Category Archives: Limitations

Going Long?

A bunch of years ago, my husband was hired to develop and grow a parish youth ministry program. He had successfully done so over a period of many years at our parish, so this offer was a challenge to which he confidently responded, “Yes.”

Eighteen months later, he was out of a job. The parish council was disappointed because the number of youth that they saw who were engaged in youth ministry had not increased enough to continue to warrant a full-time position. They downgraded the position to part-time, and he left.

McKinsey, a highly-respected, global management consulting firm, recently tackled this subject, asking the question, “Are executives too focused on the short-term?” Like for-profit companies, we need to ask a similar question, “Are parishes/dioceses/parish councils/schools too focused on the short-term?” And the related question, “What happens when we don’t take the long view?”

How true are these statistics in your situation?

  • 87% of leaders experience pressure to demonstrate numerical success in 2 years or less (e.g., increased participation numbers, more balanced budget, more volunteers)
  • 65% say short term pressure has increased over the past 5 years

In the business world, statistics show that focus on the long-term results in better performance along most metrics. How would you respond to these questions to shift that focus?

  • What do you think you could accomplish if the pressure for short-term results were lifted, you had the luxury of setting goals for 5 and even 10 years down the road, and you could dedicate your time and resources to getting there?
  • What successes do you think you could chart if you could depend on specific budget increases for the next five years (so you could do more with more rather than more with less — which is highly overrated!)?
  • How might you be able to move the parish’s/diocese’s/school’s mission forward if you could focus on the long-term rather than the short-term?
  • How would that change your relationships with parents, parishioners, volunteers, community leaders, your boss?
  • How do you advocate for this with your team and boss?

Digging in the Trenches

Since early spring, I’ve been staring at what were at one time the well-defined edges of my garden beds in frustration and dismay. Heavy spring rains washed gravel, dirt, and mulch into and through any pathway that gravity dictated. Until last weekend, those edges were only hints . . . no, shadows of lines separating grass from garden.

The early autumn temperatures got me outside last weekend with one of my favorite tools, a trench edger, to attack the bed directly outside my office window.

When this garden bed is in its full-bloom glory, it’s a wonderful, peaceful backdrop for a busy work day. But at this time of the year, the hydrangeas sag with the weight of drying flowered heads, and the hostas are ready for their annual shearing.

So, on Saturday while digging my border, I couldn’t help thinking about boundaries, and the trenches, fences, and gates that we create to keep things out, keep ourselves in, and keep the two from meeting.

In my leadership style, I think I mirror my gardening efforts. I like well-defined boundaries so that those on my team understand and feel empowered in their roles, but not constrained by a rigidity that prevents them from being creative and productive. Like the pseudo-trench around my garden bed prior to last Saturday, you would have been able to tell that there is a “line,” but perhaps not the crisp one that some might prefer.

My way of defining borders (garden or otherwise) may not be for you. You may prefer well-chiseled edges. And I must admit — there is a cost to my approach (as there is with most.) Sometimes chaos does reign.

Take my children’s choir, for example. While some might prefer that there is attentive quiet at all times except when they are singing, I’m fine with a low rumble. But we have a verbal cue that let’s them know that it’s time to be quiet and sing. It works for them. It works for me.

Autumn is a good time to reassess the boundaries that you have drawn in your work, ministry, and life. What is working for you? What isn’t? How can you strengthen the boundaries that are effective? How can you reduce the chaos in the ones that aren’t?

 

The Price of “Think” Time–Part 2

At what cost do you spend your thinking time doing — literally, just doing something, anything?

A couple of years ago, I realized that I was spending every waking hour at my desk answering emails, creating flyers, responding to someone else’s issues or concerns, and not getting any of the deep thinking that I needed to be doing.

What is “deep thinking”? For me, it is stepping back and looking at a project or program at a distance. Putting some distance between all of the pieces that I am involved with and the mission or goals of the project to examine whether or not they are going in the same direction.

It’s asking the mission question — is what I/we are doing fulfilling our mission or just filling time?

It’s wondering about how this program or project fits in with the larger strategic vision of my organization (or your parish or school or diocese). If it is, how? How are we falling short?

Is the amount of time I spend on this project commensurate with the potential good that comes out of it? If not, why and what should change?

Mondays and Fridays are my big picture think days, especially in the morning, now.

What chunk of time can you regularly carve out to do the deep thinking that your ministry really needs to thrive and sustain itself?

The “Price” of Think Time–Part 1

Has this ever happened to you?

Someone–a colleague, a parent, a teacher–calls or emails you, asking for advice. You gladly respond, spending a some time thinking through the complexity of the question, and offering a well thought out and reasoned reply that took some time, but time well spent.

Then that same person asks you for further information, and you realize that if you say “yes,” it will take you a substantial mount of time to pull together a response that you are satisfied with.

How do you put a price or value on your time in service to others?

The situation arises frequently among non-ministry professionals. And it isn’t uncommon for someone to offer advice freely and for free to the 1st question, but to the second question, ask for some compensation to reflect the value of the time the professional will spend on her response.

I’m not advocating that we charge people who come to us in a ministry setting for doing the same. This whole interaction seems very much within the range of what is expected of us as ministry leaders and professionals.

But . . .

Yes, “but.” There is a trap that ministry leaders can fall into. It is the never-ending, black-hole spiral of “yes”. And that trap comes with a price not in dollars, but often in time not spent with family, on ourselves, with our colleagues or other students/peers/program participants.

What are the limits that you set in these circumstances? How do you offer your time, but put some of it on your own terms, e.g., you can help in 2 days, but not tomorrow morning?

 

 

Slowing Down

When I was about 11, a group of families traveled north to the Escanaba River in Michigan to go canoeing. It’s a beautiful river set amidst the background of very lush and variegated trees.

For practically the entire day, my canoe was in front, leading them all. And periodically, my Dad (who was in the back of my canoe) made comments like, “This isn’t a race.”

For as long as I can remember, speed has been a desirable thing. I type fast. I walk fast. I even drive fast. When I was young, I would practice classical and ragtime piano pieces until I could play them at lightening speed, unconcerned that the composer might have had a different tempo in mind.

So, getting sidelined by a back injury has challenged my habit of always moving fast.

I’ve learned some of the obvious lessons that we have all read about. But here are a few that I didn’t expect.

  1. I’m less scattered. Since I can’t physically twist and bend at will, I’ve had to be more focused on what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. So I’ve had to stop trying to do more than one thing at a time.
  2. I’m using muscles differently. I can’t bend over to reach for something without pain, so now I bend my knees all the time to get low enough to grasp something. Like the physical muscles, I’ve found myself using mental muscles differently, too.
  3. I’m less likely to jump quickly into something. I spent a lot of time on the floor now with my legs elevated because sitting is uncomfortable. As a result, I can’t flit from one thing to another as easily because it just takes a lot more energy and movement.
  4. I edit a lot more–I edit what I think, what I say, what I write, what I do. For example, I have found myself rewriting emails a lot more than I ever did.
  5. I can change my habits–for the good. Physical therapy has helped me create new habits that include the exercises that I need to be doing. While that may not sound like a huge thing, I’m not the best at changing my routine.

Before the new parish/school year completely overwhelms you, get away from your desk and try doing some of your work in a new place or in a new position, e.g., sitting on the floor or at a coffee shop. See how this small change impacts the way in which you do your work, and think about how you can integrate that insight into how you do your ministry in the future.

 

Turning Off the Always On Culture

In the mid-1980’s, my mother proposed that we as a family should write a book called How Do You Know It’s the Weekend If You Haven’t Worked All Week? This catchy title made sense to 50% of our family (not me) who at the time were struggling to find or keep jobs for various reasons.

Looking at today’s “always on” work culture, I think they would have done cartwheels in the street to have been so employed that work was at the forefront of their minds.

With Labor Day ahead and parish and school years beginning in earnest, turning off the “always on” seems counterintuitive. Sort of like inviting everyone to a party, then closing the doors five minutes before it is going to start (because the party hasn’t started, of course!)

How about we start the 2018-2019 ministry year with a few new and/or better habits.

  1. You know what to do with your screens. Turn them off at night (no notifications, no nothing.) Keep them in another room, not at your bedside.
  2. Corollary. Set some screen boundaries, tell your colleagues and students/youth/volunteers what they are, and ENFORCE THEM! Since few ministry professionals clock in or out, use your device as the way to do it. Set a time in the morning when you will start to accept and respond to email and texts, and set one for the end of the day. And make that one at least one hour before bed.
  3. Take the Monday holiday off. Off. Completely off. No work. Just you, your family and friends. That’s why they call it a holiday.
  4. On your days off, do one thing for yourself. Make a batch of Christmas cookies in September. Pull some weeds in the yard. Watch a silly movie. Self-care will keep you from burning out and up.
  5. Second corollary. Do something for someone else. This does not have to be big. Send birthday cards to your closest group of friends. I go to Hallmark and buy them in bulk (get extra points for future purchases!) and my goal is to send the card by the day of the person’s birthday. I’m not perfect about it, but my friends really appreciate it.

Pick one of these. Or pick something else. Just pick something. One small change that helps you turn off the work can bring big changes in your outlook and approach to the ministry that you do the majority of your time.

 

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?