The Power of Setting Things Aside

Have you ever found a sermon got better overnight? The sermon you were sweating over Saturday night suddenly becomes preachable on Sunday morning. I used to draft my sermons on Thursday and come home and say to my husband, “I drafted my sermon, but it’s terrible.” I took Friday off, and predictably and mysteriously the sermon got better by Saturday.

Sermons aren’t the only thing that benefit from setting aside. E-mails that get your anxiety up (you know: you read them and your heart starts pounding) probably shouldn’t be answered until tomorrow. A staff conflict that comes to a head: usually, you can say, “I’ll have to think about this.” Most of the time when you face a ministry dilemma, you can take the time to reflect on it. And you’ll make a better decision if you do so.

Of course, usually some action must be taken. The e-mail must be answered, the staff situation addressed, and of course that sermon has to be preached on Sunday. That may take courage on your part. But a thoughtful response is often (always?) better than your first, reactive response.

The old cliche, “sleep on it,” isn’t such a bad idea, after all.

What’s Mood Got to Do with It?

What are you in the mood to do today? Writing a sermon? Sitting in a meeting? Or heading out to enjoy some summer sunshine. Finally, after a gray spring and temperatures well below normal, we’ve got summer in Portland.

Ministry, of course, is not simply about doing what you’re in the mood for. It pays to show up on Sunday with a sermon, even if you haven’t been in the mood. Council meetings also happen, and we need to be there. Sometimes we are in the mood for sermon writing and even meetings, but on one level it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to show up. A certain discipline is necessary in any working life.

And yet, we all experience rhythms of energy. Some weeks, some seasons of the year, tend to be more energetic than others. Most of us experience a surge of energy in the fall, as the program year begins. Winter is often a time of less energy. Summer may find us with energy, but not for work!

Honoring our own energy and mood pattern will get us farther than trying to force ourselves to work, or to drum up energy that isn’t there. Persistent low energy and low mood may need attending to. But everyone has a cycle. And there’s a difference between exerting some will and forcing it.

What’s your mood today? What are you going to do?

Why Do They Do That?

Watching the final game of the NBA playoffs Tuesday night was a great illustration of how people’s functioning can go up and down. The LA Lakers, historically and currently one of the top basketball teams, lost to the Boston Celtics by a record-breaking 39 points for a title-clinching game. Why?

Whether you are a basketball fan or not, do you wonder why people do what they do? This week one of the leaders I coach said he realized how much time he spent trying to figure out people’s motivation. He said, “As if once we know, it would make any difference…” He’s learning instead to pay attention to behavior. For example, if you’ve got a difficult board member, it’s more productive to notice what he does and when than to spend energy thinking about why he does it. Motivation is a tricky matter: how often do I even understand myself and why I do what I do, anyway?

The question “why?” is not that useful when we are considering other people’s behavior. In many ways it is unanswerable. Even if there is an answer, we’re not likely to be able to find it. And if we spend a lot of time considering someone else’s motivation, we’ll have less time to think through our own purpose, goals and plan.

Here are some questions that may be more useful:

“Who is motivated?” Working with people who are motivated to change or to make a difference is always more productive than trying to motivate or second-guess those who are digging in their heels.

“Why now?” What is going on in the larger organization that might be causing the overall level of anxiety to go up enough to affect someone’s behavior? For example, uncertainty about a transition in top leadership may translate into problem behavior at lower levels.

“What do I think?” Thinking through your own principles and goals is always a good use of time. And being clear about your own bottom line in relation to a particular situation or individual’s behavior may help them function better. If you know what you will and won’t put up with, your own anxiety will go down, which helps everyone. For example, in the case of a volunteer who is chronically not showing up, if you get clear that you’d rather replace them than scramble at the
last minute, you can take a stand.

When someone’s behavior becomes a problem, it’s easy to spend a lot of time, both at work and outside, thinking about them. Another question might be, “Are you thinking more about them than they are about you or their work?” If the answer is yes, turn your attention back to your own goals, which will help you get clarity about how to deal with them.

Remaining curious about others, and noticing how they function, can be helpful. This is not the same as asking “Why do they do that?” in frustration. Spending emotional energy on frustration (for more than the inevitable half-hour or so) will keep you from a thoughtful response to the behavior. Taking the time to think through the questions above, and how to respond, will help you move toward your goals.

Do You Like Your People?

When I was first called to the church I served for thirteen years, I read an article in Leadership which suggested that you didn’t have to be like your people, but you had to like them. As a recent transplant from the West Coast to a small community in New England, I appreciated those words. I was different from the people I served in lots of ways, right down to the accent. But I did like them. I liked everyone on the search committee when I met them, and still liked them when I left.

“Liking” isn’t enough to build a ministry with, of course. Perhaps another way to think about it is “respect.” William Willimon has a solid article in the current Christian Century (June 17) titled “First Call: From Seminary to Parish.” It’s not online, but track down a copy if you’re not a subscriber. One quote: “The difference between the thought of the laity in your first parish and that of your friends back in seminary is not so much the difference between ignorance and intelligence as it is a difference in ways of thinking. Learn to appreciate the thought and speech of people who are outside of the restrictions imposed by the academy.” Good food for thought for experienced pastors as well as recent seminary grads.

Are You in a Triangle in the Pulpit?

I’ve had several occasions recently to mention an article on preaching by Walter Brueggemann, “The Preacher, the Text, and the People.” In it, he refers to Bowen Theory’s idea of triangles to talk about preaching. He suggests that preachers often line themselves up with the text over and against the people. In fact, what we need to do is stand with the people and allow the text to speak to both of us. Brueggemann’s argument is, of course, far more nuanced than my brief summary. I commend the full article to you.

Can You Live without Speaking?

I came across this quote today: “Abba Isidore of Pelusia said: ‘Living without speaking is better than speaking without living. For a person who lives rightly helps us by silence, while one who talks too much annoys us. If, however, words and life go hand in hand, it is the perfection of all philosophy.'” It’s from a lovely little book by Joan Chittister, Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, which I’ve been reading devotionally.

Isidore says talking little is better than talking much. In our society, this is counter-cultural. Could you go a day without speaking? Could I?

How Long Does It Take to Let Go? Part 2

We had a second graduation in the family this week, my son’s from high school. I’m finding the experience of launching kids to be full of mixed feelings. Still, last night at the gelato place up the street as I watched parents with tiny children, I had no regrets that those days were gone.

And it’s a great opportunity to learn about boundaries. I keep coming back to my own principles for parenting teenagers, which I posted here last fall. The one I’m thinking about most is #6, “Having goals for your own life rather than goals for their life is better for you and better for them.” I’m also working on launching my book, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, which is due August 1 (and will be out in early 2009). When I can think more about my writing than about my kids and their future, it’s better for me and better for them. It’s more growth-producing for me to work on my book than to worry about them (which accomplishes nothing for anyone). And it helps me move toward my goals.

When Do You Say “You”?

Reader Dwight Robarts asks, “When is it okay to say ‘you’?” He correctly understands the importance for leaders to define self and make “I” statements. In last week’s teleconference I made the comment that I might challenge feuding staff members with a statement like this, “If you want to continue to work here, you have to figure out how to get along.” Obviously not an “I” statement!

I’ve been thinking about Dwight’s question this week. I think it is possible to issue a challenge using the word “you,” with care. It’s as much about the emotional freight of the message as it is about the language. If we’re going to make a “you” statement, we need to do it in a neutral way, where we don’t care too much about the outcome. In the case of the staff people above, if I have a lot invested in them making the choice to stay, I’m far too dependent on their response. The more I want them to do what I want, the more the resistance is likely to kick in.

Here’s another to try: “Here’s what I need from you.” In this case, too, we need to let go of our expectation of a certain response. We offer the invitation to join in an important endeavor, recognizing the choice is up to them.

And I would say, when in doubt, stick with the “I” statements, and defining self. Let me know your thoughts on this important issue.