Are You Listening for the Stories?

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.

Are You Telling the Story?

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?

How Do You Decide What to Do?

“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.

Do You Have to Start Over?

Are you facing a big setback? Or even a little one? On a recent visit to my parents in Sacramento we went to the Crocker Art Museum. The main special exhibit there is Edwin Deakin: California Painter of the Picturesque. I’d never heard of Deakin, but I found seeing his paintings delightful.

But what struck me even more was the story of his experience as a young man. He moved from his birthplace in England to Chicago as a young man. He lost all but six of his paintings in the great Chicago Fire of 1871. The loss caused him to move to San Francisco, where he became a prominent painter. Another artist might never have recovered from the setback, but Deakin prospered.

What losses are you experiencing? What do you need to do to start again?

Are You Giving Anything Up?

Giving something up for Lent was a foreign concept when I was young. It was something Catholics did, not us. As an adult, I discovered the value of a time of special discipline in preparing myself for Easter. I’ve given up chocolate, ice cream and coffee (the hardest!). I found practicing the idea that I couldn’t indulge myself whenever I want to be spiritually valuable.

The last few years, however, I’ve turned it around. One year I worked on giving up being self-critical for Lent. Now I frame it positively. My Lenten discipline is to treat myself every day. I might buy extra coffee or chocolate, or get myself a novel. I might sit down at the piano to play and sing a song from a Broadway musical. Sometimes I take the time to call a friend.

I’ve found this discipline to be just as challenging, perhaps more so, than giving something up. I use it to remind myself, every day of Lent, that God treasures me.

Do You Observe Ash Wednesday?

I’m a Baptist, and we’re really no good at Ash Wednesday, although we need it as much as anyone else. When I was the pastor of a local church, we ended up joining with the Lutherans and Episcopalians for Ash Wednesday. I figured we might as well do it with the people who really know how.

I always find Ash Wednesday services profoundly moving. The Book of Common Prayer says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” These words are a good reminder for leaders that the efforts, the plans, the programs and even the buildings that we invest so much energy in are temporary. We hope and pray that some of the work that we do will last beyond us, even into eternity. But when we remember our own mortality and our human limitations, we can keep our work in perspective. It’s not about us, anyway.

Are You Renewing Your Edges?

Are you feeling a little worn out? When Lent begins as early as it does this year, we feel like we turn around from Advent/Christmas to encounter Ash Wednesday before we’re really ready.

I’m continuing to read and enjoy Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. He comments on the different approach to work taken by Europeans and Americans: “Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe–comfort.” He goes on “When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season…when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!”

If you engage in a Lenten discipline, perhaps one possibility might be more sleep…

Are You an Innocent Abroad?

I’m reading Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad for a new book group I’m in which is reading classic books (you know, all the stuff you read–or didn’t read–in high school and college). I was a bit sceptical, especially when I found out it’s 700 pages long. But I’m loving it! Twain’s writing style and pointed perspective is hilarious. He satirizes Europeans and Americans equally.

As a congregational leader, particularly when we are new to a congregation, we are traversing a foreign country, even if we just moved across town. We bring our own prejudices, and the church members have theirs. Sometimes a clash occurs, or a misunderstanding, as when Twain desperately tried to obtain some soap in a public bath in Italy. If we can maintain our sense of humor, as Twain did so well, we’ll be better able to learn the territory. If we can laugh at ourselves and ask genuine questions, we’ll learn the territory more quickly and avoid the Ugly American reputation.