Crucify the “Come to Jesus” Meeting

As a leader or one of the flock, it’s likely that at some point in your career, you’ve led, participated in or heard of the proverbial “Come to Jesus” meeting.

If so, you know this meeting is not one full of “amens!”…in fact, it’s hell.

The use of the term “Come to Jesus” has its roots in the Christian revivalist tradition, but its use in business and political contexts occurred in 1983.

The Random House Maven’s Word of the Day further explained the term’s roots: “Numerous charismatic preachers traveled the country, ‘saving’ people as they went.  These evangelists exhorted people at camp meetings to ‘come to Jesus’ in language that was charged with emotion, vividly evoking the damnation that would come if a sinner did not repent. Coming to the altar—coming to Jesus—involved walking through the crowd to the front, thus admitting your unworthiness and need for salvation publicly. The first ‘come to Jesus’ meetings were camp meetings where you met your Redeemer face to face–with no priest to cushion the blow of the realization that your sins were making Him go on suffering, no saints to intercede on your behalf.”

Business leaders, inspired by the potential of a transformational experience that would lead an employee, team or company to change to their values, belief system and immediate course of action, adopted not only the term, but also the tactics.

And we’re all worse off for it.  Why?

It’s not leadership.  It’s coercion.

I’m confessing: I’ve not only been the target of conversion, but also the leader of such meetings.  I have not only helped leaders plan them, but also helped participants sort out their devastating effects.

“Come to Jesus” meetings are usually reserved for those whose tactical contributions are strong for the company, but whose core values or behavior is misaligned.  (If the tactical contributions of the employee weren’t strong and their core values were totally out of alignment, a leader can make an easy case for letting him or her go.)

After surveying the results of these meetings over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a meeting that has no place in business and should remain a firmly a religious rite.

There are key differences between the religious and business “Come to Jesus” meetings that have an impact on their effectiveness and appropriateness:

  • Business leaders who plan “Come to Jesus” meetings are not positively inspired, as religious leaders are.  They’re exasperated and have run out of patience or tools.
  • Participants who attend religious “Come to Jesus” meetings are there voluntarily rather than by edict.
  • Though pressure in either meeting is very intense, those in the revival tent can walk away without converting.  Not so for the employee.
  • Excommunication for the wayward employee should they not see the light (and in many cases, even if they do) is more likely short-term outcome than a full conversion.
  • Trust is usually built in a religious “Come to Jesus” meeting.  In a business setting, any trust that remained between leader and employee prior to the meeting is usually destroyed as a result.

The differences between religious and business “Come to Jesus” meetings do have one strong commonality: a lack of alignment of core values between the organization and the individual.  Religious leaders are much more apt to be successful in changing followers’ core values than are executives.

This is what makes these meetings so tough. It’s hard to coercively change an employee’s values, especially when they are in conflict with the organization’s.

Leaders who have arrived at the point of calling a “Come to Jesus” meeting have hit their own personal threshold of patience for a lack of organizational or employee performance.

Prior to using the “Come to Jesus” meeting as a tactic, the question each leader should ask him/herself is “have I done everything possible to change the mind(s) of those who aren’t following?”

Steve Denning, Leadership columnist for Forbes Magazine, wisely pointed out that executives have three buckets of tools at their disposal to change minds:

  1. Inspiration – tools of leadership
  2. Information – tools of management
  3. Intimidation – tools of power

A mistake that leaders often make is to revert to tools of power too quickly because they are much faster and easier to implement (I’m more powerful than you, listen to me, dammit) than tools of leadership and management (I value you as a teammate, let’s figure out how to work together, OK?).

To cultivate a culture of performance and not lay the seeds for one of fear, leaders should use every tool possible before calling a “Come to Jesus” meeting.

And then they shouldn’t.

If none of the tools have worked, they should exit the employee gracefully.

It’s far better to sacrifice the good tactical performance of an employee that has misaligned values and find someone who has both than allow the culture to become negatively affected by your use of coercion.

Can I get a hallelujah?

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