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.

When to Keep Silent

As my husband and I were binge-watching season 2 of “The Good Witch,” a very wholesome and entertaining Hallmark Channel show, one of the main characters, Martha, the mayor, started to get laryngitis on the eve of a very important award-acceptance speech.

The doctor’s cure? Silence for 72 hours. If you know the show, Martha talks incessantly, so she faced the cure as a “challenge.” That made me laugh!

Why? Because silence isn’t a challenge, but a habit, and one we have to cultivate and practice like any other habit.

Since I participate in many phone and online meetings, silence is a regular component. It’s a space that I am often tempted to fill. But I’ve learned something from my colleagues who are stronger introverts than I am (yes, I am a natural introvert!) Silence is not empty space and time. It is filled with ideas, thoughts, and questions that have yet to be expressed.

So, there are 2 things I try to do more of when the time and space are filled with silence. The first is to do nothing and say nothing. Inevitably, someone breaks into the quiet and articulates some of the ideas, thoughts, and questions that have been gestating in the silence.

The second is to invite someone whose voice has not been heard or heard infrequently to share their thoughts. As a friend reminded me, those thoughts may not be fully formed or the best response, but they are often insightful and provide a different perspective than the others we have heard.

Keeping silent is hard. Especially for me. It is an incredibly humbling experience to say nothing. It is a simple, but sometimes harsh admission that I don’t know or have all of the answers. And that the problem or question needs a “we” not a “me” to address to it.

Next time you are in a meeting and tempted to speak, listen instead. Let the silence be fertile ground for everyone including you.

What Problem Is Your Ministry Solving?

monolithWhen I was a new teacher, the main “to do” item was write and teach lesson plans. That’s what I was hired to do–fill a teaching position and teach. That was the problem that needed solving.

If you’ve been following this blog, then you know that in my four years there I did much more than teach. I discovered real problem was–or problems were–personal, social, emotional, and spiritual, not informational.

In the work I do now as an association executive, some of the problems that I’m supposed to solve include: acquiring and keeping new members, attracting registrants to our conference, collecting dues, implementing our strategic plan.

But those aren’t really “problems.” They’re tasks. They don’t focus on who the people or companies that I interact with really are and what they need.

One of the things we do is host a conference. We could have tried to replicate what had been done in the past or is now being done successfully elsewhere. But we didn’t. The conversation long ago started with the question, “What do ministry leaders in this area need and want?” With a little market research, we found out that they needed and wanted professional development opportunities in a context of a strong Catholic spiritual program.

Ministry programs are too often monoliths that exist because someone started them and no one is brave enough to question or end them. And so they continue with perhaps some success, but perhaps not what anyone really hopes for.

So, here are a few question to help you identify what the real problem is that your ministry can solve.

  1. When you look around at all of the options available to the people you minister with, what is the one thing that your people are seeking or trying to accomplish? Learning how to pray as a family? What are you doing and what aren’t you doing to make that possible?
  2. When you look at the overall picture of ministry in your community, where are the gaps where nothing is happening? Maybe that is an opportunity for you.
  3. Are people twisting themselves in knots trying to satisfy a need when you know of or have a way to make it easier? Is Saturday morning religious education always competing with soccer practice, so Moms have to choose one over the other? Can you give Moms and Dads multiple options?
  4. How does the ministry you offer meet a need beyond checking off the “religion” checkbox? What social and emotional needs does or can it meet?