Category Archives: Team

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?

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.

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.

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 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.

 

Do You Choose Angels or Devils?

When selecting or inviting people to be part of your team, do you choose angels or devils?

Angels are the people who walk alongside you, keep you from harm, and guide you along the path. They see the path clearly before you, and are eager to accompany you there. They want to see you succeed.

There can be a “devilish” side to them, though. In keeping you from harm, sometimes they prevent you from seeing the people, problems, and issues that can threaten your program or challenge you to grow. Or the path they are treading may not be the path you want to or should be traveling.

And devils? Well, sometimes we are unfortunate enough that they volunteer themselves to work with you. Maybe they have a concern that no one has listened to or acknowledged, and they feel unheard. Maybe they don’t like change, and this is their way of preserving the status quo. Or maybe they just think a different way.

There can be an angel hiding inside that devilish skin. We’ve all known people like this. We call them “devil’s advocates” or the rivals in the infamous Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals.” Their contrariness can be a blessing in disguise when we give it voice and attention. Walking in their shoes, taking their perspective, can sometimes lead us along paths that we would not have considered, or question the path that we have traveled along, maybe, too long (?)

As we journey through this presidential transition, consider who is part of your team–both formally and informally. Who are the angels and who are the devils? Because every team needs a few of each in order to prevent the team from just saying “yes” to every decision, rarely challenging the choices you make, and ensuring that all of the voices and perspectives are heard.