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?

Do Your Homework

crownThis leadership tidbit comes courtesy of Netflix’s original series, “The Crown,” which I binge-watched this weekend. (Very good show; John Lithgow is particularly impressive as a very aged Winston Churchill.)

Here it is. Do your homework. Always.

Twice in 10 episodes, we saw Queen Elizabeth as portrayed by Claire Foy struggle with situations in which her lack of knowledge created an obstacle to making a good decision for her country.

In the first, we see her trying to be both monarch and sister as she searches for solutions that will allow the Princess Margaret to marry the divorced man she loves. Her advisors tell her only the first part of a law which would allow the Princess to marry anyone she chooses once she turns 25. And so she waits.

Surprisingly (at least, to me), the Queen accepts the advice without any further questions or research. Only to find out that when her sister turns 25 that there is a second part to the law.

In another episode, the Queen faces head-on the fact that she received an education that seriously lacked any of the content of a normal course of studies for a normal child, teen, or young adult. So, as a young woman, she feels like she is at a disadvantage when speaking with other very knowledgeable men in her cabinet and commonwealth. She employs a tutor to fix that problem. In the end, her encyclopedic knowledge of the constitution of the Britain is all she has and all she needs.

In the first example, a lack of curiosity and an abundance of trust led down an ugly road to a decision that was a lose-lose between sisters. Would the decision have been any easier had she explored in more depth the law that was governing this situation more fully? Possibly not, but it would have meant dealing with the implications earlier when less pain might have been inflicted on everyone involved.

The second example illustrates the kind of humility it takes for any of us as leaders to see what we lack and address it.

I remember an older person I know telling me that the older he got, the more he realized how little he knew. That shouldn’t be a self-aware statement for the elderly, but for all of us. Whatever we think we know, we probably don’t know. And whatever we want to know, we need to take action to find it.

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.

“Assuming makes a . . .” (Rule #4)

egg“Assuming makes an . . .” Yes, we have all heard the phrase. And I can attest to its veracity.

With the end of a contentious election season, this particular rule seems to apply more than any other.

Based on what we have seen and heard, there are many assumptions that we can conclude. But are they true?

To avoid the proverbial “egg on your face,” the best path is to test assumptions and inferences that we might make before jumping to conclusions. Ask questions–lots of them. Clarify what the intention is and what the intended outcomes are. Agree on the answers to the questions, the intentions of the actions, and the accountability for the outcomes.

Then start all over again. Our agreements and understandings can quickly turn into assumptions again. Or assumptions about the “next time” or next situation.

Because the truth is, the answers, intentions, and outcomes for each occasion or situation may differ for a variety of reasons, sometimes reasons out of our control. To avoid the potential conflict, keep asking, keep clarifying, and keep reaching agreements.

The energy, especially emotional energy, that you save in testing your assumptions can then be channeled into nurturing successful ministry.

4 Leadership Fit-Ness Tests

officeOn a somewhat regular basis, I receive notifications of open leadership positions which got me thinking about what are some of the key leadership questions I ask as an employer and a potential employee.

Here are 4 of them. A word of caution. They may overlap, but it is rare that any given individual possesses all of the qualities.

  1. Are you an “ambassador” or an “administrator?” My experience has been that most top leaders, especially those with decision-making authority, fall into one of these two categories. An “ambassador” is the type of leader that prefers to be outward facing, e.g., is good at being the face of the ministry or field, is in demand as a speaker, and wants to out in the field pushing the mission of the organization. An “administrator” tends to be the leader whose strengths are focused in-house, on staff, implementing vision and mission, and engaging members in the best possible way. They prefer that others are the face of the organization–perhaps the president or chair of the board or the admired “all-stars.”
  2. What part of the lifecycle of a ministry or organization is the most life-giving for you? Marketing people talk about lifecycles of products, e.g., it’s created new,  it hopefully rises in awareness and popularity, then steadies off when it is in its prime, and starts to level off or weaken as other products enter the category. Ministry and organizations are like this too. And use the number of years that the ministry in the parish or the organization has been around.Ministries and organizations have multiple lifecycles, especially if they are attentive to reinventing themselves as the field and marketplace changes. I work for a 26-year-old organization that is really in start-up mode. We have been in a 5-6 year process of reinventing what benefits we offer and how we want to support the Catholic publishing industry.Most importantly, though, know what part of that lifecycle gives you life. Do you like the challenge of making a dream reality or are you best at keeping the boat moving in the right direction?

    And this leads to the next question.

  3. Is your strength in creating things or implementing them? This question could be rewritten in a Myers-Briggs way (a personality inventory), and read, “Are you a P or a J?” We all possess some of both, but the question is where is your home base? Every aspect of the lifecycle requires each of this, but some require more of the other from the leader. In start-up mode, creativity may be key to taking a new vision and putting it into action.
  4. Lastly, what personal, professional, and emotional need will this leadership role fill for you? I admire veteran ministry leaders because most have chosen their field because it fulls something in each of these categories. But here’s the thing. I’ve seen people (and been one) who have moved from parish ministry to diocesan ministry who eventually felt like their new role didn’t really impact the lives of people like their old job did. I’ve been, and this is tough. That’s why the “emotional” part of it is key. It may be that you had a personal and professional goal to work at the diocesan level, but once you get there, you may find that it does not fill your emotional need. Watch out for that! And it you run into it, fix it. Trust me, you won’t be satisfied if you don’t.

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 Your Camino

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Safely returned from a five-day “taste” of the Camino de Santiago de Campostela, there are two phrases that have stuck in my mind.

The first is, “It’s your Camino.” Here are some of the distinguishing features of our Camino trip.

  • We walked parts of the Portuguese Camino, the oldest route, but not the one most people think of.
  • We went with a tour group which meant comfortable hotels and good, reliable meals, not hostels with bunk beds.
  • We had “options” — no need to press onward to reach the next destination because there was always the van to pick you up and take you to that night’s lodgings if the hiking was too much.
  • We had a gaggle of women (and I mean that quite complimentary!) who walked and chatted and shopped and . . . bonded over small and big things.
  • We talked about the obvious and the metaphysical.

In and amongst all of this, “It’s your Camino” meant that it was always your choice how you walked it. Long, short, fast, slow, quiet, talking, taking mental pictures, taking physical pictures, in boots, in tennis shoes, with rain gear, without rain gear.

I thought a lot about how my “how” has changed over the years. I went backpacking about 25 years ago, and spent one of the 9 days at the front, right behind the leader. In looking back, I’m not sure what I thought I was going to achieve by doing that, but it was a consistent pattern in my life. In the end, we all arrived at the same destination, but “sooner” was the imperative for me.

On the Camino, one day I started at the front and kept a pace that had my thighs quaking by the time the day was done. It was also the only day that I hiked the longest possible distance and spent it mostly in conversation. On the rest of the days, I found my own pace, often hanging back with my Mom. I had a better opportunity to take in and embrace everything that was around us. And I felt more like a pilgrim on a journey–one of a pair like the disciples that Jesus sent forth, two by two.

It’s still my Camino, my journey, even as I sit at my desk, working through email, solving problems, moving programs forward. So, the big question is, how do I want to walk the journey of my personal, spiritual, and work life? What are the choices that I want to make?

What is your “Camino” like?

 

 

The Deep End

floatingTwice in my life I have been thrown into the professional “deep end” and been trusted to figure out how to swim.

The first was as a young teacher with lots of theology, but no education training. As the leader in my own classroom, I used the general skills that I had to help me create lesson plans, write tests, and present whatever material happened to be on the syllabus.

The second was as a slightly older, slightly more experienced adult who accepted the challenge of coordinating the largest Catholic youth conference in the country along with a couple of other meetings and conferences. Again, the skills that kept me afloat were the ones that I had honed over many years.

In neither case, I had been prepared with the the specific skills set that each job required. No education training. No conference management.

So there were times when I barely kept my head above water.

In both instances, there was someone there with more experience, more knowledge, more ideas, and I listened. I hung out in doorways. I drank endless cups of bad coffee early in the morning. I memorized the cadence of a sentence and the pattern of a conversation. I practiced and imitated the veterans, hoping to find a behavior or a word or a grin that fit and worked for me.

The apostles must have been thrown into the deep end many times–from the time they met Jesus to his death and Resurrection, and their eventual journeys in proclaiming the Gospel. With only their memories to serve them, they must asked themselves, “What did Jesus do? What would he say?”

Think about it. When have you been thrown into the deep end (or found yourself there by choice!)? What preexisting skills helped you keep your head above water? Who and what else did you need to comfortably stay afloat?

The Secret to Achieving the Awesome

By guest blogger, Terry Modica, Good News Ministries, gnm.org

BikeWhat’s the gold you’re pursuing? What treasure? What awesome goal? What new spiritual height? What overcoming of wounds or sin?

My husband and I recently began riding our bikes every morning. The gold we seek is weight loss and stronger knees and backs. For weeks we rode merrily around our neighborhood with only minor results.

Then I watched the Olympics. I listened to the interviews of winners. And one important message came through: True athletes don’t practice their skill so much that gradually their body improves enough to run farther or jump higher or swim faster than the competition. They don’t wait for that. I had been waiting on my legs muscles to improve enough to bike farther and faster. That’s a mistake. I was slowing down whenever my muscles cried out, “That’s enough pushing for now! You’ve reached the pain threshold.”

True progress is made only by reaching the pain threshold and pushing through it.

Keep going when it hurts; push harder — this is when you begin to make a difference.

Pain while exerting muscles comes from a buildup of lactic acid. If we choose not to focus on the pain but on the goal instead, and if we remain motivated by our passionate desire to reach that goal, lactic acid won’t stop us. Lactic acid is just a reminder that we’re succeeding: We’re getting closer to the gold. Hooray!

What’s the lactic acid that’s been keeping you from being all that you’re called by God to be? What do you wish you could accomplish but you’ve reached the threshold of pain and this has kept you from moving forward?

I’ve changed how I ride my bike for exercise. It’s no longer a question of, “How much longer can I ride today because I’ve built up my muscle strength?” Now it’s, “Go faster! Push harder! No pain, no gain.” My bike ride takes less time, but now I return home panting and aching and feeling awesome about the new, improved results.

The pain isn’t as noticeable when we keep our eyes on the goal. If I focus on the top of the hill, I get up the hill faster, because the lactic acid in my legs is not the center of my attention.

What’s the gold beyond your own pain threshold? Trust Jesus, work those faith muscles till they hurt, and keep your focus on the gold that God wants to give to you. This will make you a winner every time!

Complimentary or Complementary?

ColorI think of myself as “color-challenged.” I don’t often know what color to pick when it comes to shoes or paint or much of anything else, so I resort to the basics of the color wheel.

Limiting myself to the 6 options of the primary and secondary colors, the internal conversation goes something like this. “If the room is blue, then what are the adjacent and opposite colors?” Answers? Green and purple, and orange.

When it comes to leadership culture, I can be equally challenged, but find that I take a similar tack in addressing the question, “What kind of leader do I need to be in this particular situation and for this particular group?”

The summer issue of Harvard Business Review includes a “Defend Your Research” article on how leaders should complement their culture, not embody it. Sort of counter-intuitive, but I’ve seen it in action in my own experience. I find the answer is similar to my color challenge — go with the opposite or complementary skill set.

Does the program or office need someone who is task-oriented to right or steady or focus the ship? Then you are called to bring your organizational and administrative skills to the vision of the ministry so that it can be its most effective.

Does the ministry lack vision or direction, but has lots of great volunteers and doers who are generous and willingly give of their time and talent? Then you need to provide and communicate that vision at every turn, stay out of the proverbial weeds, and help them see how they plug into it and can make it concrete and human.

Start with recognizing your own leadership strengths and which specific skills they naturally support (are “adjacent to”). Then look at which skills are opposite yours — or complement them. How do you bring a balance of these complementary gifts so that your ministry can be the most successful and effective?