Daughter and I spend the car ride home from most cheer practices these days in silence. She folds into the passenger seat with a complaint about the coach yelling or missing teammates or exhaustion, and I ask a question or two designed to express concern but not outrage, interest but not doubt. She answers and then slumps against the window. By the time we hit the highway it’s crickets.
She’s struggling and wants to persevere. She’s enjoyed thrilling success with this before, and this is not that. She can’t see how it can ever be that again. Covid has decimated the ranks of athletes and coaches, and her gym was smaller than their competition to begin with. The coach and gym owner is young and impatient; so much feedback is about attitude and effort, so little about technique. It’s dispiriting to watch.
In the car’s silence I trust she is working it out, thinking and feeling her way through the present disappointment she’s experiencing every 2-3 days as the promised reward for all that effort appears more and more remote. I’m not asking any more questions, and I’m not offering advice. I’m paying attention to what she’s doing in the quiet and rooting for her without talking.
I have “liked” 3,852 songs on Spotify, on purpose. Sometimes I shuffle the whole derned thing just to prune it and remind myself of my exquisite taste. I also like to share the first five songs that queue up on a random shuffle and decide if they’re still keepers. Like this:
Verdict: not a keeper. A bit of a time piece from a time I don’t care to dwell on.
Verdict: keeper. Though revealed to be a trashy human, Ryan Adams is an exquisite song-writer. This is one of his best.
Verdict: if this is in doubt, cancel you account. Keeper.
Verdict: keeper. This album got me through my first winter as a pastor, and I didn’t even know that Jenny Lewis was the female vocalist until, like, a year ago.
Verdict: keeper. I love a punk recording re-conceived by the punks as an acoustic ballad.
“When we gratuitously import the suffering of others into our own self-conceptions, when we resist calculating a hierarchy of wrongs, when we catastrophize an issue rather than deliberate its solutions, when we allow a surfeit of zeal to scuttle pragmatic action, or when we lose sight of individuality–our own or that of the sufferers–in our rush to administer blanket sympathy, then our empathy may be said to have become ‘hysterical’.”
Shaan Sachdev, “Hysterical Empathy”
This quote is from an essay in the Winter 2022 issue of The Point magazine. I’ve read it over a dozen times, and the terms I’m taking from it into my work this week and next, this pandemic and next, are “calculating,” “deliberate,” and “pragmatic.” In the face of struggles generational in character and scale, I want to learn how to do more than mirror the struggle posture, both for myself and those pulling on the rope with me. I want to learn a better grip. I want to improve technique. I want to create incremental progress.
Standing up for yourself is standing up for others. Leaders need to keep in mind that when we put up with bad behavior directed at us because, hey, we’re the leader and we can take it, we send a very clear signal that such behavior is acceptable towards others in the community as well. This is bad news for people in the community who don’t have the power the leader has.
Just because you can take it doesn’t mean you should.
A pastor colleague said, “Pastors are told to hide their true beliefs from their congregations in order to keep their jobs.”
I asked, “Told by whom?”
Pastors have as much power as anyone in a church to shape who is told what; ministry is largely a vocation of persuasion. The job largely consists of telling people what you believe and trying to convince them to believe likewise.
Leaders have agendas. We say people “have an agenda” like that’s suspect, but I’d much rather follow someone whose agenda I know than one whose I don’t. Everybody has an agenda. Not having an agenda is an agenda.
The skill for leaders is making our agenda plain, even for a single meeting. Participants should not be confused about what we’re trying to achieve. Troubleshoot Sunday’s worship service. Approve next month’s expenses. Assign responsibility. Stating our agenda clearly at the beginning invites participants to connect their agenda to it, to add items or strike them. Our agenda doesn’t have to carry the day, but someone’s should. Naming ours up front makes that far more likely.
People engage meaningfully with online content when the content invites them to. Social media polls and quizzes aren’t that, and neither are most YouTube videos, even Ted Talks. TikTok is passive, and Twitter almost never feels constructive.
But an online course you sign up for and set aside time to engage, one that asks for feedback and allows you to chart your own growth/learning/change? That feels meaningful. If we are going to measure online engagement, we ought to measure more than clicks and views. For those of us leading churches that are livestreaming worship services, views shouldn’t count the same as in-person attendance, because those two activities require very different levels of engagement (this is also true within in-person attendance: sitting in the back and leaving before the postlude is not the same as sitting in the front, staying through coffee hour, and signing up to make sandwiches). One need not be considered better than the other, only different, and different enough to warrant their own standards of evaluation.
What are we looking for when we count online views? More importantly, what are we asking for?
At 6:15 on a January morning, Lincoln Avenue is cold and dark and quiet. The 15 minute walk to the Fullerton Red Line station is an almost mystical experience of sensations, like the sight of two collided cars, mangled from their impact with one another, resting motionless in the southbound lane. The drivers left long ago; snow and ice cover both windshields. Tempted to pause and examine the scene, I think better of it. Instead, I quickly look up and down the street, across and behind, but find no witnesses and walk on.
Last year’s youth ministry was going to be different, so we prepared differently. We reached out and over-communicated and listened.
This year was going to be a return to “normal,” so we prepared the way we used to: we communicated to everyone at once and all in the same way, and we didn’t really ask how people felt about it.
Two things are now clear. First, in youth ministry, “normal” is what you did last year; every new year needs to be planned and interpreted as its own thing. By the time we start planning for the fall of 2022, our 6th, 7th, and 8th grade youth will have no practical experience of what youth ministry at our church was like before Covid. The other thing that’s clear is that the year you plan is not the year you get. We didn’t plan on Omicron.
The advantage of all the outreach and listening and over-communicating at the start of the year is that you can bank those conversations for when the year goes off the rails. You’ve already heard from people. The channels of communication are open, so when tough decisions have to be made parents are more likely to share their concerns and hopes.
If you didn’t reach out and listen at the start of the year?