By Eddie Pipkin
I warned you in my Christmas parody poem that it would be Easter in no time at all, and here we are less than two weeks away from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Many of us practice the spiritual discipline of giving up something for the Lenten season, and while it is generally some small luxury or indulgence such as chocolate or alcohol or binge-watching Netflix – something that focuses on our own personal spiritual growth – I thought it might be interesting to think more publicly about this natural opportunity: what if we as leaders pledged to forego some of our bothersome habits, practices, routines, and management indulgences, at least as an experiment between now and Easter. It’s a great time to prayerfully consider how some of the ways we interact with our peers, our teams, and those who look to us for guidance, inspiration, and comfort are directly impacted by the leadership techniques we inflict on others.
Here is a list of 8 ideas of things we might give up (as an experiment) for a few weeks, just to see how such changes would affect our relationships:
- Calling people when they are supposed to be “off” work (either after hours or on their designated days off). Of course, there are emergencies in which we are going to need to reach out to our teams to solve problems that just can’t wait or respond to immediate needs, but the problem over time becomes our susceptibility to expanding the boundaries of what a true emergency looks like. It is very easy to erode the lines that separate work from non-work and expect people to accommodate our schedules and interests of the moments. Here’s a chance to show that we truly value their time to recharge.
- Having to have the last word in any conversation. This is a habit borne out of the authority that we are afforded as leaders, and it can lead to bad outcomes: people who are afraid to express their opinions honestly; people who feel like their ideas are never good enough; people who feel like the leader isn’t really interested in what they have to say, just practicing “listening theater.” Let other people get in the last word and boost their sense of value.
- Having to be the “decider.” This action is closely related to that obsession with having the final word. We train people, even when they are competent in their field and clear in their opinion about what should come next, to look to us as the final arbiter of what gets done. Granted, there are some decisions of import for which our authority and wisdom are critical, but like the calling people after work scenario, it’s easy to slip into a mode in which EVERY decision about EVERYTHING requires our sign-off. An organization in which people know they are trusted to competently execute and make decisions (and will be encouraged and supported in doing so) is a much stronger organization.
- Criticizing people directly. Critique, for most of us, is our management starting point. It’s easy to focus on what people are not getting right – to take for granted what they are doing well and dive right into fixing apparent problems. But a culture of constant critique and criticism is a culture that kills souls. Abstaining from it altogether for a limited time is a great exercise in thinking through the necessity and style of critique. It is tough. And it will help us be realistic about just how often this is the way we lead. If you can’t imagine a whole week of abandoning critique (and are paralyzed at the thought of how the organizational ship will run aground in a critique-less world), try alternating days of “critique banned” and “critique allowed.” Even that experiment will make you more thoughtful, purposeful, and careful in interactions.
- Making negative comments in general. Likewise, particularly if we are “people who see a way things could be done better than they are currently being done” by nature, negative comments can become a way of life. This is one of the most effective of Lenten give-ups because it is one of the hardest to maintain for any length of time. It can be a revelation as to how often, as we think and as we open our mouths, we are stating a negative outlook. A more positive world view, ministry view, and people view starts with a different approach. (Negative comments for emergencies only.)
- Insisting on our privilege. We all do it. We are all entitled to deference by virtue of our leadership positions, and it is very easy to get very comfortable with that kind of deference and the many overt and subtle forms it can assume. This is a great mindfulness exercise to take on unilaterally (in one’s prayer journal, for instance), with peers, or by asking your staff members or volunteers, “In what ways do you see or have you seen deference offered to me as a leader?” This is not positioned as an inherently bad development – but it’s worth notating and thinking about. And for the purposes of this Lenten experiment, actively resisting it, so that we might learn more about just how much we expect such deference and just how much it colors our decision making and perspective.
- Making jokes at the expense of others. This is often a subtle (maybe even passive aggressive) manner of making a negative commentary about someone, couching it in supposedly good-natured humor while making a clear statement. I am always appalled at this technique when practiced by leaders in a public setting such as worship. For instance, the tech crew makes a mistake, and the leader calls them out with a joke (like “Oh, well, I guess the tech crew was busy playing Minecraft during the service again” or something like that). It’s an understandable impulse, because it’s embarrassing as a leader to be caught out uncomfortably because of someone else’s mistake, but it’s the kind of thing that we mentally prepare for, and we should never throw our team members (staff or volunteers) under the bus, putting them in a position of shame. Our role is to encourage them (and reassure them when necessary).
- Deferring to our favorites. We all have them: people whom we really like, whose opinions we really value. They are the ones we turn to over and over. Too much of this can create a closed circle of “who’s in” and a distributing sense of “who’s out” that weakens ministry – it can weaken both the cohesiveness and shared purpose of the team, and it can literally weaken the ministry by narrowing the variety of ideas and perspectives that are allowed into the decision-making process. Therefore, during Lent, try actively demoting your favorites for a bit (if you’re really comfortable and honest with your inner circle, you can even tell them that’s what you are doing). Let other people get to be the first to whisper in your ear or make a presentation or get their idea championed.
Of course, there has also been a movement to flip the script on the idea of giving something up for Lent to instead take on a new productive and positive habit during the Lenten season. This could also be applied to a leadership initiative, so here are 8 ideas for that approach:
- Giving other people the credit. Here’s a twist on deferring the privilege and praise with which we leaders are often celebrated. Actively deflect it by loudly and proudly (in person and in print and online) giving the credit to someone else or several someones who are an integral part of making the ministry magic happen.
- Sending thank you notes. This is an old-school version of sharing the credit and a time-honored tactile method of expressing gratitude and appreciation. It makes other people feel giddy with acknowledgement, and it makes us mindful of our blessings. Write and send one or two or five during every day of Lent, and it will develop a discipline of lasting impact and help dig deep into the psyche of who is adding to the value of your ministry life.
- Handing other people the microphone. As leaders, we do love to talk! Admit it! We have things to say, and we love saying them! What if we practiced a few weeks of consciously giving the floor to others to share their thoughts and express themselves? We could let others speak, let others share their visions, let others witness to their own perspectives, and let others teach what they know. Exciting developments may develop! And we might even learn a few things ourselves in the process.
- Calling somebody new. Whether it’s with our favorites or just the people who are well-practiced at demanding our attention, we tend to talk to the same roster of folks week in and week out, all year long. What if we made a concerted effort to have new conversations with new folks? What if we developed a Lenten-based discipline of expanding our conversations through phone calls and emails with people who will be surprised to hear from us?
- Doing the essential chores. We can clean toilets, set up chairs, fold bulletins, count the offering, and redecorate the bulletin board, too. What if we volunteered to do some of the grunt work in ministry as a way to acknowledge its value (to the people who normally do those essential chores) and a way to remember how hard those behind-the-scenes folks are working to lay the groundwork for your inspiring, essential leadership. Lots of opportunities for “Brother Lawrence moments” in this approach.
- Hanging out in unfamiliar places. A corollary to doing unexpected chores is to hang out in ministry places where people will be surprised to see you. In fact, that’s a great way to get started, by asking, in all humility, “Where would people be shocked to see me if I dropped in unexpectedly?” Here are some clues: How about in an online, ongoing Zoom study? How about in a children’s Sunday School class? It’s a wonderful exposure to make time to visit every corner of ministry to see things from the ground’s-eye view. If this seems like an improbable scheduling option, consider this: try swapping out a supposedly essential meeting or two for a visit to the ministry hinterlands – remembering that these relational outposts might seem like the hinterlands to us leadership superstars, but each and every one is a primary point of life-sustaining connection for somebody.
- Taking on an unexpected job. This differs from the “nasty chores” suggestion in that involves assignments that requires some preparation, such as leading the middle school youth breakout group or leading one of those aforementioned Zoom Bible studies for one session. Doing so confers value on both the leader and the participants in a way that builds goodwill (and, as noted previously, in a way that reminds us to value the work that others on our teams are doing week in and week out).
The purpose of such exercises, of course, is to make us thoughtful about our words, actions, and attitudes. As with all such disciplines, they help us reconnect with our ministry values and reappreciate the faithfulness of others to whom we owe so much.
What are some ideas you have for things you, as a leader, might experiment with giving up for Lent or, conversely, adding in as a new habit to help you rethink your normal perspective? If nothing immediately springs to mind, think about it from the perspective of something you might like to see someone else in your circle try out (to give up or to add on)? What do you think might be different for you and your ministry by Easter if you embraced one or more of these challenges?