How Competitive Are You?

Are you watching the Olympics? The Olympic Games are all about competition. It’s thrilling to watch the best athletes in the world compete in everything from swimming to track and field to fencing to discus. There is no doubt that the competition raises the level of performance.

Competition has many positives: it’s a powerful motivator, spurring people to do more than they would otherwise. Winning a competition provides tremendous satisfaction. In a team competition, deep relationships develop among teammates as they strive to do their best.
Competition exists in many arenas besides sports, of course. I was never in sports, but I was always competitive about grades in school. Siblings compete for their parents’ attention. Businesses compete for customers. Sometimes churches compete for members. Competition in all of these arenas, like sports, may be a useful motivator, and give people energy to do important work.

Still, competition can bring out our immaturity. The doping scandals show the disadvantage of the win-at-any-cost approach. Winning can be a very serious matter, and losing can destroy someone who has everything vested in winning. When our sense of identity depends on winning, we can find ourselves in trouble. What happens if I lose? Who am I then?

James Carse, in Finite and Infinite Games (Ballantine Books, 1987), suggests, “There are at least two kinds of games….A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” He also says, “A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.” He is really talking about zero-sum games and non-zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, there is only a certain amount to be won: only one gold medal per event. By contrast, in a non-zero-sum games, what can be “won” can be multiplied, like building community.

We all experience elements of both games in our lives. In a business, there may be a limited number of customers we could win. A church in a small town only has so many people it might be able to reach. A student can only take so many classes in his or her schedule. Conversely, we can experience an infinite amount of growth in our lives. There’s an infinite amount of love. The most important things in life may be about learning from experience and maturing emotionally and spiritually, not about winning any competition

For most of us, being the best in the world is not an option, no matter what our field. Still, I can be the best me I can be, competing only with myself. I can play the infinite game with strength, as Carse suggests. I can increase my own strength in a way that isn’t at the expense of others. That’s in everyone’s best interest.

Are You Too Hot?

I received this postcard in the mail, from Water in the Desert Ministries, in Albuquerque, New Mexico:

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I truly found it refreshing, and I’m keeping it on my desk as the temperatures in Portland climb into the 90s the next two days (hot for us!). The photograph is by Val Isenhower of Water in the Desert, who also does meditative photography. She uses the images a lot in retreats. I wanted to share this image with you, with her permission.

May you find blessed cool somewhere this summer!

Can You Listen to God?

Here’s a quote on listening to God from a secular leader, Steven Sample, author of The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2002), a book I highly recommend:

“…when making really important decisions, a contrarian leader listens carefully to his conscience, or if he is religious, to his God. The operative word here is listen. When most people try to carry on a conversation with their inner voice, (be it the voice of God or conscience), they wind up doing all the talking. That’s because we naturally fear our inner voice — we’re afraid it might tell us something we don’t want to hear. Nonetheless, listening carefully to that voice for 20 minutes or so through contemplative prayer or silent meditation is often a key factor in making good decisions in the long run.” (p. 89)

Sample is the president of the University of Southern California, from where my daughter just graduated. I’ve appreciated the chance to watch his leadership of that institution from the sidelines

What Are You Reading This Summer?

What are you reading this summer? Here are some books I’ve found interesting lately:

1. Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement
by Donald E. Miller, Tetsunao Yamamori. This book is a study of Pentecostals around the world and their growing involvement in social ministries in their communities. I’ve met one of the authors, Don Miller (he teaches at the University of Southern California where my daughter just graduated from). The book is thoughtful and engaging. Miller is a self-described “liberal Episcopalian,” yet writes with the greatest respect for the Pentecostal perspective.

2. The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church ,
by Christine Wicker. Wicker is a long-time religion reporter, who grew up Southern Baptist. She assesses the strength and numbers of the evangelical church and concludes the Religious Right has never been as numerous or strong as people have thought, and that the evangelical church as a whole is declining. This is a good-news/bad-news book from my perspective. While it may be encouraging that the hard-line right-wing Christian movement is weaker than thought, the trends she describes are of concern for anyone involved in church ministry at any point on the spectrum.

3. The Sun Also Rises. My classics book group read this. I’d read very little Hemingway, and found this early novel of his fascinating. His prose is spare, and particularly when the action shifts to Spain, it’s riveting.

4. Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design. A gorgeous picture book about movie costumes. It includes essays about every decade, but I’ve just been looking at the pictures. The fascinating captions are reading enough. Here’s a quote from Peter Sellers: “I have no personality of my own. I reached my present position by working hard and not following Socrates’ advice – ‘know thyself’ … To me, I am a complete stranger. I cannot do anything from within myself. I have nothing to project. I’ve got so many inhibitions that I sometimes wonder whether I exist at all.” (p. 365) A cautionary tale.

5. Triangles: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives, ed. by Peter Titelman. I’m still in the middle of this one, but I’ll recommend it anyway. It’s a collection of essays on emotional triangles in families and organizations. It’s written primarily for therapists, but it can be useful in ministry in understanding the triangles in our own families and the families we work with.

What are you reading this summer (beach reads included)?

Do You Have a Pile of Paper on Your Desk?

My favorite time management guru, Mark Forster, has a great article here on dealing with backlogs: the pile of papers, the e-mail inbox with 400 e-mails, the calls to return. I’ve found his approach clear and easy to implement.

If you’re trying to get through a summer clean-up of piles and files, check out this article, and his other articles on time management.

How Do You Deal with Criticism?

Has anyone every met you at the door with criticism of your sermon? My friend and colleague Meg Hess has a terrific article in the current issue of the Christian Century called “High Anxiety: Dealing with Critics.” Read it today (it’s short!). You won’t be sorry.

How Can We Disagree?

Do you despair at the disagreements in church life? Well, the food world is no different. I came across a story told by Graham Kerr (formerly the Galloping Gourmet, now Christian convert and apostle of healthy eating) in his book Charting a Course to Wellness, pp. 36-37). He began low-fat eating and cooking for the sake of his wife’s health. At a food professional conference in 1993, Julia Child was speaking, and said, “I don’t believe that anyone can eat a diet with only 10% of calories from fat..In fact, If anyone here is doing that I’d like to see him STAND UP!” Kerr stood up, alone among the hundreds of people. Julia Child didn’t even look up from her notes. After the lunch the reporters swarmed around Kerr, wondering if he was leading a rebellion. He assured them he was not, but it was out of his own practice of support for his wife.

Kerr had dinner with Julia that night, and they discussed their differences. He says, “It wasn’t until Julia that I learned that you could fully respect the position of others without relinquishing your own place.” Many in the food world — and the church — do not understand this truth.

Is there someone whose position you need to respect more fully?

How Can You Learn Leadership?

How did you learn to be a leader? Most of us have people we learned from, teachers and mentors. These key people in our lives offer help to us both as we begin to lead, and along the way. I’ve been thinking about two important aspects of leadership: skill and self. How do these get communicated to people who are learning to lead?

The first aspect, skill, is the technique of leadership. It may be more rightly called the technique of management. In fact, we could talk about a number of skills involved in leading. If you supervise people, you need to learn to carry out a performance review. Most leaders need to know how to get up in front of a group and speak effectively. You need to know how to run a meeting. You can work on any of these skills for a lifetime. I’m part of a Toastmasters club, where I keep working on developing my speaking skills, even though I’ve been speaking for over 25 years.

Still, skill in the nuts and bolts of leadership is not enough. “Ten Ways to Be an Effective Leader” will not make you an effective leader. There’s another important aspect, one that is harder to teach and harder to learn. This is about self: leading out of who you are. Having a self is not selfish, because the gift you give to others comes out of the deepest part of who you are.

Other leaders can show the way by being themselves. Yet no one can teach you how to be yourself. You can learn, over time, but no one else really knows you. Having a self means you can resist pressure to conform while still being flexible. You can take a stand without shooting yourself in the foot, because you respect others while you do so. You can manage your own emotional life, since you are mature enough to recognize your feelings without being controlled by them. Perhaps it is better to say “self” in leaders can be cultivated but not taught. My best mentors have asked me great questions to help me discern who I am as a leader. They have helped me think through my own most important beliefs and principles. They have often shared their own wisdom and experience. Still, they haven’t assumed their approach would work for me. They have seen more in me than I saw in myself.

Skill means knowing how to do certain things. Self means knowing how to be yourself when you do them. One of my ministerial colleagues also coached high school football. And he led his congregation like a coach: tough and challenging. They responded, and the church was thriving. Another leader I know is quiet and mild-mannered. He effectively leads an organization with a multi-million-dollar budget. Both of these leaders lead out of themselves. They have led their organizations for years.

I’ve found it takes less energy to lead out of myself, out of the core of who I am, rather than trying to become something I’m not. Plenty of models for leadership exist, and volumes have been written suggesting, “lead like me.” We can learn important leadership skills from others. Still, we learn how to be ourselves not by imitating others but by discovering, over time, our unique identity.