Can You Do One Thing in 2009?

If you only completed one thing in 2009, what would it be? I asked the same question last year of myself and of you. For me, last year the most important thing was to finish a book, which I did (I’m finishing my review of the proofs now): Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry. It will be out March 1. In 2009 my “one” thing is to launch this book well. I’ve found it helps me to focus on one major new project at a time. I feel less scattered, and it’s easier to reach my goals.

What about you? What’s the most important thing you’d like to get going on this year? Let me know.

What Are You Waiting For?

As Advent turns to Christmas, what do you find yourself waiting for? Late on Christmas Eve, the year I was six, I slipped out of my room and tiptoed down the hall. I peeked into the living room. Piles of presents had appeared under the tree. I could see one present was unwrapped, but I couldn’t see what it was in the dim light.

The next morning I ran to the tree. The unwrapped present was for me, or at least for my brother and me, a Chinese checker game. My dad, always ready to play a game, helped me learn how to move the colorful marbles around the board, and I’m sure he let me win. It was worth waiting through the night.

What are you waiting for? A family problem to resolve, the economy to turn around, the church budget to balance (maybe not this year…), the ministry to take off, finally? It can seem like a long wait. But sometimes you can catch a glimpse, just the dim outline of something you’ve been hoping and praying for. You can see a faint new light on an old troubled relationship. Someone steps forward and says they want to start a new ministry. You feel a new sense of clarity in your leadership. For now, the glimpses may be all you have. But keep your eyes open.

Have a blessed Christmas!

Are You Giving Something that Doesn’t Diminish?

This Advent I’ve been using Phyllis Tickle’s The Night Offices: Prayers for the Hours from Sunset to Sunrise. I’ve been doing The Office of Dawn every morning, and the Office of Midnight before I go to bed (which is never as late as midnight). The Office of the Night Watch (between 1:30 and 4:30 a.m.) is beyond me, but Tickle includes a reading from the Church Fathers in that office, which I’ve been making a point of reading every morning.

Here’s today’s, from St. Augustine (On Christian Doctrine): “For a possession which is not diminished by being shared with others — that is, if it is possessed and not shared — is not yet possessed as it ought to be possessed. The Lord says, “Whosoever has, to him shall be given.” He will give, then, to those that have. That is to say, if they use freely and cheerfully what they have received, He will add to and perfect His gifts. The loaves in the miracle were only five and seven in number before the disciples began to divide them among other hungry people. But once they began to distribute them, though the wants of so many thousands were satisfied, they themselves still could fill baskets with the fragments.”

I’ve read this every Monday for four weeks, and I still have to read it more than once every time. It’s not your typical Internet quote to skim over. You might want to print it out to ponder over the next few days, as you think about your own giving this Christmas.

Have You Given Your Presence?

This time of year we often recognize staff and key volunteer leaders with gifts, as well as holiday gatherings. In these uncertain financial times some of these presents and activities may be curtailed. But there’s one gift which costs you nothing except your time: the gift of your presence. Those you lead need you to be present with them. When things are more difficult, when a budget crisis threatens or interpersonal conflict looms, it can be tempting to withdraw. But at those times most of all, your presence is vital. Lean into the anxiety you may feel and show up.

What does “presence” do? The position at the top, while not the only one of importance, is unlike any other. The role of leader needs to be fully occupied. People feel calmer when they know the leader is filling the role. They don’t expect you to have all the answers or to predict the future, but they need to know you are there. Dr. David Wheeler, the pastor of the church I belong to and an early mentor of mine years ago, is naturally good at this, connecting with both groups and individuals and giving them a sense of his leadership of the congregation. I learned this by watching him early on.

Here are some tips for enhancing your leadership presence:

1. Show up. Don’t hide out, even when things are difficult. Make at least a brief (not a token) appearance at key meetings, parties and events. And while you are there, be there. Don’t look at your watch or at the door.

2. Be yourself. Authentic presence means you show up as yourself. You don’t pretend, or imitate what you think the people want or what your predecessor was. Be in your own skin when you show up. (This doesn’t mean you wear whatever you want, however. Dress like a leader.)

3. Be open to them. When we are fully present, we are paying attention not only to ourselves, but to others. Listen without looking over the shoulder of the one who is talking to you. (This doesn’t mean you have to let others use all your time. Be judicious.)

4. Be curious. What can you learn about the individuals you are leading, and about the group as a whole, when you make your rounds? A curious attitude enhances the presence of the leader, because people sense we are truly interested.

These tips will be used differently in different organizations, depending on size (some groups are too large to know everyone individually) and function (some groups are focused on interpersonal relationships; others are very task-oriented). Yet whatever your situation, find ways to show up, be yourself, be open and be curious.

What Are You Resisting?

What do you find yourself resisting right now? I have to admit I’m resisting the weather. We are pretty wimpy here in Portland, Oregon, and we are in the middle of a week or so of below-freezing weather, with chance of two more snowstorms on top of the one we had Sunday. (Of course, to be honest, 2 inches of snow can shut this city down). A low of 10 degrees F. is pretty cold for us. I find myself very crabby about it, and of course it is completely out of my control.

The weather is not the only thing we can’t control, of course. Other people’s behavior is a prime one that can drive us over the edge. The holiday season can bring out the worst in folks, both at church and in our families. We can’t control how the Advent and Christmas services go, not completely. We can’t always control who comes or doesn’t come to Christmas dinner, or what they say and do when they are present.

Once again, it comes back to our own response. I’m trying, with varying degrees of success, to welcome the bad weather. Can we also welcome the ups and downs of the holiday season, our experience of being overwhelmed or lonely? It’s a way of being present to life as it is, not as we wish it were.

Preaching as Testimony

I’m reading a book on preaching, for the first time in a long time: Preaching as Testimony, by Anna Carter Florence. My friend and colleague Meg Hess recommended it. Florence says that she doesn’t mean by testimony simply using personal illustrations, but this: “we tell what we have seen and heard, and we confess what we believe about it.” She uses the examples of several women who were preachers though not ordained, including Anne Hutchinson, and reflects deeply on the meaning of testimony for all preachers.

Some quotes that have struck me: in speaking about these women who preached she says, “the authority of their witness convicted them and others. And their engagement with it — how fully they gave themselves over to their testimony — proved to be more powerful than any other skill or asset. In fact, the more engaged they were, the less they feared what would happen to them.” ( p. 67)

And this: “Too much restraint leads to preachers so fearful that they never speak up, even when they want to and believe they should. Testimony, meanwhile, calls to the deep-seated human longing to be real, for once; to say what we believe and to be honest about what we see and where we are, without fearing what may happen.” (p. 73)

I think there’s a big difference between this kind of testimony and much of what passes for “prophetic” preaching which is “you”-oriented and often judgmental. Testimony is the best sort of self-definition, where the preacher says, “here I stand,” or “I have a dream.”

Florence concludes her book with a fascinating series of suggestions for working with the text in ways that enable the preacher to encounter it more freshly and directly. I’ve been experimenting with some of them, including writing it out on a very large sheet of paper, and a very tiny sheet of paper to carry around, and reading it someplace that makes you feel uncomfortable (I tried it in the middle of a busy store). She suggests coming to the scholars after using some of these other ways of living with it. Then she goes on to suggest some exercises for describing the text, including imaging it, rewriting it, and journaling it.

Finally, she suggests as you write the sermon to think about your listeners, and ask the question, “What do you want to give to these people whom you love?” Seems like a great question for Advent and Christmas sermons.

If you are preaching this month, can you take the time to try one new approach, either in your preparation, or in your presence in the pulpit?

Can You Think Clearly about Money?

How much do you understand about economics? For most of us, the answer is probably, not much. Reader Rebecca Maccini recommended to me the recent series on NPR’s Planet Money, which features some very clear explanations about how money works: Click here for the first episode in the series, “Money Is a Relationship.” You can listen right on your computer, or download to listen on your iPod. The second episode, “Where Did All the Money Go?” also includes questions from a pastor about what to do this year with the stewardship campaign.

I haven’t listened to all the episodes yet, but I will. I find it calming to get some clear explanations of this complicated topic.

How Smart Do You Need to Be?

How importance is intelligence to ministry? Political columnist David Broder wrote a fascinating column recently about presidents and intelligence, called Good Time for a Brainy President. He’s arguing that given the complicated nature of the economic challenges we face, Obama’s intelligence is a good thing.

Yet Broder makes some other interesting points in the article. He says that intelligence is not the most important quality for a president, and the brightest presidents have not necessarily had the biggest impact. More important overall, he says, are: “Self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration — all these and more rank higher on the list of desirable presidential traits.”

To be a capable leader in ministry, you do need to have some smarts. But the ability to connect with followers emotionally, to work with people, to manage self in relation to others — these are equally important. Broder doesn’t include emotional maturity per se on his list, but I do. And a number of his qualities are an outgrowth of that basic maturity.

What have you noticed in yourself or others about the relation between brain power and ministry?