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).

A Resource for Church Leaders

The Lewis Center for Church Leadership publishes a bi-monthly newsletter that is always worth looking at. Recently they’ve been ending their issues with a brief feature they call “The Right Question.” The subhead says: Leaders do not need answers. Leaders must have the right questions. They’ve included some fascinating questions. Here is the link to subscribe and to access recent back issues. I’ve written a number of articles for them myself. Check it out.

How Much Do You Complain?

Are you in the habit of complaining about those you lead? It’s an easy habit to get into, because we can always find something to complain about. “They just aren’t getting the message.” “Susie always responds negatively to a new idea.” “If people gave more, we wouldn’t have this budget crisis.” The problem people I talked about in the last post can be endless fuel for complaints. We may not necessarily complain to others at church, but we complain to our families, our colleagues and our friends.

I keep thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words in Life Together, which I read earlier this year. “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.” (p. 29; I’d add in “her congregation.”) He goes on to say that when a pastor begins to complain, he [or she] needs to look at himself first, and then pray for the congregation.

Even when there are real issues to be dealt with, if we shifted our approach from complaint to prayer, we might be able to see more clearly what needs to be done. And perhaps we’d find ourselves less annoyed and frustrated by the petty matters that are part of every community’s life.

I’ve offered my share of complaints; perhaps that’s why Bonhoeffer’s words have stuck with me all year. What about you?

Who Is the Problem?

Are you struggling with a problem person? One difficult individual can appear to be your main obstacle. You spend a lot of time thinking about this person, and you stress over what to do about him or her. The way people are difficult may vary: one person doesn’t do what they say they will, someone else disagrees with every idea that comes up, another person constantly criticizes you to others. It’s very easy to think, if only they would go away, everything would be so much easier. Sometimes you have the ability to fire the people that seem to be in the way, sometimes you don’t.

Yet problems are never simply in one person. Difficult people become a symptom for the whole group; they aren’t causing the problem. When you have a cold, the runny nose or the sneezing is a symptom of the real problem: the virus in your body. In the same way, personnel problems are not the thing in itself — they are symptoms of deeper issues in the organization. You can’t solve the problem simply by getting rid of the person. Often, another similar individual will show up, because there’s an opening. Or someone else who’s already there will start behaving badly.

Jesus said when a demon leaves, it may come back bringing seven friends, because the house is “empty, swept and put in order.” (Matthew 12:43-45) What he means is that there has to be something positive put in place. Otherwise, there is still room for the dysfunction.

We often make room for problem people because no one will take a stand with them. We tiptoe around bad behavior. We won’t fire anyone, even from a volunteer position. We won’t say certain ways of behaving are unacceptable. In the church in particular, a culture of niceness prevails which allows not-so-nice behavior to flourish.

In fact, when we look at these problem people, we have to admit that we, too, are part of the problem. Often we become reactive to their behavior, rather than taking a calm stand with them: “No, you can’t do that here.” Taking this kind of stand is difficult for many. I myself find it very hard. But leaders who can’t take stands won’t lead their group very far.

What do you do if you have someone who is taking up a lot of your time and energy with difficult behavior? Here are a few suggestions:

1) As always, be clear about your own goals, especially those goals that you are not dependent on others to achieve. Think more about your goals than you do about this individual.

2) Don’t take them too seriously. A serious stance is a reactive stance. This doesn’t mean you should do nothing, but manage your own sense of personal threat.

3) You may want to get some outside coaching to help you think through a strategy for dealing with the individual, and to help you manage yourself in relation to them.

4) Spend more time with those who are healthy and functioning well than with the one or two who are not.

Do You Have Headline Anxiety?

My local newspaper, The Oregonian, today had a giant front-page headline: DOWN, DOWN…, with a jagged line tracking the Dow Jones industrial average for the last year.

Whether you get your news online or from a newspaper, or both, it’s easy to have headline anxiety. You know how it is: you read a headline, and your heart starts to beat faster. Television news can have the same effect, and CNN with its running headlines at the bottom of the screen, is particularly good at raising anxiety.

Even when a legitimate cause for concern exists, headline anxiety does not help us respond thoughtfully to the challenges at hand. The various forms of media have an interest in upping our anxiety: more viewers, site visitors and newspapers sold. But we don’t have to follow their lead. It’s better for us and for those we lead if we can manage our anxiety in response to external events. When leaders can be thoughtful rather than reactive, creative solutions are more likely to emerge.

Here are some suggestions:
— ration your exposure to news. Choose selected times during the day (or even every other day) to catch up.
— use the news as an opportunity for prayer rather than outrage.
— spend as much time reading books as you do news (this will help give you a longer perspective).

I made one small choice myself recently. I’ve stopped reading the first section of the newspaper while I eat breakfast. I discovered I wasn’t even tasting my food because I was too concerned about what I was reading. Now I read the fun stuff (comics and entertainment) first. I catch up on the news while I finish my coffee.

How can you manage your headline anxiety?

How Much Do We Consider Others?

To what degree do we take into consideration the response of others? If we don’t consider the response of others, we’ll never get anywhere. At the same time, if we only consider the response of others, we’ll never get anywhere, either.

My husband and I just got back from a trip to my brother-in-law’s wedding. We decided to drive the 400 miles, and our kids (18 and 22) decided not to go. So we had our first road trip without kids since we had kids. We had a great trip, and it was fun to be able to decide what we wanted to do, when to stop, where to eat, without consulting anyone else.

But most of life is not simply a two-person endeavor. Church life usually involves many more than two. It can be something like a family road trip: “Are we there yet?” sounds out. “I want to stop.” “I’m carsick!” “I’m hungry.” Differing perspectives on what sights to see, and on the vacation budget, affect what the family does. And differing perspectives on goals, needs and budget also affect what church groups do.

Leadership does not mean you always get your own way. It’s important to have clarity about what you’re after and where you are headed. But adjustment along the way, in consultation with the rest of the group, is also an essential part of leadership.