June 26, 2018

Overmaking Decisions

This is part 3 in a short series of posts about St. Mary’s Church in Los Angeles and our recent adventures as one of the first “safe parking” sites in the city. We designate ten spaces each night for neighbors who live in their vehicles and a partner organization organizes the logistics – security, sanitation, case management and so on. Here’s an article about how it works.

Three months into St. Mary’s commitment to the Safe Parking project, I have a few observations.

One is that it is going well. None of the big problems that people imagine have come to pass. Our vehicle-dwelling neighbors report sleeping better and seem to coexist peacefully and happily with the many other folks who overlap with them at church, including lots of programs for kids and families.

Another is that the concept is very popular. There are lots of people in lots of congregations that think it’s a great idea. There are people working really hard to get the idea through their congregational decision making processes. But so far no other congregation in greater Los Angeles has actually gotten to the starting line. Besides St. Mary’s the other lots run by Safe Parking LA are all on public land.

So what’s up with the places that say they want to do it, but haven’t gotten started? I suspect they are “over-making” their decisions.

St. Mary’s has worked really hard at “right-sizing” its decisions. These principles have helped us:

  • We gather information in proportion to the potential impact of the decision we are making. We don’t get three bids for a $200 repair project or spend an entire vestry meeting debating the relative merits of refrigerator brands. With safe parking, we met several times with the key players in the organization we would be partnering with and asked lots of questions. We participated in their process of designing and setting up the project. We found out what had happened in other places that had tried models of safe parking. We asked around among our trusted partners in the nonprofit and government worlds to make sure that the Safe Parking LA organization looked trustworthy.
  • We look at how easily reversible the decision is. With Safe Parking, this was a particularly important factor. We could stop the program at any time if it wasn’t working. Something like tearing down a building or signing a 10-year lease is a much less reversible decision.
  • We make sure we get feedback from people who will be directly impacted by changes in routine or procedure or use of space. People hate surprises. They also know things about what goes on in particular spaces at particular times. We decided to start safe parking at 10pm on Fridays instead of the 6pm start time we use on other days because it turned out people have really been struggling with parking issues on Fridays. We are also taking other steps to see how we can improve communication and organization on Friday nights.
  • We don’t give general veto power to the congregation. The Vestry is elected to make important decisions on behalf of the congregation. There was no way to bring non-Vestry members along on every step of the information gathering and deliberation process. If people wanted to be involved at that level of detail they could have run for Vestry. We’re almost always actively recruiting at Vestry election time. Our meetings are also open to visitors. People who don’t come to Vestry meetings got a couple of newsletter articles about the Vestry’s deliberations and a chance to meet and question the partner organization once the decision to go forward had been made, but before the program started.
  • We prioritize concrete feedback. If someone sees people using drugs in our parking lot (and let’s face it, we’re an urban church; drug use on the lot was not unknown long before Safe Parking every came onto our horizon), we’re happy to get that feedback and see what we can do to make things safer. If someone is just worried that safe parking might bring drug use because they have heard that homeless people often struggle with addiction, we offer some information about the rules of the program and how they are implemented and ask to hear back if someone actually notices something that seems off. We don’t spend a Vestry meeting talking about how to prevent problems that show no signs of actually happening.
  • We expect some bumps. The safe parking roll-out has been remarkably smooth. But bumps are inevitable; they are not usually a sign that we made the wrong decision to begin with. Neither the first port-a-potty company nor the first security company were able to go the distance with our safe parking project and meet expectations for quality of service. With the expectation of bumps in the road, we have been able to problem-solve without panicking. Panicking is so rarely helpful. Problem-solving, on the other hand, builds our teamwork, our relationships and our resilience. It’s good for us!

How does your Vestry or board “right-size” its decisions?

What helps you decide how much information to gather, what kind of input to solicit and which voices to prioritize in receiving feedback?

Do you usually “over-make” or “under-make” decisions?

Would people be more likely to criticize your congregation for rushing into things or for not making much happen?