What Control Is and Isn’t

As many of you know, about 4 weeks ago, we were gearing up for the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Congress. (We had a record-setting crowd, and many exciting, unexpected moments including the Archbishop Curley High School drum line and Loyola jazz band.)

If there is one thing that I have learned about managing a project or event it is this: Figure out what you can and cannot control early. Otherwise, you will either try to control everything–and alienate everyone around you–or you will control nothing–and stress out everyone around you.

And then there is this humbling revelation. You can’t really control anything. Not really. You and I don’t hold all of the strings to make anything happen the way we want it to. The most you can hope to do is influence a decision, person, or situation in such a way that the outcome you intend takes place.

A few examples.

At the 1999 National Catholic Youth Conference in the RCA Dome in St. Louis, I was the staff person who had overall responsibility for it, and as we were waiting for participants to start coming into the dome to get ready for a keynote, the wave of people was only a trickle. So, I hurriedly got myself to the main doors, and discovered that the dome security staff was forcing everything to walk up to a higher level, then down again to the floor of the dome, rather than just walk straight through to the floor. After some ineffective back and forth, I just “pulled rank” and said, “I pay the bills. Now open those doors.”

Funny thing is, they could have completely ignored me. I looked about 12 at the time, but they didn’t. Not one of my proudest moments, but one in which I felt I needed to take control.

For the current work that I do, I have a very skilled and gifted team that I work with. And when it comes down to it, I generally “sit in the circle of equals” and contribute like everyone else. It’s a more collaborative experience, and we each respect the knowledge and decision-making authority that we have.

One of the hardest things for me to watch these days is when someone tries desperately to grasp for control of the situation around them and hang on by a thread. By doing so, we often hurt the people around us (intentionally or unintentially), gather to ourselves decisions that aren’t ours to make or for which we do not have the experience and/or knowledge, and put distance between those who are willing to support us in our efforts.

The Gospel for the 1st Sunday in Lent reminds us that God is in control of our lives ultimately. The decisions we make and the control we have is only there because of the gifts that God has given us. When we horde or overstep, we inch farther away from God. As this Lent unfolds, check whatever hunger begs you to grab control. And create or join a circle of equals in your ministry or workplace.

Respect the Power

Yesterday in the middle of a conference call, sticky, ugly, muddy water started gushing around the cracks in the bottom of the outside door into my basement office.

With hands in the air–and reminding myself that I hadn’t muted my phone!–my husband and I scrambled to grab towels (him), dirty or available clothing (me), and the huge stash of Bounty paper towels in the basement storage space.

Imagine the dialogue–“Oh, no, you don’t” as I slapped a tea towel on a pool of water seeping from under a fully soaked bath towel. “No, no, no, no, no,” and a wad of Bounty became whole rolls wedged into the door frame, turned over when one side was soaked, squeezed, and returned to continue the fight.

And just when I thought I had stemmed the tide, I saw it. Rivulets of water at the opposite end of the room, moseying from underneath the now-defeated laminate into the unfinished part of the basement, and into the crawl space where the Christmas decorations live.

With a mad dash to move the Christmas decorations to higher and safer ground, I had to relinquish control. I finally realized that there was little more I could do than clean up and respect the power of the river of water that a fast moving storm had created in my yard and then my basement.

As a sometime liturgist and catechist, I talk a lot about the power of symbols–water, light, fire–and both the good and bad they can do. Hence, their power.

Yesterday was a brief reminder that sometimes the only thing we as leaders can do is respect the power of nature, and not try to control it. At least, not now. Sometimes things are just bigger and more powerful than we are. And that’s okay.

Our basement will live to see another day–probably with a new floor. And so will I, a little worn out, but still here, still ready, still respectful.