Seasonal Time Management

I should know by now that I’m not going to have the focus or the energy by the middle of December to work on substantive projects. Advent and Christmas Eve don’t put the kind of strain on me as they do my colleagues who are heads of staff and solo pastors, so it’s not that I’m swamped by liturgical responsibilities. Rather, my attention is short.

September thru November is something of a sprint. So is January thru April. December is this weird space between them when I feel uniquely incapable of doing anything well.

I’m leaning toward the conclusion that this mid-winter malaise can’t be conquered, but that it can be managed. I can plan better, so that the things breathing down my neck in the new year are either pushed back a bit or taken care of earlier.

Maybe time management is seasonal as well as daily.


Sunday Morning Memory Lapse

I learned early on in my ministry to warn congregants that if they told me something on Sunday morning I would likely forget it. There is too much happening and too many personal interactions for most pastors to retain much more than half of it. The church I did my first seminary internship at had a good system for this: an elder would stand next to the pastor at the back of the sanctuary following the service and note down anything a worshiper shared that needed follow up.

I think I need to start telling congregants that if they give me something on Sunday morning I might forget it too. Given the season, some very thoughtful youth and parents give gifts to pastors and youth leaders. Yesterday a student came up to me at the beginning of Confirmation and handed me a small pumpkin loaf. “My mom said to give this to you,” was all he said. I thanked him and set it aside to begin our session.

By the time I got it home I had completely forgotten which student gave it to me. I don’t like not saying thank you, so I think I’m going to have to review Sunday’s attendance and make an educated guess.

Whoever gave it, thank you. It’s delicious.



Tension is uncomfortable. Our tolerance for it has a real effect on possibility. If we are unable to stomach tension, we will probably not be able to do anything more than protect the status quo.

Where is there tension in the work we’re doing? How is it distributed? God help us if we run around extinguishing it at first sight, but God help us too if we don’t see it. Tension deserves to be noticed and accounted for, so that we can exercise some measure of intention over where and how it is operating– applying it here, giving it space there, taking this bit on ourselves–and so that our leadership with the people who are experiencing its effects is empathetic and informed. And also self-informed: the worst place to ignore tension is in ourselves.

Maybe tension needs to live in our work as a controlled burn in a forest, preventing the excessive and dangerous buildup of debris that is no longer promoting growth. Not all fires need put out, at least not right away.


Stop Hiding Behind Self-Denigration

A word to my tribe, those workers and leaders who minimize our own contribution and employ self-denigration as constant cover: we gotta stop.

Putting ourselves and our work down is not doing for us what it feels like it’s doing. It feels like it’s presenting humility to our friends and colleagues, but it’s really doing something much worse. It’s beaming a constant signal that we don’t really want to be held responsible for our impact, good or ill.

It’s cover. Even if its real, it’s cover. It doesn’t help anyone.

Say it with me: “Yes. I made that. Thank you.”


Split-Focused Work Is Better

Once, before a weeknight presbytery meeting, the Moderator, the Executive Presbyter, and I (the Vice Moderator) met to finalize our strategy for a contentious agenda item. The Moderator was a retired navy chaplain, a man who had given his entire career–and, now, his retirement!–to serving in ministry. I was, like, 38. Attendance at the meeting was expected to be low, and the Moderator was irked. He delivered to me and the Executive a version of a Back-In-My-Day speech about the comparative lack of commitment to the presbytery among his colleagues in ministry.

I, a parent of a four year-old and spouse to a full-time worker, asked a couple of clarifying questions: back in his day, how many of his colleagues’ spouses worked full time? How many of them brought their kids to presbytery meetings? A look of recognition came over his face.

The cautionary tale I heard a lot during my preparation for ministry was about pastors, many of them men, sacrificing quality time with their families for their work. Once in ministry I quickly learned that the expectation of peers who had made that sacrifice could easily entice a new pastor who was eager to make a good impression to do likewise.

I have tried hard not to. Kiddo has come with me to meetings, retreats, worship services, weddings, and even protests, from before she could walk. That is the norm among most of my peers in ministry, especially the women, and it is a norm I have seen reflected among the elders and deacons I have worked with in congregations and presbyteries.

It comes with its own cautionary tale, though. Work will suffer. You simply will not have the singular focus on sermons, meeting agendas, Sunday School classes, or any other work you feel called to do, because the work of equally running a household demands more of that focus than you ever knew (a corrective: I suspect your female colleagues always knew). 

A simple claim to end, then. It’s better this way.


My Favorite Lyrics of 2018

I’ve already posted here about my “Your Top Songs of 2018” list from Spotify as well as the “2018 Radio” playlist I’ve spent the year assembling. Today’s post is about lyrics.

The difference between a good song and a great one can be that one lyric that just stays with you. These are the lyrics from songs released this year that kept me coming back to their songs.

Some of them are tucked neatly into verses, and some of them are the chorus. They’re written for the ear and for melody, not for print. They’re still pretty great in print though.

Here’s to the writers.

“The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit I had a coughing fit.” Lucy Dacus, “Night Shift.”

“It’s nothing elegant in being a drunk. It’s nothing righteous being 60 and punk.” Death Cab for Cutie, “60 & Punk.”

“The only gun control that she supports is using both hands.” Will Hoge, “Nikki’s A Republican Now.”

“If I only see what I can see, I know it isn’t there, and if I only need what I can keep, I know it isn’t fair.” Chvrches, “Graves.”

“You could give an aspirin the headache of its life.” The Wombats, “Turn.”

“And I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Turns out that I’m crooked too.” Amos Lee, “Crooked.”

“I’m just calling ‘cause I’m used to it. You’ll pick up ‘cause you’re not a quitter.” Lucy Dacus, “Addictions.”

“You would dirty me up just to get yourself clean.” Lake Street Dive, “Good Kisser.”

“Punish him for the life he chose, but forgive the past that he did not” Dawes, “Crack The Case.”

“She cleaned my clock but it’s ticking still” Amos Lee, “Louisville.”

“I never been to Burning Man. But I love Modesto. That’s my jam.” Brett Dennen, “Live In The Moment.”

“My body doesn’t believe what my mind believes. My body might have some good news.” David Bazan, “My Body.”

“I’ll wait in museums while you take all day to see ‘em. Matt & Kim, “Happy If You’re Happy.”

“I feel my bankroll tight in my pocket, I’m gonna pay ‘em when they bill me.” Parker Milsap, “Gotta Get To You.”

“I can’t keep a secret from the guy at the store downstairs.” Titus Andronicus, “Above The Bodega (Local Business).”

“Chipped my tooth on an engagement ring; that’s bad luck.” Neko Case, “Bad Luck.”

“I picked a good day for a recreational Percoset.” Pistol Annies, “Best Years of My Life.”

“Did someone really say that the world is flat in 2017?” Shovels and Rope, “Great, America (2017).”

“You deal in unspoken debts: no kindness without wanting something back.” Lucy Dacus, “Nonbeliever.”

“Don’t try to go another round. Stay down.” Dawes, “Stay Down.”

“But if you need to make a martyr you got to take away the man.” Phosphorescent, “Christmas Down Under.”

“If the grass is greener then I’m colorblind.” Freddy and Francine, “Ain’t No Way.”


Stay Awkward

Tension is building in the meeting because something is happening that doesn’t usually happen. It’s awkward. Somebody is speaking really directly. Nobody is speaking. The sacred cows are being assailed or they’re being vigorously defended, but whatever is happening people are starting to fidget and cast little sideways looks, first to their neighbor and then to you, the leader. You know why they’re looking; you feel it too.

It feels urgent to tamp down the tension, doesn’t it? To restore some equilibrium and dispel the discomfort in the room by cracking a joke or by gently correcting the new person, by redirecting? It feels in moments like these like your job as leader is to pilot the vessel back to the safety of the status quo.

We should probably stay in the choppy water for a bit, though, because people can handle more than we think they can, more than we can, and because nothing really important ever happened without some tension and discomfort.

Sometimes leadership feels like allowing ourselves and our people to be awkward.


The Next Meaningful Step

What is the next meaningful step? No project will get anywhere without this question. No change will be effected, no experiment attempted. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. What’s the next meaningful step?

If nobody is asking the question, it has to come from you. The answer doesn’t, though. It might; you might feel strongly about the next meaningful step. Or, just as likely, you might not. If nobody does, then maybe the thing you’re talking about isn’t really a thing.

A second question is equally important: who’s going to do it? If you don’t assign responsibility for the next meaningful step, the chances of it being completed are very small. Actually, “assign” is the wrong word. It’s about ownership. Somebody has to own the outcome of the next meaningful step because they care about it. Here again, that might be you. If it is, you should take the permission and own it; I’ve been in lots of exciting conversations that went nowhere because none of us felt authorized to own the next meaningful step.

We’re all authorized, as long as we care.

If nobody owns the next meaningful step, then the thing you’re talking about isn’t a thing, at least not yet.

One more thought on this. Collecting information often feels like a more meaningful step than it actually is.


The Skills We Need Now

If you have the credentials, the position, and the privileges to speak, that doesn’t mean you should. At least not always. At least not how you have been speaking.

The changes we so badly need won’t happen if the people who are accustomed to having the floor don’t yield and don’t invite people with less experience and different qualifications to contribute.

This is active work, not passive. It is not silence when confronted with disagreement. It is not shrinking. Marianne Williamson was talking to all of us.

The skills we need now are ones of discernment: interrogation of context and timing, curious probing, humble framing.

Some persuasion is required, too, but I think less than before.


The Elf Will Not Arrive by Saturday

The 10 year-old is adamant that the house must be decorated for Christmas by December 1st. She’s developed some strong holiday convictions this year, like no Christmas music before Thanksgiving (I delighted to call her out when I heard her singing “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year” the day before Thanksgiving). But this decoration deadline is about more than simple holiday timing. It’s about the elf.

The bloody elf.

The decorations have to be up by Saturday because that’s when the elf comes. But it’s all still down in storage and today is Thursday. She has two hours of cheer practice tonight, and tomorrow night we’re going to a production of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s not going to happen.

I tried to get creative with the timing. “Oh, it’s not December 1st when the elf arrives. It’s the first Sunday of Advent. So we can do the decorating on Saturday.”

Not persuaded even a little, she says, “No, the elf is always here by December 1st” (I honestly don’t know where she’s getting this. I’m pretty sure we’ve been later than that in decorating during the elf era before).

I parlay: “That’s because the first Sunday of Advent is usually the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It’s later this year.”

She doesn’t miss a beat in her takedown. “The elf is an atheist.”

So much of parenting is managing disappointment.