The course of least regret

[Note: a version of this article original appeared at Searching for the Called.]

A few weeks ago my area was under a tornado warning. (Tornado season in Alabama is pretty much year-round.) I turned on the tv to watch the continuous weather coverage, which was led by a meteorologist known for his suspenders and his uncanny knowledge of local landmarks. He was telling viewers that rotation could spin up at any time, so we should follow the “course of least regret.”

That phrase has stuck in my head ever since. It is an encouragement to look at the big picture. Don’t try to run out for supplies in this weather. Don’t decide today is the day to fulfill your stormchaser dream. Get to a safe place and hunker down until the danger has passed. Otherwise, you might get the batteries or see a marvel of nature but lose your life in the process.

Often, though, we find ourselves traveling the path of least resistance instead of the course of least regret. This perspective is focused on our present comfort level. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make anyone mad. Keep your imagination in check. We might stay safe in the short term, but we’ll have a lot of clean-up to do when suppressed emotions and long-held disappointments spin up.

While I like the thought of the course of least regret, I might reframe it more positively, like maybe the course of greatest possibility. We’re acknowledging what is going on in the present – as well as the potential impact – and responding pro-actively so as to keep future options open.

Where are you following the path of least resistance, and how is it limiting you? How might you take the on-ramp to the course of greatest possibility, earning trust among peers and creating more options in the process?

Photo by James Forbes on Unsplash.

Eight Cs for growing trust

[Note: a version of this article first appeared on Searching for the Called.]

The most important ingredient in any process isn’t expertise or charismatic personalities or financial resources. It’s relationships. When the bonds are strong among the people involved, there can be productive disagreement, a full exploration of possibilities, deep investment in the work, and mutual support and accountability, all leading to forward progress.

The foundation of relationships is trust. Not simply predictability – I know your passions and hot buttons and how you’ll react to each being tapped – but shared vulnerability and risk-taking. Many congregational teams and committees start with some sense of predictability by virtue of the members attending church together for a long time. But most (if not all teams) will need to dig in before high-intensity work begins to develop the second-level trust that will allow for the most thorough and faithful process.

What does it look like to grow that deep trust? Here are eight Cs – from lowest to highest risk – to guide that essential work:

Clarity is getting straight within ourselves about our thoughts and commitments, then being honest with others about them.

Communication is putting our clarified knowledge and understanding out there, and in turn listening to others with open hearts and minds.

Curiosity is admitting we don’t have the whole picture and wondering about what we don’t know.

Compassion is showing care to and connecting at a heart level with others, believing the best about them as we do so.

Companionship is being present and authentic while still maintaining the boundaries that allow us to be clear and compassionate.

Consistency is showing up the same way every time and admitting when circumstances have thrown us off balance.

Conflict is being willing to disagree and to have our ideas improved upon.

Control release is relinquishing attachment to the outcome, trusting that the process will end up as it should so long as we bring our whole selves to it.

Jesus embodies each of these Cs in his ministry. He bookends his active period with a time of clarifying his identity and purpose in the desert and a prayer in the garden of “here’s what I want, but I’m here to finish the job.” His interactions with followers and adversaries alike are centered on getting his message out while asking about and listening to their hopes and fears. Time after time Jesus shows up for people, particularly the least of these, truly valuing them and radiating divine love for them. With those who want to hold on to what they know and have, he’s not afraid to offer a challenge. And in the end, he allows himself to be led to the cross so that he can expose all that is wrong with the hunger for power.

The eight Cs and the resulting trust can strengthen relationships not just within the team but between the team and congregation. The effects of deepened connections, in turn, extend beyond the process itself, cultivating beloved community with the Source of love at its center.

Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash.

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.

Prophet and priest

When I was in high school and college, I fancied myself a prophet. I was a young woman discerning a call to ministry in a Southern Baptist context, and I knew in every wrinkle in my brain, beat of my heart, and conviction of my soul both that God calls women to be pastors and that we are up to the challenge. And I wasn’t hesitant to tell anyone exactly what I thought.

I might have said a prophetic word here and there about egalitarianism, but some of my bra-burning rants were more about pushing others’ buttons or reacting when they pushed mine. Fourteen years into ordained ministry I understand something that I didn’t back then: that there’s more to being prophetic than simply saying something edgy.

Sometimes God taps us to say hard things to people who won’t be eager to hear them. But there’s a second task in the prophet’s job description: we have to prepare our intended audience to listen to what we’re saying. Too often we expend our energy yelling into the void because we haven’t cultivated the relationships that prompt our hearers to pay attention, to give credence to our impassioned points. All the wordsmithing and protesting in the world won’t make up for neglecting this responsibility.

In congregational ministry we tend to believe being a pastor gives us, well, a pulpit for our positions. To some extent it does. Our title and role provide some level of authority. But to be truly, effectively prophetic (read: prompting people to real action based on beliefs they hold themselves), we must first prove ourselves to be our constituents’ priest. We must get to know them, care for them, learn from them, minister alongside them, share our own stories with them, be a trustworthy presence for them, and show our ministerial abilities to them. (Even as public figures we must prove ourselves relatable to hearers we might never meet by finding ways to listen to their concerns and by living with integrity, compassion, competence, and appropriate self-revelation.) Only then will the soil be well-fertilized for the prophecies we share with them to take deep root.

Taking the time to relate to our people is as important – more important? – than ever. In an election cycle that is turning out to be like no other and in a Church that is often held captive by anxieties and outdated expectations, prophets are much needed. And without real bonds, the only people who will care about our messages are the ones who already agree with us. Not only will few hearts and minds be changed, we’ll continue to speak past each other (or worse, talk at one another). So may God equip us in this critical time not just with the words, but also with the courage, empathy, persistence that give the words lasting impact.

Creative Commons image “Preach on” by David Sorich is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


Trust thyself

“I will leave work today by 5:00, whether I’ve crossed everything off my to-do list or not!”

“I need to be more assertive the next time someone makes an inappropriate comment about my [insert object of unwelcome observations here].”

“I’m going to start having a date night with my significant other at least once a month.”

“This year I will finally learn how to [insert dreamed-of hobby here].”

It’s good to make promises to ourselves. It’s perhaps more important to keep them. (I confess, I’m particularly guilty of fudging on #1.) But why? Other than me, who suffers when I break a commitment pledged only to myself?

Actually, it matters a lot that we can trust ourselves, and not just in terms of “I’m going to report all my wonky ministry income to the IRS” or “I’m going to visit that shut-in like I planned to whether anyone else knows about it or not.” If we don’t follow through on what we say we’ll do for ourselves, we cannot build self-trust. And according to Stephen M. R. Covey, we must learn to trust ourselves before we’re fully ready to trust or be trusted by others. Considering that the whole of ministry – the whole of communal life, really – is rooted in trust, self-trust is thus a big deal.

Covey says that when we don’t come through for ourselves, “Not only do we lose trust in our ability to make and keep commitments, we fail to project the personal strength of character that inspires trust. We may try to borrow strength from position or association. But it’s not real” (The Speed of Trust, p. 45). Instead, when we do keep promises to ourselves, we lay the groundwork for what Covey calls the four cores of credibility. We demonstrate congruence between what we say and how we act. We show that our stated motives are real, not just lip service. We prove that we have the ability to carry out the tasks themselves. And we have the track record to prove we are trustworthy.

This emphasis on self-trust puts a whole new spin on self-care, an area in which many ministers struggle. We want and need rest and replenishment, but we feel guilty laying claim to them. So we make plans and then push them aside when one more person needs one more thing from us. We treat our commitments to ourselves as fluid, and in doing so we violate the four cores of self-trust, making it harder for trust to flow between us and others.

How then does our inability to trust ourselves impact our ministry? Our relationships with family and friends? And if trust – faith – is the heart of our belief system, how does a lack of self-trust affect our own spirituality? There’s much more at stake than meets the eye when we don’t keep promises to ourselves. May we be encouraged to follow through on our personal plans so that we can be not only rejuvenated for ministry but also credible in our leadership.

Creative Commons image “Trekking Rinjani” by Climbing Journal Mount Rinjani package is licensed under CC BY 2.0.