What’s Your pH Level?

Outside my window, we have hydrangea bushes. Being a casual gardener, I was amazed to find out that the color of the blooms changes from blue to pink depending on the pH level of the soil. Such a dramatic response to such a small change in the ecosystem in which the plant grows.

How would you describe the ecosystem where your ministry takes place? What is your ministry “soil” like–rich and well-fertilized, tilled but untended, left to the elements, weak and even toxic?

As the gardener (don’t worry–I’m not going to dive into a deep metaphor on the parable of the Sower and the Seed!), we are responsible for the condition of the soil of our ministry. We may inherit an untended field, but it is our job to decide how to turn that field into something that flourishes.

In our Advent preparing, let’s take some time to dig into our ministry environment, and assess honestly all of the elements that go into it–volunteers, schedule, programming, printed resources, online resources, even your professional leadership. These are but a few of them.

Take some time to ask yourself the hard questions, the questions you really don’t want to answer or the answers you really don’t want to hear. Maybe you need to stop relying so heavily on printed resources. Maybe your ministry needs to have a stronger online presence through the parish website, Twitter account, or Facebook page or on Snapchat or Instagram. Maybe it’s time to take a class or two to update your knowledge of the ministry or just nurture yourself as a better minister. Perhaps it’s time to bring on an associate or intern who has different ideas.

Whatever you find in your reflection, choose one action. Yes, one. To change the color of hydrangeas from blue to pink only requires adding a little lime to the soil. One element. So, what is the one change that you can make that will impact your ministry in a positive way?

And whose help do you need?

The Advent Version of Letting Go

The children in our choir are singing, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” at our concert. So, I have Disney’s Frozen on my mind.

It’s an intriguing starting point to reflect on leadership and Advent.

We have a young girl who has been trained to control her gifts, her feelings, her insights, her way of seeing things and being in the world.

Suddenly she is forced into the public eye as the unexpected queen.

And she reacts by running away and isolating herself from her people, her job, her calling.

In Elsa’s version of letting go, she takes a pretty selfish stance and says basically, “This is the way I am, so deal with it world.” It’s a good thing the movie doesn’t end there.

Most of us have probably traveled in Elsa’s shoes at some point for some period of time. Perhaps it was in a first job when the insights and energy you brought to the table weren’t valued and you walked away frustrated and unappreciated.
Perhaps it was during a transition to a position of more responsibility where you supervised or oversaw more people than you had in the past. It might have been tempting to stay in your office some days when you felt misunderstood or like you didn’t know how to motivate your staff well.

In those and the many other situations you can probably recall, we’re a lot like Elsa. It’s easy to put the focus on others, and even the blame.
But that’s where the Anna’s of the world come in. They remind us of our responsibility to be engaged in shaping the world, especially our Church community of faith.
Advent is a great time for examining the ways in which we freezes ourselves in place or freeze others out from our ministry. Advent is a good time to reflect on how we can command (not control) the gifts that we have to better serve the Kingdom of God that we acclaim and celebrate this season.
How are you letting go so you can let God be present this Advent?

Are You Ready for What Comes Next?

ornamentReadiness is the “value of the season” now that we have passed into Advent. In the lead-up to the season, it’s hard to miss what the “what” is — the Kingdom of God — but as often happens at this time of year, I find I’m, um, stuck.

In The Christmas Ornament, a Hallmark Channel movie (we are big fans even though they start Christmas movies right after Halloween), the main character struggles with her grief over the death of her husband during the last year. She meets someone who helps her to start seeing what might come next in her life. But she gets stuck. At the end of the movie, she realizes that the answer to what comes next is a great, big question mark, and she is ready to start the journey to discover what “next” is.

I find the dramatic arc of a 2 hour movie–beginning, middle, and end–very comforting. Even more hilarious because my husband accents each one with the exclamation, “I’m going to go out on a limb . . .” quickly followed by the obvious “that ___________ are going to fall in love” or whatever the obvious final scene might be.

Not so much Advent.

Just because Christmas comes doesn’t mean that the readying has been complete or that we have arrived at what comes next.

And, well, duh, that is the point, right?

While Advent and Christmas draw lines in the proverbial sand, the movement of each is endless and timeless. We are never fully ready nor is the Kingdom ever fully here. But we as humans would tire too easily and quickly if the journey extended to the end we know nothing about. Think of the Israelites who spent 40 years in the desert on a journey to a home that many never saw. They tired, grew weary, looked for short-cuts, and were steered back on the path by their prophets and leaders.

Our journey is unknowably long and tiring, too. But we need weigh stations along the way to celebrate the distance we have come before we face the distance that still lies ahead. Maybe we need to hear our contemporary prophets point out where the path is that cuts through the many “-isms” we face lies. Maybe we need to admit that all we’re ever going to experience is the journey, but others will arrive at the endpoint.

Maybe that is the point after all.

 

To Be Still or Not to Be Still

Find us ready, Lord,
Not standing still.
Finding us working and loving and doing your will.

When it comes to the pace and speed of Advent, we are a very contradictory people!

In the world around us, there is this whirlwind of activity starting with Black Friday sales and extending through highway traffic and airport lines. There is the “to do” list–put up the lights, get the tree, buy presents, mail cards, bake the fruitcake, clean the house, yada, yada, yada . . . And in four short weeks (or less, depending on the calendar year), Christmas arrives and is over in 24 hours, complete with undecorated trees at the curb and parking lots full of the rush and tumble of post-Christmas discount buying.

To some extent, our prayers and songs reinforce that. The call to charity–to not stand still in the face of need. In general, to be doing–something, anything that engages in encounter with the face of Christ in this world.

How often does all of this become a really tricky arithmetic problem for you? Add up the usual, traditional stuff that must be done plus that which our faith compels us, and the sum total is — not enough time, too much stress, and very little “presence.”

Is the answer letting go of our traditions, simplifying our lives? Possibly. Heavens knows that maybe 4 Masses on Christmas Eve (oh, yes, we have 4!) is bit much, so could we do with only 3? Maybe. Does that really address the problem? Probably not.

Because what is the problem? We have too much to do in too little time? That’s one way of putting it. But how about another.

We tend to think of time as linear–60 seconds equals 1 minute, 60 minutes equal 1 hour, etc. And only one thing can occupy any given second, minute or hour of the day. But that’s not true.

St. Paul reminds us to “pray always.” So, why not, underneath the busy-ness of the season, pray always?

Since teaching my children’s choir the refrain to the above Tom Booth song, I find myself coming back to it again and again and again while I am doing other things. One of the things that I like about it is that the lyrics acknowledge how occupied our time is, but they also remind me that each activity should in some way contribute to building the Kingdom of mercy and love.

What refrains, familiar phrases, mantras can you suggest to those you know who are seeking some stillness and grounding during Advent?

 

 

What Is Your Duty?

legalWhat is our “duty”?

We’ve been debating this question (whether we acknowledge it or not) in other arenas for quite some time. You needn’t look any farther than the TV in your living room on any given Sunday regardless of the season and see a baseball, basketball, hockey, or football player who has exhibited the kind of behavior that would have been considered disgraceful by icons like Vince Lombardi (look him up!)

Yelling “what would Vince Lombardi say” is one of my husband’s favorite activities. Very square, tie-tied-tightly, short-haired Vince Lombardi enforced a code of behavior that recognized the public character of the game and its players. And as a coach in Green Bay, the American “Mecca” of football (sorry, Dallas), Lombardi understood that his duty was clearly to the profession and the public, to be the model for good behavior and morals, to go beyond the rule book.

And today we face the question of where is our duty, to the rules and laws or to what is ethical and right.

Is our duty to ourselves as individuals? Or is it to the community at large with whom we interact on a daily basis? Are the rules for those interactions strict and limited, or should we expect ourselves to go beyond them and adhere to a higher standard?

While an action may be legal, the question is, is it ethical? And with that question, we must answer, what is our duty, to do what is in the best interest of our selves or the best interest of others?

Do Your Homework

crownThis leadership tidbit comes courtesy of Netflix’s original series, “The Crown,” which I binge-watched this weekend. (Very good show; John Lithgow is particularly impressive as a very aged Winston Churchill.)

Here it is. Do your homework. Always.

Twice in 10 episodes, we saw Queen Elizabeth as portrayed by Claire Foy struggle with situations in which her lack of knowledge created an obstacle to making a good decision for her country.

In the first, we see her trying to be both monarch and sister as she searches for solutions that will allow the Princess Margaret to marry the divorced man she loves. Her advisors tell her only the first part of a law which would allow the Princess to marry anyone she chooses once she turns 25. And so she waits.

Surprisingly (at least, to me), the Queen accepts the advice without any further questions or research. Only to find out that when her sister turns 25 that there is a second part to the law.

In another episode, the Queen faces head-on the fact that she received an education that seriously lacked any of the content of a normal course of studies for a normal child, teen, or young adult. So, as a young woman, she feels like she is at a disadvantage when speaking with other very knowledgeable men in her cabinet and commonwealth. She employs a tutor to fix that problem. In the end, her encyclopedic knowledge of the constitution of the Britain is all she has and all she needs.

In the first example, a lack of curiosity and an abundance of trust led down an ugly road to a decision that was a lose-lose between sisters. Would the decision have been any easier had she explored in more depth the law that was governing this situation more fully? Possibly not, but it would have meant dealing with the implications earlier when less pain might have been inflicted on everyone involved.

The second example illustrates the kind of humility it takes for any of us as leaders to see what we lack and address it.

I remember an older person I know telling me that the older he got, the more he realized how little he knew. That shouldn’t be a self-aware statement for the elderly, but for all of us. Whatever we think we know, we probably don’t know. And whatever we want to know, we need to take action to find it.

The Twin Problems of Noise and Bias

pebblesEveryone wants to make good decisions. But the “good” part is often the challenge.

We make decisions all the time. Some are terribly inconsequential like which flavor candy so I want, cherry or sour apple. Some are not so inconsequential and can have long-term and long-lasting impact.

October’s Harvard Business Review includes an article on the cost inherent in bad decision-making because of the impact of noise and bias in the process. So, where do we see noise and bias in ministry decisions and what impact can they have?

Let’s start with some basic definitions. “Noise” prevents us from looking at the problem or situation accurately; it creates diversions and scatters our vision and thinking. “Bias” shifts our focus, and it is usually a shift in everyone’s focus.

Some examples? Bias is the committee thinking that we can hire a part-time youth minister because we only see 20 or 30 teens involved when the facts are there are more than 150 teens engaged in various ministries and activities (real life example.) Noise is asking 5 different people what youth ministry at the parish like and getting 5 totally different answers.

How do we correct for these?

Bias tends to reflects what we “know” (or think we know) about people and situations. Letting go of the “thinking that we know” moves us toward a solution. Before making a decision, list what are the things that we think we know about the person and/or situation (think about those assumptions.)  Identify what is irrelevant or prejudicial to making a sound and open-minded decision based on fact. Deeply consider the question, “What don’t we know about this person or situation?” before going any further. What remains is likely closest to the unbiased truth.

Noise is like throwing pebbles in the air and watching them drop to the ground–they fall all over the place. But we can control the noise just like we can control the trajectory of the pebbles by putting them inside one container before we toss them. Noise requires that we ask what the traits, characteristics, or qualifications are that we are looking for. What should be on our checklist of things that would make the decision the right one for this parish or school or organization?

The road to good decisions leads through reducing bias and noise so that we end up with the reasons and needs that are truly at the core of who we are and what we believe–usually our mission or in the service of the Gospel.

“Assuming makes a . . .” (Rule #4)

egg“Assuming makes an . . .” Yes, we have all heard the phrase. And I can attest to its veracity.

With the end of a contentious election season, this particular rule seems to apply more than any other.

Based on what we have seen and heard, there are many assumptions that we can conclude. But are they true?

To avoid the proverbial “egg on your face,” the best path is to test assumptions and inferences that we might make before jumping to conclusions. Ask questions–lots of them. Clarify what the intention is and what the intended outcomes are. Agree on the answers to the questions, the intentions of the actions, and the accountability for the outcomes.

Then start all over again. Our agreements and understandings can quickly turn into assumptions again. Or assumptions about the “next time” or next situation.

Because the truth is, the answers, intentions, and outcomes for each occasion or situation may differ for a variety of reasons, sometimes reasons out of our control. To avoid the potential conflict, keep asking, keep clarifying, and keep reaching agreements.

The energy, especially emotional energy, that you save in testing your assumptions can then be channeled into nurturing successful ministry.

4 Leadership Fit-Ness Tests

officeOn a somewhat regular basis, I receive notifications of open leadership positions which got me thinking about what are some of the key leadership questions I ask as an employer and a potential employee.

Here are 4 of them. A word of caution. They may overlap, but it is rare that any given individual possesses all of the qualities.

  1. Are you an “ambassador” or an “administrator?” My experience has been that most top leaders, especially those with decision-making authority, fall into one of these two categories. An “ambassador” is the type of leader that prefers to be outward facing, e.g., is good at being the face of the ministry or field, is in demand as a speaker, and wants to out in the field pushing the mission of the organization. An “administrator” tends to be the leader whose strengths are focused in-house, on staff, implementing vision and mission, and engaging members in the best possible way. They prefer that others are the face of the organization–perhaps the president or chair of the board or the admired “all-stars.”
  2. What part of the lifecycle of a ministry or organization is the most life-giving for you? Marketing people talk about lifecycles of products, e.g., it’s created new,  it hopefully rises in awareness and popularity, then steadies off when it is in its prime, and starts to level off or weaken as other products enter the category. Ministry and organizations are like this too. And use the number of years that the ministry in the parish or the organization has been around.Ministries and organizations have multiple lifecycles, especially if they are attentive to reinventing themselves as the field and marketplace changes. I work for a 26-year-old organization that is really in start-up mode. We have been in a 5-6 year process of reinventing what benefits we offer and how we want to support the Catholic publishing industry.Most importantly, though, know what part of that lifecycle gives you life. Do you like the challenge of making a dream reality or are you best at keeping the boat moving in the right direction?

    And this leads to the next question.

  3. Is your strength in creating things or implementing them? This question could be rewritten in a Myers-Briggs way (a personality inventory), and read, “Are you a P or a J?” We all possess some of both, but the question is where is your home base? Every aspect of the lifecycle requires each of this, but some require more of the other from the leader. In start-up mode, creativity may be key to taking a new vision and putting it into action.
  4. Lastly, what personal, professional, and emotional need will this leadership role fill for you? I admire veteran ministry leaders because most have chosen their field because it fulls something in each of these categories. But here’s the thing. I’ve seen people (and been one) who have moved from parish ministry to diocesan ministry who eventually felt like their new role didn’t really impact the lives of people like their old job did. I’ve been, and this is tough. That’s why the “emotional” part of it is key. It may be that you had a personal and professional goal to work at the diocesan level, but once you get there, you may find that it does not fill your emotional need. Watch out for that! And it you run into it, fix it. Trust me, you won’t be satisfied if you don’t.

Virtues and Leadership–Hope

electionIn the post-election analysis, one commentator reminded the panel and viewers that we don’t know what a President Trump will be like–and that could be good.

His contention is this.

When people rise to unfamiliar levels of authority and leadership, something often changes. We Catholics have seen this up-close-and-personal in some of our bishops, who in becoming a new bishop, moving from auxiliary to Ordinary or from one place to the next, have displayed characteristics and behaviors that no one had really anticipated. For the good, too.

It is that virtue of hope, actively seeking the perfection of the Divine, that we need to cultivate and nurture in ourselves and in our leaders. There is a smidgen of humility that reminds us that we are pilgrims on the journey, fed by a hope that–in our nation’s case–will bring us together to raise everyone up.

Optimism is a somewhat stereotypical American trait. We need to cling to that optimism as we reach out to all of those who feel left behind, are on the margins, are misunderstood, or have been left out. We as leaders in our own communities must embrace and embody the virtue of hope as we move forward. Let us be “road warriors” on the journey.