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.

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.

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 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.

Pink Elephants, Anyone? (Rule #9)

elephantDo you remember sitting in a movie theater (or maybe in front of a TV), watching Disney’s “Fantasia?” To a rather klutzy little girl, those dancing elephants in their girly tu-tus gave me hope that the strangest things might actually be possible.

Years later, pink elephants–and the proverbial “elephants in the room” still give me hope that the impossible might be possible.

Do you have any pink elephants in the room–or office or rectory or chancery? You know what I mean. The issues that everyone talks about in the break room or parking lot, by email or text, but no one wants to bring up at the staff meeting, with the boss, or when anyone else is around.

We tiptoe around them like the Fantasia pink elephants en pointe. We try to dress them up in the hopes that anxiety, pain, and tension surrounding the issue might dazzle us enough that we can skate around them without ever having to deal with them.

How wrong can we possibly be?!

When I taught in a Catholic high school, one of the concerns that I had is that we approached participation in Mass the wrong way. Mass was required for all students. It took place in the gym where the girls sat on the bleachers, hovered over by teachers and administrators. The clearest value was obedience. Which squelched any desire to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.

For three years, while we danced around the subject in department meetings, we indulged in long-winded, exasperating conversations over coffee in small groups of those who held the same opinion.

And as you might guess, nothing changed except that I got more frustrated, anxious, and even angry. I felt so powerless to make any change and every potential encounter seemed like a confrontation.

Hmmm . . . Yes, that’s exactly what happens when we choose to avoid discussing pink elephants.

We knew that discipline was a key issue, but the underlying point we focused on was the value behind it, behind the school’s mission, behind what it meant to be Christ’s people gathered around the Eucharistic table.

Because the school was Catholic, right? And with the word “Resurrection” in our name, didn’t we have an obligation to teach as Jesus did, inviting his followers to the table, to share in the Bread of Life, to be satisfied with His saving Word?

When we started talking about that, the values that we held in common, powerlessness and confrontation slipped away. And the issues of discipline and obedience became logistical details that we had to plan for–which we did. In the end, the administration agreed with us, and let us make the changes we suggested. All-school Masses became optional with certain rooms designated as quiet study AND we would offer weekly Mass in the chapel.

Did it all go smoothly? No. Change never does. But we engaged everyone in the process. We talked to teachers about the best ways to manage those who did not choose to attend. We asked the students to invite their favorite parish priests to work with us, and we formed an “anyone can sing” choir specifically for these Masses.

In the end, it was a major success. All because we took a chance and discussed the undiscussable.

What’s your pink elephant, and how are you going to address it?

Who Will Reap the Harvest?

harvestChange, change, change, change, change.

It’s a key driver in this year’s elections. And the one challenge put before most of us as leaders at some point in time.

As much as we want to be the one out front, leading the way from what was to what will be, the reality is, in most cases, we only sow seeds.

Great leaders know this. They know that most of what they try to accomplish will only be evident years after they leave their position. Politicians take advantage of this sometimes, highlighting the changes that happen during their years in office when, in fact, their predecessor’s decisions were often the ones that forged the current path.

The truth is, the harvest is for others to reap.

Ministry with teens is one of the best examples of this. As I look back at my years of teaching in an all-girls’ Catholic high school and subsequently as a volunteer in my parish’s youth ministry program, we adults knew that we had four years–and in some cases, fewer–to sow the seeds of faith, hope, and love (ah, yes, the theological virtues!) in the hopes that there would be a harvest.

As each graduating class of seniors departed, there was an internal tug-of-war–what more can we do to keep them connected versus just letting them go free in the hope that the seeds would take root and they would find a “home” in their faith and the Church.

Social media has been the greatest friend to this “sower.” With it, I have been able to follow the lives of our “kids” (many of whom now have their own kids). And I’ve been able to share in their joys and sorrows, and watch how the seeds we planted have fared.

Some fell on rocky ground. Some fell among weeds. But some fell on good soil, took root, and have grown and flourished.

So, in a society that seems to grow more impatient and a culture that demands immediate gratification, what are we to do? Remember and practice the theological virtues so that we may teach them in both our words and deeds.

As Jesus shows us, faith is not something that we go from not having to having. It develops over time through prayer and action. While we are conditioned in our culture to connect hope with wanting things, hope is an attitude that looks to the future, but walks with others in the present (think the familiar poem, “Footsteps.”) And love comes through the care we take in the sowing and feeding so that there may be a harvest.

Being a sower is what we are called to. When you have the opportunity to harvest, thank God for those who came before you and tended the fertile ground and planted that seed. And ask God for support to those who will come after you to tend what you have planted.