Using One Project To Hide From Another Project

Ministry is project work. A project is a body of work that needs several steps to complete. So this Sunday’s sermon is a project. So is next month’s session docket. And the fall Confirmation retreat. Those of us in ministry settings need to be able to manage and effectively complete projects.

Yet not all projects are equal in terms of impact, are they? I had this thought last week as I was beating a path back and forth between the printer and my desk, trying to complete a project that mostly required documents and numbers and signatures. I attacked it. Meanwhile, on my list of projects, sit a couple of things that require a lot more than printing and signing, projects that need non-distracted thinking and writing, projects that demand a cold call and an ask. They sit there while I knock out the paper and printer projects. Getting those done makes me feel effective, though I know that the real impact will come from paying serious attention to the other projects, the ones I can’t call “done” so easily and that scare me to think about.

I guess what I’m noticing is that being effective in one kind of project can be a dangerous form of hiding from another, more demanding, kind of project.


Two Nuggets From Weekend Reads

Michele Margolis, from an op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times:

It’s not just that our religious beliefs affect our politics — it’s that our politics affect our religious choices. We don’t just take cues about politics from our pastors and priests; we take cues about religion from our politicians.

Viewing our politics through the lens of the gospel is what we should be doing, but Margolis makes me wonder if I haven’t been assuming that’s simpler than it really is.

Her forthcoming book, From Politics To The Pews: How Partisanship And Political Identity Shape The Religious Environment looks well worth a read.

And then Joe Drape, also in the New York Times, about one of my favorite things to fume about: youth soccer. It turns out the American version of youth soccer is thriving in pretty exclusive zip codes.

Currently, American households with more than $100,000 in annual income provide 35 percent of soccer players, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, compared with 11 percent from households earning $25,000 or less.

That I have had such constant contact with the demands of soccer on the students I work with says something about where I have chosen to work.

The Day After The Deadline

That deadline stressing you out represents an obligation you must meet. If you fail, consequences will be real, maybe even severe. You are rehearsing them all in your head. You’re frozen by the fear of them.

A deadline is also an opportunity, though: to have done something. What if you looked forward to the day after the deadline instead of dreading the day of the deadline?

Does that get you unstuck, even just a little?

I Could Tell You But Then I’d Have To Kill You

Several of us who attended my friend’s retirement from the Air Force last week remarked afterward that we learned more about his work in that 60 minute ceremony than any of us had gleaned over the previous 20 years, including–no joke–his wife.

I made several cautious inquiries about it during our infrequent visits over the years. They were all met with a response that was more “it’s not very interesting” than “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.” My friend’s a humble dude.

But it turns out he’s been working on cool stuff, like, space stuff. I’ve been hearing about things he’s working on in the news, I just didn’t know it.

What are you working on that nobody knows about? What cool project are you pursuing that’s not going to garner you any praise, or even recognition?

Maybe the things nobody knows about are the important things.

How (Not) To Fight Impostor Syndrome

Maybe impostor syndrome gets worse the more you try to fight it on its terms. When you find yourself making those unfavorable comparisons between yourself and a peer, ask yourself: am I comparing my work to hers or my person? If the former, good; the challenge to make better stuff will hardly do us wrong.

If the latter, though . . .

Impostor syndrome is about you, not your work. It tells you that you don’t belong, that you are an interloper among the more highly qualified, more worthy. No amount of output will defeat it. Trying to overcome impostor syndrome with better work is like trying to douse a brush fire with a rake. It’s the wrong tool for the job.

Look, I don’t know the right tool. Therapy, probably. Some introspection. Good friends. Prayer. We’re all throwing whatever we have at this thing, right?

It’s important to understand what we’re up against first.

I’ve Had Practically No Idea What My Friend Has Been Doing For The Past 20 Years

High school: I knew who my friends were, and I was deeply, irrationally committed to them and whatever time we could steal from family and responsibility to be together. The activity hardly mattered. Driving around our suburb was just as enjoyable as attacking a hill on mountain bikes as long as they were involved. We were motivated in whatever we did by a vision of one another as indispensable.

Of course that was short-sighted, as much of adolescent thinking and feeling is. Of course we were dispensable. 24 years have passed since we graduated, and we have practically, almost completely, dispensed with one another. New relationships and commitments have required space, and something had to give.

The disposal didn’t happen at once, but in stages. College was a stage, and so was world travel. Marriage, all of us suited up for photographs, was another stage, though it didn’t feel like it. New jobs, and, finally, kids–all stages in a gradual disposal from our lives of people who our teenage selves could not have imagined living without.

It’s healthy; there is something sad about adult relationships that live only to preserve an experience of youth. We have to dispose of the relationships we had as teenagers, because the people who made up those relationships are gone, or at least irrevocably changed by the accumulation of experience and interest and choice. Clinging to the friend of my youth makes of him a self-serving object and denies the reality of who he has become.

We have to start over.

I spent two days last week with one of my oldest friends. We’ve known each other since kindergarten. I have pictures of us in little league uniforms squinting and showing off trophies. He is in my most cherished memories of high school. And yet the time with him last week paraded one person after another, one demand after another, that has shaped his life in astounding ways, ways that I have been almost completely oblivious to the whole time. He is no longer the person goofing off in those memories. He is so much better. Continued friendship with him must account for and embrace the person he is now, not simply reminisce about the person he was then.

Friendship can reset at adulthood. It probably has to.


Mission Trips Are A Chance To Go Back

Short term mission trips present an opportunity to build relationships with partners and communities over time. You don’t have to go to a new place every year. “Where are we going this year?” is one of my least favorite things to hear students ask.

We just got back from our second consecutive week-long trip to Detroit with junior high (and some pre-junior high) youth. Detroit was brand new for a few of them, but for most it was not. For the bulk of leaders it was not. Everything we did during the week drew comparisons to the previous year’s trip, which got old (I was the biggest offender) but which also indicated a positive development. We were talking about what we were doing and who we were doing it with, not, as on the first trip, about the city and all its problems.

A leader asked me towards the end of the week if I noticed any improvement in the city since a year ago. I answered No. What the late Anthony Bourdain disparaged as “ruin porn” is still ever-present as you make your way around the city. It’s a very short window though, 12 months, and what you’re viewing through it, if you’re looking for visible signs of development or “turnaround,” is elusive. Looking for it from the outside is part of the problem. Because what looks like improvement and what permits a kind of self-congratulation on the part of tourists and well-meaning church groups is a gleaming new downtown casino, even though none of the church leaders we meet when we visit Detroit experience that kind of improvement as anything but predation upon the communities they’re serving.

Taking groups of youth to the same place year after year to work with the same people and the same leaders can help us train our eyes on the right kind of “improvement” in a place. That improvement is measured by how well your friends there are thriving more than by how much development is going on downtown.

Mission Trips Are Practice In Paying Attention

I’m back after a week-long mission trip in Detroit with 5th-8th graders. Pastor Charon Barconey and the Presbytery of Detroit are great partners in ministry, you guys. So is Charon’s son Michael, who produced this terrific video of our week. You should go to Detroit and work with them, seriously; I’ve been two years straight now, and I don’t see why three isn’t in the offing.

Mission trips are invitations to pay attention. With kids as young as we had last week, attention is a goal unto itself. We leaders spent the week urging our students to notice things and to attend to their surroundings, both in work and recreation.

“Pay attention to how much rice you’re putting in that bag.”

“Pay attention to your surroundings as we walk, en masse, down a busy city street.”

“Pay attention to the devotions.”

“Pay attention to the instructions.”

For leaders of mission trips, though, the week asks you to pay attention to multiple things at once, and I’m finding this to be a valuable element of discipleship formation for adults. It’s true for individual leaders and the community of leaders. No one person can pay attention to all the important things happening with a group of early adolescents. The work they’re supposed to be doing, the weather, the food planning, the transportation, their allergies, their social interactions, their emotional state, their environment: taking stock of all these things, all at once, is impossible. It takes a team, and I had a good one.

Paying attention to one thing at the expense of all the others over the course of a mission trip is a path to frustration. Leaders who focus on the work projects first and foremost, for example, will become hopelessly frustrated if supplies are lacking or if kids aren’t focused. We have to develop an awareness of what else is happening as the work project flounders. Students are relating, plans are evolving, new opportunities are presenting themselves.

For youth as well as adults, mission trips are a school of attention.


What You Made Is Good

The fresh curriculum with the pastel infographics and accompanying DVD is so alluring on a website or a table at a conference. Once you order it, though, and page through it in preparation for actually using it, for giving it to others to use, it feels so much more complex. This will need to be changed; we’ll have to get those materials; omit that section (and, my Lord, how many variations on the verb “discuss” can we fit into a single lesson?)

If you’ve been making your own stuff, the glossy curriculum has some competition. Your stuff is for your people, and it knows your space and the supplies you have to work with. It may not be better; curriculum writers are hella talented. What you’re already using is flawed, but it has one major advantage: you made it. That means you can level it up where and how you need to with relatively little difficulty.

Check out the new curriculum for sure. But then be sure to look at what you’ve already made with the same set of eyes.

This Is How It Happens

My wife and I signed away three nights of our summer weeks–four nights come fall–in a single stroke the other day, and as we did so I could only think, “This is how it happens.” We surrendered all of this time to a competitive cheerleading squad our daughter wants to join. Sitting in the makeshift office of this operation on her first day of practice, signing waivers and writing a check, it felt like we were buying a car, one much more expensive and with a lot more features and accessories than we came in looking for.

We knew there were practices two nights a week. That’s no different from what she has now, and we had all three been clear that the new commitment does not supplement the current one. It replaces it. But then we learned, once Daughter was already stretching in formation with her new teammates, that there is a third required weekly session for individual practice. There are mandatory choreography sessions. There are camps and competitions.

Attendance at all of these dates is serious business, too. Absences are limited and require doctor’s notes.

This is how it happens, right? This is how kids schedules go from full to too full? Not by parents plotting around the dinner table, but in moments of decision they didn’t see coming, when a commitment is called for in full view of the kid, whose eagerness to be on the team or in the play or in the band means there’s no way you’re saying “no.”

This is our life now. On Monday we had a kid who did gymnastics twice a week and competed twice a year. By the end of the next day we had a cheerleader who will workout four nights a week to prepare for a dozen high-stakes competitions, one of them, potentially, in Florida.


Early returns are great. She’s having the time of her life and the coaches all seem really positive. She’s getting individual instruction to a degree she’s never experienced, so that skills she’s been working on for months have practically developed themselves in just two days. She’s part of a team, and that feels good.

But man am I wary.