Outcomes And Methods

How people work is as important as the work they do. As admirable as their outcomes may be, peoples’ methods say just as much about their work. You can’t act surprised when your cutthroat partner turns on you.

This also means that even when we doubt our own contribution we can trust our method. The results may not be there today, but the work is. The reliability is. The integrity is. Connection and trust and learning are there because that’s who we are and how we work.

Being the kind of person people want to work with is about more than outcomes.


Having A Gift Ready

Daughter and I were taking the bus to gymnastics yesterday afternoon when she lost her favorite leotard. It was in the little canvas tote bag she was carrying, which she had wedged between her back and the bus seat, and when we got off the bus she forgot about it. So did I. The bus was a good two minutes gone before we realized it.

There is no way to fix such a crisis. There is only the appearance of fixing it, like calling the bus company right away, which I did. That isn’t a fix, though; the leotard is gone.

This is a post about keeping gifts on hand.

Daughter could not bring herself to continue to gymnastics, so we came home and she cried. But all was not lost, because her mother returned in time and presented her with a brand new leotard, one that she had purchased as a gift but had not yet given. Tears turned, literally, to dancing.

Having gifts at the ready can save the day in a crisis. But it does much more than that. It positions you to contribute when the rest of us are only positioned to manage. You have something to give, something just for a moment like this, something perfect for this person. I have nothing.

The woman in this story with the costly jar of perfume had something for the occasion while others, who perhaps should have been better prepared, did not. Their critical response to the disproportionate value of her gift is a cover. They don’t have a gift. They’re ashamed.

Of course, being ready with a gift also means that you are the kind of person who is thinking of others and what might bring them joy, and not only when a gift-giving occasion calls for it.That’s the best part.

True Is True Enough

True is true enough to act. True enough to change. True enough for me to invest some critical degree of energy and imagination in a particular outcome that either makes something stop or makes something start.

That the internet is a publishing platform available to any and everyone with a computer (or smartphone) is true enough for me to blog five times a week.

That the proprietor of the restaurant down the street says homophobic things is true enough to make you stop eating there.

The messianic and royal claims people made about Jesus were true enough for those in authority to bar his way.

True is true enough.

Certainly not true in every case and not true for everyone and not true beyond a shadow of an irrefutable doubt. We are quite skilled at finding the exceptions. We reward the deconstruction of the case. The position of critic and of the puncher-of-holes in the argument is granted a measure of power.

Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” The answer was staring him in the face. That the defendant was stirring up something bigger than a regional sectarian dispute was true, but not true enough for the governor to change his usual course. Something else was truer for Pilate: his job. His calculation of loyalties and PR and the political fallout. Those things were true enough for him to act, and against his stated will.

“Not true enough” is a perfectly defensible assessment. It’s just not the same as “Not true at all.”

Holy Week Is No Time For Shorthand

There is more at work during Holy Week than any one thing can hold. The triumphal entry, the turning over Temple tables, the parables, confrontations, meals, arrest, trial, and crucifixion put on display a parade of elements so various and complex that we ought to marvel not at how any one of them acted, but at how they all fired at once toward a purpose most of them could not conceive.

Holy Week is not a time for shorthand. Sin? Yes. Sacrifice? Yes. Betrayal? Yes? Cowardice? Yes. Empire? Yes. Politics? Yes. Faithfulness? Lord, yes.

But no yes by itself. The glory and tragedy of the Passion is that Peter’s denial devastates just as much as Pilate’s washed hands and that the woman with the alabaster jar moves us almost as much as the figure she anoints. All of these moments and motives are mixed up in the same drama, and only one of them really understands it.

Times are complicated. Lots of things are happening at the same time, and it feels increasingly difficult to sort out who the important actors are and what they really aim to do.

It’s Holy Week, 2017.

Youth Ministry Requires Systems And Processes And Time Away From Them

Processes and infrastructure are critical to the sustainability of youth ministry. Mark DeVries is right that without systems for recruiting and shepherding volunteers, calendaring annual events, and tracking the participation of students, ministry efforts will be stuck in what’s-the-next-thing mode.

I’ve even added a communication strategy to my mix of infrastructure tools, thanks to this Youth Cartel course. 

E-newsletters and granular attendance rosters are not, in themselves, ministry, though. The person who spends all their time and energy in them while not also building routines for connecting directly with students will almost certainly miss the next thing, at least in the lives of teenagers.

I don’t do both of these parts of youth ministry well at the same time. For entire seasons I bury my head in schedules and budgets. Weeks go by with hardly a single conversation with a student. Then there are stretches where it’s non-stop student interaction without the net of an hourly schedule.

I need to figure out how to juggle these two at the same time.


Three Things About Working On Our Issues

We’ve got issues. Good news though: help is available.

Prayer. Community. Sanctification.

Therapy, medicine, coaching, self-help: the resources we have for working on issues is unbounded. It’s hard, even heroic, work, but it can be done. It can be done.

Three things about working on issues.

Let’s keep our judgy paws off the work people are doing to deal. If a married couple has rules to protect the chastity of their union, that’s their business. Let’s not snipe and snarl about it because we can’t relate.

Also, though, we needn’t make our work public in this regard. It will be good for trusted people to know the work we’re doing–leaving the office early every Wednesday for therapy–but that’s a small circle operating on a need-to-know basis. Public declaration is not the work. The accountability it seems to provide is a momentary illusion; the public won’t be there when the real work needs doing.

Finally, working on our issues is not the end goal, growth and transformation are. Our issue work will change over time as we mature. The rules I had for myself at 23 I don’t need at 40. Piety equals improvement more than static habits.

Oh, we’ve got issues. Working on them is some of the hardest work we do. But help is available and it can be done. It can be done.

Just Because A Fence Is There Doesn’t Mean You Have To Climb It

Yes, the invisible fence is mostly in your head. You can ignore it. 

But it wouldn’t be the worst thing to consider if it isn’t and if somebody didn’t put it there for a reason. We don’t have to see the fence as an arbitrary or capricious check on our freedom. We can see it instead as a signpost. We can see it as the testimony of one who has come before: things will go better for you on that side. Trust me.

Poke the fence, definitely. Look for ways around it. Don’t thoughtlessly accept its constraints. But also run your hand along the fence with the fence-builder in mind to imagine what she was thinking when she constructed it. She may be trying to tell you something valuable.




Is It Okay For Some Pastors To Spend Most of Their Time Working At The Church?

In the monastic stream of the Christian tradition, men and women with religious vocations removed themselves from the daily comings and goings of life with people in cities and towns so that they instead had to be sought out in remote places. This is not the model for being a pastor in any contemporary church in North America that I’ve ever seen. For our era, pastors show up to stuff. They might visit you at work. They meet people in coffee shops as much as in their office. Pastors are still sought out by people in the church or the community in need of particular counsel or aid, but my pastoral training at least did not encourage me to sit in the church and wait to be sought. It told me to seek.

Our expectation of pastors in this regard suggests an expectation of church and the role we want it playing in peoples’ lives–not marginal, but central. Not a fragment. We hope that the church is a sort of central hub of relationships, meaning, and conviction that informs all the other parts of our peoples’ lives, not just something they do on Sunday. When they’re not traveling. Or working. Or at a soccer game.

For some people, that expectation is easy and enlivening to meet. Some contexts, too, make that rhythm of church life easier and more natural. But in others, the church is a fragment in the lives of people who are committed to multiple challenging and important things in multiple spaces, from the home to the workplace, the school to the neighborhood, the gymnastics team to the food pantry. In those contexts, maybe urging pastors to seek admission to their peoples’ other fragments is less beneficial, pastorally, than advising them to embrace the fragment they’re given and to do the most they can with it.


Is there some vitality for these latter contexts in that monastic stream of the Christian tradition that makes of the church the sought community and the pastor the sought figure? Is it okay for those pastors to occupy themselves mostly with work at the church, then, and to worry less about getting out to peoples’ workplaces and soccer games, to pour themselves into preparing for people experiences and spaces that, while but a fragment, perhaps invigorate and transform their other fragments?


Tom Friedman Is Shaping How I’m Thinking About Opening Day

My team was the toast of the sport only 18 months ago. Last season’s opening day saw them win a nationally televised game, giving license to the fan base to prolong our October chest-thumping.

It didn’t last. Injuries. Regression to the mean. The existence of other players and executives who care just as much and play just as hard. You know, sports. They finished exactly .500 for the season and missed the playoffs.

This opening day finds them projected to finish third in their division. Clutch players from their World Series victory are gone. Worst of all, four of the team’s turnaround centerpieces are in their final contract years. This is it for them. This is it for my team as I’ve come to love it.

And everybody knows it.

My expectations are low. I’m going to watch and listen and read and cheer and hope–but I don’t expect glory. And that’s okay.

Conquering the mountain as the scrappy upstart who finds a path to success that others missed is awfully fun. But you can only do that once. Then the challenge becomes keeping your footing as competitors find other paths to the top and as the mountain itself shifts beneath you. For everybody in the enterprise, that demands a different set of skills.

I started listening to Tom Friedman’s new book yesterday, the central thesis of which is that, not only is technological, environmental, and economic change multiplying at heretofore unknown rates, but the pace of that change is itself multiplying in dizzying ways. This assertion sums it up: by the time governments figure out how to regulate ride sharing services, self-driving cars will be urgently demanding attention.

Sports embody this change process. Friedman has a whole chapter on sensors and data analytics as things that are dramatically accelerating change in everything from trash collection to dairy farming. And sports. We’ve come a long way since Moneyball, but the data analytic revolution it sparked has made its mark on sports for good. In contemporary sports, if you’re not fiendishly gathering and analyzing data in creative ways, you’re not winning.

Sports helps me think about the change happening in the world and how to be part of it, rather than knocked over or left behind by it. My hope this opening day is that my team has changed with sufficient intention and novelty to make this season compelling, and that I’m doing that too.

Play ball.

The Answer To Sketchy Information Is Better Information, Not “Personal Experience.”

A reporter interviews a coal miner and admits, at the miner’s probing, that he has never personally been to a coal mine, and then abashedly lays down his assertion that coal emissions are damaging the climate. “I’m having a strong reaction to this,” says the reporter. “Because I realize I’ve never actually experienced the thing I’m talking about.”

Stop it.

If we demand lived first-hand experience of a thing as the only reliable basis for claims about that thing we’re sunk. I have never fired a gun or been part of gun violence, yet I know that guns kill more than 33,000 Americans annually. I’ve never been to Syria, yet I’ve learned that a staggering 470,000 people have died in its civil war.  And I’ve never visited a coal mine or a coal-powered electric plant, but I know that emissions from burning coal makes up a significant part of CO2 emissions in the U.S.

We live in a world of information. Much of that information is researched and peer reviewed. Much of it also is not. Some of it is even full on fabrication. I believe that reliable information is out there, though, and that the answer to fabrication is better information, which is still readily available.