Category Archives: Leadership Development

The Parable of the Talents

There is one Gospel that I dread every time it comes around in the liturgical cycle — Matthew’s parable of the 10 talents.

When it comes to this Gospel, my faith is still like that of a 6 or 10 year old. Why? Because I have always understood this Gospel quite literally. As a result, I feel the weight of judgment on my shoulders, unsure whether or not I am using my God-given talents as God expects of me. I wonder if I am the third servant who does nothing at all.

But here’s the rub.

That 10-year-old in me tends to see my talents, especially my leadership talents, as finite or limited. It’s like my golf game. I truly believe that regardless of whatever effort or change in equipment or practice, I am only ever going to be able to hit a golf ball 75 yards and no more. So why bother, right?

One of the most poignant memories I have from my teaching days was sitting in a meeting with a freshman, her mother, the principal, and two other teachers, talking about the student’s lack of educational progress. The two teachers spoke directly to the mom, and talked about her in the third person. As I listened, I watched this shy, thirteen-year-old shrink into herself as these teachers went through a litany of bad grades, failed projects, and discouraging analysis about her.

So, when it was my turn, I looked right at her, and shared the challenges that she faced in my class, but also how clear it was to me that she was capable of doing the work, and that I was willing to work with her to help achieve the passing grades that I knew she could manage.

The whole experience was sort of a revelation.

Everyone in her life had convinced her that what she could do and be was very limited — and they expected no more than that from her. They didn’t even expect her to try.

From the conversation, it was clear that the focus was on her performance. Underneath was an assumption that her abilities in the classroom were limited or finite.

However, when our eye is on learning, we tend to see the abilities of ourselves and others as malleable, grow-able, not finite.

As a leader, what limits do you put on your talents? Which boundaries might be more flexible than you believe them to be?

Then with those you minister with and serve, ask the same questions. How do your answers change the ways in which you nurture talent and leadership in others?

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?

 

 

Labeling Your Staff

A small confession. When I was a kid, I was teased by classmates who called me “tuberculosis” (my initials are TB.) Needless to say, I hated it.

Labels like that served no purpose, and only created tension because they communicated so little about who I really was.

So, as an adult, I found it ironic that I was drawn to various personality tests, e.g., Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, StrengthFinders. I wanted to know what my type or number or label was, and even more important, I wanted to know what yours was so I could better understand how to work with you.

Personality tests are common in the work place, especially in ministry circles. In one work setting, they proved particularly helpful as a colleague and I were continually clashing over work styles. It reached a high point, and we had a rich and informative conversation about it that led to the following process. I would ask for her advice, and she would ask me if I wanted her best answer or just an answer now.

As you can see, personality tests provide insights that we hope will help us work more effectively together. Like my experience as a child, though, labeling people, especially staff, can do more of a disservice to the relationship among people than it can help.

If you are a fan of personality tests, use them judiciously. Take what your staff or team learns about themselves and figure out what energizes and alienates them. Putting those two important pieces of information into action will have greater results than any potential label ever could.

Mind the Gap

Photo by Soroush Karimi

In my varied international travels, I’ve ridden on numerous city rail systems from Chicago’s infamous “El” to London’s Tube and including the underground systems in Prague and Beijing (love the red and green lights that indicate which stop you have passed and which stop is next!)

One of the announcements that I hear frequently is, “Mind the gap.” What? Lest I fall between the concrete platform and the train car? Really? That small space . . . Then inevitably I hear a story about someone not paying attention and doing just what you least expect, falling into the gap.

How does that happen?

It happens because we assume that the gap is harmless and not worthy of our attention. And that’s where the danger is for us a leaders.

No one leader can do everything. There are gaps. Think of the leaders you know. I’ve worked for directors who have great people skills and use them to build strong alliances and partnerships, but their “gap” is in their lack of administrative or managerial skills. And vice versa.

The successful leaders acknowledge this, and gather other people into their circle who fill the gaps. Ultimately, as a group, this team makes each of them a better leader.

Unsuccessful leaders ignore the gaps at their peril.

Think. What are 3 areas where you are not gifted or strong, perhaps, areas that could threaten the very success of your ministry?

Take a look at the people that you have surrounded yourself with — other staff and volunteers. What gifts, assets, and strengths do they bring to the table? How do they fill in the gaps that you bring? Or do they reinforce what you already possess?

Good leaders are not afraid of their gaps, and they actively look for colleagues who fill them. They aren’t afraid or threatened by those who have strengths that differ from theirs. Rather, they welcome the challenge that others bring to their leadership.

 

 

The Importance of Being Fully Present

For the last four weeks plus, I have been belabored by an ongoing case of sciatica. I’m a “newby” to back issues, so this whole experience has taken its toll.

The irony is that at the start of this month-long odyssey, I was able to accompany my mother to her surgeon’s visit to find out how he wanted to deal with her chronic and very painful back issues. She has lived with extreme pain since she was a teenager when she broke her back. This upcoming surgery will be her fifth.

In ministry as in life, our viewpoint or perspective dictates the colors and contours of how we see and interact with the people among whom we minister.

Every time I visit my mother some 3,000+ miles away, she shares with me stories about her patients (she is a hospice chaplain), their journeys, their challenges. The one thing I know for certain is that she understands what the families and the patients are going through. She’s been there as a daughter. And knows pain firsthand, a steady, if decidedly unwelcome companion.

My Mom is actually quite extraordinary. Life has given her the ability to empathize — actually connect with — what her clients are experiencing. While empathy makes it easier for use to fall into step with those in our ministry, it isn’t necessary. Sympathy does just fine.

Sympathy allows us to share in the feelings of the experience even though we may never have lived it before. We all have parallels in our lives that provide us a context for being present with others.

And that is the key. Presence. It is one of the strongest, longest-lasting elements of Jesus’ ministry — being present fully and completely to those around him.

One of the biggest obstacles to this presence is the antagonism we see around us in our political climate. It seems to seep out and infect all of our relationships, dividing families, neighborhoods, and communities. Being present may be the greatest challenge we face in our ministry today because of this.

How do we do it?

  1. Reach deeply for the experiences in our lives that allow us to be sympathetic or empathetic.
  2. Recall what Jesus did in a similar situation. There is no better model.
  3. Remember that we all have a little bit of the saint and sinner in us. None of us are completely right or completely wrong, so honor the truth in what others experience.
  4. Be brave. The hardest ministry situations for us are the hardest for a reason. Be brave and face them. Inject into them whatever virtue you can.

 

Is the Size of Our Ministry an Addiction?

Are we addicted to measuring the size of our ministry in numbers?

One of my father’s great pleasures in life is to check the value of the stocks that he has invested in. It’s a daily activity right up there with doing the crossword puzzles. And as a bit of a business “junkie,” I rarely miss the news of the market’s close, hoping to see that green arrow next to the S&P (that’s the yardstick for our investments) and a solid double-digit point increase.

We all look for growth — in our children, gardens, finances, and ministry. Most often, we use numbers to measure that growth.

But what do you (and sometimes more importantly, others) count in order to determine if your ministry has grown? People registered for your program? Numbers attending Mass? Breaking even on your budget?

A number of years ago, a friend and colleague of mine took a parish youth ministry job in a thriving and supportive community. She was brought in because the youth ministry in the parish really needed developing, and she had had great success in building a diverse and active program at her previous parish.

She spent the first year getting to know the parish and the teens, laying the foundation for the ministry including beginning to train the youth to be leaders in the community and in the ministry.

About 18 months later, the parish council decided that they were going to change youth ministry from a full-time to a part-time position. Why? Because they didn’t see any substantial growth in the number of teens participating in the program.

Is this unusual? No. Unfortunately.

At the end of my MBA courses, one thing I could say with absolute certainty is that pretty much anything can be counted. And in our efforts to be scientific, we rely on numbers that are verifiable and objective. So why not grade our ministries based on numbers? Why not evaluate the success of our programs using numeric data?

Three reasons why you will miss the most important “numbers.”

My husband led a very successful parish youth ministry program that engaged hundreds of young people. Here’s the kick, though. It would have been very hard to count them because they weren’t where you expected or were looking. This is called “hidden data.” He had teens in leadership positions on the parish council, on committees, at the nursing homes, and in other social ministries. They were hidden unless you knew where to look.

Jesus is probably the best example of “longitudinal data.” Think about it. He had 12 itinerant men plus a few women following him. Not exactly the kind of numbers we would expect to see from a successful leader. Okay, so we know about the 5,000. Still that’s one incident. And when he was hanging on the cross, how many people mourned him? And yet, over 2,000 years later, we count his followers in the millions. Some of the biggest successes take time to develop.

Qualitative data answers the question, “How many lives has our ministry touched and made a difference?” At the end of my last year of teaching, a mom introduced herself to me as the parent of one my school liturgical choir members. “Thank you for accepting my daughter into your choir. It has made all the difference in her.” Some people will reach out to us. For others, we’ll never know.

One job you have as a ministry leader is to determine how your ministry will be measured. Take the reins, and don’t let someone else do it for you. You and your ministry will be more successful if you do.

 

The Problem with Stars

Every team has its “star.” The naturally gifted athlete. The incredibly imaginative artist. The achingly effortless musician. The amazingly smart student.

One of the challenges for any leader is what to do with a star.

In many sports, they build teams around them. The Angels and Mike Trout. The New England Patriots and Tom Brady. The LA Lakers and Magic Johnson.

But still, on a day to day basis, what do you do with a star? Do you encourage them “be a good team member” (often meaning, share the time, resources, attention with everyone else)? Do you just let the star be the star?

When I was in high school, my best friend’s twin brother played basketball, so when the season ended and post-season, championship play began, we went to the games. His team won the Catholic league championship which was the ticket to the state finals against East Lansing High School.

During warm-ups, we noticed something sort of odd. This sort of short East Lansing player (like maybe 5’2″ or 5’3″) never took a shot. All he did was pass the ball to this other, much taller player whose every shot dropped perfectly through the hoop.

When the game got under way, it was clear that the short East Lansing player was running the show. With different numbered fingers in the air, he set up and ran the play. The odd thing was that during almost every play, the ball ended up in that same tall player’s hands — and in the basket.

By halftime, we sat their amazed, jaws dropping, eyes pealed, categorically amazed. During the break, we asked who that player was, and her older brother said, “Earvin Johnson.”

By the end of the game, Earvin “Magic” Johnson had scored 44 points (I recall) and single-handedly beat their opponent.

By the end of the game, I learned something about how to handle a star. Let them be one when the situation dictates it. For his high school team, the state championship led to college careers that some of their probably had never dreamed were possible. And they had ridden to the championship on his abilities.

When Magic became a pro (and I actually watched pro basketball because I was living in Chicago during the Michael Jordan years), I learned something else about how to handle a star. When you surround them with gifted players, those stars who have learned to be humble about who and what they are will play well with others and share the ball, sacrifice the body, make the other look better than they think they are.

Ministry stars are much the same. Sometimes you give them the stage and let them lead 20,000+ people in prayer, song, and praise (thank you, Jesse Manibusan.) Sometimes you give them silence and a piano, and let them inspire (thanks, Sarah Hart.) And sometimes you give them an idea and just let them go (thank you, Meredith and Mark.)

Other times, you surround them with other faith-filled leaders, and let them struggle to serve those who hunger for peace, justice, compassion, and knowledge.

The problem with stars isn’t that that they are stars. It’s that we sometimes don’t know how to direct their light and shine it on others as well as on them. That’s what Jesus did for us, now it’s our turn to do it for others.

 

When You Are the Face of the Ministry

Living “inside the beltway” (if not literally, at least figuratively speaking), the same leadership issues seem to get hammer at ceaselessly. No one on the hill can work in a bipartisan way. Where is the new “gang of …” who will stand up and work on real issues. You get the gist.

Out here on the west coast, however, I’ve been listening to leadership issues in the world of NBA basketball.

Apparently, the first round draft pick for the LA Lakers did a sort of un-leader-like thing. He and his family appeared on WWE, and in the midst of this appearance, his 15-year-old brother repeatedly used the “n” word on TV–multiple times. Big brother did nothing. Said nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Said first-round-draft choice is apparently supposed to be the new “face of the LA Lakers” much like Magic Johnson was for so many years, the one to build the franchise on.

My guess is that he’s going to have to learn the long, hard lessons that many of us have mastered over the years. Like . . .

  1. “Be careful what you say. Someone is always listening.” Remember the last time you were in a group, talking to someone you know very well in the same room with parents, students, or leaders in your ministry, and you said something that was honest and true, but only meant for that one person to hear? And someone else heard it too, and you didn’t want her to hear that. Some call it self-censureship. I call it picking my words–and audience–wisely.
  2. “Practice what you preach.” Or your words and actions will come back to haunt you. Nothing worse than leading a group of teens through methods for conflict resolution only to run into a few of them accidentally as you are losing your cool with your spouse or friend.
  3. “Always be genuine, even if it means not being perfect.” Children and teens have particularly good radar for assessing that all-essential quality of genuineness.

Knowing you are the face of your ministry, what lesson would you teach someone who is new to ministry?

Discuss.

 

What’s It All About, Alfie?

As far back as I can remember, my father has sung the same line in the same way — and stopped. Whether we were in the car, in an elevator, or at the dinner table, it was always the same thing. “What’s is all about, Alfie” . . . then nothing.

No second line. Nothing.

As a kid, it made me laugh even though I knew the “joke.” It took until I was about 13, and I was playing my way through a book of popular songs on the piano, when lo and behold, there was the theme song from the movie, “Alfie.”

Well, gosh darn it. I didn’t know there was a movie called “Alfie.” And even more surprising, I didn’t know that there were more lyrics. Even a second verse!

One day, after my dad sung his one line, I asked him, “Do you know the next line in the song?” He just looked at me, and said, “No.”

Funny thing is that the joke got even funnier (to me, at least) once I learned that he didn’t know the next line, let alone the rest of the song. The joke wasn’t the song. The joke was the fact that he sang it for no reason, at no particular time, whenever the urge came over him.

I do the same thing–one lyric, no more, without warning. But I do have a reason.

The old adage says that humor soothes the savage beast–basically, it helps to reduce tension and relieve pressure when tempers rise.

Nonsensical actions like singing one line of a song and stopping can serve the same purpose. They can change the trajectory of a discussion in moments, turning a debate into a conversation, or a heated controversy into a creative opportunity.

When dealing with group dynamics, especially conflict, look for the nonsensical action or element. It has the potential and power to lead you forward when the path you are taking may seem to have narrowed or been foreshortened.