Do We All Have to Agree?

In John’s gospel, Jesus says, “…so that they may be one, as we are one.” What does it mean for Christians to be “one”? Does it mean we all have to agree on everything? That would make for a pretty dull life together. And, truly, it’s not going to happen. Even within any given congregation you can find a range of viewpoints on any subject. The election season highlights this reality even if people never talk about politics at church. It’s a fair bet that most congregations have people from both parties, even if one is dominant.

As pastoral leaders, we can get anxious when people disagree with us, whether it’s about the direction the church should take, social issues of the day, or how we spend our time in ministry. Our anxiety may come from our family experience of differences. One of my friends says her family attitude was: “You’re stupid if you don’t agree.” How did your family deal with disagreement?

When we can get more neutral about the disagreement, we’ll find it easier to lead. It’s not personal (even if people frame it personally). Maintaining relationships even when there are strong differences of opinion is a sign of maturity. Perhaps that’s something like what Jesus meant by being “one.”

Who Are the Saints Who’ve Inspired You?

Today is All Saint’s Day. I’m a Baptist, and we don’t have official “saints,” but all church leaders have people in our lives or in the history of the church who have inspired us and encouraged us in our own journey of faith.

Here are a few of mine:

St. Benedict
St. Teresa of Avila
My eighth grade Sunday School teacher
My grandparents

What about you? Who are the saints in your life, whether they have a “St.” in front of their name or not?

Where Does Stress Come from?

Recently I was adding some information to my Facebook profile, and one category was “favorite quote.” I immediately wrote in my favorite quote from Edwin Friedman, “stress comes less from overwork than from taking responsibility for the problems of others.” What causes burnout is not hard work, but taking on other people’s anxiety. When I quoted this phrase to someone once, they said, “put that in needlepoint!”

There’s a lot of anxiety floating around right now. Leaders do bear some responsibility for helping to frame the challenges of our day for our followers. But if we take on all that anxiety for ourselves, we’ll be in trouble quickly. Several on my teleconference last week mentioned the challenges of the annual fall stewardship emphasis and budgeting in the current environment. People are worried, no question. And that may impact the realities of financial life at church for some time to come.

But we need to be careful to discern what is our responsibility, and what belongs to others. Simply asking the question may bring us to a different place.

Are You Learning Anything New?

Are you learning anything new? No, I don’t mean a new approach to sermon preparation or a new time management technique or a new method for adult education. I mean something completely new, and unrelated to ministry.

Last week I had a bread baking lesson. I was visiting my friend and colleague, Meg Hess, who in addition to her work as a pastoral counselor and teacher of preaching, is quite a baker. She’s taken professional baking courses at King Arthur. Now, baking is not completely new to me. But I’ve always been intimidated by yeast. Meg walked me through the steps, gave me a recipe and many additional comments on the process. I feel much more ready to tackle yeast bread on my own, and came home ready to give it a try.

I found myself paying close attention to everything: the exact look of the dough at different stages, the feel of it, each piece of equipment needed to make the process easier. Here’s the value of learning something new: to take it in, you have to pay attention, and you don’t have a lot of assumptions about it. The Buddhists call this “beginner’s mind.” A beginner is more open. Any kindergarten teacher knows this well.

Learning something new is valuable for its own sake. At the same time, if we can bring that same open attitude of learning to the situations we already know well, we may be able to have a fresh perspective on them, and find more energy for work and for life.

What new thing might you learn? If not baking, then: golf, watercolor painting, auto repair…the possibilities are endless.

Or, what new thing have you learned lately? Let me know.

What Do You Do When People Complain about You?

Leaders often get defensive when people complain. The complaints may come directly or indirectly; they may be specific or general. Someone may say, “People are saying–” Or, “Susan said to me–” Or, less frequently they may say directly, “I think–”

Complaints often provoke anxious responses. Sometimes we rigidly insist on staying on track, without considering the complaint. Or we adapt too readily, asking in effect, “What can I do to make you happy?” Both approaches can get in the way of achieving our goals: a rigid response can lead us into head-to-head conflict unnecessarily, and an adaptive response can reduce our efforts to the lowest common denominator, trying to please everyone.

A thoughtful response to complaints is better for everyone. It’s important to remember that complaints are rarely about the content raised, whether someone thinks you are too busy, too long-winded, not friendly enough, too organized, too disorganized, or any of a hundred items that might be raised about a leader. Rather, they are about the relationship the complainer has with the leader and with the group, and with what is going on in the group as a whole. Edwin Friedman used to say, “Criticism is a form of pursuit.” People who are very critical want to have some kind of relationship with the leader. Recognizing this fact can lower your anxiety, and help you respond more thoughtfully. Remember, the complaint is not really about you.

Here are some tips for handling complaints that come your way:

1. Don’t get defensive. Easier said than done, I know. If you can manage your automatic defensive response, the complaints are less likely to spiral out of control. Work on your relationship with the complainer without trying to convince them they are wrong about you.

2. Be grateful. If there were no complaints, you might not be taking enough stands as a leader. Complaints are part of the pushback all leaders can expect when they move forward with an initiative: they are the price of progress.

3. Don’t panic about third-party complaints. Consider the source: someone who often reports of what others think is not the most mature person. Apply tip number 1, and don’t get defensive.

4. Take a look at yourself while you’re at it. We all have weaknesses. If you genuinely made a mistake or need to work on a specific area, apologize.

(Thanks to reader Rebecca Maccini for raising this issue in a comment.)

Where Are Your Thoughts Going?

Can you watch your thoughts? I’ve been trying to notice my own thoughts lately. It’s easy to see them skittering down an anxious path. Instead, I’m trying to focus my thinking in more constructive directions: hope rather than fear, actions I can take rather than the many things I have no control over, prayer rather than panic.

I keep coming back to Paul’s words in Philippians 4:9: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If I want, I can spend hours turning over lies, dishonor, injustice, impurity, those things that are not pleasing, not commendable, not excellent, not worthy of praise. There’s plenty of all those things to go around. But does it help me, help my family, those I lead and the world at large to think on all those things? I doubt it. I don’t want to be in denial, but I do want my thoughts to lead me toward hope and a sense of possibility, no matter what is going on around me.

Where have your thoughts been going lately?

Five Personal Resources for Leadership

My colleague, Israel Galindo, has a terrific post on the “Grace Writes” blog on Five Personal Resources for Leadership. Take a look.

Are You on Autopilot?

I was interviewed this week by Alexis Mason and Sandye Brown for their radio show, Inspired Connections, on the topic, “Take Yourself off Autopilot.” Download or listen to the show here (simply scroll down under Content Library to find the 10/1 broadcast).