Broadening perspective

My son loves school, but every morning it’s like we’re living 50 First Dates. He forgets how much he enjoys learning and playing with his friends until he actually enters the building. He yells at our Amazon Echo when it reminds him that it’s time to get dressed for school. He mopes while he picks out (at an excruciatingly slow speed) his mismatched clothes.

Recently I’ve been using a coaching technique that has helped everyone’s mood. I’ve been taking his complaint and using it to broaden his perspective. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1

Alexa reminds him to get dressed.

Him: Your reminders are terrible, Alexa!

Me: Are they really that bad? Let’s play a game. We’ll take turn naming things more terrible than Alexa’s reminders. I’ll go first: dropping my ice cream on the ground.

Him: [Thinks.] A monster destroying Ninjago city.

Me: Getting a cold and missing something really fun.

Him: A baby penguin dying. [Yikes.]

After a couple more rounds, he was laughing and we were declaring each other winners of the game. He then got ready without complaint.

Example 2

Child is refusing to put on his school clothes.

Him: I don’t want to go to school today. Today is Saturday. I want every day to be Saturday.

Me: Hmmm. I like Saturdays too. What would you do on your perfect Saturday?

Him: [Lets me dress him while he talks.] I would watch the Ninjago movie and play Legos.

Me: That sounds fun! What would you eat for breakfast on your perfect Saturday?

Him: Fish and krill. [He was a penguin that day.]

By then he was dressed, and he penguin-waddled across the hall to brush his teeth.

In both of these examples, it would have gotten us nowhere for me to keep askyelling for him to get ready. We would have both been grumpy and started our respective days in a terrible headspace. But by taking his lead and using it as prompt for us both to think creatively, he felt heard and reoriented his focus.

I use this approach in my coaching. If a coachee gets stuck in a thought spiral – often around the worry that she is not an effective pastor – I ask a question to help her widen the view: “What’s the best affirmation you’ve received lately?” (Often this is not an explicit “thank you” but a realization that she has been invited into a tender place by a parishioner.) She realizes that she is making a difference in tangible ways. Or, “what is one change you’ve seen in the congregation since your arrival?” One small change opens the door to thinking about several ways the coachee has led the church toward growth.

This can work for clergy in their ministry settings too. Consider the following:

Church member: This [ministry initiative] won’t work.

Minister: Hmm. Ok. Let’s think about everything that could go wrong.

After brainstorming the possible catastrophes, probe why these outcomes are so undesirable. Then name all the potential positive outcomes and discuss, in light of these different visions of the future, what the most faithful next step is. With this approach, you can acknowledge the church member’s resistance, unearth some unspoken – maybe even subconscious – norms and fears, move toward agreement on action, and stop many of the parking lot conversations that sabotage change.

Perspective shifts are invaluable when there is stuckness. Next time you feel mired down, try opening up the conversation with a question, brainstorming prompt, or game.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash.

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For the love of questions

I defied my junior high Sunday School teachers yet again on Sunday night. I went to a rock ‘n roll show, as the kids say. Well, kids of a certain generation, I guess.

My youth leaders specifically warned me about two of the three acts. Don Felder – FORMERLY OF THE EAGLES, as I imagine legal actions require him to clarify – sang “Hotel California,” which my teachers said was about drug use. (I never really understood the objection, since the song seems like more of a cautionary tale than a ringing endorsement.) Styx put on the best concert I’ve ever seen, but did you know that the Styx is a river that leads to Hades? (My Sunday School leaders whispered that “Hades” is another word for hell.)

I hated every millisecond of my Sundays in that too-small room with teachers who saw the world through the lens of fear and divided everything in it into good and bad camps. (I promised myself then that I would crank up and sing along to “Hotel California” every time it came on the radio, and I made myself a mental note to check out Styx, even though it would be another five years until I really got into classic rock.) The worst part of my “formational” experience in that setting, though, was that there was no room for questions. And as a teenager struggling with the difference between what I deeply felt to be true about Jesus and what I was being told at church, I had a lot of ’em.

My parents took my abject misery and my soul’s peril (as I refused to be baptized in this congregation) seriously, and we hopped around until we found a church that was a good fit for our whole family. There I made my pastor, many a youth leader, and my peers uncomfortable with my questions and pushback, but no one tried to shut me up. Bless those kind souls. They are one of the reasons I am in ministry today.

Now, I ask questions for a living. What a dream for a person with so many! I don’t ask these questions on my own behalf in my role as coach. I listen for what is going on in clergy and congregations and make queries that will help them come to their own realizations and reach longed-for goals. I cannot tell you how much I love this work.

Maybe it’s a curiosity mindset that the Eagles were actually referring to: “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” And why would I want to?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

 

Everything happens

As a teenager I had an unhealthy affinity for Lurlene McDaniel novels. She writes about young people who have chronic or terminal illnesses. There’s also at least one book about a high school girl dying in a car crash because she didn’t want her seat belt to wrinkle her new dress. These works of fiction were the perfect/worst possible match for my personality: generally anxious with a side dish of hypochondria. I cannot tell you how many times I convinced myself I had diabetes or cancer, thanks to the similarity of my “symptoms” with a Lurlene McDaniel character. I mentally penned my farewell letters and practiced my brave face in the mirror. (Truth be told, I still kinda do these things.)

Which is why I couldn’t wait to read/put off reading Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Bowler is an assistant professor of church history at Duke Divinity School who was unexpectedly diagnosed with incurable, stage 4 cancer in 2015. She is in her late 30s. She is a self-professed church nerd. As a Mennonite she is a proponent of believer’s baptism adrift in a sea of infant baptizers at her Methodist seminary. She has a young son. She has a close-knit, irreverent family. In short, I could relate to much of her story. And her humor…oh, how I love her wit.

But Kate Bowler is not a fictional character. She is a real person who is wrestling daily with what it means to inhabit the space between living the dream and actively dying. She is a real Christian who is struggling with her subconscious assent to the prosperity gospel – if you pray hard enough and are good enough, the world is your oyster! – and her fear that death means disconnect from her husband and child.

Bowler’s words did not hit me square in my anxiety. They did something that is rare for someone as head-focused as I am: wriggled their way into my most tender, most guarded inner self. They made me want to be less private and more honest. They made me want to dream about more than control my life. They made me want to love so deeply that I would feel grief acutely. Now, how to do those things…

I guess I don’t have to spell out that I recommend this book, as well as the accompanying podcast.

Thank you, Kate Bowler, for the beauty of who you are and what you share with the world.

The necessity of encouragement

During the fall of my sixth grade year, I tagged along when my parents took my younger brother to sign up for rec league basketball. When we arrived, I shocked my mom and dad – and myself, for that matter – by declaring that I wanted to play ball too. I was bookish. I was freakishly short. I had never shown an iota of interest in anything athletic. To their credit, my parents only exchanged brief glances, asked me once if I was sure, and then filled out my registration form.

The picture of athleticism.

I was terrible at basketball, as it turned out. I wasn’t fast. I was clumsy. I had no arm strength, so I had to shoot free throws underhanded, which was humiliating. I also wore glasses – not the sporty kind – that required me to use a very sexy [snort] croakie to keep them from being knocked off my head. I put my hair up with a tie that had a tiny piece of metal on it and went into a game with newly-pierced ears, both mistakes that prompted the referees to stop the action on my behalf. (I had to change out the hair tie and put medical tape over my earrings to avoid harming self and others.)

That sixth grade season was not pretty on my part. The only points I scored that year were in one game, when my coach told me to camp out under our team’s basket and wait for my teammates to lob defensive rebounds downcourt to me so that I could (hopefully) hit an unguarded layup. But I was having the time of my life.

After the season I had an idea of what I needed to work on (everything) to get better. So I started conditioning. I shot baskets and ran ball handling drills for hours in the driveway. I attended camp at a university known for being a powerhouse basketball program in the NAIA. And I improved. I made my school team in seventh grade. I didn’t start, and I didn’t always see much playing time, but I persevered. In eighth grade I developed my arm. No more granny-style free throws for me – in fact, I was pretty reliable from three-point range.

But I was getting discouraged. I was working my butt off without seeing my efforts translate into playing time. I could shoot and play in-your-face defense, but my ball handling was still weak, and you can’t be 4’10” with a case of the fumbles and not expect to make gluteal indentations on the bench. Before my ninth grade season, with honors courses and all the homework that accompanied them piling up, I decided to focus on what I was best at – studying. I still traveled with the school basketball team as a statistician and played church league ball, but any hope of a varsity (or beyond) athletic career vaporized.

Several years later, I ran into my eighth grade coach. We caught up a bit, and then she said, “I wish you hadn’t stopped playing. With your work ethic, you could have been an All-American.”

Record scratch.

I mumbled a “thank you” and scooted out of there before my brain exploded. This coach had never told me that she saw my potential. I thought I was forever destined to be a benchwarmer, and to me Rudy is the saddest-sack movie ever made.

The coach’s statement was no doubt hyperbolic, and yet I wonder if I would have made different choices if I had been given a slow drip of encouragement. “Keep at it – you’re improving.” “You’ll get your chance.” “You work at least as hard as anyone else on this team, and everyone notices.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with my life as it has unfolded. And it turns out I might have given up too soon on an outlet I was passionate about.

Everyone wants to know that he is not invisible, that she is valued. To be sincerely appreciated for who she is and what he does. To have her gifts-in-development called forth. This goes for loved ones, colleagues, volunteers, community leaders, and the people who serve our food and collect our trash and protect our neighborhoods and teach our kids. Intentional eye contact or a handwritten note plus specific feedback go a long way toward strengthening relationships and encouraging dreams in people who previously did not dare to entertain them.

Who around you needs encouragement this week, and how might you offer it? And who provides you with much-needed encouragement to keep moving forward? Thanks be to God for all of these people.

Be our guest

On Saturday my family returned from Disney World, a.k.a. The Happiest Place on Earth. (Ironically, more than once I overheard a parent using this slogan as a threat toward an overstimulated, beyond-exhausted child: “This is the happiest place on Earth, DANGIT, so start acting like it!”) I am glad for the opportunity my son had to fly on an airplane (a long-held desire), meet his favorite characters (he has always loved anyone in a costume), ride roller-coasters and spinny nightmares (which made him giddy), and see his first in-person fireworks (despite his initial terror that Cinderella’s castle was exploding). I am eternally grateful to my in-laws for making these experiences possible.

During our stay I was reminded of the complex relationship I have with all things Disney. As a forty-year-old, I have never known a world untouched by Disney, with all of its fraught cultural messages around gender, race, ethnicity, and other key identity markers. (If you’re not sure what I mean, see this list of more accurate Disney movie titles.) And Disney’s ability to turn anything into a moneymaker is unparalleled, building on and feeding a consumerism that I worry will be the eventual downfall of humankind. Not to put too dramatic a point on it, of course.

And yet I cannot argue with the hospitality that permeates the whole of the Disney experience. The church could learn a few things from this warm welcome. Rather than focusing on the consumerist side – how do we get people here and then entice them to come back? – that I think is the church’s default in the light of shrinking membership rosters and budgets, I want to encourage some reflection on how we notice and treat people when they come through our doors. Here, then, are some things that we as the church would do well to emulate:

The employees we encountered at every turn seemed happy to be there – and happy that we were there. Maybe you’ve encountered church greeters who look like they’ve just come from a root canal. Or members who glared at you for taking “their” seats. Or pastors who apologized from the pulpit for the sermon scripture or focus for that day. At Disney the bus drivers, security types, vendors, ride operators, performers – everyone – was smiling and helpful. That joyful tone created an expectation that I would be glad I came to this place on this day, no matter what kind of trepidation I came with.

Everything is set up from the visitor’s perspective. There is signage everywhere about directions, wait times, and events. Information is also available by hard-copy map, people stationed around the parks to assist, and an app for your smartphone. There are so many restrooms scattered around that you are never far from one, and the stalls are plentiful such that there isn’t much of a line. Contrast this approach to the one many churches take, in which everything is set up from the insider’s perspective. You’re just supposed to know which door to go in, what time worship takes place, and where the nursery is.

Language choices are given a lot of thought. Disney calls their employees “cast members,” giving them all – no matter their role – a stake in how the experience turns out. The people coming to the parks are not visitors or customers but “guests,” making it clear that they are to be treated as such. Language shapes the way we locate ourselves and others in an environment. What would change if churches called their volunteers “ministers,” which they rightly are by virtue of the priesthood of all believers? What if congregations referred to all newcomers as “guests,” seeing them as the people worthy of the most honor?

Despite my complex relationship with Disney, I came home from my trip tired and full of gratitude, thanks in large part to the welcoming aspects that Disney gives such careful attention. May it be so for those who enter our church walls.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash.

The math of a great-fit call

Navigating search & call is complicated for clergy. There are so many variables in the process, and it’s hard to know much weight to give to each. I want to offer two things to those of you seeking a new ministerial position: a word of encouragement and a formula.

First, the encouragement. I believe there is more than one great-fit position out there for you. The pieces of ministry that give you life can be found in a range of congregations, and you have many gifts that will be well-leveraged in a number of places. I hope this assertion takes some of the pressure off as you weigh your opportunities, particularly when you are dealing with mismatched search timelines (e.g., should I withdraw from this process that I’m a finalist in to explore a relationship with another search team that is about to start initial interviews?).

And now, the formula. If you’re having trouble discerning what a great fit looks like for you, consider this visual:

There are two overriding aspects of fit: vocation and circumstances. Vocation is your purpose in ministry, the essence of what God has called you to do. It is built on your inherent gifts, though we often pick up some learned abilities along the way. It is imperative that we as candidates have a strong sense of our vocation. Otherwise, everything or nothing will look like a great fit.

We live out our vocation in a particular context. That includes the church itself, the larger community/country, and the denomination. We must be paid fairly and provided adequate benefits to engage with the people in our congregation and beyond in healthy ways.

In a great-fit call, all four aspects of vocation and circumstance – a position that utilizes our passions and strengths and a setting we have the desire and means to connect with – must be present. If one is missing, we’ll be working hard emotionally, spiritually, and mentally to avoid frustration and resentment. When all four parts work in harmony, we will flourish, even if we sometimes have to remind ourselves to take time for self-care.

As you look at the diagram above, what resonates with you? What questions does it raise? Where might you push back?

Yellow flag words

Yellow: it’s the color of caution. (That is, unless you live in Alabama, where it apparently signals blow every other car’s doors off trying to make it through this traffic light.) Yellow flag words, then, are verbal indicators of the need to probe for deeper meanings before moving further into conversation. If we don’t clarify these words or phrases, we can make mental leaps that quickly morph into misunderstandings. Consider:

“I can’t get that report to you by Friday.” This statement might seem clear on its face, but it could actually have several meanings, such as:

  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t have the time.
  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to write it.
  • I want to get the report to you, but I don’t know how to submit it.
  • I don’t want to get the report to you.

If you’re the person counting on this report, imagine your response to each of these interpretations. Three of them are about barriers. A bit more discussion might reveal that you and the other person both value the work, and then you can brainstorm about ways to remove or maneuver around the obstacles. The fourth reply, however, would likely make your blood boil. The relational impact and the possible solutions vary widely based on which response the other person actually intends.

Some other examples of yellow flag words or phrases include:

  • “I’m not ready to take that step.” (What does ready look like for you?)
  • “I don’t feel supported in my decision.” (What kind of support are you counting on?)
  • When the time comes, I’ll know what to do.” (When will that be?)

When there’s ambiguity around the meaning of words, ask an open-ended question. You’ll find out what your conversation partner does and does not mean, and you might also prompt some new awareness in that person around the power of her verbiage.

An ounce of curiosity is much less costly than an assumption that escalates into unhealthy conflict.

Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash.

Starting with common interests

Two weeks ago I began taking an eight-part course on the language of coaching. The class is designed to help participants learn how to harness the power of words for even more effective coaching. Last week we focused on distinctions: phrasing that illuminates the difference between two options or states of being. One of the distinctions we discussed was interest vs. solution. Interest is what I ultimately want to happen. Solutions are means of attaining that goal.

Sadly, during the time that we were in class, the latest school shooting was occurring in Florida. The deaths of 17 students, faculty, and staff provoked strong reactions, as they should. My Facebook feed began filling up with explanations for why these mass shootings keep happening – easy access to guns, parental failure, mental health issues, white supremacy, toxic masculinity, teachers not being armed, and the First Amendment, to name a few – and strongly-worded proposals for making needed changes. I watched as friends, family, and acquaintances doubled down on their positions when questioned. (Admittedly, I was guilty of this as well.) Conversations spiraled down or ground to a halt. Ain’t no knotty problems getting resolved this way.

Which is what made the distinction between interest and solution timely. If we start with our plans to eliminate the world’s ills, we will never get on the same page. There’s always a reason my approach is better than yours and vice versa. Before we can work together on the answers, first we must agree on the goal. For example, I have hardly seen mention of the fact that surely – hopefully – we can all stand on the side of protecting the lives of young people and the professionals who nurture them. When we understand that we’re all working for the same purpose, we gain trust in one another’s motives. We recognize our shared pain. We acknowledge that we are not alone in our efforts. That is a much more promising starting point. Then there’s potential for deep listening. For throwing out a range of solutions and then working together to improve them. For making legitimate progress toward the endgame we’ve agreed upon.

So I commit to identifying a shared goal with at least one person this week. Around what issue – and with whom – will you seek common ground in the next few days?

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

Making time for deep work

Do you ever feel like you can’t get around to the meat of ministry because you’re chained to email, constantly interrupted when trying to write or plan, or unable to get momentum on more mentally-intense projects due to the way your schedule is broken up by meetings?

You’re not alone. Most professionals struggle with distraction, making it harder for them to tap into the fullness of their gifts and to spend as much time as they’d like on the tasks they consider most important.

In Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, computer science professor Cal Newport lays out his case for making time for uninterrupted work that pushes professionals to their cognitive limits and offers strategies for creating that space.

Newport’s suggestions have to be adjusted for ministry, because sometimes “interruptions” such as pastoral care crises turn out to be exactly what we need to focus on. But setting up a schedule and conditions for deep work will allow us to prepare sermons we feel good about with less strain, plan further out for liturgical seasons, create curricula trajectories and content, and flesh out new ministries. Without this intentionality, we’ll fill up our time with activities that are easy to cross off the to-do list and remain frustrated about all the “real” ministry we don’t have time to tackle.

Here are some approaches that might be worth mulling:

Build in and protect blocks of deep work. Set aside 1.5-4 hour blocks for bursts of undistracted work. Settle into a location that promotes good focus. Turn off your internet connection. (If you need it for your work, ensure that email and social media are off limits.) Ask your admin to come in – or allow others in – only if there is a pastoral emergency. (Be sure to clarify what constitutes an emergency, and tell your admin how this deep work enables you to minister better so that your admin can then repeat this explanation to others.)

Make a work flow. Plan for your day, assigning all of your deep and shallow work to time slots. When tasks take longer or shorter than expected or an unexpected ministry need arises, hold your schedule lightly and revise it for the rest of the day. The point is not to be rigid but to be intentional about how your time is spent.

Create start and shutdown rituals. Establish a pattern for entering your focused work time to signal your brain that it’s time to close down all the other tabs. When you are stopping work at the end of each day, go through a routine that tells your body and mind that you are bracketing work until tomorrow. (Your shutdown ritual might include a plan for completing remaining tasks so that you can rest in the confidence that everything will eventually get done.) Then honor the shutdown ritual, knowing that rest will allow you to reset fully.

Retreat for intensive planning periods. A couple of hours each day might not be enough to do medium- to long-range planning. Allow yourself to spend entire days (or multiple days) offsite for this work. Let others in your church know what you are doing and why, and be prepared to show your work. If you really want to settle in for deep focus, use study leave time and/or find pastoral care coverage.

Deep work allows us to give more fully into our calls. It also helps us remember what is important as opposed to what is urgent, and it reminds us that there are very few interruptions that cannot wait a couple of hours for our attention.

How do you build in deep work? Which of the suggestions above might you try?