Is Your Bulletin Sideways Energy?

Lengthy bulletins can be sideways energy. What is “sideways energy”? As Art Rainer summarizes it:

People are working. Busyness is occurring. But little movement is experienced.

That’s sideways energy. Now, bulletins at a church can become an exercise in sideways energy for two different reasons:

  1. The length bulletin may be communicating and promoting a lot of different events, programs, opportunities, etc. when we try to communicate everything, we end up sharing a lot of information, but without the prioritization and emphasis that makes this “mass” of information palatable and action-able for readers.  If you float 20 ideas to me, I can tune out. If you compellingly encourage me to move toward one–or just a few–I’m a lot more likely to take action.
  2. Let’s say your very-lengthy bulletin effectively communicates with focus–it’s not just a huge menu smattering of different ideas that may or may not be connected–but actually reveals a discipleship pathway. This is great. You may be a parish that doesn’t need to change the approach to the bulletin at all. However, consider the resources necessary to produce this–the work of editors, secretaries, visits with publisher advertisers, etc. Is that resource use sideways energy that could be better directed elsewhere?

As many churches start a “new year” right about now–how’s your bulletin?
Is it contributing to transformation? Or, is it an instrument that distracts from the central movement of energy and vision in your local church?

Crotalus cerastes mesquite springs CA-2.jpg

“The common name sidewinder alludes to its unusual form of locomotion…as its body progresses over loose sand, it forms a letter J-shaped impression, with the tip of the hook pointing in the direction of travel.” Sidewinding–good for desert snakes, not for our communications 😉 Source: “Crotalus cerastes” via Wikipedia


Value Statements: Not Just for Large Organizations

When you start hearing about defining “values” of a team, do you sometimes think–well, we’re just a small group, that doesn’t really apply to us.

I’m with you. Sometimes a group of just four or five, say a small sub-committee or ministry core team, doesn’t quite seem to need values, right? I mean, we’re so small and close, we “get” each other. But, think about it from this perspective:

When we first drafted and integrated our values we were a four-person team. We spent a few weeks developing our corporate values together, discussing how the values should be interpreted (and hence applied), and then integrating them into our processes and culture. A year later, we’re 21 people and growing, and our team still references these values multiple times a day. (Amelia Friedman, “How to Establish Values on a Small Team,”HBR, Apr 2018)

Whatever your ministry or organization, it’s likely to “grow”–even if growth in your context means training volunteers or engaging parishioners. It’s easier to reflect and shape culture early on, before it becomes an entrenched harmful culture, so taking the time to do so when small can save heartache and hurt down the road.

Key steps from the rest of Friedman’s article (which I highly recommend):

  1. Develop your corporate values together
  2. Give folks the opportunity to reflect and contribute thoughtfully.
  3. Get all ideas out there. And then organize them.
  4. Collaboratively identify a shortlist of values.
  5. Discuss interpretation
  6. Integrate your values

Reflect and share…what have your successes or lessons learned been when developing shared values within a small team? 

Meal list
Image: Jon-Eric Melsaeter (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Catholic Tradition and Mental Models in Ministry

Misunderstanding the Catholic meaning of “Tradition” can stifle inklings of innovation, creativity, and new design in our mental models as we minister. Let’s start from the beginning…

What is Tradition in Catholicism?

Three powerful points on the meaning of “capital-T” Tradition in the Catholic faith:

Para. 78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition…Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”
Para. 79 The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: “God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of his beloved Son. And the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world – leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.”

Para. 83 Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed.

Insights from David Fagerberg

Through the lens of liturgy, Catholic theologian David Fagerberg offers insights with application to decision-making and planning in a ministry or parish. Three key points:

  1. Tradition is Something More than History.
  2. The love of tradition in Roman Catholicism came to be identified, as was natural, with conservatism, but conservatism proves itself to be inadequate.
  3. Tradition is a capacity, a faculty.

Fagerberg’s synopsis of Church teaching is, “The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the truth in the light which belongs to it and not according to the light of human reason” (Fagerberg, “The Cost of Understanding Schmemann in the West”).

Pondering Church teaching, he emphasizes that Tradition would therefore seem to be both how something is delivered, and what is delivered. By an action called tradition (a verb), a content called tradition (a noun) is delivered. A thin sense of tradition is merely precedence. By this definition anything can become traditional if given enough time. Do it more than once and it becomes a tradition. In this thin sense, everything was “untraditional” the first time it was done (Fagerberg, “Two Centuries”). 

Fagerberg continues:

Under a more complete grammar, the thick meaning for which I am searching, something could be said to be Traditional the first time it was done. A sacramentary in Latin, the iconostasis, Gothic architecture, the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the term homoousios—all these were Traditional the first time they appeared.

Patristic theologian, Jarislov Pelican, captures this contrast between a Tradition alive in the Holy Spirit, and tradition as “dead,” unmoving custom or convention, writing:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead;
traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.

On Common Mental Errors in Ministerial Leadership

As leaders in ministry, how does this apply to us? Mistaking traditions for Tradition limits our openness to God’s spirit and curtails brainstorming before it even begins.

Pope Francis reflects:

 I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. (Evangelii Gaudium27)

Without an accurate and deep appreciation for Tradition, we can find it difficult to imagine, dream, or renew–difficult to brainstorm about “transforming everything” when it comes to customs, schedules, structures, etc. for the sake of the Church’s preeminent evangelizing mission.

Phrases That Hint at Our Self-Imposed Limits

When our minds (or mouths!) say…

  • Tradition is something we stick to…
  • Tradition ignores changes in culture…
  • Tradition prevents us from ______________…

Or, when we generally scapegoat our own strategic choices or decisions on “Tradition”–in all of these cases we’re turning the Great Tradition into a dead traditionalism. When others hear us do this or see it in our actions, to put it bluntly, we are reflecting poorly on the beauty and fullness of what the Church proclaims Tradition to be, we’re not making the fullness of our Catholic faith seem very appealing. 

Typical versus Normal

In our modern use of English, “typical” and “normal” are often used as synonyms. But, when we examine them with more precision, they have different meanings.

Typical is what is characteristically most common. What’s usual. Happens the most. Normal, on the other hand, is what conforms to a particular, pre-determined standard. The baseline for deriving or assessing other related things.

For us in ministry and in the Church, what’s typical in our current, cultural/historical setting is not necessarily what’s normal in the richness of Church teaching. For example, in parts of the United States, it’s much more typical for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) to be used with baptized Christians seeking full communion with the Church. However, this is not normal based on what the RCIA tells us, the “standard” from which various Appendixes are derived for the baptized, is the un-baptized.

In the Church, what’s normal per Tradition as seen in liturgical rites, Church teaching documents, etc. may not be what’s the most popular, commonly done, or typical in one’s ministry setting.

Tradition Matters

Praying for wisdom in the Spirit and a deepening appreciation for the richness and living vitality of Tradition can prevent us from short-circuiting our mental models in ministry, stopping good ideas before we even begin to discern them. As ministry leaders, Tradition is never a scapegoat, but a Spirit-inspired richness that renews in and through us.

“Depths” by Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Church Culture: How to Assess it and Keep it Moving in the Right Direction

Culture is the social norms found in any group. You might think, “nah, my church is normal…we don’t have any special culture”–but you’d be wrong. Like it or not, there are norms of behavior that predominate in any group. The real question is, is your culture helping or hurting the mission and vision you understand your local church serving in the world? 

Peter Drucker famously quipped, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” meaning that culture isn’t just a side issue or one-time initiative, but something so important to success that it must be cultivated continuously to ensure a healthy and flourishing organization.

Source: Twitter, Divine Renovation (@DivReno) January 15, 2018


How Do We Know How We’re Doing on Culture?

As the adage goes, “never accept a story without data, nor data without a story.” In church world, we lean a bit more toward accepting stories without data, so it’s important for us to seek out metrics for keeping a continuous pulse on how we’re doing on growing a healthy culture in our churches.

How to do this will vary from church to church, but a “scoreboard” or “scorecard” is a must-have. Whatever you call this, it’s something that’s concise–can be read/understood in 1-4 minutes, usually 1 page or smaller–that provides a “snapshot” of indicators of culture at the present moment. When teams of leaders at various levels review this regularly, it helps unite everyone around the common goal, see how different initiatives that each might be working on interconnect, and collaborate to make changes on the fly, for the sake of continuous improvement. Worrisome indicators can be addressed before they become huge “implosions” of negative culture (and really 🙂 everyone wants a more peaceful and relaxed life, right?).

What to Include on a “Scorecard” or “Scoreboard”?

Brainstorm about…

  • physical environment, aesthetics, and facilities
  • customs and habits
  • values and attitudes
  • structure/organization
  • resource use
  • process/program outcomes
  • leaders

…and see if there are quantitative or qualitative indicators related to any of these. Commit to a mix of both–50/50 discipline if this is a challenge for you! (And it is for most ministries). Keep a special mental “eye” out for leading indicators, meaning, indicators that give you a “heads up” on some larger, future goal, rather than the “lag” indicator that’s available, say, only after that big Christmas outreach has passed, for example.

Sample Church Scoreboards / Scorecards

There’s no one right format for any church. Here’s a very basic example of something that’s 1 page, can be read in <5 minutes, and incorporates both qualitative/subjective assessments of specific actions that are in-progress and quantitative lead indicators.

Sample Scorecard

A scorecard/scoreboard like this should be updated every time it’s viewed, and the Actions should change once completed. The lead indicators, if well chosen, should be relevant for many months (and even years), though as situational understanding evolves, you’re likely to discover that new ones emerge and some become less relevant.

Additional resources I recommend taking a look at:

Amazing Parish Thematic Goals — While the examples given are not about organizational culture specifically, they do show how to break down the goal of a healthy organizational culture into sub-goals. Why I wouldn’t recommend copying this example precisely, is the lack of quantitative measures. Assessing indicators as red/amber/green based on progress can be highly subjective, vague, and thus reduce the effectiveness of a scorecard/board as a tool for spurring collaborative action. [Note: some organizations do assign specific quantifiable metrics to red/amber/green, however, it can be a bit more confusing as it forces readers to reference a “key” to explain the colors.]

First West Church Scoreboards — These examples show various “scoreboards” for different areas within a church, in a form that includes plenty of quantitative leading indicators.

Now time for you to share! Do you have a great example of an assessment tool for culture? Tell us about it in the Comment Box. 





Are You Recognizable in Your Parish? Should You Be?

Are you recognizable to the average attendee at your parish? Should you be?

Good question.

I’ll backpedal a bit first…one of the things that surprised me when I began formation as a lay ecclesial minister was that the question of if, say a Director of Evangelization, Adult Faith Formation Coordinator, Director of Religious Education, etc. should be a parishioner at the same parish where he/she is employed. Coming from significant time in evangelical Protestant settings, I found this culturally perplexing–I’d never known anyone on ministry staff in any of my Baptist churches that maintained “membership” elsewhere.

There’s as much individual variety in this question as any, i.e. circumstances where a person works far from where they live due to family or financial needs, situations where language/cultural differences in parishes drive a specific choice, times when one’s “home” parish simply doesn’t offer any employment opportunities in a person’s field, etc.

But, let’s enter a generic (aka like none of our lives!) situation, an imaginary vacuum of sorts. Chris Wesley asks the essential question: “If someone needed a youth minister [in your parish/church] would they know exactly who to walk up to?” I encourage you to frame it more broadly and ask this: is your position on staff as a lay ecclesial minister one that a person who is less-engaged (i.e. not attending Mass weekly, checking parish website, etc.) would need to talk to?

Maybe it’s because you’re leading the RCIA team or Alpha–ministries where the less-engaged might find a starting point. Maybe it’s because you’re key for helping people discern their gifts and connect to ministries to serve in. Maybe it’s because you’re coordinating children’s ministries and rarely get a chance to talk to the adults who drop-off kids at your programs.

If this seems like you, Wesley sends an encouragement to simply be present around weekend Masses. Not in a way that compromises your own participation in worship and liturgy–but as something intentional flowing from your staff role. (See Must-Implement Concept #9 on the importance of including this in job descriptions).  Doing this, Wesley writes, “not only maximizes your impact, but creates a loving and relational culture. That type of environment is why people will come back to your church.”

Be present and be approachable.

How you do this will depend on your role, your personality, your parish, and more. But the point is to do it. Take the step to offer more connection, more person-to-person contact, and see what fruit it brings in terms of relationships with those you serve–and fruit in your own spiritual life. Many in ministry recognize a humility in being behind the scenes–and this is a good thing. However, you’ll never know how God may be wanting to use you to offer a smile, a well-spoken word, a consolation, a hug, much needed empathy, or simply a reminder that they are not alone, to those who aren’t at your “regular” ministry events. Our parish campuses/grounds are the perfect place to first embody the love of Jesus that we week to bring to the entire world.

The New York Times on the New Art of Flickr
Image: Thomas Hawk via Flickr

Trust-Barriers for Teams

Why is it so hard to build the trust that’s essential for productive conflict as a team doing ministry?

If you’ve ever delved into Pat Lencioni’ s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team you’ve got the idea that trust is a foundation for any team–and only on that trust, can a team truly engage in healthy, productive conflict.

Pat Lencioni’s Pyramid of the Five Common Dysfunctions of Teams

One of the barriers to this, however, can be the “accidental values” in an organization. These are the values that aren’t intentional and actually hinder the long-term good of the organization.

Another barrier to trust is the “fundamental attribution error.” This is the tendency in an organization to falsely attribute the negative behaviors of those whom we disagree with, who are newer to an organization, or otherwise on the margins to their character (an internal attribution), while attributing one’s own negative behaviors to environmental factors, like a decision made by someone else, etc. (an external attribution).

Organizations with teams that hold onto “accidental values” or are prone to the “fundamental attribution error” in decision making will likely struggle to build the trust essential for a healthy organization.  At its heart, organizational health for a ministry means that the body of believers who have been first joined together in Christ, and now come together for a specific purpose, are consistently living out strategy and operations within a culture and values that all hold together–that make sense, that are consistent.

Organizational health starts with a team. And then spreads to other teams. A team of teams. A culture, values, norms, and way of being that’s best caught, rather than taught.

Truly living as a team is a difficult thing, a very specific thing. It means more than simply being together or working together. This is another stumbling block for many organizations–assuming that “we” are a team, when it’s not the case. Lencioni explains:

a team is a relatively small number of people (anywhere from three to twelve) that shares common goals as well as the rewards and responsibilities for achieving them.

Many groups that aren’t true teams succeed. There are good reasons not to be “partially” a team without going all-in on trust and productive conflict. Even within the Body of Christ, people can get hurt when there’s a pretense of forming a team, without commitment to the tough values of trust a team requires. As Lencioni cautions:

if your group is not meant to be a team, it’s far better to be clear about that than to waste time and energy pretending you’re something you’re not. Because that only creates false expectations, which leads to frustration and resentment.

In summary, these three challenging barriers to overcome in building trust as a team are:

  1. Your “accidental values” — the deeply ingrained norms, cultural habits, and values of your organization that work against the team you’re trying to become.
  2. The “fundamental attribution error” of limiting one’s own vulnerability by justifying negative tendencies of the “in” group to external, environmental factors beyond one’s control, while calling out the negative tendencies of others as unchanging character or personality flaws.
  3. Experiences of false expectations of being a team. When team building with people who have experienced the perception of a “team” without the direct and vulnerability-based trust, there’s a brokenness to be overcome.

What have your experiences been? What, for you, has been the most challenging hurdle to becoming a trust-filled team in ministry? 

When Ministry Bitterness, Betrayal, and Pain Remain

How much personal suffering is okay, in pursuit of a greater good in ministry?

Following a Lenten season of reflecting on this “necessary discomfort,” I summarized:

…No parish organization should be content to dwell in suffering, or embrace suffering flowing from unhealthy organizational relationship as a spiritual discipline, as dutiful conformity to Christ. No, Christ’s suffering was redemptive. Our Savior lives–He did not remain in the grave. He did not remain on the Cross. Evidence of past suffering marks his Glorified Risen Body, yet the victory has come.

The suffering in a parish organization journeying to become truly healthy should be the suffering of confronting situations, exposing unhealthy relationships and assumptions, of mutual openness among leaders, of facing difficult situations head on. This suffering is not weakly accepting unhealthiness in the Body, but boldly, in the Spirit pursuing the ultimate good for the glory of God. Becoming a healthy parish organization means walking in the Spirit to distinguish the suffering of dysfunction and the suffering of transformation, so that we can flee the former and embrace the latter.

Yet even where Christ’s victory prevails, where forgiveness between members of Christ’s body is possible, this suffering of dysfunction can create real hurts, personal hurts that don’t disappear instantly. Human pains like experiencing a break in trust, loneliness, fear of vulnerability, or bitterness–just to name a few.

What to do on a human level when these experiences come?

Some great advice from Jen Fitz:

Avoid the situations that fill you with bitterness, the pain of broken trust, etc. Sometimes we can’t, but if you can–do it. As Fitz notes, “Yes, it would be fantastic if you could somehow be so saintly that Fr. Backstab and Sr. Gutpunch didn’t bother you anymore. Maybe one day that will be you. Until then, give your weakness a little breathing room.” Yes. Breathing room.

Draw close to those who can help you through it. The type of person this is will vary. It might be a listener who can help you process the pain. It might be someone who creates that “breathing room” through healthy and joy-filled distraction (yes–we can and should have fun!). It’s not someone who merely reinforces the experience of personal pain or echoes back bitterness, isolation, etc. to you.

Discern the elements of your life that might open you up to greater spiritual healing and insight. For me, Fr. Timothy M. Gallagher’s Spiritual Consolation: An Ignatian Guide for Greater Discernment of Spirits has been an invaluable tool for making myself more open to the Holy Spirit in reviewing and looking back over experiences to detect the causes of personal pain, conflict, and challenge in ministry.

Sunshine Path on a Windy Road   (free CC usage with credit link to
image: (CC BY 2.0)