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.

How Open Are You?

I recently facilitated a retreat for a group at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral here in Portland, Oregon. The priest I worked with, The Rev. Canon Catherine Nichols, used the following quote in our closing worship:

“In the sacred hoop, the circle is always left open so that the new may enter. Nothing is permanent, no situation is ever fixed, and no category is ever closed.” F. David Peet, “Lighting The Seventh Fire”

I was struck by this quote in part because of the open circle in my own logo (see the top of the blog page). And also, I do believe that the future is always open. Many forces are at work on us and the systems we work within. The past is powerful in both positive and negative ways. But at the same time, human beings can make choices which can lead to a different future.

Art and Ministry

Do you use art in your ministry? I like John Beddingfield’s blog. John is the rector of All Soul’s Memorial Church in Washington, DC. He always includes wonderful art in his posts, which are generally the text of his very thoughtful sermons.

I find that looking at art helps gives me a different perspective, even though I’m more of a word person than a visual person. Somehow connecting with the visual arts stimulates my thinking in ways I don’t completely understand.

How Idealistic Are You?

Here’s another quote from my files:

“Idealism must always prevail on the frontier, for the frontier, whether geographical or intellectual, offers little hope to those who see things as they are. To venture into the wilderness, one must see it, not as it is, but as it will be.”
Carl Becker, Kansas (1910), quoted by William Least Heat Moon in Prairyerth, p. 362.

What do you see, not as it is, but as it will be? Your church? Individuals within it? Yourself?

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.