Monthly Archives: October 2017

Digging in the Trenches

Since early spring, I’ve been staring at what were at one time the well-defined edges of my garden beds in frustration and dismay. Heavy spring rains washed gravel, dirt, and mulch into and through any pathway that gravity dictated. Until last weekend, those edges were only hints . . . no, shadows of lines separating grass from garden.

The early autumn temperatures got me outside last weekend with one of my favorite tools, a trench edger, to attack the bed directly outside my office window.

When this garden bed is in its full-bloom glory, it’s a wonderful, peaceful backdrop for a busy work day. But at this time of the year, the hydrangeas sag with the weight of drying flowered heads, and the hostas are ready for their annual shearing.

So, on Saturday while digging my border, I couldn’t help thinking about boundaries, and the trenches, fences, and gates that we create to keep things out, keep ourselves in, and keep the two from meeting.

In my leadership style, I think I mirror my gardening efforts. I like well-defined boundaries so that those on my team understand and feel empowered in their roles, but not constrained by a rigidity that prevents them from being creative and productive. Like the pseudo-trench around my garden bed prior to last Saturday, you would have been able to tell that there is a “line,” but perhaps not the crisp one that some might prefer.

My way of defining borders (garden or otherwise) may not be for you. You may prefer well-chiseled edges. And I must admit — there is a cost to my approach (as there is with most.) Sometimes chaos does reign.

Take my children’s choir, for example. While some might prefer that there is attentive quiet at all times except when they are singing, I’m fine with a low rumble. But we have a verbal cue that let’s them know that it’s time to be quiet and sing. It works for them. It works for me.

Autumn is a good time to reassess the boundaries that you have drawn in your work, ministry, and life. What is working for you? What isn’t? How can you strengthen the boundaries that are effective? How can you reduce the chaos in the ones that aren’t?


The Parable of the Talents

There is one Gospel that I dread every time it comes around in the liturgical cycle — Matthew’s parable of the 10 talents.

When it comes to this Gospel, my faith is still like that of a 6 or 10 year old. Why? Because I have always understood this Gospel quite literally. As a result, I feel the weight of judgment on my shoulders, unsure whether or not I am using my God-given talents as God expects of me. I wonder if I am the third servant who does nothing at all.

But here’s the rub.

That 10-year-old in me tends to see my talents, especially my leadership talents, as finite or limited. It’s like my golf game. I truly believe that regardless of whatever effort or change in equipment or practice, I am only ever going to be able to hit a golf ball 75 yards and no more. So why bother, right?

One of the most poignant memories I have from my teaching days was sitting in a meeting with a freshman, her mother, the principal, and two other teachers, talking about the student’s lack of educational progress. The two teachers spoke directly to the mom, and talked about her in the third person. As I listened, I watched this shy, thirteen-year-old shrink into herself as these teachers went through a litany of bad grades, failed projects, and discouraging analysis about her.

So, when it was my turn, I looked right at her, and shared the challenges that she faced in my class, but also how clear it was to me that she was capable of doing the work, and that I was willing to work with her to help achieve the passing grades that I knew she could manage.

The whole experience was sort of a revelation.

Everyone in her life had convinced her that what she could do and be was very limited — and they expected no more than that from her. They didn’t even expect her to try.

From the conversation, it was clear that the focus was on her performance. Underneath was an assumption that her abilities in the classroom were limited or finite.

However, when our eye is on learning, we tend to see the abilities of ourselves and others as malleable, grow-able, not finite.

As a leader, what limits do you put on your talents? Which boundaries might be more flexible than you believe them to be?

Then with those you minister with and serve, ask the same questions. How do your answers change the ways in which you nurture talent and leadership in others?

The Price of “Think” Time–Part 2

At what cost do you spend your thinking time doing — literally, just doing something, anything?

A couple of years ago, I realized that I was spending every waking hour at my desk answering emails, creating flyers, responding to someone else’s issues or concerns, and not getting any of the deep thinking that I needed to be doing.

What is “deep thinking”? For me, it is stepping back and looking at a project or program at a distance. Putting some distance between all of the pieces that I am involved with and the mission or goals of the project to examine whether or not they are going in the same direction.

It’s asking the mission question — is what I/we are doing fulfilling our mission or just filling time?

It’s wondering about how this program or project fits in with the larger strategic vision of my organization (or your parish or school or diocese). If it is, how? How are we falling short?

Is the amount of time I spend on this project commensurate with the potential good that comes out of it? If not, why and what should change?

Mondays and Fridays are my big picture think days, especially in the morning, now.

What chunk of time can you regularly carve out to do the deep thinking that your ministry really needs to thrive and sustain itself?

The “Price” of Think Time–Part 1

Has this ever happened to you?

Someone–a colleague, a parent, a teacher–calls or emails you, asking for advice. You gladly respond, spending a some time thinking through the complexity of the question, and offering a well thought out and reasoned reply that took some time, but time well spent.

Then that same person asks you for further information, and you realize that if you say “yes,” it will take you a substantial mount of time to pull together a response that you are satisfied with.

How do you put a price or value on your time in service to others?

The situation arises frequently among non-ministry professionals. And it isn’t uncommon for someone to offer advice freely and for free to the 1st question, but to the second question, ask for some compensation to reflect the value of the time the professional will spend on her response.

I’m not advocating that we charge people who come to us in a ministry setting for doing the same. This whole interaction seems very much within the range of what is expected of us as ministry leaders and professionals.

But . . .

Yes, “but.” There is a trap that ministry leaders can fall into. It is the never-ending, black-hole spiral of “yes”. And that trap comes with a price not in dollars, but often in time not spent with family, on ourselves, with our colleagues or other students/peers/program participants.

What are the limits that you set in these circumstances? How do you offer your time, but put some of it on your own terms, e.g., you can help in 2 days, but not tomorrow morning?



Dear Miss Manners . . .

Every so often, I take a peak at the “Dear Miss Manners” column in the newspaper or the etiquette letters in a ladies magazine (Real Simple is my current favorite.) I’m glad I don’t read them regularly because I would be overwhelmed by this sense that the world has totally forgotten how to give and show respect for each other.

While we can turn to someone like Miss Manners for personal and relationship etiquette, where do most people turn for professional advice?

At appears that codes of ethics are making a comeback with more and more professional associations investing time and energy in creating or revising their codes to reflect the realities of the current market and climate.

While codes of ethics are formal and largely have punitive actions attached to violations of them, there is also a basic, human “code” of interaction that I believe most people want to live and work by.

We often borrow these more informal “codes” from other places–“do unto others . . .”–and truly believe that they are so ingrained in our psyche that we don’t need to talk about them or highlight them because, “Well, everyone knows that!”

The events of the last few months especially the violence in Charlottesville and Las Vegas are a stark reminder that some lessons need to be repeated over and over and over and over . . .

A few years ago, I was in a Lenten reflection group and we were discussing Eucharist. One of the group members made a comments about how unfortunate it was that people in our parish weren’t taught more about the Eucharist.

As the “uh-huh’s” and “that’s so true’s” piled on, I had to butt in. “That’s interesting,” I said. “If I understand correctly, we teach Eucharist to the pre-K children, in second grade, in fifth grade, in seventh or eighth grade, and in high school–twice–and then we have opportunities for adults like this to explore more.” (Note: I have taught most of these grades and been the teacher for this content, so I was able to speak out from experience, not just knowledge.)

If we have to teach and teach again one of the most central beliefs of our Church this many times, why do we think we can stop teaching and learning and practicing basic rules of professional conduct?

Clearly, “Love one another as I have loved you” or “Love your enemies” were not on display in these locales. Clearly, we have forgotten some of the most foundational rules we have learned.

So, eliminate the first 5 that come to mind. Those are the obvious ones. What is number 6 or 7 or 10 or 15? What rules or codes or manners do you think we need to teach, learn, and practice to improve our ministry?

Send your answer in a comment. Let’s see what kind of list we can come up with.



Slowing Down

When I was about 11, a group of families traveled north to the Escanaba River in Michigan to go canoeing. It’s a beautiful river set amidst the background of very lush and variegated trees.

For practically the entire day, my canoe was in front, leading them all. And periodically, my Dad (who was in the back of my canoe) made comments like, “This isn’t a race.”

For as long as I can remember, speed has been a desirable thing. I type fast. I walk fast. I even drive fast. When I was young, I would practice classical and ragtime piano pieces until I could play them at lightening speed, unconcerned that the composer might have had a different tempo in mind.

So, getting sidelined by a back injury has challenged my habit of always moving fast.

I’ve learned some of the obvious lessons that we have all read about. But here are a few that I didn’t expect.

  1. I’m less scattered. Since I can’t physically twist and bend at will, I’ve had to be more focused on what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. So I’ve had to stop trying to do more than one thing at a time.
  2. I’m using muscles differently. I can’t bend over to reach for something without pain, so now I bend my knees all the time to get low enough to grasp something. Like the physical muscles, I’ve found myself using mental muscles differently, too.
  3. I’m less likely to jump quickly into something. I spent a lot of time on the floor now with my legs elevated because sitting is uncomfortable. As a result, I can’t flit from one thing to another as easily because it just takes a lot more energy and movement.
  4. I edit a lot more–I edit what I think, what I say, what I write, what I do. For example, I have found myself rewriting emails a lot more than I ever did.
  5. I can change my habits–for the good. Physical therapy has helped me create new habits that include the exercises that I need to be doing. While that may not sound like a huge thing, I’m not the best at changing my routine.

Before the new parish/school year completely overwhelms you, get away from your desk and try doing some of your work in a new place or in a new position, e.g., sitting on the floor or at a coffee shop. See how this small change impacts the way in which you do your work, and think about how you can integrate that insight into how you do your ministry in the future.


Labeling Your Staff

A small confession. When I was a kid, I was teased by classmates who called me “tuberculosis” (my initials are TB.) Needless to say, I hated it.

Labels like that served no purpose, and only created tension because they communicated so little about who I really was.

So, as an adult, I found it ironic that I was drawn to various personality tests, e.g., Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, StrengthFinders. I wanted to know what my type or number or label was, and even more important, I wanted to know what yours was so I could better understand how to work with you.

Personality tests are common in the work place, especially in ministry circles. In one work setting, they proved particularly helpful as a colleague and I were continually clashing over work styles. It reached a high point, and we had a rich and informative conversation about it that led to the following process. I would ask for her advice, and she would ask me if I wanted her best answer or just an answer now.

As you can see, personality tests provide insights that we hope will help us work more effectively together. Like my experience as a child, though, labeling people, especially staff, can do more of a disservice to the relationship among people than it can help.

If you are a fan of personality tests, use them judiciously. Take what your staff or team learns about themselves and figure out what energizes and alienates them. Putting those two important pieces of information into action will have greater results than any potential label ever could.

3 Ways to Burst Your Leadership Bubble

I have the most distinct memories of my first meeting with a new group or committee of people. This is true in both my jobs and my parishes.

Probably one of the most awkward ones was when I joined my parish’s liturgy committee. I have a master’s degree in liturgy, and, at the time, I was the project coordinator at the bishops’ conference for the implementation of the General Instruction of Roman Missal (GIRM). Because of the latter, I just plum knew a lot about the GIRM, but because of the former, I avoided all resemblences to the very bad joke about liturgists and terrorist. (If you don’t know it, look it up. Scary, true, and sad, all at the same time!)

We were planning Advent, and the associate pastor made a statement about something that I knew was no longer true because it had been changed in the new GIRM. While I fought in my head with how to say something, the conversation had continued with much affirmation that we should do as the associate pastor had said. Just before we were to move on, I opened my mouth, and as gently as I could put it, said something like, “I think we might need to revisit this. I believe thus and such has changed in the GIRM, and blah, blah, blah…”

You would have thought that I had suggested that we change the theology of transubstantiation from the reaction that I got.

And unfortunately, this has happened to me a lot!!!!! (Yes, this does warrant all of these exclamation points!)

Because here’s what’s going on. Leadership groups like this liturgy committee had created their own little “bubble” which included a gaggle of “yes” people, people who supported the leader’s goals and approaches to preparation and rarely challenged them.

An important thing to know, too, is that none of that was necessarily intentional. It just happens. Why? Sometimes because we hand-pick our groups. Sometimes because those who come to us weed themselves out if they don’t feel welcome.

The big problem, though, is that our leadership can stagnate and not grow when we start to operate in a bubble like this.

How do we burst that leadership bubble? There are 3 things we can do.

  1. Designate a “devil’s advocate” in the group. By designating someone, we publicly say that disagreement is good and necessary. By designating a specific person, we ensure that challenges and concerns are actively a part of the group’s work. This also gives the leader someone to look to for advice and questions when no one else is able to offer them.
  2. Identify the criteria for every decision you will make. What are the 3 or 5 needs or objectives that each decision must satisfy? The MAC planners have 5 criteria that we use to help us make decisions along the way, criteria that we established over 5 years ago. It might be a simple as meet the budget, fit the timeline, and require less than 3 people to do. Whatever they are, set them, them diligently use them (and no exceptions unless the everyone agrees to the reason.)
  3. Do as Lincoln did — keep your “enemies” close. Instead of “enemies” — because this is ministry — let’s say “advocates.” In more than one instance, I have expressly invited someone to be on a leadership team that I knew completely disagreed with me — strongly and vocally. The hardest thing for me to do was to acknowledge that that person possessed some wisdom that I did not have, and I needed it on my team.

Don’t let a leadership bubble keep you from doing all that you want or can accomplish. Put your and your team’s feet on the ground by surrounding yourself with a diverse and opinionated group of people who are comfortable disagreeing with each other and sharing their perspectives, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

The True Cost of Cheapness

I remember the first time I was handed a budget of more than 4 figures. It was 7 figures, and all I could think of was, “Really?!?! You really think I can manage this?”

In the years since then, effectively managing budgets of varying sizes, I’ve learned one very important lesson that is essential for ministry leaders to know. “Cheap” and “frugal” are two different things.

“Frugal” is about getting the best return on investment — the key word being “investment.” Let me give you 2 examples from my work on the Mid-Atlantic Congress (MAC).

  1. The wonderful volunteer who took complete responsibility for all of the name badges including the printing, sorting, and distribution grew increasingly frustrated with me and my cheap system the first year of the MAC. It came to a head onsite when I ended up spending the entire 3 days basically behind a computer, creating name badges and wasting scads of name badge template sheets because I only needed one badge at a time (not 6.) After the post-mortem, it was very clear that we needed a different approach and the equipment that accompanied it. So, I bought it. Second best purchase I ever made.
  2. Then there are the amazing Baltimore volunteers who spend an entire day at the O’Dwyer Retreat House sorting materials and stuffing the registration bags. First few years, we used boxes to collect the completed bags — which caused endless headaches because we didn’t have enough and they were really hard to transport. Best $1,000+ I ever spent was for 4 huge, wheeled tubs that magically hold every one of those registration bags. Not only were those volunteers happy, but the onsite registration folks were thrilled!

“Cheap” is a completely other thing.

Cheap is our usual default when budgets are small, and we try to get the most out of them. And that can work for a while — in the short-term. Like hiring a recent college graduate as the parish liturgy coordinator or youth minister. While it’s a budget-friendly move, it’s can be a very staff-unfriendly move for the person who has been hired.

Recently, I did some consulting with someone in this situation. He didn’t have many complaints because he didn’t know better, but I did. The pastor turned a full-time position into part-time, still expected the same or better results, and wasn’t paying any benefits. As a good mentor should, I pointed that out, and in the long-term, he ended up leaving the job because of the “cheapness” of the parish.

Cheap is also the line we cross sometimes in an effort to maintain quality programs. How many times have you duplicated a chapter or a published article or a handout (like “Catholic Update”) without permission or paying to do so? That’s when we cross the line of our own beliefs in social justice — the rights of workers to earn a living. That’s what “cheap” sometimes means, compromising our beliefs.

In the long-term, what does being cheap get us? Lots of staff turnover. Less experienced staff. Less impactful ministry because of the less experience. More limited relationships and higher levels of stress because of the less exp . . .  You can see where this is going.

In ministry, it rarely pays to be cheap. That’s one of the takeaways from the parable of the vinekeeper who hires workers throughout the day, then pays them the same amount. He knows what he is doing as he hires the workers, and he knows what he is getting. His “return on investment” was as he intended.

In what areas do you need to move from being cheap to being frugal, and make the longer term investment to see the return you really want?