Called to a Thick Sense of Empathy

Chris Adkins, director of the Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, characterizes the brain as a “mental trilogy” of cognition (thinking), emotion (feeling), and motivation (wanting).

In ministry, we’re probably more open than most to the importance of emotions and motivation. Yet so much of leadership development focuses only on thinking. To be truly empathetic, we need to integrate all three of these dimensions of the mind:

an empathetic response isn’t simply sympathy — feeling for someone. It also isn’t compassion — feeling with someone. Empathy means feeling as someone and thinking as someone.

The word “seeing” is also important because it focuses on imagining another’s experience.

“Empathy involves your imagination, seeing another and their world, in your mind’s eye,” he says. “Can you actually walk into their world and see what they see, hear what they hear?” [Read the rest, here…]

True empathy motivates helping others, improves our communication with various groups and individuals, identify “blind spots,” and in the end, stay curious about learning from the people around us. To enter fully and imaginatively into the great Biblical narrative of salvation history, and to experience how Jesus is speaking to us now, through those texts–well that takes empathy too.

Next time I’m in a tough ministerial situation, I’ll try and remember to not only feel for and with that person, but to take on my own tiny slice of Jesus’ incredible gift of the incarnation and truly be open to walking into their world.

See
Image by Steve Johnson, via Flickr, cc-by-2.0

Customer Service for Missionary Disciples

Customer Service on Day 357
Manchester City Library via Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0

As leaders, evangelists, and/or missionary disciples, we’re all in customer service.

Now this is strictly a metaphor, because as Christians we’ve got nothing to sell (in fact, we’re sharing the free gift of God in Jesus Christ) and aim to foster, not consumers, but empowered, Spirit-filled Christ-followers. To use the metaphor, how’s your customer service?

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the habit in ministerial leadership or evangelism of thinking only of the “big wins.” But what of the small, everyday victories of a person satisfied, known, heard, and loved? These too are vitally important, as these moments reveal the fruits of the Holy Spirit in us, our ability to participate in God’s self-giving love, and our growth in virtue.

How does Jesus model this for us?

Example 1: Jesus’ Public Preaching Debut (Lk 4:16-30)

Not long after his baptism in the Jordan and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus is given the opportunity for some liturgical preaching in the local synagogue. After the proclamation of the Scripture (which turns out to be from the prophet Isaiah), he declares: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). The assembly hears “gracious words” and Luke reports (literally, in the Greek) that they “witnessed him [Jesus]”–they fully experienced the moment (Lk 4:22). Many English translations give it a positive spin (i.e. “they spoke well of him [Jesus]”), but we see this isn’t quite the case since the hearers want to get rid of Jesus by throwing him off a cliff, and Jesus himself turns to the proverbial wisdom, “no prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Lk 4:23-24).

What can we learn about Jesus’ “customer service”? His hopes for communication here? His heart and concern for the people and situation he enters into?

First, Jesus has Good News. Jesus has a Yes–glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind (Lk 4:1819; Is 61:12; Is 58:6).

But, even when we have a new yes to share, we shouldn’t expect to immediately please everyone. Sometimes in ministry, this can throw us for a loop, causing us to become defensive, cynical, or disheartened–because we’ve got something good, something needed, something that should bring joy and excitement–yet we experience rejection or discord.

Take-away #1: Jesus doesn’t change or soft-pedal his Good News. Though his “gracious” words aren’t well received (because they are grace for the “wrong people,” you know–those outsider, non-believers with a totally different culture) he still shares them.

Take-away #2: Jesus is okay with the fact that his communication for the better leads to “wondering,” confusion, and/or uncertainty. In ministry, we’re being unrealistic if we expect simple agree or disagree responses from those we communicate with. Those who wonder or express confusion aren’t enemies of the cause–they might be in transition, or on the way, if we as communicators continue to reach out to them. If we avoid setting fixed boundaries of “supporters” and “road-blockers” within our organizations.

Take-away #3: Jesus doesn’t verbally, personally confront those who disagree. He expresses the reality of the situation–that challenging words are generally not well received close to home, to those with the greatest perception of “loss” from a change of the status quo–but does not attack anyone personally. Jesus’ heart is for the future conversion, in purely human images, a “customer service” oriented toward the long-term.

Those who heard Jesus’ sermon that day, they might not have been ready for Jesus’ love for them. Yet, Jesus’ interactions with them reveal that he wants to hear them, nonetheless. Jesus wants them to experience being known, even if they’re not ready to accept or agree. It’s a level of “customer service” (to put it mildly!) we can all aim for as we communicate vision, strategy, and more in our ministries.

Why Ministries Need Learning Cultures

Why does ministry inherently lend itself to a learning culture? As Tim Shapiro, president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations, explains:

For a congregation to achieve or accomplish something new, it’s not just a matter of doing something. It’s almost always a matter of learning to do something new. There are many things that happen in a faith community in which something new doesn’t have to be learned. If it’s summertime and the air conditioners need new filters, chances are somebody has done that before. You just have the volunteer do it or call the air conditioning company. The congregation has achieved an objective, as simple as it might be, but they haven’t had to learn to do something new.

If it’s a matter of consequence, congregations don’t just do new things. They learn to do new things — learning that is a durable change of behavior or attitudes or ways of thinking.

For instance, imagine a congregation is seeking to start a new Wednesday evening program. This new program is designed not only for the elementary school children in their congregation but the elementary school children who go to the school two blocks away. It’s the first time the church has reached out to that school. So the congregation is going to need to learn durable new ways of behaving, thinking and feeling about such an endeavor.

howyourcongregationlearns_coverThis idea of behaviors, values, and ways of thinking–that’s culture in a nutshell. This means, to do something new, something of new or great vision, we need the right culture. We can’t avoid it:

Congregations, like most human communities, need to learn how to do new things, just as a family learns new things when an infant enters that system, and corporations that are trying to earn profits have to learn new things to keep up with the markets. Read the rest, here…

Scarcity in Ministry

Does scarcity impact your planning and leadership in ministry?

As Brene Brown explains:

“Scarcity is the ‘never enough’ problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning ‘restricted in quantity’ (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyper aware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking…Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison” (26).

Scarcity in ministry might look like:

  • Ignoring a mission Jesus shares with the Church (i.e. “go and make disciples”), or not engaging in it wholeheartedly, out of fear that “we won’t have enough” for our other ministries
  • Allowing key staff and volunteer ministry leaders to become worn down due to time-demands or structures (i.e. aversion to flex-work schedules, etc.) that create a busyness and stress surrounding time
  • Not dreaming a true vision because “we don’t have enough interested people”
  • Becoming stagnant or inward focused, thinking “we can’t do what we used to do–be meaningful in people’s lives, relevant to the community, etc., because of today’s ‘problems’”

scarcitychapimage-1640Brown continues, “We get scarcity because we live it” (25).

This can and should convict us.

How do we contribute to a “hyper awareness” of lack?

An awareness that allows a “lack” in time, resources, or abilities to become a paralyzing excuse. Our attitudes certainly matter. During his earthly ministry, how often did Jesus operate out of scarcity–a “never enough” mentality? Not too often. And when the Twelve succumbed to the temptation (which happens to us all at times!) Jesus pulled them back. When the twelve disciples said, “dismiss them [the five thousand] so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat,” Jesus Led them away from scarcity to utter confidence and boldness in God’s power acting in their very moment, saying, “Give them some food yourselves” (Mk 6:36-37).

How do we avoid living scarcity?

A compelling clue comes at the very end of Acts of the Apostles. We see the words “boldly” (parresias) and “unhindered.” These are the Evangelist Luke’s final concluding words to us. Recall, this is the same Luke who in his Gospel, filled his early chapters with encouragements to not fear (i.e. Lk 1:75, 2:10). The boldness of the early believers demonstrated throughout the entire book of Acts flows from their trust in and relationship with God. This relationship is alive and possible because of their prayers in the Spirit.

They were led by the Spirit to closer communion with God, and the more I grow in my relationship with Jesus the Lord, the more trusting, confident, and ultimately bold, I will be. And, walking with Jesus, I can see the challenges, see the areas of objective scarcity, but not be “hyper aware,” not be frozen by it, not be dismayed. I can then move from operating out of scarcity, to leading, relating, planning, and ministering with trust and bold confidence in God’s abundance. That God who “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens” desires to share “his own blessed life” with us (Eph 1:3; Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1). This powerful reality should not be hindered by my own temptation of seeing and living scarcity the present.

Assessing Your Catechesis for Evangelization

Assessing (or “measuring”) how you’re doing when it comes to fostering initial and on-going conversion in a ministry is one of the toughest, yet most necessary, processes a leader must continually work through. It’s tough because it involves loving enough to speak the truth, being willing to change beloved techniques or programs that need to evolve, and it’s just plain hard to even develop good metrics or measures to use in assessment.

7-558-living-as-missionary-disciples-cover-150One of the hidden gems within the recently released Living as Missionary Disciples resource from the USCCB is this set of assessment worksheets  designed for use by individuals or small groups (they start around pg. 14 of the .pdf download, aka “pg. 1” of the internal numbering).

Unleashing all of these at once on a team of leaders would likely not be a good strategy. But the potential here is great! These tools could be used to assess existing programs or strategies over a multi-year period, coach and develop catechists, unite staff and key leaders around a vision, or design new initiatives.

They key is to actually use them as a tool, not an end. Assessment is a means to improve what you’re already doing, not an administrative burden that bears little fruit. Assessment without reflection, processing, personal coaching/development of leaders/catechists, and connection to implementation isn’t going to bear fruit. And, it might even be a waste of time. But 🙂 by making the commitment to leverage a great resource like this from the USCCB within your leadership development pipeline and continual planning processes? Now that’s a way to stay grounded and aligned to Jesus’ central mission for us, to go and make disciples (Mt 28:19).

 

Is Your “Church” the Same Age as Your “Parish”?

Torrance CA
What’s the average age of those attending your church?

Is it the same as the average age within your parish ? (Remember, a parish is generally a geographic area–it’s not simply those who attend, but all within a designated area. Think of it as your pre-defined mission field!)

If not, what do you make of this divergence between “registered” or “attending” parishioners and the rest of the parish? For example:

  • Is it good for church attendees to be demographically quite different from those in their surrounding neighborhoods?
  • Is the difference a cause for alarm?
  • Does it evoke a response of hopefulness and opportunity, or defensiveness and fait accompli?

Lee Kricher suggests some basic steps if your registered parishioners are aging way faster than the rest of your geographic parish (and, these would also be useful if, say, your Mass attendees are ethnically, racially, or linguistically different than your parish neighborhoods):

  • Take key staff or lay leaders on “field trips” to healthy churches that have every generation well represented
  • Regularly weave into weekend messages the importance of reaching the next generation
  • Proactively engage church members in one-on-one discussions and conversations in small groups about the importance of becoming agents of change instead of blockers of change
  • Make a commitment to develop young leaders [paraphrase]

What have you seen work (or not work) in terms of practices and spirituality as your church has adapted to and with the parish area surrounding it?

Silos, Sacred Cows, and Ministries Without Alignment for a Vision

Great analysis from Thom Rainer of how we in parish life become too busy, without growing more missionary:

  1. Activities became synonymous with ministry. I am familiar with a missions support group in a church. It includes over 30 people, representing over 20 percent of the weekly worship attendance. The group is very active with fellowships, meetings, and speaker events. But the missions support group has never supported missions, nor have they ever been involved in missions. But they sure are busy.
  2. Programs and ministries are added regularly, but few or none are ever deleted. This reality is glaringly obvious at a church in the Southeast with an average attendance of 60. The church has 15 committees and nearly 30 different programs and ministries throughout the year. They almost have one ministry or program for every member. They add some activity every year, but they never delete the dead or useless activities.
  3. Programs and ministries become sacred cows. They were once the pet project of a particular member or a group of members, alive or deceased. The thought of eliminating the non-functional ministry started by Sister Harriett or Brother Frank 35 years ago is deemed blasphemous.
  4. The alignment question is not asked on the front end. Even a good ministry may not be the best use of time for a church. In one church, the membership voted to initiate a ministry because one person had become a believer through the ministry in another church over a two-year period. But the church members never considered if there might be other ministries that could be more effective and better aligned with the direction of the church.
  5. Silo behavior among the different ministries of the church. A worship ministry in the church began a new ministry that required extensive volunteer help. But the leaders never considered they were hurting other ministries in the church. Members don’t have unlimited time; they have to make choices.
  6. Lack of an evaluation process. Most churches have an annual budgetary process. That is an ideal time to ask tough questions about existing ministries and programs. Very few church leaders take that opportunity.
  7. Ministry becomes facility-centered. In other words, if it’s not happening in the church facilities, it’s not “real” ministry. As a consequence, we keep our members too busy to do ministry outside the walls of the church.
  8. Lack of courageous leadership. It takes courage for a leader to look at the busyness of a church and say “no” or “enough.” Some leaders would rather not rock the boat and, as a consequence, lead a church toward mediocrity and malaise.

Here’s the challenge.

Make a change.

Take up one of these eight “how” statements, and imagine how you could shift your process, re-think assumptions, adjust decision-making structures, communicate with the parish, or whatever it takes, so that all aspects of your ministry are fully aligned with your vision.

Barn and Silos
Silos: Quaint on the horizon, but really, not how we want parish life to be organized. Image: Michael Hart Photography, CC BY ND 2.0

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