Rebecca Maccini commented on the post, “How Fast Do You Read?” “For me, this kind of reading is a sign of my anxiety because I am afraid that I will not get read all the books that I need to read to grasp the meaning of life and learn everything that I want to learn. Who knows the next book might be the book of my salvation!”
With Rebecca, I can find it easy to believe “the next book might be the book of my salvation.” If I just read enough, I can figure this leadership thing out. Or the family thing. Or the diet and exercise thing. I’m a frequent library patron, which means this frantic quest for information is free!
Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, suggests a week of “reading deprivation.” She says that creative people are often addicted to other people’s words. This idea made me very anxious when I first read it, but I’ve done it several times now. She’s since updated the concept to “media deprivation.” Could you get along without the Internet for a week? That might be a Holy Week spiritual discipline.
I’ve found that taking a week away from reading gave me some time with myself, instead of distracting myself with someone else’s thoughts. I found I could even write a sermon without consulting outside resources. (I did read the Bible, of course.) After years of preaching I had enough thoughts of my own.
Try taking a week (or even a day) to fast from reading.
Last night I watched the movie Nanny McPhee, starring Emma Thompson. Colin Firth plays a hapless widower with seven out-of-control children. Nanny McPhee comes in after the children have chased off seventeen nannies. She quickly whips everyone into shape. It’s a charming story. My husband, Karl, grudgingly said, “I’ll start it with you,” but he watched the whole movie.
Nanny McPhee epitomizes what Edwin Friedman called the “non-anxious presence.” I don’t actually like that phrase too much, because none of us are ever really non-anxious, especially when anxiety is high around us. I prefer the “less-anxious presence,” because most of us can lower our anxiety at least a bit if we get thoughtful about our challenges. But Nanny McPhee truly is non-anxious. Of course, she has magical powers, which doesn’t hurt.
But being less anxious actually does have a near-magical effect on us and those around us. When we calm down, we can think more clearly and see options, and so can others. People, both children and adults, behave better when anxiety is lower. We don’t need to attempt to calm others down (which takes a lot of energy). We only need to focus on ourselves. Calm, like anxiety, is contagious.
I’m a fast reader, which I usually find to be an asset. But it’s a drawback when it comes to reading words that need to sink deep, like poetry. It’s even more of a drawback in reading the Bible. Sure, if you’re going to read the Bible through in a year, a worthy endeavor, reading it fast may be the only way to do it. But it may be more life-changing to read a few verses slowly every day, turn them over and over in your mind and meditate on them all day long.
And we church leaders need to work with Scripture in a way that has nothing to do with preparation for preaching or teaching, simply with ourselves and our own journey. There’s no short cut to spiritual growth. For quite a few years I’ve been using Angela Ashwin’s Woven into Prayer, which includes a Scripture reading for every day of the year, plus prayers for every day.
I have to remind myself that reading the Bible is not a sprint.
Do you feel like you have too much to do? A March Easter date always makes it even harder. I’m finding Mark Forster’s work on time management incredibly helpful. His book, Do It Tomorrow is unlike any other time management book I’ve read, and his system is simple enough to start implementing tomorrow.
Here’s a great post from his blog on dealing with projects that don’t have deadlines. It’s a bit long but worth a read (trust me, the time you take to read it will save you far more time).
My classics reading group has moved on to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’m stunned by the writing. In chapter 9, people have to decide what to leave behind as they head toward California from Dust Bowl Oklahoma. They say, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”
In times of rapid change we need to stay connected to the past. It helps us know who we are. This doesn’t mean we cling to it, desperately wanting everything to stay the same. Rather, we stay grounded in the story, as a way to affirm our identity as we we move into the future.
The Dust Bowl refugees had to make painful choices about what to leave and what to carry: “Here’s an old-time hat. These feathers–never got to use them. No, there isn’t room.” Sometimes we do, too, at church. This cherished program. This building. This music. But when we make those choices with a deep respect for past, recognizing that our identity is profoundly connected with those who went before, we’ll be better prepared for the future..
People have stories to tell, if we will only listen. This is a second critical aspect of using stories for leadership. All too often we view other people’s stories as something to get through so we can say what we have to say. But the stories people tell give us vital information as leaders. We can pay attention for stories about the history of our congregation or institution which will give us key information about potential places for growth, and potential pitfalls, in the present and future. And the stories they tell us about themselves and their families also give us good information about their own functioning which will help make sense of how they act at church.
In addition, when we listen to the stories of others with attention, we develop our relationship with them in ways that can help them, and our leadership as well.
I’m doing a presentation on Thursday for some aspiring professional speakers, part of the candidate program of the Oregon chapter of the National Speakers Association, which I belong to. So I’ve been thinking about storytelling and speaking, something all church leaders do. But storytelling is a key part of leadership, too, not simply the craft of public speaking. Church leaders need to tell at least three kinds of stories:
1) Tell the biblical story. It amazes me that I can come to a text I’ve read dozens of times and see something new. The biblical story as a whole and the individual stories within it are endlessly deep and rich. And many of the people we lead don’t know it very well. Important stories shape our lives. And no story is more important for us than this one.
2) Tell this church’s story. Your own community has a history, whether long or short, with both successes and failures. Some churches only remember the successes, some only remember the failures. It’s important to be honest about both, and use the whole fabric of the past as a resource for the future.
3) Tell your own story. Share who you are. For one thing, no one else has your story. The pulpit is not the place to navel-gaze, but strategically use your story to define yourself as a leader.
Think about it. What stories are you going to tell this week: in meetings, in conversation, in the pulpit?
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.” The writer of Ecclesiastes addresses the rhythm of life in these words and those that follow (Eccl. 3:1-8).
We could write a similar litany for leadership: there’s a time to push, and a time to let up. There’s a time to be firm, and a time to be flexible. There’s a time to keep working, and a time to rest. There’s a time to stay, and a time to go. There’s a time to get expert advice, and a time to go with your instinct. How do you know which to do? It would be nice if we had a formula. But it’s more of an art than a science.
Leaders who know themselves and their people will be able to more accurately discern what is needed. Knowing yourself is a lifelong practice. It involves prayer and paying attention to yourself every day. It includes understanding how your family over the generations has shaped you. We probably all need some outside help on this project: mentors, coaches and good friends who will tell us the truth. The best helpers act like a mirror to enable us to see ourselves more accurately, both strengths and vulnerabilities.
Knowing your people is also a long-term project requiring a significant investment of time, both on the clock and on the calendar. How you do this will vary, depending on your personality and the size and nature of your group. But a well-connected leader will make better decisions and experience better results than one who is isolated. For example, if the leader hides out in a financial crunch, that absence contributes to heightened anxiety, even panic. Conversely, when the leader is present (emotionally, not just on the premises), people will be aware of it, which automatically lowers everyone’s anxiety.
When we are well-balanced internally and externally, making the right decision is actually less important. We’ll be able to recover better from missteps, or shift direction slightly when we see what the response is. We’ll have the internal resources to ride out a minor storm, or even a major one. We’ll have enough credibility that people will have a higher level of trust.
At any given moment, the stakes of the decision seem high. And it’s important to be thoughtful in making choices as a leader. But calm and centered leadership is more important than a single decision. Our presence as a leader over time is more valuable than any single recommendation or choice. That’s what we really get paid for.