By Eddie Pipkin

It’s resolution time, like it or not!  (Some of you love it, and some of you hate it, and for Methodists it’s a tradition anchored in John Wesley’s glorious Covenant Renewal Service all the way back in 1740 and a no-brainer for a denomination which values the principle of “moving on to perfection.”)  We make personal commitments to improvement (my annual cycle of 10-pounds-on, get-the-10-pounds-back-off commitment to holiday feasting and feast-repentance), and hopefully, we’ll collaborate on some institutional goals for 2021, but I wanted to concentrate in this space on some goals we as leaders can undertake to make life easier and more fulfilling for the teams that support us (that tight circle of ministry partners that the young folks would identify as their “squad”).

A note before proceeding to your bullet-pointed listicle: It is insanity to try to do all of things listed here, or all the things you are reading about as potential 2021 resolutions in all the blogs you’re reading this week, or all the things you are brainstormimg (with artistic flair!) in your bullet journal.  Pick one or two and concentrate on those!  It is always amazing how sustained effort in one area will lead to all sorts of spin-off effects in other areas – it’s enough to make a person think it’s the concentrated effort, thoughtfulness, and engagement that matter the most (as opposed to the specific goals).

And now, for the last time in 2020, your bullet-pointed listicle (formulated from hundreds of observations of real ministry leaders and the kinds of adjustable behaviors that can have the greatest impacts on teams):

  • Start and End Meetings on Time: Ah, the multiplied positive effects of a commitment to this seemingly impossible leadership decision (so many positive effects that they almost demand their own independent listicle).  Starting and ending on time communicates respect, denotes organization and preparation, models efficiency, and promotes clarity.  Starting on time shows your team members that you value their time as much as you want them to value yours.  Ending on time shows that you have a plan and can stay on task to address the issues at hand without wandering too far afield into the weeds.
  • Say Twice as Many Positive Things as Negative: Leadership metrics can measure all manner of things – productivity goals, boxes checked off, accolades accumulated – but sometimes generalized goals can pay enormous dividends.  Here’s a goal that is both amorphous and rigorously specific.  It doesn’t come with a mandatory strategy for how and when you say those positive things.  It’s a moral goal that lends itself to creative application (and, really, it relies on reducing negativity, while acknowledging that it’s necessary sometimes to say something that can be perceived as negative, but that fact of life should not be the central vibe of your leadership style).  It’s a gut-check metric – think about how applying it during your routine Daily Examen might change your relationship with any number of people.
  • Communicate Clearly and Often: We do wish our lives were filled with mind readers.  Wouldn’t that be convenient (or then again, perhaps horrifying)?  The alternative, designed to alleviate miscommunication, misunderstandings, and mistakes is to take the initiative for providing frequent, crystal clear communiques.  Written communication is paramount where clarity is concerned, and many leaders would be well-served to choose for their New Year’s resolution a commitment to better, more frequent written instructions.  This includes not only emails that state positions, give directives, and ask for feedback, but also communications that preview meetings beforehand (giving people time to chew on ideas and do internal brainstorming before getting to meetings) and communications that recap meetings and one-on-one conversations (insuring that everybody’s on the same page – because too often, even after sessions filled with great discussion and a spirit of productive cooperation, it becomes painfully apparent that what we thought was in alignment was not).  A corollary to this resolution is to be explicit about our expectations for people.  If we haven’t been crystal clear about our expectations, we can’t get upset when they are not met.
  • Establish a Culture of Rest and Rejuvenation: Leaders lead, and if you are the perfectionist heroic type who never takes a day off, never slows down, never says no to anything, never settles for “good enough,” and always pushes for more, more, more, your team sees that as the model for how you want them to be.  This is a glide path to disaster.  Even if you are so high-energy and so laser-focused that constant, high-intensity work is your happy place, you have to set a visible example for the people on your team (most of whom will not share your mania for nonstop work, work, work).  Surprise them by letting them off the hook for an assignment now and again or even a surprise weekend off.
  • Choose a Safe Word: Give your team members a non-confrontational way to call you out when you’ve gone off the deep end – a word or phrase they can say that lets you know they think it’s time for you back off and calm down.  This is best done with a little humor involved – perhaps a line that recalls a funny anecdote from your shared ministry adventures.  It is a commitment to humility and a tribute to trust that will build confidence in your team.
  • Let People Fail: We need more failure in our ministries, because there is no better metric for whether or not we are trying to innovate.  Trust people to do the jobs to which you have assigned them.  Don’t micro-manage.  Give them permission to push to the limits of their capabilities as an acknowledgement of your expectation that they will keep learning and growing.
  • Train People Better: People are eager to do things and they want to do them well – it’s up to us to give them the skill set to do what we’ve given them permission to do.  This is one of the biggest challenges that Phil and I regularly see in ministry.  Grand plans are hatched, and team members are eager to bring those plans to fruition, but rarely are those team members given training for the discrete skills that promote the likelihood of success.  It’s as if we expect the Holy Spirit to sweep in and fill those gaps, when the truth is that God has given us all the resources to equip our teams for the missions they have been assigned.
  • Get Off the ‘Cult of Personality’ Train: It’s up to us to make sure that it’s not all about us.  It feels good as people look to us for leadership and acknowledge our gifts, but the truest mark of an effective leader is that if we were unable to be there in person tomorrow, the team we have built could move forward with the mission.  We should regularly practice the skill of deflecting the attention and focus from us and onto our team members, volunteers, and the people who are serving from the heart.  We should reinforce in people respect for the process, not the person (except, of course, the person and presence of Jesus).

For more conventional reading on setting goals and forming resolutions, check out this article from the squad at Planet Money: “How To Make a New Year’s Resolution” (it’s a recap of research that’s been conducted about what makes a resolution stick – and what doesn’t – including the counter-intuitive insight that vague goals are, in fact, more effective in producing lasting results than super-concrete goals with lots of feedback, perhaps because the latter can result in too much negative feedback).  And it includes a quote too good not to share about the way resolutions can go wrong (in a pandemic year):

But even the best New Year’s resolutions can go sideways. In November, stand-up comedian Robyn Schall shared on Instagram what her New Year’s resolutions had been looking ahead to 2020. You know, before the coronavirus pandemic. She poured a glass of wine and opened up a journal listing her goals. “Goal 1: Make more money (I’ve been unemployed since March),” she said. “Travel more. Lose weight. Be more social. I wrote, ‘Cry less.’ I’ve cried every single day of this whole pandemic.”

As for John Wesley’s love for resolutions, alas, they are resolutely earnest, perhaps even excessively dour and unachievably strict and humorless for our modern ears.  Here are the four recorded in his journal for 1738:

  1. Absolute openness in his relationships.
  2. Absolute seriousness always – no wasteful levity or laughter.
  3. No worldly talk – only speech that glorified God at all times.
  4. Continual gratitude and only pleasures which contributed to the glory of God.

I don’t have a report from the following year which shares his evaluation on how he did, but in the spirit of “moving on to perfection” it is assured that there was (and is) always room for improvement!

What goals have you been contemplating for the new year?  Are they focused on making your own life easier and more fulfilling OR are they focused on doing those things for the team you lead?  And, hey, isn’t focusing on the second a likely path to results in the first?  Share your own inspirations for how to kick off this long anticipated turning of the calendar page in our comments section.