By Eddie Pipkin

I love looking at things closely, analyzing the details.  (It’s a practice that feels faithful to last week’s blog about creative curiosity like Leonardo da Vinci lived out.)  But practiced a little too intensely, it can also get you into trouble, as I learned much to my embarrassment last Thursday afternoon.  I was out for my run in the neighborhood, and I noticed some bright orange spray-painted circles on the sidewalk.  They were uniform in appearance and placement in each of the sidewalk sections on which they appeared, bright dots marking what?  A property survey?  A race course?  A scavenger hunt?  Wait, no—as I turned the corner and noted segments marked, sometimes in sequence, sometimes seemingly randomly –they were marking sidewalk squares that were about to be replaced!

I did not get this immediately because the first segments I noticed were not obvious trouble spots.  A little later on my route, there were some of those infamous trip hazards where the roots were pushing up the concretes.  But some of the segments had much more subtle damage, a corner worn down here, a crack forming there.  Go ahead and laugh at how easily entertained I am—I had questions!  Were those marks made with just a spray can or some more complicated device?  Did even the smallest crack result in replacement?  Is there one guy whose full-time job is to walk the sidewalks of the city, marking bad segments like a reverse Johnny Appleseed?  Then laugh a little harder when I confess that as I passed over this same stretch of marked sidewalk on my return trip, I was so intensely focused on those luminescent markings and my obsessive questions that I tripped right over one of the root-distorted patches . . . and dramatically face-planted.  (I’m okay—only scrapes and bruises, thanks for asking.)

Before I could get fully to my feet and wipe the blood off, I was, of course, thinking, “Blog idea!”

Actually, two blog ideas, one related to over-focusing on the details and one to the safety-conscious discipline of routine sidewalk repair.

First, here’s a good leadership lesson:

Do not get so focused on the details that you lose all sight of what really matters and end up crashing.

It is good to be interested in the details.  It is good to be curious about the intricate elements that ultimately compose the big picture, but one can take this practice too far, and the results can lead to more than skinned knees.

  • Too much time in the weeds obsessing over every single detail of a project or program can bring the process of creation grinding to a halt. Everyone reading this blog has been a part of a meeting (or dozens of meetings) in which the whole process of planning gets sidetracked by a micro-discussion about what color the tablecloths should be.  Whenever this happens, it is an evidence of unfocused leadership (yours of whoever is responsible for running the meeting).  Step one for avoiding weedy detours is making sure everybody knows who is running the meeting—in an astonishing number of ministry meetings, this is not clearly defined.  Step two is to have a clear agenda with specified action items to be accomplished.  Step three is to embrace the power of delegation.  Team members should be trusted with responsibility, and one of the demonstrations of this trust is to hand off weedy details to others.
  • Another aspect of sessions that veer off into the weeds is that we can get totally out of whack as to what is important and what’s not. Reference the above tablecloth discussion and remember the time when an issue like that one became the be-all-and-end-all debate that eclipsed everything else.  Sides were chosen.  Relationships were fractured.  Eyes were rolled.  As Stephen Cover reminds us, we should “keep the main thing the main thing.”  (Granted, my own recent plummet to earth got me a much closer look at the orange dots, but was it really worth it?  Really?)
  • An obsession with too many details (too much micromanaging) by the leader can demoralize the team. It can easily become a bad version of “Yes, but what about . . .” or a fixation on the 5% of things that didn’t go right as opposed to the 95% of things that did.  Get the big things right (having determined what the appropriate big things are) and delegate the small things.

Secondly, this experience was a great reminder of how important thoughtful, regular, unsung maintenance can be to the safe and enjoyable use of any system.  Lots of sincere ministry efforts are undermined by lack of maintenance to basic underlying support systems.  Let’s say, for example, that you have been working with your local congregation to establish a vision of supporting your neighborhood school.  You’ve met numerous times with a core group of people who are excited about this vision and are ready to carry it forward with action.  Here are some of the support systems that are going to help that initiative succeed or flounder:

  • Communications.  One of the killers for modern ministry is out-of-date or incomplete online communications portals.  Is your website information accurate and timely?  Are your social media feeds fresh?  When a person—who has perhaps caught some inkling of your ministry excitement in a conversation—checks for more info online (just like we all automatically check for everything these days), what will they find?  Will they be even more energized and directed easily to participate or will they be frustrated?  Can they easily link other people to this opportunity?
  • Giving.  Okay, the person above checked out your nascent ministry and loves it!  She can’t participate with her presence right now, but she’s excited about generously supporting it financially.  Is this something she can do quick and easily with her smartphone (and link other people to effortlessly)?  Or do you have to email her instructions about how to write a paper check and deliver it by bicycle courier on the third Wednesday of the month during the four hours that day the church lady is in the office and scheduled to be receiving checks?
  • Engagement tools. How easy or difficult is it for this inspired wannabe ministry participant to engage with the logistics of involvement?  Do you have a straightforward, easy-to-use sign-up process?  Is there an easy way to ask questions (and a dependable, timely process for getting them answered)?  Is there a map?  Do you already have a system set up for text updates as the event gets closer?

All of these systems are an important form of support ministry that gives leaders and participants the tools they need to move toward success.  If you don’t have them in place, get to work on them (because right now you live on one of those streets with no sidewalks, where everybody is forced to walk everywhere in traffic).  By the way, the development of these systems is an outstanding way to engage new ministry partners who might not be the extroverts we send out for hands-on assignments, but they may love working behind the scenes.

Even if you have done the good work of setting up such systems, it is important to have a process for keeping them maintained and fully functional.   A familiar frustration of wannabe ministry participants is working up the nerve to take the participation leap, only to find out the sidewalk is filled with potholes and stumblebumps.  Someone should have the job of routinely inspecting these areas to check for functionality.  This cannot be a random process.  It has to be part of the disciplined “to do” list of ministry maintenance.  Very often, where technical issues such as websites and social media are concerned, we put all our eggs in the basket of creative construction—of getting the thing launched—with no plan for how it will be maintained.

And when you’re thinking about how to set up such maintenance systems, here’s a note on the summer slow season (which may be temporarily ignored by you youth leaders, who are up to your eyeballs at the moment).  For many ministry areas, things slow down in the summer, and we are prone to do as little as possible so that we can recharge the batteries, so to speak.  But this is an excellent time to do maintenance projects.  They certainly don’t fit well in the chaos of busier liturgical seasons.  A slower pace creates space for carving out some time to review these systems.

Do you have some insights for keeping out of the weeds and for keeping true to the maintenance of your ministry systems?  Share them with us.  Meanwhile, happy trails, and wherever your sidewalk leads you, “Vaya con Dios.”