“Do you think, if I asked, coach would let me stay after a couple minutes so I can try to get my back handspring on the floor?”

Practice had just ended. My coat was on and my bag was slung over my shoulder. But her request feels urgent; she has been staying after practice routinely for “open gym” to work on tumbling skills–no to work on one tumbling skill. Back handspring after back handspring, never on the floor but only on the trampoline or the mat. She can do it in every sense but the one that really matters. Ever since she threw herself into this sport last summer, this skill has taunted her.

And why not? It defies every human instinct to hurl your body backwards and your head toward the floor. That’s the hard part, right? The backward plunge? Once your hands meet the floor it looks like a simple firm push and you spring upright on your feet.

That’s how it looks at least.

So now she wants to try on the floor, without a spot, after practice, with the coach’s explicit permission. That’s the handspring before the handspring: asking the coach. “Sure,” I answer. “He’s right there. Just ask him.”

She’s all hesitation and waffle here. Coach is nice and all, but he could say no, and, given how close she feels to achieving this and how serious a step it is for her to invite public attention, that would be devastating; there are still people in the gym. The team of older girls who practice after her team is already on the floor. I meet her hesitation with calculated nonchalance, like, “Sure. Whatever.” Finally coach approaches and I kind of nudge her toward him.

“Um, my dad wanted me to ask you if I could try my back handspring on the floor.”

Whatever it takes, kid.

He raises his eyebrows. “On the floor?” She smiles and nods with resolve. “Sure. C’mon.”

I stand next to coach in the doorway and watch as she performs what has become a well-practiced ritual, snapping her open palms to her sides and then bending at the knees as if to pounce, but then dropping a foot to catch herself. It is one aborted launch sequence after another.

I’m trying to look like I’m not watching, but I think coach can feel my stress. The older team is watching, and that’s making me even more nervous. “This is normal,” Coach mutters, almost under his breath. And then she does it. She doesn’t quite stick the landing and ends up on her knees, but the hurdle is effectively cleared, so she wastes no time getting up and going again, this time with no hesitation, and she sticks the landing.

The watching team hoots and applauds, and I stifle my own holler. But she’s not done. As if to prove to herself that this is who she is now, someone who can do an un-spotted back handspring, she knocks out a couple more with ease.

And now it’s her time to force nonchalance as she high fives coach and brushes past me toward the exit, saying only, “Okay, we can go now.”


Say It

When you say it out loud it may be misheard, misunderstood, misinterpreted or misapplied. The magic and the menace of putting it out there is what happens after. Maybe it’s a marvel we didn’t plan or anticipate. Maybe it’s a mess we didn’t intend.

It’s still worth the risk, though. Every time.


In Or Out

It feels to me like an important challenges facing leaders is discerning what to jump into and what to stay out of. Oh, and everybody is a leader.

When I say “what to jump into and what to stay out of” I don’t mean what to say yes or no to. I mean which conflicts to engage and which to let go, which situations into which to insert yourself and which to watch at a distance. These are important discernments, because we can make things worse both by jumping in and staying out.

Jump in and you immediately alter the dynamics of what’s happening and the work being done. You may quell a conflict today, but when it recurs next week what growth have you actually promoted?

Stay out and somebody could get hurt, perhaps irrevocably. Letting people work it out for themselves sometimes ignores the superiority of some parties’ working-it-out tools. In the name of “fairness,” you could be withholding important insight and influence.

It’s not always how a leader intervenes that makes the difference. It’s also how she chooses whether to intervene or not in the first place.


[Don’t] Pass The Mic

You’re moderating a forum. You want two things to happen:

  1. you want a particular topic to be addressed in depth by people who have thought a lot about it and who have something to say that people will show up to hear
  2. you want the people who show up to engage with the speakers, freely and informally. You want to pass the mic.

You probably can’t have both of those things at the same event. The minute you hand off the microphone to a participant, your power to shape the conversation to the topic you care about evaporates. Now the topic–and probably not just during the time they’re speaking–is whatever the first person you pass the mic to says it is, and that may not be what most people came to discuss.

Passing the mic feels democratic, but it usually isn’t.


Positive Feedback Storage

How do you capture positive feedback?

I don’t mean survey results or signups. I mean unsolicited emails, out-of-nowhere phone calls, and face-to-face comments that say: good job. Thank you. I liked that.

It feels important to capture that stuff and save it for future use, because God knows we’re going to need it. So I have an email folder called “Keepers” into which go notes like this. I go months without thinking about it, but on particularly rough days I open it up and read some of what’s in there. It helps.

Negative feedback saves itself. We need a storage strategy for the positive.


Wasted or Seized

The task bullets below “0206” on my daily log numbered 11 by noon. By day’s end two of them were “X”‘d out; nine left undone.

Wasted day.

Except the the circles indicating appointments numbered five, and four of those were 30-60 minute conversations that sparked new ideas and energy.

Seized day.


“This Blog Post That . . . “

“This idea that . . . “

“A culture that . . . “

“The system that . . . “

These used to be the boogeymen I preached and taught against in church. I’m trying to rid my lessons and sermons of these phrases now, though, because I think they’re making me lazy. I want to address the ideas of the day in my work. I want to speak to the culture and take on systems, but I think doing so demands more specificity than these formulations.

What is the idea, exactly? Who said it?

How is the culture, specifically? Show some evidence.

Where is the system? Tell people where to look for it

Then, of course, tell them what to do about it.


Everything Is Awful. Or Is It?

It was the most boring Super Bowl ever.

The halftime show was conventional, and the singer made it worse by baring his sculpted, tattooed, chest.

The commercials were too safe.

Or . . .

It was the best defensive performance in Super Bowl history.

The halftime show privileged precision over scale (yes, even the singer’s chest)

The ads played perfectly to the market.

What is the takedown doing for us? What benefit are we deriving from calling out the worst of what we see? I ask not because I’m a fan of either team, the performers, or the products, but because this whole spectacle is a rare cultural moment featuring professionals at the top of their fields sharing their craft, and it seems to me that our default response to that kind of sharing has become unnecessarily and uncritically negative.

And I wonder what that’s doing for us.

I wonder what it’s doing to us.


“I’m Sorry, I Don’t Remember Your Name”

A couple were in worship yesterday who looked really familiar. I noticed them during the sermon, and then when they came up for communion they looked at me knowingly. But I couldn’t place their names.

After the service they greeted me. A few awkward seconds passed after handshakes as they waited for me to say their names. I pretty quickly gave up trying to remember and did the thing I do nearly every week at this church, which is to apologetically admit that I’ve forgotten someone’s name; there’s a lot of people here, so it usually goes over without too much insult.

It only took one syllable of one of their names for me to remember: I married them, a fact they stated directly. How embarrassing. To forget the names of people who entrusted you with their big day. I have done a lot of weddings these past three years, but still; my inability to remember names sometimes is a serious ministerial liability.

They were gracious, of course, and expressed understanding. I resolved right away to send them a note this week saying how good it was to see them, and, of course, apologizing again. Even with that, yesterday may be the last time I see them.

I check my records. Their wedding was in November of 2017. I haven’t seen them since.

No more apologies after this.


Tonight Is The Homelessness Immersion

Tonight is the Homelessness Immersion experience our Confirmation youth do each winter. Friday night and into Saturday morning, students spend time:

learning from leaders who help those without permanent housing, people like case workers and social service staff;

experiencing both the simulated challenges associated with securing housing and the very un-simulated challenges associated with moving around the city on public transit with your possessions strapped to your back;

sleeping in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable–yet warm–building at the invitation of Good Samaritans;

eating only what can be easily carried.

It’s an 18 hour experiential learning opportunity. It’s uncomfortable, but the discomfort is not the point.

It’s a collaboration. It requires cooperation between youth ministry staff and volunteer leaders, social agency staff and volunteers (hat tip to both Chicago Lights and Facing Forward To End Homelessness), and the welcoming members of a second church.

It’s not my idea; it was here when I got here. It’s kind of a tradition, one that changes little-by-little over time and yet retains certain core features that make it what it is.

Here’s to learning and bonding and enduring, all for the sake of a world that doesn’t need any more Homelessness Immersions, when all of God’s children have the shelter their human dignity deserves.