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Friday, October 13, 2017

From Minister to Project Manager (Part 2)

[Read Part 1 Here]

When I was asked about my ministry experience during the team interview for my first startup job, I didn’t miss a beat. The question was straightforward: “How do you feel your mission experience might help you at this job?” It was fair to ask, given that at that point the only roles since my time in ministry work were English teaching, office assistant in a law office, and enterprise customer service at AT&T. I told them that I knew how to organize work, projects and people. Further, I was accustomed to handling my own area and working independently, so I didn’t require a lot of supervision. In other words, I was a self-starter committed to seeing people succeed individually and in teams. It may sound like fluff, but it’s true and I stand by it.

There is something truly pastoral about project management, as it involves ‘shepherding’ a project through to completion, as well as taking care of the team that does the work. I wonder if perhaps much of the suspicion and even outright animosity that developers hold towards project managers can be boiled down a few professionals more focused on the project timeline and milestones than on the people and the work itself. Developers are artisans as well as (when at their best) engineers. What they need are people who can remove impediments to efforts and give them room and conditions to flourish.

That brings me to Agile.

While working as a web producer at that startup mentioned above I started to hear about ‘agile’ and ‘scrum.’ Asking around, one of the developers loaned me a copy of ‘Agile Software Development with Scrum.’ I had minimal project management experience at the time, but this was love at first sight. Talk of removing impediments and promoting self-organization of dev teams won me over.
In the following years I went on to learn to guide projects both through Waterfall and Agile processes, but what always prevailed was a team-centric, product-focused outlook. To me, my professional work as a project manager / scrum manager is somewhat of a representation of my ministerial background.

An additional angle to the relationship specifically between ministry and scrum is the existence of ‘ceremonies.’ Clergy are responsible for guiding people through ceremonies that mark significant moments in life, such as birth, coming of age, marriage and death. In a smaller and yet still significant way, the routine ceremonies of scrum (planning, daily stand-up, review/demo and retrospective) help the team understand and feel connected to the work. Ceremonies are a natural part of the human experience, and scrum makes good use of that reality.

For years after quitting full-time ministry I was very negative about having gotten an undergraduate degree in theological studies. Then a coworker — who happened to be an atheist — strongly disagreed with me and got me to see things differently. He told me that my Bachelor’s had helped me learn to think, and that ministry isn’t a bad thing at all if seen in terms of working to help others. Further, in the NYC tech scene it hardly matters what your major was, so long as you have a degree and can get the job done right.

As I said in a prior post, I’m no theologian. However, in the sense that I seek to help groups of people achieve goals and constantly do better, I suppose I’m still in ministry.