What Control Is and Isn’t

As many of you know, about 4 weeks ago, we were gearing up for the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress. (We had a record-setting crowd, and many exciting, unexpected moments including the Archbishop Curley High School drum line and Loyola jazz band.)

If there is one thing that I have learned about managing a project or event it is this: Figure out what you can and cannot control early. Otherwise, you will either try to control everything–and alienate everyone around you–or you will control nothing–and stress out everyone around you.

And then there is this humbling revelation. You can’t really control anything. Not really. You and I don’t hold all of the strings to make anything happen the way we want it to. The most you can hope to do is influence a decision, person, or situation in such a way that the outcome you intend takes place.

A few examples.

At the 1999 National Catholic Youth Conference in the RCA Dome in St. Louis, I was the staff person who had overall responsibility for it, and as we were waiting for participants to start coming into the dome to get ready for a keynote, the wave of people was only a trickle. So, I hurriedly got myself to the main doors, and discovered that the dome security staff was forcing everything to walk up to a higher level, then down again to the floor of the dome, rather than just walk straight through to the floor. After some ineffective back and forth, I just “pulled rank” and said, “I pay the bills. Now open those doors.”

Funny thing is, they could have completely ignored me. I looked about 12 at the time, but they didn’t. Not one of my proudest moments, but one in which I felt I needed to take control.

For the current work that I do, I have a very skilled and gifted team that I work with. And when it comes down to it, I generally “sit in the circle of equals” and contribute like everyone else. It’s a more collaborative experience, and we each respect the knowledge and decision-making authority that we have.

One of the hardest things for me to watch these days is when someone tries desperately to grasp for control of the situation around them and hang on by a thread. By doing so, we often hurt the people around us (intentionally or unintentially), gather to ourselves decisions that aren’t ours to make or for which we do not have the experience and/or knowledge, and put distance between those who are willing to support us in our efforts.

The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Lent reminds us that God is in control of our lives ultimately. The decisions we make and the control we have is only there because of the gifts that God has given us. When we horde or overstep, we inch farther away from God. As this Lent unfolds, check whatever hunger begs you to grab control. And create or join a circle of equals in your ministry or workplace.

“God Once Saw How Good It Was!”

Keynote presentation by Archbishop Wilton Gregory on the theme of the blessings of creation at the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress.

“God saw how good it was” that special phrase appears five times in those opening passages of the Book of Genesis as the sacred text describes how the Lord God was obviously admiring His works of creation.  It is now our spiritual and moral obligation to “see how good it is” the created world that God has now entrusted to our care.  It’s not merely good because it is profitable or usable or exploitable.  First and foremost, it is good because it reflects God’s goodness itself.  In the very act of creation, God was bestowing upon all of nature an undeniable reflection of His own Divine Goodness.  The apex of that reflection is to be found in the women and men entrusted with God’s handiwork. Human beings are God’s creation that most perfectly reflects His Own Divinity.  If we are to begin to safeguard God’s creation, we must launch an increased reverence for every human life.  We must be so grateful for those whose concerns for the planet draw our attention to its fragility.  Yet we must first safeguard human life as the very starting point of environmental security. The life of human beings enjoys a priority of importance in the environmental concerns because those who have been entrusted with the care of creation must themselves be safeguarded in order to accomplish our Divine assignment of caring for His creation.

For the complete text

Why Should Someone Trust You?

How do we determine that someone should be trusted? Is there a definitive test that we subject others to that gets us to a reliable and defensible answer? Are there black-and-white criteria with boxes that we check off as we reach a pre-determined grade or score?

Would that trust were so easy.

We are seeing this question played out practically every day in the political environment. We watch and read bellicose statements that sound more authoritarian and bullying than collaborative and bridge-building.

On the other hand, Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State, today included this statement in his remarks to the staff at State: “Hi. I’m the new guy.” With a bit of candor and humility, he may have gained a few points toward the trust that he will need to lead the country in its foreign policy.

We’ve seen the former in our Church, too. We are not exempt. And gratefully, we have heard the latter as well. For folks like me, we were fortunate enough to hear Cardinal Joseph Bernadin refer to himself as “our brother.”

But words are words. And we know it. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we think, even if we don’t say it.

It’s our actions that speak loudly, and tend to be the building blocks of trust.

Within a few months of starting a new job, I realized that there was a great deal of mistrust between my committee and my position. My predecessor had not followed through on their decisions, and they were mad. With good reason. “Trust me” because I was new wasn’t going to cut it. So I chose actions–regular, detailed communication, opening the budget, as much transparency as possible. Slowly, we built trust between us.

Officials were suspicious of Jesus. His words were probably familiar since there had been others who claimed to be the prophet, the savior, the messiah during his time. It was his actions that distinguished him, and earned the trust of his followers–sitting next to a Samaritan woman at the well, touching the unclean, spending hours and days with the poor and dispossessed.

Let’s leave our words aside, and look at what actions we can take to build the bonds of trust that we need as a Catholic community.

Count to 10

As a child, I was restless and anxious, always looking ahead, anticipating what was to come, but wanting it now. And the repeated chorus that I heard from adults including my parents was, “Be patient.”

Patience became the centerpiece of my prayers throughout childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I was told frequently to “count to 10” before saying something or acting. And as the joke goes, I counted “10.”

Leaders who practice patience have an edge over those of us who want to naturally rush ahead without pausing. The priest who hired me away from Chicago to Washington, DC, taught me a lesson about patience that we should remember as we look about us in our own personal as well as public “chaos.”

During my first week on the job, we were at the conference that I was to eventually manage, and he was introducing me to the leaders of the organization with whom I would be working. I met board members and icons in the field, and then he “tried” to introduce me to a long-standing leader from Iowa.

Before he could finish the sentence, “I’d like to introduce you to . . .,” I said, “You can’t.” And we both paused.

He had three options at this point. One was to plow ahead anyway. (How often have you done that? I have, mostly because I’m more concerned with what I need to get done, and not listening to the other person or paying attention to the situation.)

Two was to ask me questions. Which he didn’t do.

Three was to wait. Which he did.

I think he recognized–because he was paying attention–that there was something more than a simple introduction taking place. And he had the patience to let it play out. Which it did.

(The reason he couldn’t introduce this person to me is that we had known each other since I was a child. We just hadn’t seen each other in a very long time.)

As I look around me, the question I keep asking myself is this: How different would things be if our leaders had more patience, waited a little longer, and let things play out? How well do you cultivate the practices of listening and paying attention to the situation you are in before reacting?

Do You Choose Angels or Devils?

When selecting or inviting people to be part of your team, do you choose angels or devils?

Angels are the people who walk alongside you, keep you from harm, and guide you along the path. They see the path clearly before you, and are eager to accompany you there. They want to see you succeed.

There can be a “devilish” side to them, though. In keeping you from harm, sometimes they prevent you from seeing the people, problems, and issues that can threaten your program or challenge you to grow. Or the path they are treading may not be the path you want to or should be traveling.

And devils? Well, sometimes we are unfortunate enough that they volunteer themselves to work with you. Maybe they have a concern that no one has listened to or acknowledged, and they feel unheard. Maybe they don’t like change, and this is their way of preserving the status quo. Or maybe they just think a different way.

There can be an angel hiding inside that devilish skin. We’ve all known people like this. We call them “devil’s advocates” or the rivals in the infamous Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.” Their contrariness can be a blessing in disguise when we give it voice and attention. Walking in their shoes, taking their perspective, can sometimes lead us along paths that we would not have considered, or question the path that we have traveled along, maybe, too long (?)

As we journey through this presidential transition, consider who is part of your team–both formally and informally. Who are the angels and who are the devils? Because every team needs a few of each in order to prevent the team from just saying “yes” to every decision, rarely challenging the choices you make, and ensuring that all of the voices and perspectives are heard.

How Loud Is Our Silence?

Most of us are this person, know someone like this, or have been in a situation with someone like this.

An intensive, challenging, vocal, stirring discussion–within the family, at work, in Church, in politics–goes on for a while until there is a lull in the conversation, and one of the people who has said little if anything starts to speak. Quietly, gently, slowly, this person makes an observation or a statement that irreversibly turns the discussion in a different direction or dispels the building or potentially destructive emotions.

Remember the old commercial, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen”? That’s the kind of person we are talking about.

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to listen. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is one who knows when to keep silent and not speak.

Look around, and I’m sure you will see a number of examples of good and bad, great and worst leaders using this specific criteria. And with one hand you can probably easily count the ones who understand the volume of silence.

One. In 1980 while I was studying in Rome, I was sort of enveloped by the hospitality of the Jesuits. Padre Damiani at the Gesu listened quietly and with a gracious smile to me and my friends as we pattered on in badly-conjugated Italian, and when we stopped, he knew what we needed most–to be welcomed. He showed us the private rooms in the Jesuit residence there with their amazing paintings and told us the history of those who had lived there (at least, I think that’s what he said–our Italian was possibly worse than his English!)

Two. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with an Italian youth group at a Jesuit parish. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Jesuits, was preaching at Mass one Sunday, and meeting with a group of adults there. We met and talked briefly for a minute or two. What I remember most is the quiet stillness that surrounded him, this fairly tiny, but wise man.

Three. Within the first couple hours of arriving in California for work and/or to visit my parents, I get to hear the stories. The stories of the dying, the stories of the families, the stories of the caregivers–all from my Mom who is a hospice chaplain. She knows how to listen without expectation, and with compassion and kindness. And she knows when silence is the best consolation in times of tragedy and grief, when no words are even close to adequate.

That’s three fingers I can count so far.

What about you? How many people can you count–including yourself–who know how to listen and let silence lead the way?

It’s Moving Day!

Two of my TV favorites reminded me that New Year’s resolutions are not all about dieting, exercising, doing something more or less, or trying something new.

One of the hardest resolutions to make and keep is the decision to move on.

My husband and I were catching up on season 5 of “Once Upon a Time.” It largely takes place in the underworld where souls are there because they haven’t moved on. They have unfinished business. We came to one of those episodes that is a plot turning point, and it ended with two people both promising to move on regardless of how difficult that might be, especially considering one of them was dead. (Living people among dead people in the underworld. Yeah. Watch the show and it actually make sense.)

And then my treadmill companion, “West Wing.” If you’re a fan, you might remember the end of season 1 and start of season 2 where the president is shot at, but it is actually one of his aides who is badly hurt. The writers give us a two-part opportunity to learn how each of President Bartlett’s staff became a part of the campaign and, subsequently, the White House staff. As these new staffers are trying to contribute to the strategy conversation with then-Governor Bartlett, he says, “What’s next?” but they continue with the same topic. He turns to them and tells them that when he says, “what’s next?” he means “what’s next?”

No more standing still or looking back over your shoulder. No more replaying the conversation and figuring out a better or different way of handling it. No more going back over the same points, looking for a different answer.

Today is moving day.

Take a look at three of the relationships that are part of your ministry — your relationship with your boss (e.g., pastor, principal, director, superintendent), your peers, and your volunteers.

What is one conversation or behavior in each relationship that is stuck or has you stuck? You know what I mean. Things like the conversation you have every month that you can repeat word for word.

What one response or behavior have you never tried? I mean NEVER. I used to get picked on when I was a child, and I did what typical children do–I whined, I cried, I gave back as good as I got. Then my mother finally convinced me to “kill ’em with kindness.” As much as I hated doing it because it felt so false, things changed. I never would have tried that on my own.

Then ask yourself, what’s next? What do you want to be next if you could ever imagine getting over this obstacle? I remember growing in confidence around very opinionated people when I finally decided one day to just respond, “Okay,” when someone challenged me on a decision. Then I quickly followed it with a “so what’s next?” Changed the tenor of the conversation and ultimately the relationship.

A new year is all about newness. Embrace it and move on.

Leadership Lessons from the 1st American Saint

Today is the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. There is a deep connection between her and my chosen home of Baltimore because of the school and religious order she started here.

A few leadership lessons we can learn from St. Elizabeth.

  1. Be a lifelong learner. St. Elizabeth was an avid reader from the Bible to contemporary novels. Reading is a major life skill that feeds curiosity and the desire to learn.
  2. When in doubt, let the Gospels be your guide. This does indeed harken back to the “What Would Jesus Do” rage, but the underlying truth is the same.
  3. Despite the ups and downs of our work, ministry, and lives, God is constant and God’s calling to us is ever-present. Don’t lose hope and always listen for God’s voice.
  4. Family–of origin or by selection–is second only to God as a priority. Make sure your schedule and actions reflect that.

Flow of Change

Death and taxes–and now change–are life’s constants.

How we identify potential changes and deal with them often spells the difference between a growing and a stagnant ministry.

There are four approaches to change. Which one describes you?

  1. Change is constantly happening and you are able to change with it.
  2. Change is taking place, but you’re able to keep doing what you are doing without changing.
  3. You aren’t changing with the times, everyone knows you should, but no one is willing to confront the fact of change,
  4. You can see the change ahead, and adapt what you are doing before the change is inevitable.

If you identify with #1, I want to be a volunteer in your program or buy stock in the company you lead! You are comfortable with change, aren’t intimidated by it, able to see it when it is anywhere around you, and able to respond. “Able” meaning ready, having the ability, even the desire to respond.

If #2 is more similar to what’s happening in your ministry, do not be afraid as the St. Louis Jesuits wrote. It looks like change is happening, but perhaps you’ve planned far enough in advance, chosen really rich programs and resources that can withstand a certain amount of change before you have to face a shift. It’s a nice place to be, but don’t get overly comfortable because you may be #3 soon.

We probably all have nightmares about being aligned with #3. It’s the old “head in the sand” approach. In most situations, you haven’t faced the choice of change or die yet. Best case, someone of their own free will confronts you. Worst case, everyone around you reinforces that everything is fine as it is. Who loses? Usually those with whom you minister. Is that really what you want to happen?

And #4 is the “healthy” approach. We’d all like to be there, but life sometimes interferes. Confirmation has to happen. Have to keep the five service programs going so that all of those service hours get completed. Etc. Etc. Etc.

How do we keep the spigot of change open and flowing? A few thoughts.

  • Look for improvements in what you are already doing. Are you marketing it enough? Is your message strong or clear enough? Are you attracting other leaders who can help you implement the improvements and other potential changes?
  • Identify the expectations people have for you and your ministry. What end do they expect you to achieve? Ensure that their children go to Mass? Make sure that they stay Catholic? Diversify the ministry? Have more outreach to more people?
  • Schedule regular opportunities to step back and scan the environment to see what changes are ahead in order to prepare for them. Invite your best allies and some of your biggest challengers. Do it quarterly, but do it, lest the change overtake you.

Whatcha Got?

One of jewels that we discovered this year is a movie on UP TV called “Christmas for a Dollar.” A father and his 6 children struggle to make ends meet after the death of the wife and mother. With the approach of Christmas, gifts are an extravagance that they cannot afford. But the father has saved pennies throughout the year so that they have one dollar in coins. He offers the dollar to all of the children, telling them that they can use part of it for their gift, one gift for one sibling.

Christmas seems to be the time of year when we most often assess what we have and what we don’t have. We do it in our personal lives–how much can I afford to spend on presents, does my child really need another toy? We do it in our professional lives–do I have enough volunteers, how am I going to get enough people to fill the bus?

Money, people–they are obvious resources. But there are others that we often don’t account for as frequently and as thoroughly.

This is where this TV movie shines. Each child creates a gift for one other child–some using material resources (wood and tools to create a box) and others using actions (good acts like shining everyone’s shoes, inviting a lonely woman to celebrate with the family). “Resources” are more than what we see.

The next time that you are wondering what you have and getting frustrated by what you don’t, think about what you have in these areas too.

  1. Knowledge: What do I or those I minister with know that we can use to move our ministry forward?
  2. Physical: What physical resources, e.g., spatial, Internet-based, do we have that are underused or not even active?
  3. Perceptual: How do people in my parish, school, or diocese perceive the ministry that I lead? How can we build on that perception to further our ministry?
  4. Political: Who has the influence to help further our goals? Parents? Pastor? Key donor?
  5. Organizational: What organizations are we connected to? How can those connections help us do what we do more easily, e.g., piggy-backing events, using them as a source for speakers?