What Inspires You?

One of our members, World Library Publications, is issuing 3 new recordings on vinyl this year. So, when I got word of these new recordings–one is Bing Crosby and the Christmas story–I got jazzed.

See, tucked away in a cabinet in our library is my stack of records ranging from “The Carpenters” to “Pebbles and Bam-Bam’s Christmas” (yes, really!), and a collection of 78s from the Big Band era.

Records were the soundtrack of my life growing up. They accompanied me in my low moments, sang me out of my doldrums, and celebrated the mountain experiences. Because I would listen to them from start to finish (never just one song), I lived through a whole range of emotions and experiences by the time the last song ended. My faith was formed by Ray Repp, “Joy Is Like the Rain,” and Followers of the Way.

Most people would say that music inspires them. Some music, somewhere. At least once in a lifetime.

What music inspires you?

Why?

I learned that I could be whatever and whoever I wanted to be (“Free to Be You and Me.”) This special and album spearheaded by Marlo Thomas inspired me to look beyond societal boundaries. It helped me believe that I was as capable as the next equally talented and skilled person in the room.

I learned to observe and experience with all of my senses through Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and then Ravel’s orchestration of it. It started as a college “Symphonic Appreciation” assignment, but it captivated my already-nerdy inclination toward museums. The original piano piece added an aural dimension to the visual that has never let me go. It challenges me look at decisions from different points of view, and stop and engage when something doesn’t immediately grab me.

I also learned how to be present in prayer before God. When I was about middle school age, a group of young adults recorded 2 albums as the Followers of the Way. I spent a lot of time listening to, singing with, and dancing to these songs. As I was growing into my faith, they helped me find God in the world, in my family, and in myself.

So, what 3 songs (or albums) have contributed to the score of your life and ministry, and why? How do you still see and hear them resonating in your work and ministry?

“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

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.

 

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.

Leadership Lessons from the Saints

francis“Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

These words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi call us back to the example of Jesus who led by his actions, and then through his words.

As I read and listen to the Gospels, my attention frequently pauses at the places where the evangelists describe what Jesus is doing rather than saying–writing in the dirt, sitting at the well, walking in the garden.

Leadership often takes place more between the words we say and through the actions that we take–having coffee with colleagues, joining in the department celebration, stopping by someone’s office.

 

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?

 

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?

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?

Be a Better Leader in the Next 5 Minutes

  1. Set a vision. Create a memorable vision statement for your team or company that states the problem you want to solve, how yo plan to solve it, and why it matters.
  2. Above all else, be clear. “Clarity always results in influence, which is the essence of leadership,” says Andy Stanley. People say they want to follow leaders with integrity, but more often end up following those who are clear. Be a leader who exhibits both qualities.
  3. Understand and communicate the “why.” You can’t have an effective vision to share with your team unless you understand why you do what you do. . .
  4. Be repetitive. “Vision leaks; it doesn’t stick,” says Stanley. Refer to your vision often and in a conversational way, so you–and eventually your team–immediately relate all decision back to the vision.
  5. Reward your people honestly. Stanley suggests “celebrating vision systematically.” In other words, when a team member creates a win for your event, make it known to the individual and the team that that’s the type of win you’re looking for. “What’s rewarded is repeated,” says Stanley.

— Andy Stanley, speaker to leaders at Infinite Energy Arena, as recorded in Connect: The Faith and Work Issue, Summer 2016, p. 17, faith.connectmeetings.com