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?

Balancing Tradition with Innovation

Churches like many institutions is naturally conservative, i.e., averse to change, desiring what is to remain as it is.

The constantly changing cultural environment in which we live poses many challenges to that conservatism. We face issues in the last 10 years that were unheard of in the last 100, e.g., same-sex marriage, how we interact with and support transgender people.

So, innovation can be seen as a scary threat around which some Church leaders “marshall the troops” and keep any–and every–change out.

Innovation and tradition can be complementary companions when approached in the right way. (The following are adaptations for ministry from a business article by Dr. Waguih Ishak in an online article from McKinsey & Company.)

Regardless of your role–pastor, DRE, teacher, diocesan director, choir director–we are all in a position to foster an environment of creativity in the planning, development, and implementation of our ministries. Here are a few ideas on how to do it.

Practice ‘Innovation Parenting’

  • Give your key volunteers the problem and let them solve it in their own way and time. Give them the important guidelines like budget and timeline, then let them go. This will take work off your plate and build your delegating skills.
  • Invite input from those you are least likely to involve, e.g, teens or grandparents for help with your elementary religious education program.

Bust Hierarchy

  • Don’t let the formal roles in your environment keep you from saying “yes” when someone comes to you with a unique idea that just doesn’t obviously fit in with your plans.
  • Create a work group of some of your biggest and most honest critics, and ask them to brainstorm ideas on how to fix the very problems they have identified.

Encourage the Unreasonable

  • It’s easy to say, “We’ve always done it this way,” so make a rule and ban that kind of thinking.
  • Put “old ways” under a really detailed microscope and explore the most reasonable and most unreasonable way your could change it or do it differently. Somewhere in that conversation, you will find ideas that both surprise and please you.
  • Set concrete goals for . . . registration, recruitment . . . beyond anything you think you can achieve — then foster the truly unreasonable things that you might have to do to get there.

Don’t Die of Indigestion

  • Don’t take on too much yourself. Innovation and creativity take up a lot of energy, energy that can be easily displaced by all of the other things you think you have to do.
  • Don’t take up too many new or creative ideas. Pace is everything. Do one thing really well and give it a really good chance for success.

Cultivate External Relationships

  • Get the broader community involved. Local business or other churches may have expertise in an area in which you are working.
  • Pair up with a neighboring parish. Two is better than one (and three is better than two!) If your goal is what you have in common, e.g., growing a strong youth ministry, collaborate instead of competing.

Teachable Moment #2: The NFL and the National Anthem

Wedding couple kneeling at MassTeachable moment #2. Stand or kneel at the singing of the National Anthem.

With the NFL season fully underway only to be overlapped and followed by hockey and all kinds of basketball (NBA and NCAA), this issue is probably not going to die out any time soon. So, how as ministry leaders and professionals do we sidestep the political aspects of this debate, and facilitate a well-grounded and fair discussion with our children, parents, adults, and leaders?

When in doubt, look to the Church and her liturgical tradition.

Let me preface this by saying, as a “lex orandi, lex credendi” Church, we’re way ahead of everyone else on this topic . . . by almost 10 years.

During the process that led to the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal (issued in 2010), there was a great deal of discussion and debate over the meaning of standing versus kneeling during the most important moment of the Mass, the Consecration. For the U.S., it was resolved that we kneel during the Consecration as a sign of the great reverence and respect we have for our Lord who died and rose again so that we might escape the bonds of sin and death.

When you travel internationally, however, you will discover (as I have seen everywhere from Italy to China) that this ritual action during the Eucharistic Prayer and Consecration are not consistent. In some countries, they stand. In some countries, they kneel. What is clear is that both standing and kneeling as ritual actions communicate reverence and respect.

As Catholics, one of the contributions that we can make to this discussion–and use as a teachable moment with our children and adults–is to ask the question, “how does each of these ritual actions express reverence and respect?”

Let’s tease out a couple of thoughts as starting points for a more substantial conversation.


  • Standing symbolizes equality — we are all on the same plane, same level.
  • Standing communicates solidarity — “we-ness” if you will, we stand together as one — one of the Church’s 7 principles of Catholic social teaching.
  • Standing exudes strength, firmness, and rootedness. We use expresses like “standing as tall as a tree” for this reason — a tree is strong, firm, and deeply rooted, it cannot be easily toppled.
  • Standing ritually is a posture of corporate prayer — think of the Our Father and the American habit in some parishes of holding hands. I doubt we would do this were we sitting or kneeling.
  • Standing embodies respect at important moments — when the bride walks down the aisle, when the queen is passing in a procession, when “Taps” is played.


  • Kneeling symbolizes humility — we bow down before that which is greater than we are, our God.
  • Kneeling is the least stable of the human postures. It captures the sense of our human weakness and frailty. We can be easily pushed over. We kneel to recognize that which is stronger then anyone of us.
  • Kneeling is often reserved for moments of sadness and grief, to recognize the losses that have brought us to this point. We kneel to acknowledge our Lord’s death and when others have died.
  • Kneeling is used in both corporate and individual prayer.
  • Kneeling is required when a person is knighted to express fealty and loyalty to the sovereign (in our liturgical life, God).

With an MA in worship, you would think that I would have spent a lot of time contemplating things like this. But I didn’t. It took graduate school to help me step back and reflect on actions that I performed every day and every week with little thought to what they meant.

Take this opportunity to bring to the light a Catholic perspective on this debate. Help those who are in your care to better understand consciously what we say when we stand and when we kneel. Don’t let this teachable moment slip by.


New Parish/School Year Brings 1 Clear Change . . . Uniforms!

By the time I hit 9th grade, I was grateful for the return of a school uniform. During my first 7 1/2 years in Catholic school, I’d studied and played in my grey plaid uniform from the time I woke up to the time I changed for bed. Uniforms were great (at least, in my young mind.) I didn’t like shopping for clothes in general, so our move in the middle of 7th grade meant that Mom and I had to buy a mini-wardrobe of outfits.

Needless to say, it was an unmitigated disaster. So many years of uniforms left me with an underdeveloped sense of style (which continues into my adulthood — hence my love for personal shoppers and shopping sites!) Thank God for Catholic high school!

All this to say that, at the start of the new parish/school year, the Mid-Atlantic Congress blog has changed its uniform.

We hope that this layout and design is easier to read, and helps you navigate to the topics and content that is most meaningful to you.

Let us know what you think in the comments!

Join Pope Francis and Support “Share the Journey”

Share the Journey #sharejourneyToday’s the big day!

Let Pope Francis and our brothers and sisters around the world know you heard the call to reach out and love your neighbors by being part of the Share the Journey campaign.

Here’s a reminder of what you can do to help build a social media wave starting tomorrow.

Simply post a photo of yourself and/or your staff reaching out to migrants and refugees (see photo example on the right) with the hashtag #ShareJourney.

Or if you prefer, post this graphic instead of a photo. Posting a photo or the graphic shows your support for migrants and refugees by recognizing the challenges they face on their journeys. And be sure to ask your family, friends, colleagues, and other networks to post and take this campaign viral.

Here are some sample posts you can adapt:

Sample Tweets

  • [Insert I’m/We’re] reaching out to migrants and refugees fleeing war, persecution and poverty. https://sharejourney.org #ShareJourney
  • [Insert I’m/We’re] loving [my/our] neighbor by reaching out to migrants & refugees. Join [me/us]. https://sharejourney.org  #ShareJourney
  • Migrants & refugees shouldn’t have to leave their homes to survive. Let’s reach out w/ love & support. https://sharejourney.org  #ShareJourney
  • Reaching out is the first step in loving neighbors fleeing war, persecution and poverty. https://sharejourney.org #ShareJourney

Sample Facebook Post

Today [Insert I’m/we’re] reaching out to show support for migrants and refugees fleeing war, gang violence, death threats, religious persecution, extreme poverty and more. Reach out and love your neighbor, too. Learn more, do more at https://sharejourney.org #ShareJourney

Sample Instagram Post

Today [Insert I’m/we’re] reaching out to show support for migrants and refugees fleeing war, gang violence, death threats, religious persecution, extreme poverty and more. Reach out and love your neighbor, too. Learn more, do more at https://sharejourney.org #ShareJourney #LoveYourNeighbor #migrant #migrants #migrantrights #migrantworkers #migrantcrisis #refugee #refugees #refugeestories #peace


Simplemente envíe una foto de usted y/o de su personal dirigiéndose a migrantes y refugiados (vea el ejemplo de la foto a continuación) con el hashtag #ShareJourney. O si prefiere, publique este gráfico en lugar de una foto. El publicar una foto o el gráfico muestra su apoyo a los migrantes y refugiados reconociendo los desafíos que enfrentan en sus viajes. Además, asegúrese de pedir a su familia, amigos, colegas y otras redes que publiquen y hagan esta campaña viral. Estos son algunos ejemplos de mensajes:

Ejemplos de tweets

  • [Insertar: Yo estoy/Nosotros estamos/Nombre de organización está] tendiendo la mano a los migrantes y refugiados que huyen del infortunio. https://sharejourney.org/en-espanol #ShareJourney
  • [Insertar: Yo estoy/Nosotros estamos/Nombre de la organización está] amando a mi/nuestro/su prójimo al acercarme/acercarnos/acercarse a los migrantes y refugiados. Únete a [mí/nosotros]. https://sharejourney.org/en-espanol #ShareJourney
  • Los migrantes y refugiados no deberían tener que abandonar sus hogares para sobrevivir. Vamos a tender la mano con amor y apoyo. https://sharejourney.org/en-espanol #ShareJourney
  • Tender la mano es el primer paso para amar a los prójimos que huyen de la guerra, la persecución y la pobreza. https://sharejourney.org/en-espanol #ShareJourney

Ejemplo de publicación en Facebook

Hoy [Insertar: Yo estoy/Nosotros estamos/Nombre de la organización está] tendiendo la mano para mostrar mi/nuestro/su apoyo por los migrantes y refugiados que huyen de la guerra, la violencia de las pandillas, las amenazas de muerte, la persecución religiosa, la pobreza extrema y más. Tiende la mano y ama a tu prójimo también. Aprende más, haz más en https://sharejourney.org/en-espanol #ShareJourney

Ejemplo de publicación en Instagram

Hoy [Insertar: Yo estoy/Nosotros estamos/Nombre de la organización está]] tendiendo la mano para mostrar mi/nuestro/su apoyo por los migrantes y refugiados que huyen de la guerra, la violencia de las pandillas, las amenazas de muerte, la persecución religiosa, la pobreza extrema y más. Tiende la mano y ama a tu prójimo también. Aprende más, haz más en https://sharejourney.org/en-espanol #ShareJourney #migrant #migrants #migrantrights #migrantworkers #migrantcrisis #refugee #refugees #refugeestories #peace

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.