Pink Elephants, Anyone? (Rule #9)

elephantDo you remember sitting in a movie theater (or maybe in front of a TV), watching Disney’s “Fantasia?” To a rather klutzy little girl, those dancing elephants in their girly tu-tus gave me hope that the strangest things might actually be possible.

Years later, pink elephants–and the proverbial “elephants in the room” still give me hope that the impossible might be possible.

Do you have any pink elephants in the room–or office or rectory or chancery? You know what I mean. The issues that everyone talks about in the break room or parking lot, by email or text, but no one wants to bring up at the staff meeting, with the boss, or when anyone else is around.

We tiptoe around them like the Fantasia pink elephants en pointe. We try to dress them up in the hopes that anxiety, pain, and tension surrounding the issue might dazzle us enough that we can skate around them without ever having to deal with them.

How wrong can we possibly be?!

When I taught in a Catholic high school, one of the concerns that I had is that we approached participation in Mass the wrong way. Mass was required for all students. It took place in the gym where the girls sat on the bleachers, hovered over by teachers and administrators. The clearest value was obedience. Which squelched any desire to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.

For three years, while we danced around the subject in department meetings, we indulged in long-winded, exasperating conversations over coffee in small groups of those who held the same opinion.

And as you might guess, nothing changed except that I got more frustrated, anxious, and even angry. I felt so powerless to make any change and every potential encounter seemed like a confrontation.

Hmmm . . . Yes, that’s exactly what happens when we choose to avoid discussing pink elephants.

We knew that discipline was a key issue, but the underlying point we focused on was the value behind it, behind the school’s mission, behind what it meant to be Christ’s people gathered around the Eucharistic table.

Because the school was Catholic, right? And with the word “Resurrection” in our name, didn’t we have an obligation to teach as Jesus did, inviting his followers to the table, to share in the Bread of Life, to be satisfied with His saving Word?

When we started talking about that, the values that we held in common, powerlessness and confrontation slipped away. And the issues of discipline and obedience became logistical details that we had to plan for–which we did. In the end, the administration agreed with us, and let us make the changes we suggested. All-school Masses became optional with certain rooms designated as quiet study AND we would offer weekly Mass in the chapel.

Did it all go smoothly? No. Change never does. But we engaged everyone in the process. We talked to teachers about the best ways to manage those who did not choose to attend. We asked the students to invite their favorite parish priests to work with us, and we formed an “anyone can sing” choir specifically for these Masses.

In the end, it was a major success. All because we took a chance and discussed the undiscussable.

What’s your pink elephant, and how are you going to address it?

Who Will Reap the Harvest?

harvestChange, change, change, change, change.

It’s a key driver in this year’s elections. And the one challenge put before most of us as leaders at some point in time.

As much as we want to be the one out front, leading the way from what was to what will be, the reality is, in most cases, we only sow seeds.

Great leaders know this. They know that most of what they try to accomplish will only be evident years after they leave their position. Politicians take advantage of this sometimes, highlighting the changes that happen during their years in office when, in fact, their predecessor’s decisions were often the ones that forged the current path.

The truth is, the harvest is for others to reap.

Ministry with teens is one of the best examples of this. As I look back at my years of teaching in an all-girls’ Catholic high school and subsequently as a volunteer in my parish’s youth ministry program, we adults knew that we had four years–and in some cases, fewer–to sow the seeds of faith, hope, and love (ah, yes, the theological virtues!) in the hopes that there would be a harvest.

As each graduating class of seniors departed, there was an internal tug-of-war–what more can we do to keep them connected versus just letting them go free in the hope that the seeds would take root and they would find a “home” in their faith and the Church.

Social media has been the greatest friend to this “sower.” With it, I have been able to follow the lives of our “kids” (many of whom now have their own kids). And I’ve been able to share in their joys and sorrows, and watch how the seeds we planted have fared.

Some fell on rocky ground. Some fell among weeds. But some fell on good soil, took root, and have grown and flourished.

So, in a society that seems to grow more impatient and a culture that demands immediate gratification, what are we to do? Remember and practice the theological virtues so that we may teach them in both our words and deeds.

As Jesus shows us, faith is not something that we go from not having to having. It develops over time through prayer and action. While we are conditioned in our culture to connect hope with wanting things, hope is an attitude that looks to the future, but walks with others in the present (think the familiar poem, “Footsteps.”) And love comes through the care we take in the sowing and feeding so that there may be a harvest.

Being a sower is what we are called to. When you have the opportunity to harvest, thank God for those who came before you and tended the fertile ground and planted that seed. And ask God for support to those who will come after you to tend what you have planted.



It’s the Journey

path(Follow up to last week’s post.)

Second phrase that sticks in my mind is, “It’s the journey.”

One of the stories that you hear repeatedly in Santiago di Campostela–and you see the evidence of it–is of pilgrims who have made the trek along any of the Camino routes, have arrived in Santiago, and are struck by the thought, “So, now what?”

We heard a lot about the how the Camino, especially the most well-known route starting in France and winding its was through Northern Spain has changed. Movies like “The Way” have popularized the journey along the Camino all over, but especially among Americans. It has become an item on many “bucket lists.”

So it isn’t surprising that the end point might have an unsettling, unsatisfactory, and even empty feel to it.

Bucket lists are for checking off — setting an objective and accomplishing it. Being able to say that you did that — like sky diving (remember when that was at the top of the lists of “things to accomplish in my life.”)

Focusing on the Camino as an accomplishment neglects and ignores its basic nature — as a journey. Getting there is good, but how we get there is even more important.

I remember a number of years ago listening to a reading from the first chapter in the Book of Joshua, which starts by telling us that Moses has died before he and the people can cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. The monologue going on in my head was immersed in the idea that Moses must have been disappointed to have come so far, but not been able to make the final step. As I think back on it, I realize how the 40 year journey was the focus of Moses’ life and leadership, not the destination. Reaching the destination was for another.

But the journey. That was Moses.

Let’s start by admitting that we are focused on a destination (e.g., goal, objective, “bucket list” item) in some way, shape, or form as leaders. Take a look at your list. Wallow in the kudos or endorphins you expect at the end when whatever it is is completed.

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, set that aside and let’s look at what the journey to that destination is and will be like. What are the gifts and charisms that you need for the journey? How do they differ from what you will need once you reach the destination? How comfortable are you with letting someone else lead the last steps or take over once you are there?

Be a Better Leader in the Next 5 Minutes

  1. Set a vision. Create a memorable vision statement for your team or company that states the problem you want to solve, how yo plan to solve it, and why it matters.
  2. Above all else, be clear. “Clarity always results in influence, which is the essence of leadership,” says Andy Stanley. People say they want to follow leaders with integrity, but more often end up following those who are clear. Be a leader who exhibits both qualities.
  3. Understand and communicate the “why.” You can’t have an effective vision to share with your team unless you understand why you do what you do. . .
  4. Be repetitive. “Vision leaks; it doesn’t stick,” says Stanley. Refer to your vision often and in a conversational way, so you–and eventually your team–immediately relate all decision back to the vision.
  5. Reward your people honestly. Stanley suggests “celebrating vision systematically.” In other words, when a team member creates a win for your event, make it known to the individual and the team that that’s the type of win you’re looking for. “What’s rewarded is repeated,” says Stanley.

— Andy Stanley, speaker to leaders at Infinite Energy Arena, as recorded in Connect: The Faith and Work Issue, Summer 2016, p. 17,


It’s Your Camino


Safely returned from a five-day “taste” of the Camino de Santiago de Campostela, there are two phrases that have stuck in my mind.

The first is, “It’s your Camino.” Here are some of the distinguishing features of our Camino trip.

  • We walked parts of the Portuguese Camino, the oldest route, but not the one most people think of.
  • We went with a tour group which meant comfortable hotels and good, reliable meals, not hostels with bunk beds.
  • We had “options” — no need to press onward to reach the next destination because there was always the van to pick you up and take you to that night’s lodgings if the hiking was too much.
  • We had a gaggle of women (and I mean that quite complimentary!) who walked and chatted and shopped and . . . bonded over small and big things.
  • We talked about the obvious and the metaphysical.

In and amongst all of this, “It’s your Camino” meant that it was always your choice how you walked it. Long, short, fast, slow, quiet, talking, taking mental pictures, taking physical pictures, in boots, in tennis shoes, with rain gear, without rain gear.

I thought a lot about how my “how” has changed over the years. I went backpacking about 25 years ago, and spent one of the 9 days at the front, right behind the leader. In looking back, I’m not sure what I thought I was going to achieve by doing that, but it was a consistent pattern in my life. In the end, we all arrived at the same destination, but “sooner” was the imperative for me.

On the Camino, one day I started at the front and kept a pace that had my thighs quaking by the time the day was done. It was also the only day that I hiked the longest possible distance and spent it mostly in conversation. On the rest of the days, I found my own pace, often hanging back with my Mom. I had a better opportunity to take in and embrace everything that was around us. And I felt more like a pilgrim on a journey–one of a pair like the disciples that Jesus sent forth, two by two.

It’s still my Camino, my journey, even as I sit at my desk, working through email, solving problems, moving programs forward. So, the big question is, how do I want to walk the journey of my personal, spiritual, and work life? What are the choices that I want to make?

What is your “Camino” like?



We Are All Pilgrims

Pilgrim, on your journey at the break of day,
Follow the sun’s rising as heaven lights your way.
Pilgrim, know your pathway deep within your heart,
May you find the wisdom to help you journey far.

Which are you?

A put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of person just trying to keep the ministry going, getting the next event done, watching your proverbial feet to make sure you don’t step in any potholes or stumble and fall along the way.

A head-held-high-looking-for-the-next-destination type who doesn’t see the flora and fauna you pass because the next goal, the next accomplishment, the next promotion, the next “whatever” is coming around the bend and you don’t want to miss it.

Maybe a little of both?

We are all pilgrims everyday. Not just on those days or weeks when we take time to get away from the daily grind and focus our reflection on the journey.

As much as we are the hands and feet of Christ in our ministry, we must remain pilgrims each and every day. As the refrain of this song says,

May God guide you, may God guide you;
God is your peace, God is your hope, God is your light.
May God guide you, may God guide you;
God is the way, God is the truth, God is the life.

At the beginning of each day, let this be your prayer of pilgrimage as you face the work and ministry that you do.


Meaning–More and Less

meaningThe word “tremendous” should be banned. Given the context in which it has been used repeatedly, I’m not sure I even know what the word means anymore.

“Awesome” is another one, as in “Our God is an awesome God . . .” My apologies to those who feel strongly about this praise song. It is over-used and the key word has lost its essential meaning.

There is a public lexicon of words and phrases that we default to when trying to describe, especially affirm, those we minister with.

But many of these words are too general or have been emptied of meaning.

So what to do?

Dozens of parish and diocesan youth ministers taught me how to affirm someone well. One simple rule. Be specific–very specific.

With practice, affirmations started to sound less like, “You did a nice job” (what does that mean anyway?) and more like “You clearly prepared that reading. I appreciate how well you conveyed the meaning of the Scripture.” A lot more words, but much more meaningful ones.

As leaders, it is easy to forget that others look to us for feedback of all sorts. When we don’t take time to attend to the specifics of the individual and situation, we may come across as seemingly careless or uncaring, something none of us wants to be.

Next time you find yourself reaching for one of those default words or phrases, stop and “rewrite” your comment. As parents are wont to say these days, “Use your words” — your many words including and especially adjectives and adverbs.


Use Specific Examples (Rule #5)

A photo by Alex wong. conversation usually goes something like this.

“You didn’t consult me about (pick a subject).”

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“That’s what you said.”

“When did I say that?”

And it goes on and on from there.

Want to put an end to this familiar script? Try a specific example.

“I thought I was consulting you when I asked if it was alright to buy steak instead of ground beef. Do you remember that?” Or, “Did you experience that as ‘consulting’ you?”

We can’t correct what we can’t identify. By using examples, we reduce the emotional energy in the conversation. When we use examples, we can test to see if we share common ground, and if not, find it by further refining the examples.

Most importantly, we give ourselves the perspective to step back and look at the situation together rather than as opponents.

So, next time you are tempted to use a generalization, don’t. Be specific.

A Few Aches and Pains

gardeningWhen we first bought our house, I spent every Saturday and Sunday morning on my knees pulling weeds, imagining what the newly-carved gardens might look like–eventually.

Over the last few years, the amount of time that I have spent in the garden has become inversely proportionate to the increase in my age. Fewer hours, more years, and with them, more aches and pains. I spend less time on my knees and more on my cushy gardening chair, trying to alleviate some of the stress and discomfort of my joints.

How often do we assess what our limits are?

Gardening regularly reminds me of my physical limitations, and forces me to consider how to adapt. My solution this year? Hire a gardener to take care of the major weeding and spraying so I could focus on the creative part, the planning and designing.

And that’s the opportunity that the limitation presents. It’s a challenge I might not have otherwise explored–or enjoyed nearly so much.

Part of leadership is knowing your limitations, but also reassessing them on a regular basis to look for opportunities to adapt and grow. What personal and professional limits are you bumping up against right now in your ministry? Who could you invite into your circle to help you handle your limitations? What opportunities does that present?