The Importance of Being Fully Present

For the last four weeks plus, I have been belabored by an ongoing case of sciatica. I’m a “newby” to back issues, so this whole experience has taken its toll.

The irony is that at the start of this month-long odyssey, I was able to accompany my mother to her surgeon’s visit to find out how he wanted to deal with her chronic and very painful back issues. She has lived with extreme pain since she was a teenager when she broke her back. This upcoming surgery will be her fifth.

In ministry as in life, our viewpoint or perspective dictates the colors and contours of how we see and interact with the people among whom we minister.

Every time I visit my mother some 3,000+ miles away, she shares with me stories about her patients (she is a hospice chaplain), their journeys, their challenges. The one thing I know for certain is that she understands what the families and the patients are going through. She’s been there as a daughter. And knows pain firsthand, a steady, if decidedly unwelcome companion.

My Mom is actually quite extraordinary. Life has given her the ability to empathize — actually connect with — what her clients are experiencing. While empathy makes it easier for use to fall into step with those in our ministry, it isn’t necessary. Sympathy does just fine.

Sympathy allows us to share in the feelings of the experience even though we may never have lived it before. We all have parallels in our lives that provide us a context for being present with others.

And that is the key. Presence. It is one of the strongest, longest-lasting elements of Jesus’ ministry — being present fully and completely to those around him.

One of the biggest obstacles to this presence is the antagonism we see around us in our political climate. It seems to seep out and infect all of our relationships, dividing families, neighborhoods, and communities. Being present may be the greatest challenge we face in our ministry today because of this.

How do we do it?

  1. Reach deeply for the experiences in our lives that allow us to be sympathetic or empathetic.
  2. Recall what Jesus did in a similar situation. There is no better model.
  3. Remember that we all have a little bit of the saint and sinner in us. None of us are completely right or completely wrong, so honor the truth in what others experience.
  4. Be brave. The hardest ministry situations for us are the hardest for a reason. Be brave and face them. Inject into them whatever virtue you can.

 

Is the Size of Our Ministry an Addiction?

Are we addicted to measuring the size of our ministry in numbers?

One of my father’s great pleasures in life is to check the value of the stocks that he has invested in. It’s a daily activity right up there with doing the crossword puzzles. And as a bit of a business “junkie,” I rarely miss the news of the market’s close, hoping to see that green arrow next to the S&P (that’s the yardstick for our investments) and a solid double-digit point increase.

We all look for growth — in our children, gardens, finances, and ministry. Most often, we use numbers to measure that growth.

But what do you (and sometimes more importantly, others) count in order to determine if your ministry has grown? People registered for your program? Numbers attending Mass? Breaking even on your budget?

A number of years ago, a friend and colleague of mine took a parish youth ministry job in a thriving and supportive community. She was brought in because the youth ministry in the parish really needed developing, and she had had great success in building a diverse and active program at her previous parish.

She spent the first year getting to know the parish and the teens, laying the foundation for the ministry including beginning to train the youth to be leaders in the community and in the ministry.

About 18 months later, the parish council decided that they were going to change youth ministry from a full-time to a part-time position. Why? Because they didn’t see any substantial growth in the number of teens participating in the program.

Is this unusual? No. Unfortunately.

At the end of my MBA courses, one thing I could say with absolute certainty is that pretty much anything can be counted. And in our efforts to be scientific, we rely on numbers that are verifiable and objective. So why not grade our ministries based on numbers? Why not evaluate the success of our programs using numeric data?

Three reasons why you will miss the most important “numbers.”

My husband led a very successful parish youth ministry program that engaged hundreds of young people. Here’s the kick, though. It would have been very hard to count them because they weren’t where you expected or were looking. This is called “hidden data.” He had teens in leadership positions on the parish council, on committees, at the nursing homes, and in other social ministries. They were hidden unless you knew where to look.

Jesus is probably the best example of “longitudinal data.” Think about it. He had 12 itinerant men plus a few women following him. Not exactly the kind of numbers we would expect to see from a successful leader. Okay, so we know about the 5,000. Still that’s one incident. And when he was hanging on the cross, how many people mourned him? And yet, over 2,000 years later, we count his followers in the millions. Some of the biggest successes take time to develop.

Qualitative data answers the question, “How many lives has our ministry touched and made a difference?” At the end of my last year of teaching, a mom introduced herself to me as the parent of one my school liturgical choir members. “Thank you for accepting my daughter into your choir. It has made all the difference in her.” Some people will reach out to us. For others, we’ll never know.

One job you have as a ministry leader is to determine how your ministry will be measured. Take the reins, and don’t let someone else do it for you. You and your ministry will be more successful if you do.

 

The 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Collaborate

It’s midsummer, and there are 3 pictures in my mind.

July 4th crowds gathering on the Mall, under the Arch, on the lake shore, in the fields to watch fireworks light up the sky.

Over 3,500 people pouring through the Hyatt Regency Orlando and Orange County Convention Center, participating in the USCCB Convocation on missionary discipleship.

Political leaders going home to constituents without a health care bill approved.

What do these all have in common? The desire, need, or fact of collaboration.

And in my mind, collaboration should be the 11th commandment. We are called to do it more often than many like!

July 4th revelers come together to share a common experience of liberty and freedom. Groups of diocesan and parish leaders descended on Orlando to dive deeply into the bishops’ plan for missionary discipleship and plan how to bring it alive back home. And our political leaders? After many weeks of back and forth, the language seems to be taking a turn toward possible collaboration across the aisle.

It isn’t hard to see in the example of Jesus that collaboration was a necessity. Look at his behavior. He was always sending people out in twos. Never a solo act.

When there was a “one,” he sends them back to the many. Take the leper and blind man he heals, the prodigal son who returns home to a celebration in his honor, and the Samaritan woman at the well who is teeming with excitement to tell her villagers what he had done.

As we look ahead to the 2nd half of summer and the beginning of the school and parish year, let’s consider how we can better model, foster, and participate in collaboration in our ministry. Identify a Gospel story that captures best the aspect of collaboration that you need to work on most, and let that Scripture be the focus of your prayer and meditation as the summer progresses.

What Problems Are You Trying to Solve? Part II

Besides my weedy gardens, the onset of warmer, more humid weather brought another new problem to the fore — our air conditioning didn’t work.

When you live in a part of the country that began as a swamp, summer means air that veritably drips with condensation that never quite turns into rain. A/C is a necessity — and so the quest for repair service began.

As luck would have it, we received a discount coupon in the mail from a heating/air conditioning company for a system check-up. After looking at our A/C, the conversation with the repairman went something like this.

“Now, if you will let me just do the service, I can charge you the $29 from the ad.”

“But didn’t you say that we need to replace the A/C.”

“Yes, but IF YOU WILL LET ME JUST DO THE SERVICE . . . ”

“Ohhhhh, then you can charge me the $29, and send someone else out to do the rest?”

“Right!!!”

I’m not usually so clueless, but his point was well taken. We thought we had a leak problem since we’d been in this situation before. But he had redefined the problem–appropriately so–and now the question was how best to solve it?

I solve most “big ticket” issues the same way–contact multiple experts, collect lots of information, compare prices, then make a decision. With A/C or new doors, my solo search might work, but in ministry, not so much.

The center of the above process is “I.” And in ministry, an “I” is best when part of a “we.” There’s good reason for that. Ministry is always about the community — the participation of, the impact on, and the ownership of the problem and solution.

So, unlike caring for a house, in ministry, problems shouldn’t be solved by one person. But you’ve probably had similar experiences trying to motivate a committee or team to solve a familiar or repeated problem.

Don’t let that stop you. Though your group may be moving slowly or not at all, a change in or from one person can completely change the direction or orientation of the whole towards the problem and solution. That person can be you.

So what can you do? Make a change in your own behavior related to the problem.

Instead of advocating for a particular approach, start asking everyone else how they would handle it. Don’t let them get away with saying that your idea is fine. Gently push them to tell you what they would do (or what they have done in a similar situation.)

Or create multiple options and lead the group in an evaluation of them. Don’t contribute a single opinion until someone either asks or everyone has talked. You are there to lead.

Or do something really crazy — pass out post-it notes or index cards. Ask folks to write down every possible idea for how to solve the problem, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Try speaking in a different language (really! Spanish or charades — and no, I am not kidding!)

 

Or just do something, anything that is totally different from what you would otherwise do. Don’t feed into people’s expectations of how the problem will be solved.

Group dynamics remind us that when one person in a group changes their behavior, everyone else must change theirs too. Creating this kind of energy and ownership will move you forward, even through the rough spots, and lead you to different solutions to the problems that you face.

What Problems Are You Trying to Solve? Part I

My husband and I live on a half acre plot of land. In an effort to reduce the amount of grass that he has to cut, we have planted gardens in large patches around the house and in the back yard.

In solving one problem, it seems I created another. “BG” (“before gardens”), my aversion to weeds was easily controllable with regular sprays of a good weed-killer or an hour or two of weeding. Now? I feel one with the plants that are being overwhelmed by the towering and tangling weeds that want to bury the actual plant residents of the gardens.

With the break in the parish and school year, it’s a good time to reflect on what  problems are you trying to solve?

Is your focus on the right problems or just the ones in front of you?

I thought the weeds were my problem. A landscaper (who I ultimately hired) showed me the error of my ways. The landscaping fabric that I had had laid the previous year was the actual culprit of my weed problem. He told me that as long as the fabric was there, regardless of how much he sprayed the weeds, they would keep coming back.

Think about one or two of the problems that you are hoping to address over the summer. What’s the surface problem? How is it presenting itself? Who and what are involved?

Then, like a good weed, take a second look and see if you can find the root of the problem.

As a former teacher, it used to drive me crazy when students would forget to turn in homework. It took me about 3 semesters to realize that the homework itself wasn’t the problem. My students weren’t organized enough to remember to do it! Solve the organization problem, and the homework may actually get done.

Most of our problems are like a garden. If you want to kill the weed, you have to have the patience and perseverance to kill the root. Otherwise, you pull the weed, only to have it return again.

The Problem with Stars

Every team has its “star.” The naturally gifted athlete. The incredibly imaginative artist. The achingly effortless musician. The amazingly smart student.

One of the challenges for any leader is what to do with a star.

In many sports, they build teams around them. The Angels and Mike Trout. The New England Patriots and Tom Brady. The LA Lakers and Magic Johnson.

But still, on a day to day basis, what do you do with a star? Do you encourage them “be a good team member” (often meaning, share the time, resources, attention with everyone else)? Do you just let the star be the star?

When I was in high school, my best friend’s twin brother played basketball, so when the season ended and post-season, championship play began, we went to the games. His team won the Catholic league championship which was the ticket to the state finals against East Lansing High School.

During warm-ups, we noticed something sort of odd. This sort of short East Lansing player (like maybe 5’2″ or 5’3″) never took a shot. All he did was pass the ball to this other, much taller player whose every shot dropped perfectly through the hoop.

When the game got under way, it was clear that the short East Lansing player was running the show. With different numbered fingers in the air, he set up and ran the play. The odd thing was that during almost every play, the ball ended up in that same tall player’s hands — and in the basket.

By halftime, we sat their amazed, jaws dropping, eyes pealed, categorically amazed. During the break, we asked who that player was, and her older brother said, “Earvin Johnson.”

By the end of the game, Earvin “Magic” Johnson had scored 44 points (I recall) and single-handedly beat their opponent.

By the end of the game, I learned something about how to handle a star. Let them be one when the situation dictates it. For his high school team, the state championship led to college careers that some of their probably had never dreamed were possible. And they had ridden to the championship on his abilities.

When Magic became a pro (and I actually watched pro basketball because I was living in Chicago during the Michael Jordan years), I learned something else about how to handle a star. When you surround them with gifted players, those stars who have learned to be humble about who and what they are will play well with others and share the ball, sacrifice the body, make the other look better than they think they are.

Ministry stars are much the same. Sometimes you give them the stage and let them lead 20,000+ people in prayer, song, and praise (thank you, Jesse Manibusan.) Sometimes you give them silence and a piano, and let them inspire (thanks, Sarah Hart.) And sometimes you give them an idea and just let them go (thank you, Meredith and Mark.)

Other times, you surround them with other faith-filled leaders, and let them struggle to serve those who hunger for peace, justice, compassion, and knowledge.

The problem with stars isn’t that that they are stars. It’s that we sometimes don’t know how to direct their light and shine it on others as well as on them. That’s what Jesus did for us, now it’s our turn to do it for others.

 

When You Are the Face of the Ministry

Living “inside the beltway” (if not literally, at least figuratively speaking), the same leadership issues seem to get hammer at ceaselessly. No one on the hill can work in a bipartisan way. Where is the new “gang of …” who will stand up and work on real issues. You get the gist.

Out here on the west coast, however, I’ve been listening to leadership issues in the world of NBA basketball.

Apparently, the first round draft pick for the LA Lakers did a sort of un-leader-like thing. He and his family appeared on WWE, and in the midst of this appearance, his 15-year-old brother repeatedly used the “n” word on TV–multiple times. Big brother did nothing. Said nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Said first-round-draft choice is apparently supposed to be the new “face of the LA Lakers” much like Magic Johnson was for so many years, the one to build the franchise on.

My guess is that he’s going to have to learn the long, hard lessons that many of us have mastered over the years. Like . . .

  1. “Be careful what you say. Someone is always listening.” Remember the last time you were in a group, talking to someone you know very well in the same room with parents, students, or leaders in your ministry, and you said something that was honest and true, but only meant for that one person to hear? And someone else heard it too, and you didn’t want her to hear that. Some call it self-censureship. I call it picking my words–and audience–wisely.
  2. “Practice what you preach.” Or your words and actions will come back to haunt you. Nothing worse than leading a group of teens through methods for conflict resolution only to run into a few of them accidentally as you are losing your cool with your spouse or friend.
  3. “Always be genuine, even if it means not being perfect.” Children and teens have particularly good radar for assessing that all-essential quality of genuineness.

Knowing you are the face of your ministry, what lesson would you teach someone who is new to ministry?

Discuss.

 

What’s It All About, Alfie?

As far back as I can remember, my father has sung the same line in the same way — and stopped. Whether we were in the car, in an elevator, or at the dinner table, it was always the same thing. “What’s is all about, Alfie” . . . then nothing.

No second line. Nothing.

As a kid, it made me laugh even though I knew the “joke.” It took until I was about 13, and I was playing my way through a book of popular songs on the piano, when lo and behold, there was the theme song from the movie, “Alfie.”

Well, gosh darn it. I didn’t know there was a movie called “Alfie.” And even more surprising, I didn’t know that there were more lyrics. Even a second verse!

One day, after my dad sung his one line, I asked him, “Do you know the next line in the song?” He just looked at me, and said, “No.”

Funny thing is that the joke got even funnier (to me, at least) once I learned that he didn’t know the next line, let alone the rest of the song. The joke wasn’t the song. The joke was the fact that he sang it for no reason, at no particular time, whenever the urge came over him.

I do the same thing–one lyric, no more, without warning. But I do have a reason.

The old adage says that humor soothes the savage beast–basically, it helps to reduce tension and relieve pressure when tempers rise.

Nonsensical actions like singing one line of a song and stopping can serve the same purpose. They can change the trajectory of a discussion in moments, turning a debate into a conversation, or a heated controversy into a creative opportunity.

When dealing with group dynamics, especially conflict, look for the nonsensical action or element. It has the potential and power to lead you forward when the path you are taking may seem to have narrowed or been foreshortened.

 

What Inspires You?

One of our members, World Library Publications, is issuing 3 new recordings on vinyl this year. So, when I got word of these new recordings–one is Bing Crosby and the Christmas story–I got jazzed.

See, tucked away in a cabinet in our library is my stack of records ranging from “The Carpenters” to “Pebbles and Bam-Bam’s Christmas” (yes, really!), and a collection of 78s from the Big Band era.

Records were the soundtrack of my life growing up. They accompanied me in my low moments, sang me out of my doldrums, and celebrated the mountain experiences. Because I would listen to them from start to finish (never just one song), I lived through a whole range of emotions and experiences by the time the last song ended. My faith was formed by Ray Repp, “Joy Is Like the Rain,” and Followers of the Way.

Most people would say that music inspires them. Some music, somewhere. At least once in a lifetime.

What music inspires you?

Why?

I learned that I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be (“Free to Be You and Me.”) This special and album spearheaded by Marlo Thomas inspired me to look beyond societal boundaries. It helped me believe that I was as capable as the next equally talented and skilled person in the room.

I learned to observe and experience with all of my senses through Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and then Ravel’s orchestration of it. It started as a college “Symphonic Appreciation” assignment, but it captivated my already-nerdy inclination toward museums. The original piano piece added an aural dimension to the visual that has never let me go. It challenges me look at decisions from different points of view, and stop and engage when something doesn’t immediately grab me.

I also learned how to be present in prayer before God. When I was about middle school age, a group of young adults recorded 2 albums as the Followers of the Way. I spent a lot of time listening to, singing with, and dancing to these songs. As I was growing into my faith, they helped me find God in the world, in my family, and in myself.

So, what 3 songs (or albums) have contributed to the score of your life and ministry, and why? How do you still see and hear them resonating in your work and ministry?

Three Steps Ahead

I am a terrible chess player.

When I was in middle school, my younger brother learned to play chess. Since it’s a paired activity, I also learned so that we could theoretically play with each other.

I know he isn’t a savant, but my brother was exceptionally good at chess within days. Really.

You might think, “well, big deal, that’s one thing.” It isn’t. I also learned to play tennis and golf with him. Within a few lessons or rounds, he had exceeded the skill of the teacher or best player in the vicinity. My brother is what you call a “natural athlete.” But more importantly, he has a naturally strategic eye.

Standing at the opposite end of a tennis court, I could see it at work, though I couldn’t catch up to it. The moment he had committed to serving the ball, he saw three steps ahead to where he was going to place the ball so I couldn’t return it. The worst part is that I could see him doing it, but was powerless to stop it because I couldn’t see three, let alone, four steps ahead.

Being able to envision the steps of a strategy multiple steps ahead of those with whom you interact is an incredible gift. This gift gives you the ability to anticipate, prepare, and respond (rather than react) using your best tools or offering your best response rather than just any tool or response.

But not all leaders have it. And in my lifetime, I haven’t come across many ways to gain it.

So, what do folks like you and me do? Three things.

We study. In chess, there are books written ad nauseam about the strategies for chess that one can research and memorize. The better we know the options in our field or about a situation, the more we can learn about all of the possible strategies ahead.

We practice. I have this same strategy problem with the game of bridge–especially knowing what card to lead when playing in no trump. I practice by watching and analyzing my husband’s play. He knows precisely what card to play when in order to make his bid. Same principle. Talk through scenarios with those you trust until you feel confident.

We get advice. The smartest people in the room are smartest when they acknowledge what they don’t know, and ask others for their advice. It’s surprising sometimes to find that the people around you are sometimes wiser than you think. Talk to the parents, participants, other staff about the situation. Listen to the stories of how they responded in a similar situation, and learn from those.

Three steps to getting ahead: study, practice, and advice. Do all three and you may increase your chances of returning a serve or expecting the unexpected challenge in your ministry.