Where Is Your Attention Going?

Have you ever said about your followers, “If they would only–“? If we pay more attention to our own goals than to what others are doing, ultimately we will find ourselves having more influence.

As leaders, we do need to keep our eye on our followers, because we’re not leading if no one is following. But if we’re thinking more about them then about our own purpose, we won’t know where we’re going. It is exhausting to think about others all the time. And we can find ourselves spending a lot of energy trying to convince others to agree with us. Or we tiptoe around those who are difficult and make a lot of noise, which can also wear us out. Or we ask people where they want to go so we can lead them there.

Before you focus on others, you need to focus on yourself. What are your goals for yourself as a leader, long term and short-term? For example: you can plan how to spend your time this year. For example: I’d like to learn more about supervision, or dramatic presentation methods. Or, I plan to get out of the office more and connect with people in the community. Goals can also be short-term and immediate: in this particular meeting I plan to say less–or more.

We use our energy better when we focus on ourselves and our own functioning, rather than constantly trying to scope out others. For one thing, we can control ourselves, not others. I can’t control the outcome of any given meeting, no matter how critical. I can only manage how I function, what I chose to say and do in that meeting. Paradoxically, how I act, particularly if I can stay calm and clear without getting anxious or defensive, can make a difference to the outcome. Controlling how I act changes how others respond to me, which is different from, and far more effective than, trying to control how everything turns out.

Clarity about our own purpose takes time and energy. Discerning our direction deserves our attention. But if we have clear goals for ourselves, both short-term and longer-term, our anxiety will automatically be lower. A clear, calm leader lowers everyone else’s anxiety, too, and helps give people the confidence to follow.

Edwin Friedman’s Latest Book

Let me commend to you the latest of Edwin Friedman’s writings to be reissued by Church Publishing, The Myth of the Shiksa. The book includes a number of other essays including, “An Interview with the First Family Counselor,” “Secrets and Systems,” and “Metaphors of Salvation,” and a fascinating foreword by Shira Friedman Bogart, “Growing up Friedman.” Many of these were published in article form during Friedman’s lifetime, but they have not been collected in book form before. They show Friedman’s characteristic wit, boldness, and ability to see things at a tangent. Several of them are written from his perspective as a therapist. But church leaders so often work with families that his perspective is radical but tremendously valuable, as in the interview, “Empathy Defeats Therapy.”

Where Do You Need to Let Go?

For the last part of Lent, I’ve been using a devotional book called Let Nothing Disturb You: A Journey to the Center of the Soul with Teresa of Avila. Today’s reading included these words: “For if we are attached to any one thing, it is because we set a value on it. It may be painful to surrender what we value, but what greater loss,what greater blindness, what greater calamity could there be than to make much of what is nothing, to cling to what has no value?” (p. 186) I often reflect on the many things I am attached to. These are not things of no value, but they also don’t have ultimate value. My roles (pastor, coach, writer, wife, mother). The church structures (local and denominational). Money. What other people think of me. The choices my children make. None of these are ultimate, and the less I cling to them the freer I am spiritually. And, paradoxically, the less I cling to those roles, the more I am able to live in and with them well. The less I cling to my roles, the more I can occupy them with grace and generosity.

I’ll be asking myself this question this Holy Week: Where do I need to let go? What about you?

Are You Reading Too Much?

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.

Where’s the Magic?

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.

How Fast Do You Read?

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.

Easter’s Coming! How Do You Get Everything Done?

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).

How Will We Know It’s Us?

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..