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.

 

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.

How Loud Is Our Silence?

Most of us are this person, know someone like this, or have been in a situation with someone like this.

An intensive, challenging, vocal, stirring discussion–within the family, at work, in Church, in politics–goes on for a while until there is a lull in the conversation, and one of the people who has said little if anything starts to speak. Quietly, gently, slowly, this person makes an observation or a statement that irreversibly turns the discussion in a different direction or dispels the building or potentially destructive emotions.

Remember the old commercial, “When EF Hutton talks, people listen”? That’s the kind of person we are talking about.

One of the traits of a good leader is the ability to listen. One of the hallmarks of a great leader is one who knows when to keep silent and not speak.

Look around, and I’m sure you will see a number of examples of good and bad, great and worst leaders using this specific criteria. And with one hand you can probably easily count the ones who understand the volume of silence.

One. In 1980 while I was studying in Rome, I was sort of enveloped by the hospitality of the Jesuits. Padre Damiani at the Gesu listened quietly and with a gracious smile to me and my friends as we pattered on in badly-conjugated Italian, and when we stopped, he knew what we needed most–to be welcomed. He showed us the private rooms in the Jesuit residence there with their amazing paintings and told us the history of those who had lived there (at least, I think that’s what he said–our Italian was possibly worse than his English!)

Two. Around the same time, I was spending a lot of time with an Italian youth group at a Jesuit parish. Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then superior general of the Jesuits, was preaching at Mass one Sunday, and meeting with a group of adults there. We met and talked briefly for a minute or two. What I remember most is the quiet stillness that surrounded him, this fairly tiny, but wise man.

Three. Within the first couple hours of arriving in California for work and/or to visit my parents, I get to hear the stories. The stories of the dying, the stories of the families, the stories of the caregivers–all from my Mom who is a hospice chaplain. She knows how to listen without expectation, and with compassion and kindness. And she knows when silence is the best consolation in times of tragedy and grief, when no words are even close to adequate.

That’s three fingers I can count so far.

What about you? How many people can you count–including yourself–who know how to listen and let silence lead the way?

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.

4 Reasons Why Ministry People Need Reviews

It’s the end of the year, and with it comes the dreaded performance review.

If you think performance reviews are just for Fortune 500 companies and for-profit firms, think again. Appraising our ministry is part and parcel of what Jesus has called us to.

So, here are four reasons why ministry people need performance reviews.

Reason #1: We got here because we discerned a call.

Your decision to pursue a vocation in ministry was an action point along a long and continuous road of discernment. Notice, your decision was not the endpoint. Because there isn’t an endpoint. We continue that process of discernment throughout our ministry–rediscerning the call, refining the direction of the ministry, maybe even changing ministries.

The call to discernment requires us that we assess who we are, where we are, what God is calling us to, and how we could/should respond. Sound familiar? Discernment is probably the best process of performance review we know, so use it.

Reason #2: Frequency counts — a lot!

Most performance review processes go awry because they happen once a year. Who likes hearing about their strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement all at once? It isn’t like ripping a bandage off. It’s just unhelpful.

Let’s take our clues from Jesus and St. Paul. Jesus showed us through his actions that we should be present with and pray to our Father regularly. St. Paul was even more specific, “Pray always.” So, let’s talk about progress on a more frequent basis, quarterly in a formal setting, more frequently in informal ways.

Reason #3: “Who do people say that I am?”

This was a pivotal question for Jesus and his disciples, and it should be for us too. We need to know who others perceive us to be. We need to know what it is that we communicate through our ministry to others before we can begin to analyze it and identify areas for improvement.

Reason #4: Give Ceasar his coin, but give God what is God’s.

There are always things that others are going to want of us–our co-workers, our bosses, our volunteers, our parishioners. And it’s important to know what those things are, but do they align with the goals that you have for your ministry?

Start your review process with your goals. They define the boundaries around what you are expected to accomplish, but also what gifts and talents you need to bring to the ministry. If you can do that, you will be more successful in your ministry and be able to pursue better relationships with all of the people who are tugging at your time.