Numbers, Numbers, Numbers!

Tax Day only serves to remind us that so much of our work and life is made up of numbers. For example, I have a small notepad in my car on which I track my mileage for both business and charitable purposes. It’s just a series of numbers–dates and 5-digit numbers–that translate into something else, deductions. Another number.

In this era of “big data,” here’s the question: What are the numbers that tell the story of your success? Your failure?

  • 21 = years in Catholic schools (from primary through graduate schools)
  • 2 = marriages (one failed, one very successful!)
  • 540 = students I taught in 4 years of high school religion classes
  • 2 = qualifying exams I failed (AP German and the LSAT)
  • 7,815 = days living in my current hometown

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers. But numbers only tell a first-level story. Take a look at my “21.” In that number are a bunch of stories each with meaning and purpose–a grade I loved and hated at the same time, 18 months in public school that I’d prefer to forget, 4 years at the only high school I wanted to attend and loved, 4 years at a University I never expected I’d cherish, then 2 graduate degrees–one that took 7 years of “a class here, a class there” and the other that was 20 months of intensive work. Each segment a very different story. Each story contributed in a unique way to who I have become.

For those of you have attended the Mid-Atlantic Congress, you may have completed one of our Congress evaluations and noticed that we ask our questions in a very specific way–we ask about your expectations and your level of satisfaction.

In the end, isn’t that what we really want to know? We want to know how well we fulfilled the expectations that were set. The key is setting the expectations to begin with.

If you’re largely evaluating your ministry based on numbers–how many children in religious education, how many confirmations, how many parishioners–try adding a few other criteria to your list. What are the five things you want each child in each grade to know at the end of the year and how are you going to measure that? What ministries or leadership roles do you expect your confirmandi to take on once they have completed the sacrament? Who welcomes each new parishioner and how many times does the parish make contact in that first year?

Numbers are, after all, just numbers. Until we assign them meaning. Without meaning, they are just numbers.

The 4 Traps of “Crying Wolf” and How to Escape Them

We know the moral to the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf–if you tell lies to get attention, when you are telling the truth, no one may listen.

As a leader, that is a bridge over a chasm–a deep, dark, and unyielding chasm–that, when shattered, cannot be either easily rebuilt or crossed. So, how do we avoid even appearing to “cry wolf”?

Here are 4 of the traps of crying wolf and some advice on how to escape them.

Trap #1: Your Statement Comes Out of Nowhere

I know we are used to great journalists breaking stories that seem to come out of nowhere, but we’re not pretending to be great journalists. We’re leaders, and as leaders, we are in the relationship-building and mission-fulfilling businesses where openness and collaboration are essential ingredients.

If you feel a statement rising in you and it is going to surprise others, ask yourself these two questions. Why now? Why will it surprise them?  Odds are likely that you have overlooked some important steps in these relationships or mission work. Instead identify what work you have to do before saying anything.

Trap #2: The “Is-Ness” of the Statement

Beware of the simple, yet powerful verb “to be” and its related friends like “to do.” They tell us very little about anything. They rely heavily on the subject and object of the sentence which are often limited in descriptiveness.

What do I mean by “is-ness” of the statement? “It was this big” or “It doesn’t work.” Can you picture any part of these statements? I can’t. Which usually means that neither can anyone else, and that can lead exactly where you do not want to go–to conflict–all because no one agrees on what actually was said.

If you gravitate toward using “is” and “do” in your statements, think twice. Choose specific verbs that describe a particular action. Use nouns or subjects with as much detail as you can.

Which leads us to . . .

Trap #3: Vague Words

Whereas trap #2 is sort of about a lack of works, trap #3 is about vague, somewhat meaningless words.

Rehearse what you want to say in your head, and listen carefully. Do you use vague adjectives like “very,” “tremendous,” “enormous,” and “terrible”? The descriptors indicate a lack of detail in the action or the object of the statement. It is the difference between saying, “The man was very tall” and “The middle-aged man was about 6 feet tall.” Challenge yourself to be accurate and precise.

And a James-Bondian corollary: Never say “never” again (and the same holds true for “always.”)

Trap #4: A Lack of Physical Evidence

Okay, let’s state the obvious. If you can point to actual evidence of any kind, it is less possible that you will be accused of crying wolf.

Force yourself to have at minimum of 3 concrete objects or experiences that you can point to to substantiate your point. And the “3” is important. If you only have 1, then you might want to rethink saying anything at all. It could just be a one-off. Three examples demonstrate a pattern and give substance to your claim.

When others look to us as leaders, many accept and trust that what we say and do is right, just, and true. Ensure that their faith in us is well-placed by stewarding our language well, completely, and richly, and avoiding the temptation of all of these traps.

Connection or Transaction?

I am not a cat person.

Yet I couldn’t help clicking on a cat video yesterday–two cats, each with a hospitality bell next to them, and a plate. Each time they rang the bell, they got a piece of kibble. Completely Pavlovian to the point where the one cat figured out that it didn’t matter which bell he rang. As long as he rang a bell, he got a treat.

This little video reminded me that we live in a transactional society–you give me 3 oranges and I give you 6 bananas, you post a funny picture on Facebook and I “Like” it, I get rid of all of the Candy Crush icons and the bear rises above the line so I win.

This isn’t new, but transactions have grown in number as technology and the Internet are become more integrated into our daily and work lives. Email–of which I am an enormous fan–gets quicker answers than phone calls or letters. A two-minute Facetime session in the morning means no phone call. Make a quick 360 pirouette in a crowd, and we see smartphones everywhere, and people deeply enmeshed in these transactions.

I have friends and colleagues who will wax poetic on both sides of the argument–“smartphones have created greater connectedness” to “smartphones and technology have depersonalized relationships and isolated us.” These two perspectives represent specific answers to the key questions that arise when we make one of these transactions: What is the value of what we have? What do we seek to get in return for that value? And what must we give up in the exchange?

As Jesus has shown us repeatedly through the Gospels this Lent, we are called to engage in personal relationships with others, not mere transactions. That means that empathy is required of us–being able to listen deeply, hear and understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and respond.

Early in his tenure at our parish, our youth minister met with a young mother who wanted to know if her son who was developmentally impaired could receive his First Communion with the second-graders that year. This was not the first parish she had come to. At the other parishes, she was turned away for various reasons, but they boiled down to either the priest didn’t think he was capable of understanding the Sacrament or it would be an inconvenience.

She was shown very little empathy and compassion. The transaction–Sacrament to a child–required too much than they were willing to exchange.

In the end, the decision for our youth minister to say “yes” was actually easy. He recognized as the mother already had that her son was as much in the image of God as anyone else and quite capable of understanding what he was about to do. What she and her son received in return was more than they expected–they became part of a larger community that fostered and sustained them, and continues to do so. On the youth minister’s part, he gave up some extra time and work to fashion a program that met the young man where he was.

How do we move from transaction to connection? The next time you are faced with a need to connect with people, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is valuable about the connection with the other person? Is the person a friend, colleague, or stranger? Are you trying to forge a stronger partnership or tapping them for information?
  • What do we seek to get in return for that value? Is this a long- or short- or no-term relationship?
  • What must we give up in the exchange? How much time will this take? Can you commit to the exchange? How are you going to overcome what makes you uncomfortable in this exchange?