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. unsplash.com/photos/l5Tzv1alcpsThe 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?

 

 

Prodigal Forgiveness

A photo by Sonja Langford. unsplash.com/photos/eIkbSc3SDtITiming is everything, so they say.

Jumping at the right moment to grab the long, downfield pass into coverage. Striking the 100 mph fastball with the meat of the bat. Knowing the exact moment when to take the souffle out of the oven. Remaining silent until it’s absolutely necessary to speak.

“Father, give me my inheritance.” How long had the younger son been contemplating this request. What had precipitated it? Why now? Why couldn’t he wait?

Imagine if that request had come today, how long it would have taken to liquidate the estate, and give the son what he wanted. And yet he did.

Add to that the months, maybe even years, that it took the prodigal son to spend it all before he realized that his coffers were empty.

And from the time he left, the father probably started and ended each day looking at the horizon, hoping to see him return. Then he did. Without warning. Lavishly embraced by the forgiveness willingly and generously given by the father.

Fifteen years ago, most of us remember where we were, watching the Twin Towers crash to the ground and disappear into ash and dust or the destruction of the Pentagon or the crash of the flight that ended in a Pennsylvania field.

As I listened to the parable of the Prodigal Son Sunday, I wondered if and when we will be able to open our arms bravely, lovingly, and without restraint and forgive those who harmed us as the Father forgives us all.

Timing is everything. Isn’t it time?

Lose What You Got to Lose

bridgeAs a middle-aged adult, I learned how to play bridge.

In a game that is very competitive, it is hard to believe that the “first rule” of bridge (at least, the first and best rule that I have learned) is lose what you have to lose first.

Last weekend, my partner and I bid a hand, and when she laid down her cards, we had a perfect fit . . . except that we did not hold 3 of the Aces and 1 King. Four tricks that we had to lose in order to take the other nine. It was clear what I had to do, force the opponents into playing all of those four cards before I could capture what we were capable of winning.

Not all bridge hands are like that . . .  that clear, that easy, that straightforward. At least, not for me. But I’m barely more than a novice.

But what a paradox–lose in order to win. It took the first 3 years of playing before I was able to accept that sometimes I had to lose in order to eventually win the game. Three years of being obstinate, frightened, and stupid.

I can identify with the prodigal son in all of this. Foolishly taking everything that is mine (i.e., all of the winning tricks) at the cost of eventually losing the most important thing (e.g., self-love, father’s love, the game.)

The paradox. Lose in order to win. Be exalted, and you will be humbled. First shall be last. Sinner welcomed home.

None of us is perfect, especially in the ways that we negotiate our leadership. There are always points, discussions, issues, and actions that we are going to face that we’re just going to lose.

These losses don’t necessarily mean we are going to lose the “game” or the goal toward which our ministry and leadership is directed. But we need to know when to lose, when to agree to disagree, when to concede, and when to ask for forgiveness. It’s only then that we can truly move forward.

 

 

 

 

The Call to Action

politicsAn active election season provides numerous opportunities to observe and listen to the policies and politics of our candidates. After a while, it can become repetitive and tiresome, especially if, like me, you are somewhat of a wonk.

One of the things that continues to grab my attention is when a candidate asks (or doesn’t ask) the listener to do something–vote, volunteer, raise money.

A call to action.

The marketer in me is very familiar with this technique since it is the bedrock of most successful marketing campaigns. The theory is that if you never ask, you may never get what you want.

The “ask” is powerful. It’s short. It’s declarative. Actually, it’s imperative–usually using a verb in the second person–“Do,” “Join,” “Vote.”

Over the last few weeks, Jesus has been preaching to us in parables. Unlike our candidates, he doesn’t shout or call others names or take any roads “to the bottom” as so often happens in our politics. His ask is subtle, even disguised. But if we listen carefully, we know what God wants of us.

As leaders, we must always be attentive to the “ask” that we make of those who follow. You may vocalize it while I may just demonstrate it. But we all do it. Remember the axiom, “Actions speak louder than words,” or the wise saying attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel, if necessary, use words.”

In your ministry, what is your “ask”? If you put yourself in the shoes of those you lead, would you understand you? Or do you need to clarify your message?

By Your Love — The Loser and Finder

sheepA parable about a young and inexperienced teacher and sheep.

In her second year, a young teacher began her class by sharing the few rules that she had to keep the chaos to a minimum and creativity and participation to a maximum.

One of the rules was very simple. Don’t make the teacher mad. It wasn’t easy to make her mad, but it could happen, and the teacher was well aware of this weakness, so she was very diligent about letting students know where the line was.

But one young lady pushed the boundaries, and the teacher did indeed get mad. The young lady was sent to the principal’s office to await who knew what.

It took about 30 seconds before the teacher realized that she had lost something in the altercation. A proverbial sheep who liked to wander even though the territory was dangerous. So she went to find the student.

Her student was upset and crying (not surprisingly). So the teacher sat them both down, and feeling more like the sheep than the shepherd, she apologized.

Frequently in parables, we so often find ourselves in one role or another, but rarely in both. One of the takeaways from the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son is the searching, searching for boundaries, searching for open fields, searching for freedom, searching for forgiveness. That is the perhaps the thing that the older brother doesn’t understand.

In some strange way, we must be both losers and finders. That is how we come to know the depth of the love of God in and around us, especially through forgiveness.

 

By Your Love

We’ve all been lost at some point in time. Lost in love. Lost at sea. Lost in a crowd. Lost in faith.

Like a sheep or a coin.

Sometimes we get lost without knowing it. Who of us doesn’t know a story of someone who as a child got separated from Mom or Dad in a big store, and couldn’t for (hopefully) the briefest moment find the way back.

Sometimes we choose a path, headed in a direction that we think will lead someplace we want to go. It happens in relationships–the ones we stay in too long. It happens at work–the jobs that we chose for the now not-so-right reasons.

Like the prodigal son.

The promise of faith is that we will always be found, searched for desperately and welcomed with generous and loving arms. By your love, we are found.

 

Every Leader Knows a Dark Night . . . or Fifty

lincolnCEO biographies are almost a “dime a dozen.” Many have the plot lines that work for a Hollywood interested in digging deep, pulling back the curtains, and showing us our “naked” leaders–all without the proverbial rose-colored glasses.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Fields was a tour de force, trying to capture the depth of the man who saved the Union. Abraham Lincoln greatly and frequently despaired that the Union would ever survive or that the war would ever end. His despair was fierce, and fed a depression that was already part of his character. On the big screen, we saw how Mary Todd Lincoln helped guide him through some of these days, back to the light, one might say.

The Letters, a 2015 biopic about Mother Teresa, probably escaped the notice of many people as it stayed in theaters for a very brief time. Set in the 1940’s and 50’s, it focused on her early ministry, sidestepping the last 50 years which she herself described as her “dark night of the soul.” Despite the tremendous work that she was doing, she experienced a great period of doubt and loneliness as she continued to minister with the poor, sick, and dying.

Here’s the thing. I read biographies and watch biopics to learn how a great person dealt with the issues and circumstances they faced. I’m like a sponge, trying to soak in lessons that others before me have learned so that I can try to avoid them in my own journey.

But with these two movies, I’m not sure we learned much about leadership–or as much as we could have.

The “dark night of the soul” is a real and even necessary part of leadership, and it isn’t pretty, romantic, dramatic, or especially cinemagraphically interesting. This is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane “dark night.” This is the inevitable and lonely time when I’m “it.” There isn’t anyone else above or beyond me except God. And I’m not even sure God is there.

Great leaders know dark nights of despair and loneliness. We must. Without them, we are never challenged to examine who we are, what we do, and why we do anything, but in a superficial way. Our great leaders show us the way, in prayer, in vast communities of India’s poor, with a spouse.

 

Wise Ones

sharingIn 2003, Robert Fulghum published a book called, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If you haven’t read it (and you should), he gathered together a series of lessons that many of us were taught as toddlers, many of which continue to be true for us as adults and leaders. Here are a few excerpts from http://www.peace.ca/kindergarten.htm

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.

Wisdom comes in big and small packages and from expected and surprising places. Kindergartners. Pagan kings. Great prophets.

For the last four weeks, we have heard from Sirach, Wisdom, Jeremiah, and Isaiah on Sunday, teaching us the simple, yet challenging lessons of the wisdom of God. Humility was last week’s focus. The week before, with Jeremiah stuck at the bottom of a cistern, King Zedekiah recognized the truth and rescued him from his imprisonment.

What’s the common denominator? Biblical wisdom always seems to be about that first thing children learn — sharing. Or to put it in adult terms, selflessness.

Reread Sunday’s second reading from Philemon to better understand how Paul lives it. He sends his beloved companion whom he would like to keep by his side in his imprisonment, but in his own words, “but I did not want to do anything without your consent.”

On most days, wise leaders start with the rule of sharing–what is best for our customers, what is best for my parish, what is in the best interest of my children, my students, my staff?

As a leader, if your thinking began with these questions, how might the results differ? In what ways do you start from a position of openness, sharing what you have and know with others in order to meet your goals together?