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.

Give into These 4 Temptations

We Catholics spend the 40 days of Lent reflecting on those temptations that distract us from loving and serving God fully. The 1st Sunday of Lent’s Gospel of Jesus’ temptation in the desert sets the course clearly and directly.

With Lent behind us, let’s look at the 5 temptations we should give into as the Easter readings and Gospels and the early Christian community instruct us.

Forgive. From the call of the Baptist to the preaching of Paul, Jesus’ message of repentance and forgiveness rings loud and clear. When faced with the pain and grief that we cause others when we treat them without charity, we are called to summon the strength and unconditional love to forgive. Like the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, forgiveness should be our practice for Easter.

Praise. St. Paul is almost effusive in his praise of the goodness and kindness of the early Christian communities. He is specific and precise about what prompts him to recognize the communities. His model is worth duplicating. Praise must be concrete, not generic (as in “good move to the left on that penalty kick” rather than “nice job”.) Practicing it on adults is even more important in a world where adults, especially parents, are mostly on the giving end of it.

Listen. Have you ever noticed how much the apostles take from Thomas when he doubts that they have seen the Risen Lord? No interruptions. No cutting him off. They listen to his declarations of disbelief fully and completely. And then when Jesus tells them that they know where he is going, Thomas jumps in and says, “We don’t.” No laugh off. No chastisement. Jesus and the apostles model how to be a good listener. Jesus listens to the words, but also hears what is said behind, underneath them. And he responds to all of it. After the speaker is done. . . My mother was right. “Listen more, speak less.”

Welcome. Perhaps the most controversial of these temptations given our political climate, but it is one of the strongest threads in our Easter season Scriptures. Jesus, the stranger, is welcomed to supper in Emmaus. New believers are welcomed daily into the community of faith without limits or ceremony. Jesus prepares them to welcome the Holy Spirit during these final weeks. Welcomes are sometimes surprising, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes challenging, sometimes unexpected. But we are called to extend them — always.

Follow. We think about Jesus so often as the one we follow that we often forget that he too was a follower — of his Father. For leaders, it is tempting to always feel compelled to be setting the direction and standing at the front of the line. Resist that temptation, and follow its sister — to follow.

When to Keep Silent

As my husband and I were binge-watching season 2 of “The Good Witch,” a very wholesome and entertaining Hallmark Channel show, one of the main characters, Martha, the mayor, started to get laryngitis on the eve of a very important award-acceptance speech.

The doctor’s cure? Silence for 72 hours. If you know the show, Martha talks incessantly, so she faced the cure as a “challenge.” That made me laugh!

Why? Because silence isn’t a challenge, but a habit, and one we have to cultivate and practice like any other habit.

Since I participate in many phone and online meetings, silence is a regular component. It’s a space that I am often tempted to fill. But I’ve learned something from my colleagues who are stronger introverts than I am (yes, I am a natural introvert!) Silence is not empty space and time. It is filled with ideas, thoughts, and questions that have yet to be expressed.

So, there are 2 things I try to do more of when the time and space are filled with silence. The first is to do nothing and say nothing. Inevitably, someone breaks into the quiet and articulates some of the ideas, thoughts, and questions that have been gestating in the silence.

The second is to invite someone whose voice has not been heard or heard infrequently to share their thoughts. As a friend reminded me, those thoughts may not be fully formed or the best response, but they are often insightful and provide a different perspective than the others we have heard.

Keeping silent is hard. Especially for me. It is an incredibly humbling experience to say nothing. It is a simple, but sometimes harsh admission that I don’t know or have all of the answers. And that the problem or question needs a “we” not a “me” to address to it.

Next time you are in a meeting and tempted to speak, listen instead. Let the silence be fertile ground for everyone including 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?

Are You Ready for What Comes Next?

ornamentReadiness is the “value of the season” now that we have passed into Advent. In the lead-up to the season, it’s hard to miss what the “what” is — the Kingdom of God — but as often happens at this time of year, I find I’m, um, stuck.

In The Christmas Ornament, a Hallmark Channel movie (we are big fans even though they start Christmas movies right after Halloween), the main character struggles with her grief over the death of her husband during the last year. She meets someone who helps her to start seeing what might come next in her life. But she gets stuck. At the end of the movie, she realizes that the answer to what comes next is a great, big question mark, and she is ready to start the journey to discover what “next” is.

I find the dramatic arc of a 2 hour movie–beginning, middle, and end–very comforting. Even more hilarious because my husband accents each one with the exclamation, “I’m going to go out on a limb . . .” quickly followed by the obvious “that ___________ are going to fall in love” or whatever the obvious final scene might be.

Not so much Advent.

Just because Christmas comes doesn’t mean that the readying has been complete or that we have arrived at what comes next.

And, well, duh, that is the point, right?

While Advent and Christmas draw lines in the proverbial sand, the movement of each is endless and timeless. We are never fully ready nor is the Kingdom ever fully here. But we as humans would tire too easily and quickly if the journey extended to the end we know nothing about. Think of the Israelites who spent 40 years in the desert on a journey to a home that many never saw. They tired, grew weary, looked for short-cuts, and were steered back on the path by their prophets and leaders.

Our journey is unknowably long and tiring, too. But we need weigh stations along the way to celebrate the distance we have come before we face the distance that still lies ahead. Maybe we need to hear our contemporary prophets point out where the path is that cuts through the many “-isms” we face lies. Maybe we need to admit that all we’re ever going to experience is the journey, but others will arrive at the endpoint.

Maybe that is the point after all.

 

To Be Still or Not to Be Still

Find us ready, Lord,
Not standing still.
Finding us working and loving and doing your will.

When it comes to the pace and speed of Advent, we are a very contradictory people!

In the world around us, there is this whirlwind of activity starting with Black Friday sales and extending through highway traffic and airport lines. There is the “to do” list–put up the lights, get the tree, buy presents, mail cards, bake the fruitcake, clean the house, yada, yada, yada . . . And in four short weeks (or less, depending on the calendar year), Christmas arrives and is over in 24 hours, complete with undecorated trees at the curb and parking lots full of the rush and tumble of post-Christmas discount buying.

To some extent, our prayers and songs reinforce that. The call to charity–to not stand still in the face of need. In general, to be doing–something, anything that engages in encounter with the face of Christ in this world.

How often does all of this become a really tricky arithmetic problem for you? Add up the usual, traditional stuff that must be done plus that which our faith compels us, and the sum total is — not enough time, too much stress, and very little “presence.”

Is the answer letting go of our traditions, simplifying our lives? Possibly. Heavens knows that maybe 4 Masses on Christmas Eve (oh, yes, we have 4!) is bit much, so could we do with only 3? Maybe. Does that really address the problem? Probably not.

Because what is the problem? We have too much to do in too little time? That’s one way of putting it. But how about another.

We tend to think of time as linear–60 seconds equals 1 minute, 60 minutes equal 1 hour, etc. And only one thing can occupy any given second, minute or hour of the day. But that’s not true.

St. Paul reminds us to “pray always.” So, why not, underneath the busy-ness of the season, pray always?

Since teaching my children’s choir the refrain to the above Tom Booth song, I find myself coming back to it again and again and again while I am doing other things. One of the things that I like about it is that the lyrics acknowledge how occupied our time is, but they also remind me that each activity should in some way contribute to building the Kingdom of mercy and love.

What refrains, familiar phrases, mantras can you suggest to those you know who are seeking some stillness and grounding during Advent?

 

 

Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

seniorIn the last year, there has been a veritable procession of departures at the top leadership levels among my member publishers. Based on the beautiful “good-bye” emails that I’ve received, I compiled a list of issues that were considered in answer to the question, “Should I stay or should I go now?”

  1. Age: For those who have retired, age is an obvious marker. When we reach our 60s and even 70s, retirement is definitely on the radar screen, and hopefully has been part of the plan for a while. But I’m seeing more and more people leave a job in their late 40s and 50s. There are personal and family reasons, and then there is the issue of . . .
  2. Tenure: And I’m not talking like in the academic world. Many companies and organizations have a “Rule of XX” for retirement which is usually a combination of age and years of service. I’ve met a number of people who started with the organization out of high school or in their early 20s, and are now in their mid- to late 50s and they meet that rule. For some, they may see a change in leadership or direction that is more than just a gentle bend in the road. For others, they may see that they have dedicated a significant portion of their professional career to one thing, and it’s time to find a new “thing.”
  3. Balance: We’ve been bombarded with work-life balance articles and how-to’s, but balance is a key criteria. Whether you want to spend more time with your grandchildren, children, spouse, or community, balance is a good lifetime practice. No minute of any day can ever be replayed, so making choices that make each moment rich and fulfilling is key.
  4. Goals: When you made your current choice, what did you set out to accomplish? Have you met those goals? Now, what else do you want to accomplish? And where? What other opportunities are there out there that interest me?
  5. Call: Have you been faithful to God’s call to you and generous in using the gifts He has bestowed on you? Is there something you have been unable to respond to for whatever reason? How and where can you respond, or is there a new call that is leading you in a different direction?

It’s the Journey

path(Follow up to last week’s post.)

Second phrase that sticks in my mind is, “It’s the journey.”

One of the stories that you hear repeatedly in Santiago di Campostela–and you see the evidence of it–is of pilgrims who have made the trek along any of the Camino routes, have arrived in Santiago, and are struck by the thought, “So, now what?”

We heard a lot about the how the Camino, especially the most well-known route starting in France and winding its was through Northern Spain has changed. Movies like “The Way” have popularized the journey along the Camino all over, but especially among Americans. It has become an item on many “bucket lists.”

So it isn’t surprising that the end point might have an unsettling, unsatisfactory, and even empty feel to it.

Bucket lists are for checking off — setting an objective and accomplishing it. Being able to say that you did that — like sky diving (remember when that was at the top of the lists of “things to accomplish in my life.”)

Focusing on the Camino as an accomplishment neglects and ignores its basic nature — as a journey. Getting there is good, but how we get there is even more important.

I remember a number of years ago listening to a reading from the first chapter in the Book of Joshua, which starts by telling us that Moses has died before he and the people can cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. The monologue going on in my head was immersed in the idea that Moses must have been disappointed to have come so far, but not been able to make the final step. As I think back on it, I realize how the 40 year journey was the focus of Moses’ life and leadership, not the destination. Reaching the destination was for another.

But the journey. That was Moses.

Let’s start by admitting that we are focused on a destination (e.g., goal, objective, “bucket list” item) in some way, shape, or form as leaders. Take a look at your list. Wallow in the kudos or endorphins you expect at the end when whatever it is is completed.

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, set that aside and let’s look at what the journey to that destination is and will be like. What are the gifts and charisms that you need for the journey? How do they differ from what you will need once you reach the destination? How comfortable are you with letting someone else lead the last steps or take over once you are there?

A Few Aches and Pains

gardeningWhen we first bought our house, I spent every Saturday and Sunday morning on my knees pulling weeds, imagining what the newly-carved gardens might look like–eventually.

Over the last few years, the amount of time that I have spent in the garden has become inversely proportionate to the increase in my age. Fewer hours, more years, and with them, more aches and pains. I spend less time on my knees and more on my cushy gardening chair, trying to alleviate some of the stress and discomfort of my joints.

How often do we assess what our limits are?

Gardening regularly reminds me of my physical limitations, and forces me to consider how to adapt. My solution this year? Hire a gardener to take care of the major weeding and spraying so I could focus on the creative part, the planning and designing.

And that’s the opportunity that the limitation presents. It’s a challenge I might not have otherwise explored–or enjoyed nearly so much.

Part of leadership is knowing your limitations, but also reassessing them on a regular basis to look for opportunities to adapt and grow. What personal and professional limits are you bumping up against right now in your ministry? Who could you invite into your circle to help you handle your limitations? What opportunities does that present?