By Eddie Pipkin

I was stranded trying to get home this week when my Jeep gave up the ghost in Georgia, where I’d been helping family for a few days.  I was already a day behind schedule, delayed due to wrapping up some promised projects, and I was anxious to get back to Orlando and complete a slew of jobs at my own house before the Thanksgiving horde descends next week.  Alas, it was not to be.  Boom, went the Jeep, and I found myself at my retired mom’s house way out in the country with the world’s slowest Internet connection and nothing on her agenda but Hallmark Christmas movies all day long.  Not my plan.  But in life (as in ministry), sometimes the best option is to be fully present with the people and the places where you unexpectedly find yourself, and be grateful for the opportunity.

Maybe you’re a Hallmark Christmas movie fan.  Maybe you’re not!  They are such a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon that you know what they are whether you like them or not: they’re cinematic comfort food, filled with snow and happy endings.  As for myself, I’ve been on a “like//don’t like” progression the past few years, as far as Hallmark Christmas movies go.  I spent years rolling my eyes at them, then I begrudgingly (and snarkily) watched a few with my wife, then I began to appreciate them for what they are.  Of course, they are polarizing.  People who love them, love them, and people who don’t are vocal about their disdain.

This kind of disdain can apply to ministry as well as movies, and it’s all too common for ministry leaders to roll their eyes at ministries that aren’t their cup of tea.  We have our passions and pet projects, and we can be dismissive of things that aren’t in that wheelhouse.  This can be overt.  It can more often be subtle or even subconscious.  But you can be sure that the people who are on the neglected end of the ministry spectrum are fully aware that theirs is not the favored program.

This past Tuesday, I was supposed to be back at the home base after a week away helping other people with their projects.  I had a full slate of priorities, and I was eager to start checking those boxes.  Spending the entire day on the couch with my mom watching feel-good holiday fare was a world away from my carefully crafted plan, but there I was.  I could have been grumpy about the way the day unfolded – I could have been all high-and-mighty about sealing myself off in another room of the house and getting some important work done – but, frankly, I haven’t hung out with my mom as much lately as I have been meaning to do – she’s had some recent health challenges – and so, here we were, doing the day her way.  I decided to lean into it, and what a delightful day of Hallmark bonding we had.  If you’re in on something, there’s no point of being anything but all the way in: steaming mugs of hot chocolate and cozy blankets, and lots of discussion during the commercial breaks about what Christmases were like for her as a kid.  Not only did we spend the day together, fully present with one another, but I heard a lot of stories I’d never heard before.  I imagine that in the years ahead when I think back on that day, it will be one that I treasure.

As for you ministry leaders, here’s the take-home lesson.  The holiday season is busy, busy, busy, and filled with assignments, commitments, and obligations that – be honest – you’d rather avoid.  But this season, especially on the heels on an interminable period in which we we’ve all been isolated and forcibly detached, take a different approach: lean into those dreaded scenarios with gratitude.  Commit yourself to each one with gusto and an open heart for what you may receive.  Sure, you might not personally look forward to breakfast with Santa or making Christmas tree ornaments from cookie dough or the women’s group “history of Christmas traditions around the world” presentation, but get down on your knees with some five-year-olds and take your best shot at a cookie dough reindeer.  Hang out with some people you don’t normally spend a lot of time with, seeing the world and the season through their eyes.  You’ll be blessed.  Stop by a Christmas recital practice (or even better, sing along).  Make an appearance at the youth Christmas party – you don’t have to stay for the whole thing – but then again, what if you picked a couple of events to not only swoop in to act as the Holy Emcee, but went whole hog, helping to set up beforehand and even clean up after.  That’s an intimate and powerful way to bond with key volunteers.  That’s a way to have natural, long conversations, as the tables are decorated, or the dishes are washed.

It is so easy as leaders to get caught up in only seeing ministry from the helicopter level, the eagle’s eye overview.  Think of the way that Jesus involved himself in the intimate details of people’s lives, not from an office at which they visited him after scheduling an appointment, but because he met then where they were in the details of their day-to-day activities.  Let us be grateful for those opportunities.  Let us embrace them.

In a holy coincidence, when I finally made it home and went for my afternoon run, the podcast in the queue was from my pals at Hidden Brain, an episode called “The Obstacles You Don’t See.”  It’s part of their current Work 2.0 series, and it’s worth a listen.  The topic was the way that we miss hidden hinderances to the implementation of our plans.  Here’s the episode blurb: “Introducing new ideas is hard. Most of us think the best way to win people over is to push harder. But organizational psychologist Loran Nordgren says a more effective approach is to focus on the invisible obstacles to new ideas.”  In it they set up a contrast between fuel and friction when it comes to bringing new ideas to life or getting people to engage in the things we so desperately want them to engage in.  Fuel is when we work harder and harder to encourage and incentivize people to get involved.  Friction accounts for the factors that are holding them back from involvement.

We are so trained as ministry leaders to pile on the fuel that we often miss the friction side of the equation.  We have a new program or a new study we want to promote, and we become convinced that if we have a better marketing campaign, if we guilt people into participation, if we have rewards for getting involved, if we talk about the new thing ad nauseum, we can get them to buy in.  We miss the sometimes small roadblock that, even if they like the idea of what we are doing, keeps them from participating.  And here’s the idea that ties back to the first part of this blog – it’s a quote from the Hidden Brain podcast that stopped me in my tracks:

The fuel part of the equation comes naturally to us as a reflex for solving a problem, but the friction part of the equation requires research.  It requires listening carefully, understanding what people are experiencing, and seeing the world through their eyes.

That’s where we double back to being grateful for unplanned (or personally unexciting) opportunities to spend time with people doing things that are important to them.  In these moments, in which we fully give of our time and attention to enjoy what they’re enjoying and we briefly live life through their eyes, we can know them more fully and more completely understand the nuances of their motivations, as well as some of the things, maybe even the one critical thing, that is holding them back from aligning their priorities with ours.

The Hidden Brain crew leads off the podcast episode with a great example about this fuel vs. friction dilemma that involves the development of instant cake mixes.  Flour mills had come up with a way to include the many ingredients of a cake in one handy box, but the sales never caught on until a research psychologist figured out that housewives loved the convenience of the mixes but felt guilty that they weren’t really producing “homemade” cakes.  So, the manufacturers tweaked the recipe slightly, leaving out the powdered eggs and promoting a recipe that required the baker to add their own fresh eggs, and, voila, the cake mix boxes started flying off the shelves.

We ministry leaders have a lot of outstanding ideas that, despite our hard work and the conviction of Spirit-led inspiration, never quite fly off the shelves.  Maybe we’re missing a hidden obstacle to people embracing our ideas.  And maybe part of the reason we are missing that obstacle is that we are not spending enough time with them in everyday ministry settings.  So, let’s be grateful for those occasions when they arrive in the coming weeks and use them as a way to lean into knowing our flocks and their passions better.

By the way . . . the popularity of Hallmark Christmas movies offers a valuable insight into one of the roles that local churches can play during the holiday season.  People love those movies because people are looking for traditional themes and spiritual comfort food, a little nostalgia and lot of familiar customs.  The structural elements and plot points of a Hallmark Christmas movie are so familiar and unchanging that you can play bingo with one as you watch.  The fans are adamant that the format should not be tampered with.  Likewise, in local churches, the season of Advent is not the time for a lot of experimental, avant-garde reimagining of the traditional holiday elements.  Definitely mix some of that in for worship and events that are clearly branded as an opportunity for looking at the holidays with a new perspective, but for those key community-facing events (the ones the Creasters like to attend, like Christmas Eve) give them the comfort and tradition they seek.

How is your attitude about getting side-tracked with unexpected detours to spend time with people who aren’t on your schedule?  How do you approach the upcoming required commitments of the holiday season?  With a begrudging heart or a heart open to relationship possibilities?  What techniques does your ministry employ to seek out the hidden obstacles that might keep people from engaging with what you have to offer?