Category Archives: Leadership Issues

3 Ways to Burst Your Leadership Bubble

I have the most distinct memories of my first meeting with a new group or committee of people. This is true in both my jobs and my parishes.

Probably one of the most awkward ones was when I joined my parish’s liturgy committee. I have a master’s degree in liturgy, and, at the time, I was the project coordinator at the bishops’ conference for the implementation of the General Instruction of Roman Missal (GIRM). Because of the latter, I just plum knew a lot about the GIRM, but because of the former, I avoided all resemblences to the very bad joke about liturgists and terrorist. (If you don’t know it, look it up. Scary, true, and sad, all at the same time!)

We were planning Advent, and the associate pastor made a statement about something that I knew was no longer true because it had been changed in the new GIRM. While I fought in my head with how to say something, the conversation had continued with much affirmation that we should do as the associate pastor had said. Just before we were to move on, I opened my mouth, and as gently as I could put it, said something like, “I think we might need to revisit this. I believe thus and such has changed in the GIRM, and blah, blah, blah…”

You would have thought that I had suggested that we change the theology of transubstantiation from the reaction that I got.

And unfortunately, this has happened to me a lot!!!!! (Yes, this does warrant all of these exclamation points!)

Because here’s what’s going on. Leadership groups like this liturgy committee had created their own little “bubble” which included a gaggle of “yes” people, people who supported the leader’s goals and approaches to preparation and rarely challenged them.

An important thing to know, too, is that none of that was necessarily intentional. It just happens. Why? Sometimes because we hand-pick our groups. Sometimes because those who come to us weed themselves out if they don’t feel welcome.

The big problem, though, is that our leadership can stagnate and not grow when we start to operate in a bubble like this.

How do we burst that leadership bubble? There are 3 things we can do.

  1. Designate a “devil’s advocate” in the group. By designating someone, we publicly say that disagreement is good and necessary. By designating a specific person, we ensure that challenges and concerns are actively a part of the group’s work. This also gives the leader someone to look to for advice and questions when no one else is able to offer them.
  2. Identify the criteria for every decision you will make. What are the 3 or 5 needs or objectives that each decision must satisfy? The MAC planners have 5 criteria that we use to help us make decisions along the way, criteria that we established over 5 years ago. It might be a simple as meet the budget, fit the timeline, and require less than 3 people to do. Whatever they are, set them, them diligently use them (and no exceptions unless the everyone agrees to the reason.)
  3. Do as Lincoln did — keep your “enemies” close. Instead of “enemies” — because this is ministry — let’s say “advocates.” In more than one instance, I have expressly invited someone to be on a leadership team that I knew completely disagreed with me — strongly and vocally. The hardest thing for me to do was to acknowledge that that person possessed some wisdom that I did not have, and I needed it on my team.

Don’t let a leadership bubble keep you from doing all that you want or can accomplish. Put your and your team’s feet on the ground by surrounding yourself with a diverse and opinionated group of people who are comfortable disagreeing with each other and sharing their perspectives, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

The True Cost of Cheapness

I remember the first time I was handed a budget of more than 4 figures. It was 7 figures, and all I could think of was, “Really?!?! You really think I can manage this?”

In the years since then, effectively managing budgets of varying sizes, I’ve learned one very important lesson that is essential for ministry leaders to know. “Cheap” and “frugal” are two different things.

“Frugal” is about getting the best return on investment — the key word being “investment.” Let me give you 2 examples from my work on the Mid-Atlantic Congress (MAC).

  1. The wonderful volunteer who took complete responsibility for all of the name badges including the printing, sorting, and distribution grew increasingly frustrated with me and my cheap system the first year of the MAC. It came to a head onsite when I ended up spending the entire 3 days basically behind a computer, creating name badges and wasting scads of name badge template sheets because I only needed one badge at a time (not 6.) After the post-mortem, it was very clear that we needed a different approach and the equipment that accompanied it. So, I bought it. Second best purchase I ever made.
  2. Then there are the amazing Baltimore volunteers who spend an entire day at the O’Dwyer Retreat House sorting materials and stuffing the registration bags. First few years, we used boxes to collect the completed bags — which caused endless headaches because we didn’t have enough and they were really hard to transport. Best $1,000+ I ever spent was for 4 huge, wheeled tubs that magically hold every one of those registration bags. Not only were those volunteers happy, but the onsite registration folks were thrilled!

“Cheap” is a completely other thing.

Cheap is our usual default when budgets are small, and we try to get the most out of them. And that can work for a while — in the short-term. Like hiring a recent college graduate as the parish liturgy coordinator or youth minister. While it’s a budget-friendly move, it’s can be a very staff-unfriendly move for the person who has been hired.

Recently, I did some consulting with someone in this situation. He didn’t have many complaints because he didn’t know better, but I did. The pastor turned a full-time position into part-time, still expected the same or better results, and wasn’t paying any benefits. As a good mentor should, I pointed that out, and in the long-term, he ended up leaving the job because of the “cheapness” of the parish.

Cheap is also the line we cross sometimes in an effort to maintain quality programs. How many times have you duplicated a chapter or a published article or a handout (like “Catholic Update”) without permission or paying to do so? That’s when we cross the line of our own beliefs in social justice — the rights of workers to earn a living. That’s what “cheap” sometimes means, compromising our beliefs.

In the long-term, what does being cheap get us? Lots of staff turnover. Less experienced staff. Less impactful ministry because of the less experience. More limited relationships and higher levels of stress because of the less exp . . .  You can see where this is going.

In ministry, it rarely pays to be cheap. That’s one of the takeaways from the parable of the vinekeeper who hires workers throughout the day, then pays them the same amount. He knows what he is doing as he hires the workers, and he knows what he is getting. His “return on investment” was as he intended.

In what areas do you need to move from being cheap to being frugal, and make the longer term investment to see the return you really want?

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.

 

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 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Collaborate

It’s midsummer, and there are 3 pictures in my mind.

July 4th crowds gathering on the Mall, under the Arch, on the lake shore, in the fields to watch fireworks light up the sky.

Over 3,500 people pouring through the Hyatt Regency Orlando and Orange County Convention Center, participating in the USCCB Convocation on missionary discipleship.

Political leaders going home to constituents without a health care bill approved.

What do these all have in common? The desire, need, or fact of collaboration.

And in my mind, collaboration should be the 11th commandment. We are called to do it more often than many like!

July 4th revelers come together to share a common experience of liberty and freedom. Groups of diocesan and parish leaders descended on Orlando to dive deeply into the bishops’ plan for missionary discipleship and plan how to bring it alive back home. And our political leaders? After many weeks of back and forth, the language seems to be taking a turn toward possible collaboration across the aisle.

It isn’t hard to see in the example of Jesus that collaboration was a necessity. Look at his behavior. He was always sending people out in twos. Never a solo act.

When there was a “one,” he sends them back to the many. Take the leper and blind man he heals, the prodigal son who returns home to a celebration in his honor, and the Samaritan woman at the well who is teeming with excitement to tell her villagers what he had done.

As we look ahead to the 2nd half of summer and the beginning of the school and parish year, let’s consider how we can better model, foster, and participate in collaboration in our ministry. Identify a Gospel story that captures best the aspect of collaboration that you need to work on most, and let that Scripture be the focus of your prayer and meditation as the summer progresses.

What Problems Are You Trying to Solve? Part II

Besides my weedy gardens, the onset of warmer, more humid weather brought another new problem to the fore — our air conditioning didn’t work.

When you live in a part of the country that began as a swamp, summer means air that veritably drips with condensation that never quite turns into rain. A/C is a necessity — and so the quest for repair service began.

As luck would have it, we received a discount coupon in the mail from a heating/air conditioning company for a system check-up. After looking at our A/C, the conversation with the repairman went something like this.

“Now, if you will let me just do the service, I can charge you the $29 from the ad.”

“But didn’t you say that we need to replace the A/C.”

“Yes, but IF YOU WILL LET ME JUST DO THE SERVICE . . . ”

“Ohhhhh, then you can charge me the $29, and send someone else out to do the rest?”

“Right!!!”

I’m not usually so clueless, but his point was well taken. We thought we had a leak problem since we’d been in this situation before. But he had redefined the problem–appropriately so–and now the question was how best to solve it?

I solve most “big ticket” issues the same way–contact multiple experts, collect lots of information, compare prices, then make a decision. With A/C or new doors, my solo search might work, but in ministry, not so much.

The center of the above process is “I.” And in ministry, an “I” is best when part of a “we.” There’s good reason for that. Ministry is always about the community — the participation of, the impact on, and the ownership of the problem and solution.

So, unlike caring for a house, in ministry, problems shouldn’t be solved by one person. But you’ve probably had similar experiences trying to motivate a committee or team to solve a familiar or repeated problem.

Don’t let that stop you. Though your group may be moving slowly or not at all, a change in or from one person can completely change the direction or orientation of the whole towards the problem and solution. That person can be you.

So what can you do? Make a change in your own behavior related to the problem.

Instead of advocating for a particular approach, start asking everyone else how they would handle it. Don’t let them get away with saying that your idea is fine. Gently push them to tell you what they would do (or what they have done in a similar situation.)

Or create multiple options and lead the group in an evaluation of them. Don’t contribute a single opinion until someone either asks or everyone has talked. You are there to lead.

Or do something really crazy — pass out post-it notes or index cards. Ask folks to write down every possible idea for how to solve the problem, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Try speaking in a different language (really! Spanish or charades — and no, I am not kidding!)

 

Or just do something, anything that is totally different from what you would otherwise do. Don’t feed into people’s expectations of how the problem will be solved.

Group dynamics remind us that when one person in a group changes their behavior, everyone else must change theirs too. Creating this kind of energy and ownership will move you forward, even through the rough spots, and lead you to different solutions to the problems that you face.

What Problems Are You Trying to Solve? Part I

My husband and I live on a half acre plot of land. In an effort to reduce the amount of grass that he has to cut, we have planted gardens in large patches around the house and in the back yard.

In solving one problem, it seems I created another. “BG” (“before gardens”), my aversion to weeds was easily controllable with regular sprays of a good weed-killer or an hour or two of weeding. Now? I feel one with the plants that are being overwhelmed by the towering and tangling weeds that want to bury the actual plant residents of the gardens.

With the break in the parish and school year, it’s a good time to reflect on what  problems are you trying to solve?

Is your focus on the right problems or just the ones in front of you?

I thought the weeds were my problem. A landscaper (who I ultimately hired) showed me the error of my ways. The landscaping fabric that I had had laid the previous year was the actual culprit of my weed problem. He told me that as long as the fabric was there, regardless of how much he sprayed the weeds, they would keep coming back.

Think about one or two of the problems that you are hoping to address over the summer. What’s the surface problem? How is it presenting itself? Who and what are involved?

Then, like a good weed, take a second look and see if you can find the root of the problem.

As a former teacher, it used to drive me crazy when students would forget to turn in homework. It took me about 3 semesters to realize that the homework itself wasn’t the problem. My students weren’t organized enough to remember to do it! Solve the organization problem, and the homework may actually get done.

Most of our problems are like a garden. If you want to kill the weed, you have to have the patience and perseverance to kill the root. Otherwise, you pull the weed, only to have it return again.

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.