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Tim McDermott “Learning from The Past”

Sometimes you have to look back to move forward

I was at my mom’s house last summer getting a glass out of the cabinet.  As my habit was, I got the glass, rinsed it out with water and then went to the refrigerator to put some milk in it.   My mom spoke up and said “Yes, you need to do that.  I never know how clean the glasses are when I wash them by hand.”  My wife Trudy looked at me and said, “Now I understand why you do that at home.”  For all of our married life, I have done something and never knew why.  It was part of my history and with technology (in this case a dishwasher), it was no longer necessary.  Knowing the why’s of the past, help you understand an old habit, so you can make a change that makes more sense going forward. 


Every ministry has a beginning.  A reason why it was raised up.  If it’s a Christian organization, then there’s a God reason there.  Do you know the reason why the place you work began?  Do you know the original mission?   One of the first things I did when I first started as CEO of KSBJ was go back to the archives and read the original board minutes. I learned that the station was about one thing – unity.  There was already a CCM station in the Houston market when KSBJ started, but this place was to be different. It would be a place where people from all backgrounds and denominations would come together.  Unity had a cost, but this ministry was about paying that price.  I had a unique opportunity and that was to actually talk to the founders of the ministry.  Buddy Holiday was one who still worked at the station when I started and Robert Gonzales was another.  I learned and understood so much about the DNA of the original ministry.


Whenever we talk about history, a wall often comes up.  People want to move forward and not live in the past.  “It’s time for new ideas – not old ones,” they say.  The idea of Founder’s Syndrome comes up.  This is a term used to talk about people  who either started an organization or have been there “too long” and aren’t keeping up with change and are resistant to it.    Unfortunately, those who don’t know history often repeat its mistakes.  I have seen this happen at many ministries. 


So how do you balance this?  Here are my recommendations.


– Look at your organizations history – but go deeper. Some people capture their history through a timeline of significant moments.  But don’t stop there.  Know the why’s of your organizations successes and failures.  Are there any common links?  I know of one ministry that did this.  Every one of their failures had a common theme – they were all commercial enterprises.  And they were all disasters.  That’s not who they were.   Sometimes you have to look back to go forward.

– Discover the original mission of your organization. Has it changed?  What prompted the change?  Mission drift is not good for organizations.  Organizations that keep changing their missions usually don’t grow.  Most people want to want work at a place now that has purpose.  What was the original purpose?  If you need to, make an adjustment to get back to what God originally called you to do.

– If the reason you are doing something is because “it was done that way last year” or “we have always done in that way,” it’s time to question it.  Are you doing something now because the research said 17 years ago it was what to do?  Research has a short shelf life.  Researchers have told me 3-5 years is about the max for how useful the findings are (of course they want to sell you more research).   Before you keep doing something, make sure it is still effective and the best way to handle it.  I am not saying everything has to be new every year, but if you don’t know why you are doing it and how it’s impacting the organization or your audience, then it’s time to ask those questions – even of things that may be the boss’ pet project.

– Have a culture of honor. Every new employee and everyone who has left the ministry should be honored.  One of the biggest joys I had while I was at KSBJ was when we brought together all the board chairs and board members we could think of from the past and we honored them.  We told stories about them and gave them gifts to thank them for what they had done.  Were any of them ones that – let’s say – we would rather not come?  Yes, there were. But we invited them anyway and honored them.  It’s the right thing to do.  When you honor your past, you are planting seeds to grow your future. 

With 40 years of broadcast leadership experience, Tim consults CEOs and broadcast leaders.  He can be reached at Tim@TimMcDermottConsulting.com

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