuine, sustained increase in employee engagement, we must:
1. Make employee engagement a strategic priority – not an HR “program of the month”
Efforts must be embraced by senior executives, managers and supervisors at all levels of the organization and built into the fabric of or cultures.
2. Keep the mission, the kingdom work of your organization, fresh and real to every employee
Think of creative ways to inspire and involve even back-office employees in what the front line employees may see every day. Protect those on the front line and those going above and beyond from disillusionment and burn out.
3. Help Employees see how their job matters and how it connects to the mission
4. Build Trust
Share organizational aspirations, ups, downs and progress with employees. Listen to them.
5. Create a great place to work…considering employee needs
Emphasize community, mentorship and employee development. The obvious care on the part of the organization for the employee’s “whole-self” build loyalty and resiliency.
I sincerely believe that as Christian organizations we are uniquely equipped by the Lord to build employee engagement in powerful and sustainable ways. We are like-minded communities of faith. This fosters genuine relationships. We appreciate the biblical imperative of community and service. We understand true mission and what it means to be called to use the varied gifts that God has given in his grace to work toward common goals. Every employee deserves to truly feel joy and worth in their work and every ministry’s mission impact will increase if they do!
Debra Kellar (Debbie) is Vice President of Finance and Campus Operations at Denver Seminary overseeing the areas of human resources, finance, facilities, IT and risk management. She has joyfully served the seminary community for the past 17 years. Debbie holds an MBA from the University of Kansas and a B.A. in accounting from New Mexico State University. She is also a Certified Public Accountant. Before coming to the Seminary, Debbie cultivated years of business experience with nonprofits, corporations and in public accounting.