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.

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.

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?

What Problem Is Your Ministry Solving?

monolithWhen I was a new teacher, the main “to do” item was write and teach lesson plans. That’s what I was hired to do–fill a teaching position and teach. That was the problem that needed solving.

If you’ve been following this blog, then you know that in my four years there I did much more than teach. I discovered real problem was–or problems were–personal, social, emotional, and spiritual, not informational.

In the work I do now as an association executive, some of the problems that I’m supposed to solve include: acquiring and keeping new members, attracting registrants to our conference, collecting dues, implementing our strategic plan.

But those aren’t really “problems.” They’re tasks. They don’t focus on who the people or companies that I interact with really are and what they need.

One of the things we do is host a conference. We could have tried to replicate what had been done in the past or is now being done successfully elsewhere. But we didn’t. The conversation long ago started with the question, “What do ministry leaders in this area need and want?” With a little market research, we found out that they needed and wanted professional development opportunities in a context of a strong Catholic spiritual program.

Ministry programs are too often monoliths that exist because someone started them and no one is brave enough to question or end them. And so they continue with perhaps some success, but perhaps not what anyone really hopes for.

So, here are a few question to help you identify what the real problem is that your ministry can solve.

  1. When you look around at all of the options available to the people you minister with, what is the one thing that your people are seeking or trying to accomplish? Learning how to pray as a family? What are you doing and what aren’t you doing to make that possible?
  2. When you look at the overall picture of ministry in your community, where are the gaps where nothing is happening? Maybe that is an opportunity for you.
  3. Are people twisting themselves in knots trying to satisfy a need when you know of or have a way to make it easier? Is Saturday morning religious education always competing with soccer practice, so Moms have to choose one over the other? Can you give Moms and Dads multiple options?
  4. How does the ministry you offer meet a need beyond checking off the “religion” checkbox? What social and emotional needs does or can it meet?

 

Innovation and Faith

ChurchInnovation is the beating red blood of the American ecosystem. Think about it. In your lifetime, what radical changes have you seen in business and the economy?

The unparalleled success of Apple, first with its user-friendly operating system (true confession: I am a total Windows geek from the days of DOS and the introduction of the personal computer back in 1985) to its i-“anything” devices. Microsoft with Windows and its almost complete hold on the business market. Music moving from vinyl to tape to disc, and back to vinyl even! Electric cars, Airbnb, Uber . . .

Where have you seen innovation in the Church, your parish, your own faith life?

While Vatican II ushered in many changes, many would say that they were not “innovations” because the foundations upon which they were built existed in Scripture and Tradition.

So, where has, does, and can innovation take place? And what is your role as a leader?

One of my fav sources, Harvard Business Review, has a quote in this month’s issue:

The role of leaders is to enable diverse team members to grasp one another’s perspectives and productively share their insights.

Think about the teams that you have assembled. How have you affirmed the diversity of insights and found ways to help them share them?

We’ve probably all sat in too many parish committee meetings, watching ineffective leaders negotiate the battles between different viewpoints, only to see a worthwhile agenda slide into a black hole, never to be retrieved.

My other favorite “wise” source (Real Simple!) gave me a few ideas.

  1. Turn the polar opposite ideas into a brainstorming session. Remember, these are only 2 ideas. Don’t let your team or committee members’ comments become positions that they need to defend. These are only their perspectives, the ideas that they have an interest in, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all.
  2. Repeat what each committee member has said, then ask each to clarify. Then go back to the subject at hand or to another subject, especially if it is clear that you aren’t going to be able to resolve any differences.
  3. Pause. No! Don’t say anything. Let those who were talking know they were heard, and wait. If silence prevails, continue or go forward.

In the end, you want well-managed and negotiated diversity or you may never break out of the patterns that have led you to the present. If you want to change for the future, then change has to start in the present.