Every ministry has its mavericks. The maverick is the rebel within the system who thinks and acts radically different from everyone else but still doesn’t leave. In ranching terms, the maverick is the unbranded calf that regularly separates from the herd and doesn’t easily return to the fold but also doesn’t run off for good.
When we meet a maverick, our initial thought is to ask, “Why are you still here?” A maverick’s presence is disruptive. Yet, in the midst of their frustrating behavior we can’t help but sense their profound loyalty to the community and potential for good.
Hopefully we all know a maverick or two. They are the people who simultaneously succeed at keeping us honest and driving us crazy. The very ideas and enthusiasm that make us sometimes wish they would just go away endear them closer to our hearts. After all, they seem to care more profoundly than those who gladly go with the flow. Their passion bears witness to a deep conviction and desire to be a part of something meaningful. They aren’t afraid to call out hypocrisy and apathy. And they aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get to work when a good idea hits the table. They are the community destabilizers. They can also be the community mobilizers (if you can convince others to follow).
Because of their tendencies to disrupt and offend the status quo, mavericks rarely make good long-term leaders. However, when given a specific task with the right supporting team, mavericks will get things done! Good leaders must learn how to manage mavericks.
In one ministry setting, I knew a maverick whose primary frustration with the community was their apparent unwillingness to work. While everyone else often gathered in planning meeting after planning meeting, this maverick forged ahead, hammer in hand, ready to build. In another setting, I knew a maverick whose primary frustration with his community lay with that community’s seemingly limited sense of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. While everyone else talked about the Spirit, he knew the Spirit and disrupted the system with language, practices, and theology that challenged how the majority of congregants understood their relationship with the Spirit.
In both cases the maverick played in important role in shaping my leadership style in those unique contexts. While on one hand the mavericks were polarizing figures in their communities – either loved or hated – on the other hand they offered for me barometric readings of our environment that others were simply incapable of seeing or feeling. Their sensitivity and reactivity were a constant voice of conscience that I couldn’t ignore. Although their feelings and perspectives were right, they needed guidance in order to constructively change the system with which they were frustrated.
To borrow a metaphor from entrepreneur guru Seth Godin, while everyone else is trying to get all their ducks in a row, the maverick is saying “Look, I have a duck! Lets do something with it!”
Question Their Motives
Before making the time and attention investment that will be necessary to manage the maverick in your ministry, first discern the heart behind their energy. Discovering what values or goals motivate them will help you to keep them focused and will help limit distractions. If their motives are good, then you have a focal point to regularly direct their attention toward. If their motives are off – selfish, petty, misinformed, etc. – then you’ll know right away that their energy won’t bear healthy fruit. If your maverick is more interested in complaining than discovering a redemptive solution, they are going to be a drain on your ministry. However, if you can point a maverick, with laser beam focus, toward an important goal they will get it done.
Evaluate Their Strengths
There is a difference between having an opinion about something and having the right gifts and strengths to do something positive about it. Take stock of the maverick’s strengths and determine if the particular project or goal is suited to their gifts. If it isn’t, you will either need to surround them with others who are appropriately gifted or redirect their efforts toward areas where they can make a positive impact.
Assess the Risk
The challenge of leading with mavericks in the mix is that their influence must be limited and focused in order to be constructive. Because their natural inclination is to disrupt, a leader must be very clear about the china shops in which these bulls may be loosed. This also means asking “Who is going to clean this up?” and “Who will be most upset when it’s changed?” When we knowingly place these personalities on a leadership team we’re saying, “We want this person to shake things up, press the limits, explore new possibilities, and challenge what’s comfortable.” This involves risk. Others may be offended or marginalized; you have to assume this risk in order to engage the maverick in meaningful work.
Separate the Wheat from the Chaff – Scale and Perspective
I once worked with a maverick who had a “brilliant” fundraising idea. He suggested we take our teenage boys from the youth group out into the woods, let them operate chainsaws to cut down trees, and sell the firewood as a fundraiser. Rather than respond by saying, “What! Are you crazy!” I said, “Yes, we should definitely work together to plan a fundraiser for our youth.” Inside of every crazy idea, if the motive is pure (see #1), is the kernel of a good idea. Rather than telling a maverick “no,” validate the heart of their suggestion and help them scale that back into perspective. Often, with a little perspective, you can land on an idea that both you and the maverick are excited about. Hopefully, this sweet spot will limit them and stretch you at the same time.
Tell Them the Truth
Mavericks will tell you exactly what they’re thinking, and they expect the same from you. Tell them the truth and speak directly. They have a very sensitive ‘BS’ meter, so save the fluff and passive aggressive approach—just tell it like it is. They will respect your conviction and honesty. This is often difficult in our ministry world because we want everyone to feel good after a conversation. Mavericks aren’t interested in warm and fuzzy feelings. They want to hear the truth.
Throw Them a Curve Ball
Once you’ve identified these individuals in your ministry and assessed their motives and strengths you can be proactive in putting them to work before they go looking for trouble. This is when things really get interesting. Rather than wait around for them to get bored and frustrated, scout out one or two of the leading edges of your ministry that haven’t been explored and task the mavericks with a specific development goal. They’ll appreciate the project and value your trust in them.
A real Jedi move is when you can out-crazy a crazy. Every now and then, even grounded leaders have bodacious ideas; we’re just not crazy enough to act on them. But mavericks are! Surprising these folks by letting them into your crazy moments will build trust and credibility—it may even unleash more of the maverick inside of you.
More of the Maverick
From a maverick’s perspective, the worst thing to do is nothing at all. In most cases, they would rather try and fail spectacularly than never try. “At least we did something,” they’ll say. We all need a little bit of this enthusiastic determination to do good, meaningful work. Too often we confuse what is “right” with what is easy or familiar. The mavericks in our midst will keep us honest and keep us moving forward—embrace them, build trust, set a clear goal, surround them with a good team, tell them the truth, and put them to work. Which china shops in your ministry are begging for the right bull?