The Spiritual Economics of Loss Aversion

In economics and decision theory, loss aversion refers to people’s tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. Most studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.

In his homily this past Sunday, our former pastor used the economic theory of loss aversion to more deeply examine Jesus’ insights into what it will mean for him to be the “Christ” and what each of his followers must do–leave everything behind and take up their own cross.

Christianity flies in the face of this innate human tendency to take few risks and avoid loss at all costs. Well, at least most costs.

But that is what Jesus asks of us. And we see the response to his invitation modeled in both ways, as a “yes” in his disciples at the start of his ministry and as a “no” in the young man who is unable to part with his riches.

One of my members, GIA Publications, has a song from Marty Haugen, called “Look and See the Face of Christ.” If you haven’t heard it before, give it a listen.

What hits me like a brick wall in this song is that as much I may try to avoid any part of the invitation to follow Jesus, I can’t. It’s always staring me in the face in the face of someone else.

Why avoid it? The promise of Jesus is everlasting life spent in the presence of the God who is love. I think I get glimpses of that occasionally when I reluctantly let go of something in my life that may cause me initial pain.

Where are the glimpses of that glory in your life–when the pain of loss is overcome by the joy of God’s love?

Identity vs. Issue

This political season can be summed up in three words, to some extent, identity versus issues. For identity to carry the day, the individual must be charismatic, embolden his or her followers to tell others about him or her, and seek to be regarded as the center of attention. Issues often have a charismatic person at the core, but one of humility who doesn’t seek the spotlight. Someone who accepts disagreement with love and compassion, and nurtures the truth in each of us to go forth.

This liturgical season seems to follow suit.

Once when Jesus was praying by himself,
and the disciples were with him,
he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist;
others, Elijah;
still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”
Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.”
He scolded them
and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
Luke 9 (New American Bible,

Jesus is the model of leadership par excellence for most of us. This Gospel establishes the framework for that model.

While the disciples recognize him as the Christ, the Messiah, the great spiritual leader that they have been awaiting, Jesus himself knows that true leadership cannot be deeply nurtured, explored, lived through, and sustained through identity leadership.

Think of how many different times and places where you have seen a strong and charismatic leader develop a rich and grace-filled ministry in a parish or school, only to leave at some point and the ministry to die on the vine.

Most great religious orders have dealt with this when their founder died, and they struggled with how and with whom to move on. They knew that there had to be something deeper — a charism — that bound them together, something that went beyond the personality or the identity of the leader.

Take a moment and think about what would have happened had Jesus told his followers to tell everyone who he was. Would the Gospel have gotten past the first century?

Jesus always knew that his life and ministry were about the issues–feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, taking in the homeless, setting prisoners free. Even the fights of the early Church were not around these. These were fundamental.

So, in what ways are you a leader through your identity? What are the strengths and weaknesses of that? When and where are you a leader through issues? How do you ensure that you can pass on the baton of leadership to others?

Culture of the Provisional

Catholic News Agency reported today on a response Pope Francis made during a Q&A session at a pastoral Congress in Rome.

“We live in a culture of the provisional,” which causes many couples getting married to say “yes, for the rest of my life!” without knowing what they’re committing to, and for that reason “the great majority of sacramental marriages are null”.

marriageIf we can’t look to Catholic sacramental marriages today for models of grace-filled permanent vocational choices, where can we?

The board in the hallway in the Catholic high school where my husband teaches with photos of all of the veteran teachers and coaches who have been there 10, 15, 25, 35, and even 40 years.

The plaque outside our worship space, dedicating the building to the original pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Columbia, MD, who was there for over 35 years. Or the plaque in the bookcase across the hallway to our pastor emeritus who served and ministered there for 32 years.

In the faces of our children’s teachers, catechists, coaches who have committed so many years to nurturing the faith of our communities. And the parish and diocesan leaders who have quietly, in many cases, brought the faith alive to generations of children and adults.

It seems like we are actually pretty good at this permanent, life-long commitment thing–just not in marriage??

So, what needs to change? What do we need to say or do differently to translate to this generation and the next so that they can live vocation-driven and married lives of grace, and not nullity?

Give and Take

GiveIt’s probably rare that we think about what we do as Catholic leaders as “mergers and acquisitions,” but when I think about all of my attempts at collaboration, I see it all around me.

I spend a lot of time building collaborative relationships to help make our work in publishing and developing Catholic leaders successful. The scary part is that I can see very clearly when I am in “acquisition” mode, e.g., Could you share your mailing list? Will you be a sponsor/partner?

But what is it that I have to give to them?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (June 2016) got me thinking.

Companies that focus on what they are going to get from an acquisition are less likely to succeed than those that focus on what they have to give it. (This insight echoes one from Adam Grant, who notes in his book “Give and Take” that people who focus more on giving than on taking in the interpersonal realm do better, in the end, than those who focus on maximizing their own position.

So, what gets in the way of giving more than we take when we collaborate? What is it that needs to change in the way we even start the conversation to ensure that the relationship is fully two-way?


What Makes People Say and Do the Things They Say and Do

downloadThe recent violence in Orlando has sparked many reactions, comments, and reflections on the incident–and many have wondered what makes those most vocal say and do what they have said and done.

As so often happens, the speakers and doers at the center of this past Sunday’s readings jolt us out of the commonness of everyday life to say and do the unexpected. Nathan, a prophet, cuts down the mighty King David with his words of the sin that David has committed. Paul professes his nothingness without his faith in the Son of God and grace from God. And a “sinful woman” (yes, that is the NAB’s translation) takes all that is precious to her to the house of a Pharisee, a man who would berate her and leave her in the dirt for nothing, in order to wash and kiss the feet of Jesus. Then, of course, Jesus does the most unthinkable–he forgives her.

The theme for the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress is “Blessed as Living Witnesses.” I thought it all somewhat ironic–waking to the news of this act of terror, listening to these readings at Mass, then reading and hearing the reactions from the media, politicians, commentators, and religious leaders.

What kind of “living witness” are we called to be? What kind of “living witness” do we want to be–and do we expect of others? Do we aspire to be like Nathan, Paul, and the sinful woman? What unexpected words and actions would it take to follow that path?