Not Enough Time? Synergize

Here is the lightly edited video transcript:

Hi, I’m Jack Shitama. Do you feel pressed for time? Most people I know feel like they have too much to do and too little time to do it. One of the things that you can do to make your life more productive is to synergize.

Now I know that’s a buzz word, like “I don’t have enough bandwidth” or “I’m going to reach out” or “we need to drill down,” but the term synergy was actually coined as a productivity term by Stephen Covey several decades ago, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

What Covey meant was “two heads are better than one.” He was talking about teamwork and the fact that when people work together they can achieve more than they could individually. But he also talked about synergy as combining important activities to get the most out of our time.

So, I mentioned in the previous post that I meditate while I run. Meditation helps me spiritually. Running helps me physically and emotionally. When I do those together I get more out of that same time block. I also pray when I’m in the hot tub. Well, most mornings. As long as it’s not raining or really windy, when I get up I’m feeling sore because I exercise a lot, my body is aging and so I get in the hot tub. It makes my body feel better and prayer gets me grounded spiritually.

Another thing I do is I listen to podcasts while I’m driving. I have a 45-minute commute to and from work. I used to listen to sports radio all the time. What I realized was that knowing who all the free agents that my team could sign or knowing the prospects for their top draft pick wasn’t really adding a lot of value to my life. So I started listening to audio books and podcast and they have helped me to grow in a variety of ways.

I heard about a man who walks his daughter to and from school each day. It’s a 15 minute walk. So think about this. He’s getting an hour of exercise, 30 minutes round trip in the morning and in the evening each. He’s spending 30 minutes of quality time with his daughter each day. He’s also spending 30 minutes of alone time when he’s walking either to school in the evening or from school in the morning.

So what do you do to synergize in your life? What can you do? If you’ll post what you do already in the comment section, I think that would help each of us to get better in making the most out of our lives. And if you have other ideas that you want to try and you want to share with others to give you more accountability, post that too.

When it comes down to it, being effective in life is not about been efficient, it’s about making the right choices. It’s about focusing on the right things. And synergy helps us to do that. Go with God and be with God.

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Three Ways to Meditate to Connect with God

I’ve included the following links to help you go deeper.

Here is a great explanation of Contemplation or Christian Meditation

This explains contemplating scripture in the Ignatian tradition.

Here is the transcript. Even though it is lightly edited, it will still read more like a discussion and less like formal writing.

I’m Jack Shitama. I’m going to share with you about meditation and how it can help us to connect with God. We know that even as little as 10 minutes a day of meditation can increase our ability to focus. It can reduce stress and anxiety. It can help us to better control our emotions and help us to think more creatively. In the Christian tradition, meditation, or what is often called contemplative prayer, is really a way that we deepen our connection to God.

Each of the three ways I’m going to share with you today has two common elements. One is deep breathing. Deep breathing is a practice that actually can be helpful throughout our daily lives. Any time that we might feel anxious or frustrated or angry, we can stop and breathe deeply for just a little while. It actually has a physical effect on us and helps us to release stress. So deep breathing is breathing deeply into the diaphragm, filling the belly and then exhaling fully. Meditation or contemplation includes deep breathing however you do it.

The other element is having an objective of reaching a deeper state of consciousness that goes outside of ourselves. It helps us, ultimately, to see things as they are, not through our own biases. It’s trying to see things as God sees them. It doesn’t necessarily happen in the meditation time. It may, but the more that we meditate in this way, the more that we are focused on God and able to see things outside our own biased viewpoint.

The first type of meditation is called centering prayer. It’s sometimes called breath prayer because as we’re breathing out we’re uttering a phrase. So you chose a short phrase that’s focused on God. It might be, “Lord, have mercy” or “Not my will, but yours.” As you’re breathing in, you’re breathing in God. As you’re exhaling out, you’re exhaling out yourself and you’re uttering the phrase. You do that over and over and again. You breathe in and then as you’re breathing out you utter your phrase. You can do that silently or you can do it audibly. Depending on where you are, you may feel comfortable with doing it audibly or you might just do it in your mind.

Either way, you are focused on God. And you’re saying that phrase in an intentional way that’s really connecting you more deeply to God. If your mind wanders it’s okay. That happens often in meditation. The idea is that when your mind wanders you bring it back to your phrase, to focusing on God. This is actually a form of meditation called mindfulness. It’s designed to help you focus more effectively.

The second form of contemplation or meditation is called contemplating scripture. When I did the last post about intercessory prayer and meditation, my wife said “What about scripture? Scripture is also a foundation of leadership.” This is where scripture is included in meditation.

One of the more well-known ways to do this is called Lectio Divina. It’s contemplating the word of God. The way you do it is to start by reading a passage of scripture. You sit silently breathing deeply and you contemplate that phrase, looking for a word or even a sentence that jumps out at you. You contemplate the passage and you’re looking for that word or phrase that jumps out at you. You don’t have to interpret it; it’s just what stands out.

After you do that, you read the passage again. This time as you’re listening to it you are asking, “What does this mean to me now? What am I hearing God say to me?” You can stop there or you can read it a third time and you can ask the question, “What will I do with this now? But in either case, however you do it, you’re focusing on the scripture and, as you’re breathing deeply, you’re asking God to enlighten you, to help interpret the scripture for you.

Another way of contemplating scripture is called Gospel contemplation. This is a little different in that you’re trying to really enter or engage the passage. I actually did this practice at a retreat that I was leading a few weeks ago. Another pastor led the exercise. We started with five minutes of silence, then we read the passage. We listened to the passage and then spent 20 minutes of silence entering into or engaging the passage. Depending on who you are, you may view the passage like a movie. We were doing a passage with Jesus and Peter in the boat with Peter’s fishing nets. I was picturing it like I was watching a movie. Or you might actually enter into the story and be in the boat with them. You might be in the passage with them. In either case, you’re engaging the scripture in a way that invites you to really experience it and then take away meaning from it.

Finally, the third form of meditation or contemplation is called practicing the presence of God. The idea is not to focus in on a particular thing but to really open up and just let the presence of God be with you. It’s really about surrender. It’s about surrendering yourself to God. Hopefully, you are creating a deeper awareness of the greatness of God and the presence of God in your life. Instead of avoiding thoughts, you’re allowing thoughts to come into your mind. When they do you offer them to God.

This is actually the form that I practice most often. When something comes into my mind that enlightens or illuminates me I say “Thank you, God.” When something comes into my mind and I realize maybe I messed up or something that I need to do but I’m not sure, I say “Help me, God.” And so in those ways, I’m offering those things back to God. It really helps me in discernment. It helps me to have my deepest and most creative thoughts in a way that helps me to attribute them to God and to help me follow God.

In all of these ways, even though people practice in a certain way, you need to find a way that will work for you best. I’ll confess to you that I actually do the third one, but I do it while I’m running. My eyes aren’t closed, but I’m breathing deeply. I am focused on my breath. It’s  the time that works best for me. We’re all busy. This happens to work best for me. My wife, Jodi, does it while she’s in her car. She has an hour commute each way to and from work. She doesn’t close her eyes but she does allow God to enter into her thoughts.

Whatever works for you is what’s going to make the difference. Because if it works for you, that means you’re going to be able to do it regularly. And when you do it regularly that’s when it’s going to be most effective.

This is a hint about the next post, which is going to be on synergy. Synergy is when you’re able to do two different things that have two different purposes and bring them together at the same time. For me, running has the purpose of helping me physically and emotionally. But, because I’m meditating it’s helping me spiritually, as well. Until next time, I hope you can take the time to meditate daily. I know you’ll find it makes a difference. Go with God and be with God.

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The Spiritual Foundation for Leadership

I mentioned a blog post in the video about developing habits. Here’s the link.

So I’m doing more video, but I realize that some of you may prefer to read the post. So here is the transcript. Please keep in mind that it is verbatim, so it won’t read like a term paper. Thanks!

Hey, it’s Jack Shitama. Today I want to talk to you about the spiritual foundation for leadership. I’m going to read to you from Luke, Chapter 5 verses 15-16.

“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad. Many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”

So here is Jesus, his ministry is expanding, people are flocking to him to hear him preach and to be healed. And what does he do? He takes off to pray. So if Jesus decides that he’s not going to try to do it all, what makes us think that we should? What makes us think that we can do it all? If we’re honest with ourselves we can’t. When you get up in the morning and your feet hit the floor are you go, go, go, go, go because there is so much to do and you’re trying to get it all done? Well that’s a natural feeling that we just have to move faster to accomplish everything.

Martin Luther, the reformer, famously said “I’m so busy that I’m going to have to pray for three hours to get it all accomplished.” See prayer is counter-intuitive. Stopping and connecting with God doesn’t make sense to us because we have so much to do. So when we get up in the morning we’re just drawn to get going, when really we should be stopping to connect with God.

I want to talk to you about two specific kinds of prayer today that I believe are the foundation for spiritual leadership. The first is intercessory prayer. Now most of us pray and when we pray we often are asking for things for ourselves. And that’s okay, but intercessory prayer is lifting others up, is asking on behalf of others, it’s interceding for others.

Picture Jesus when he’s gone off to pray. Do you think he’s saying, “Lord please take these people away from me, I just can’t handle it.” Or is he saying, “Lord, I feel for these people who are hurting and broken?” You see that’s what intercessory prayer does. When we lift others up, it gives us the heart of God. It takes us outside of ourselves and makes us less absorbed. It makes us more grateful for the people in our lives and puts our own situations in perspective. Intercessory prayer gives us the heart of God.

Another form of prayer that I think is practiced less by Christians is meditation. And if intercessory prayer gives us the heart of God, meditation gives us the mind of God. There are many different ways to do meditation but essentially meditation is about listening to God. It’s about opening ourselves up and allowing the Holy Spirit to overtake us, to work in us and to guide us. So that we know, we can discern what we should be doing, what God what’s us to do.

Podcaster Tim Ferriss’ most recent book is Tools of Titans and over the last couple years he’s interviewed over 200 top performers from all over the world. And what he says is that almost without exception each of these top performers meditates daily. The Harvard Business Review has an article that helps us to understand actually what goes on within us and how meditation can actually help us. This article tells us that meditation reduces anxiety and increases our ability to handle stressful situations. It increases our ability to control our own emotions, so that when something frustrates us or angers us we are better able to cope and instead of responding with our own anxiety and anger we can respond with grace and with love. Meditation actually encourage what’s called divergent thinking, where we are considering multiple opportunities, multiple possibilities and it opens up the possibility for the, “Aha!” moment. And meditation increase our ability to focus, so that during the rest of the day when we’re actually trying to accomplish task we’re actually more effective, we’re more focused. And most importantly when we meditate daily, because we’re more able to focus, we’re better able to be present in our relationships.

You see, I believe that God created us in this way. God created us so that when we stop and take time to connect with God we get the heart and the mind of God. And if these top performers, many who are not Christians, have figured out this spiritual practice shouldn’t we who are Christian leaders be doing the same?

So if you are interested in figuring out how to incorporate these practices into your daily routine you’ll find a link in this blog post, about a blog that I did, on developing habits and incorporating them so that you can be more consistent.

And if you want to know more about actually how to do it, how to pray or how to meditate leave me a comment in this post and I’ll do something in a later blog post.

Thanks a lot. And go with God. And be with God.

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Finding a Path without Anxiety or Blame

This is my take on where we are as country at the beginning of the Trump Administration.

Here is the video transcript. Please remember that it will read like a conversation, not a term paper (maybe that’s a good thing).

Hey there, Jack Shitama. Today is January 21st 2017, the day after inauguration day. That means the Obama administration is over. No cheering. And that means the Trump administration has begun. No booing. And for the most part we’ve had a peaceful transition of power, something that’s a hallmark with our country.

I want to share with you that I love Barack Obama. I loved what he did and stood for as a president. I love his family. I love how he carried himself in the office and so I’m sad to see him go. Before you start yelling at me I need to share with you that I do not make decisions about my values rationally. They come from a place in me that’s deep and not logical and I don’t really understand. I am biased. I make my decisions about my values and then I rationalize it.

Now here is something you need to understand. You’re not rational either. None of us makes rational decisions about deeply held things or even economic decisions. If you don’t believe me Google “behavioral economics.” There’s all kinds of research that shows how we don’t make decisions based on logic. We make them based on something else and then we rationalize them.

So here we are on January 21st, 2017 and we have people who are happy about the new Trump administration. We have people who are angry. We have people who are fearful. We have people who are troubled. All of these people disagree but that doesn’t necessarily make any of them bad people.

I think we have a problem in this country. Clearly, we’re divided but it’s not even the division of belief that’s the problem. It is that we demonize those with whom we disagree. We make them into the enemy and I believe that that comes from a deep rooted anxiety in our country. I don’t know if he originated this statement but, Seth Godin says that anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. And there is something about the way our country is right now that people are anxious about the future and they are experiencing the demise of our country even before it happens.

I read a book this fall by Edwin Friedman, who wrote Generation to Generation about family systems theory. The book is called A Failure of Nerve and in it he says that we live in a chronically anxious society. And this anxiety makes it hard for people to function. It makes it hard for leaders to innovate. It makes it hard for communities and for states and nations to see a path into the future, where they can feel hopeful.

One of the symptoms of this chronic anxiety is blame. Friedman calls it “blame displacement.” What happens in a chronically anxious family, in a chronically anxious system of any kind, a chronically anxious country, is people blame other people for their own problems.

Let me try to make everybody mad here. Just think about this. How many people are blaming blacks or whites, the rich or the poor, manufacturers or Mexicans, police or Planned Parenthood, corporations or congress. Well, everybody is blaming congress. Even that’s not fair because congress or legislators are our representatives. They are a reflection of who we are in our divided country. Our country is designed so that when things are divided in this way things don’t happen very quickly. So give your legislator a break, they are doing the best they can.

Getting back to this blame displacement, when we start to blame others for our own condition, what it means is we are not taking responsibility for our own feelings, for our own beliefs, for our own situation. When we don’t do that it is nearly impossible to find a path into the future. So what do we do about it?

Viktor Frankl was a survivor of one of the Nazi death camps in Auschwitz. After he survived, he wanted to see what it was that contributed to those who survived versus those who didn’t. One of the things he found, he shared in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.  According to Frankl, the most important factor in survival was the ability for someone to have a vision of the future that included hope. Even in the situation where one is in a concentration camp and likely to die, those who survived could envision getting out. They could envision a future where they were living a productive and decent life again. They could envision a future that didn’t include the death camp, a future that included hope.

Here is what Frankl says about our human condition. “Everything can be taken from a person but one thing, the last of the human freedoms. To choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way. When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

So whether you are hopeful or nor right now about the direction of our country, the question is, how are you going to respond to people who disagree with you? How are you going to respond to those who don’t believe what you believe? I think we can choose to show respect. I think we can choose to value another even if they disagree with us. I think it’s critically important if we’re going to make any kind of progress in our society.

Now that doesn’t mean that you don’t work for what you believe in. You can work to change laws, you can work to change policy, you can work to make a difference in the world but just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t make them evil. They are another person and they are worthy of our respect.

In that space between when we’re stimulated by somebody that we don’t agree with, we can choose to respond with anger, with blame, or we can choose to respond with respect. More importantly I believe as a Christian we can choose to respond with love.

Less than a week ago we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. Dr. King was an ordained minister and his movement of non-violent change was based on his following of Jesus. Because Jesus was the one who showed us how to love others, even those who persecuted us, even those whom we think are evil, even those with whom we disagree.

Here is what Dr. King said “We must live together as brothers and sisters or perish together as fools. Hatred polarizes life, love releases it. Hatred confuses life, love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life, love illuminates it. Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend”.

Now there ARE evil people in this world. There are people who do things that are clearly evil. But Dr. King reminds us that even in that case, we are to hate the evil but love the person. And I want to suggest that most people aren’t evil they are just different. They are not any more rational than we are and they have beliefs that are deeply held.

I learned a few years ago that people don’t change their deeply held values. So rather than trying to convince them to change their minds, can we own our own feelings? Can we say this is what I believe, this is what I stand for but also love and respect the other? I think if we’re able to do that, we’re able to change the dynamic. We won’t get the other to agree with us but perhaps we can live with the other differently, with love and respect.

This is not easy, it means that we need to look inside of ourselves and ask ourselves the question, what is it in me that’s making me angry? What is it in me that makes me want to blame? And then ask God to fill us, to take that away from us and to fill us with love and with grace so that we can show care and respect even those with whom we disagree and those that seem hateful to us.

This is not easy. It’s hard work. Leadership is hard work. And if we are going to be leaders who help change the world, if we are going to be people that help show others that there is a way of hope, then I think that’s our responsibility.

That’s our challenge for today. To be the kind of leader that is able to show love and grace to everyone, especially to those that we want to despise. If we can do that we can change our culture. It’s not going to be easy.

Brene Brown has done a lot of work on vulnerability. I was listening to her on a podcast recently and she said, “One of the things I’ve learned is to choose courage over comfort.” To show love and respect and grace is not easy, it makes us vulnerable. But can we choose courage over comfort? I believe that if we can, we can change our world and we can find a way together, even with those with whom we disagree.

 

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The Key to Doing Your Best Creative Work: Sleep on It

Photo by Jeffrey Bettis Courtesy Stock Snap

I admit it. When I was preaching every week, I used to write my sermons on Sunday morning. I would get up very early, sit in the quiet and the words would flow. I did my best work this way. The few times that I tried to write a sermon on Friday or Saturday it just didn’t work as well.

If you are preparing a sermon every week, it can be a daunting task. Even if you are not preaching every week, when it’s time to prepare one, it can be daunting. Here’s some advice: don’t try to do it all in one sitting.

I neglected to mention that I WROTE my sermon on Sunday morning. HOWEVER, the preparation began long before. I would plan out my sermons three months at a time, selecting scripture, title, subject and theme for each Sunday. At the beginning of each week, I would dig into the scripture. Every day during the week, I would spend some time doing exegesis, making notes, collecting illustrations, etc. I typically had an outline by the time Sunday morning came around. Then I would write.

As it turns out, breaking up this type of work into smaller chunks enables your brain to do things that it can’t do all in one sitting. If you were to sit down and spend eight hours preparing and writing a sermon, it is not likely to be as good as if you broke the work into several sessions over a week’s time. This is true for any kind of creative or problem-solving work. Here’s why:

The brain does amazing things while we sleep.

While the rest of your body is resting, the brain is working. Your subconscious mind is doing work that you don’t even know is going on. You can read more about it in this Huffington Post article: 5 Amazing Things Your Brain Does While You Sleep.

Here are the three things that happen during sleep that help you to do your best work.

Your brain consolidates and organizes memories.

This is essential for learning. Whether you are studying scripture, researching a project or learning a new skill, sleep will help to solidify what you learn in your long-term memory. When you are preparing a sermon, this means that the work you do one day becomes the foundation for the work you do the next, the day after that and so on. The same would be true for any type of work that requires learning to truly be effective.

Your brain processes complex information to prepare for decision-making.

Once you have worked on something, the brain can take that information while you sleep and prepare to act on it. So, not only are you consolidating your learning, you are better prepared for what to do next.

Have you ever worked on something and gotten stuck? Writers call it writer’s block. A quick google search yielded similar experiences for mathematicians, programmers, entrepreneurs and innovators. If you are doing creative and/or problem-solving work, you are bound to come across times when you feel stuck. The standard advice is to take a break. Neuroscience research indicates that if you sleep on it, you not only have a better chance to get unstuck, you are likely to have an idea of your next step.

Your brain makes creative connections.

One of the hallmarks of creative people is the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts. As it turns out, the brain does this while you sleep. According to a 2007 University of California at Berkeley study, upon waking from sleep, people are 33% more likely to make connections between things that seem to be distantly related.

This is a great reason to have a time of prayer or meditation first thing in the morning. You are most likely to have an “Aha!” moment if you create space for it when you first wake. If you are listening for God to guide you, then what better way than to make use of the biological processes with which you are created.

So, whether it’s a sermon or any other important creative or problem-solving work, the best approach is to do some work, then sleep on it. Do some more work, then sleep on it. Your brain will make progress for you while you sleep. How great is that?!

Questions for Reflection:

What important work are you doing right now?

How can you organize your work to best take advantage of the work your brain does while sleeping?

How has your view of sleep changed after reading this blog?

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The Problem with Annual Goals: They’re Too Long (and Too Short)

Photo credit: iStockphoto

As we begin a new year, you might be thinking about annual goals. This could be personally or professionally. It could take the form of the dreaded New Year’s resolution. Or it could be part of an annual plan that you’ve developed at work. Regardless, a year is too long.

I’ve made annual goals before. My problem was two-fold. One was that life happens. Other things would pop up that demanded my time and attention. The other was a lack of urgency. A year seemed like a long time. It was easy to rationalize putting off getting started or making progress because there was plenty of time.

This past summer, I heard of the concept of the 12-week year. The book, by Brian Moran and Michael Lennington, is subtitled, “Get more done in 12 weeks than others do in 12 months.” Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or bought any of their resources. But I learned enough about the concept listening to a podcast that it changed the way I think about planning. I don’t make annual goals anymore, but I do make quarterly goals.

At about the same time, I read the book, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. This book changed the way I think about time management. My main takeaway was to focus on the few things that matter most and make regular incremental progress toward achieving my goals.

So between the two, I developed my own quarterly goal system. Here’s how it works.

Begin with the End in Mind

The One Thing reminded me of something Stephen Covey taught in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Begin with the end in mind. I started writing down where I wanted to be in seven to ten years. With the ministry I serve, with my personal and spiritual life, and with, at the time, a budding idea to share what I’ve learned about leadership. Then I worked backward and set milestones that might be one, two, three or more years out and would indicate that I was moving in the right direction.

This is why annual goals are too short. They aren’t as meaningful if they don’t fit into a larger vision for your life. Without context, they are easier to put off. Set in the context of an inspiring personal vision, annual goals can make sense, but they still are not energizing.

Set Quarterly Goals

This is where I got energized. Annual goals are too long. They are easily put off. Three months is a long enough time that you can achieve something significant. But it’s short enough to create a sense of urgency.

I limited the goals to three areas. Two ministry-related and one related to sharing about leadership, which was to launch this blog by the end of September. Three is probably the max that I can handle and may be too many. The problem with setting too many goals is that it’s hard to stay focused. That’s the premise of The One Thing. Or, as Covey wrote, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Focus on Effort, Not Outcomes

This was where things really changed for me. Rather than making lists of things that kept getting put off, I focused on blocking out time for my three priorities. This was most important in launching this blog. I have a day job, so if I was going to make any progress, it meant putting in 30-60 minutes in the morning before I got ready for work. I didn’t do it every day, but I knew if I was going to achieve it in three months, there was no time to waste. Finding a domain name, choosing a blog platform, learning how to set it up and learning how to set up an automated subscription list were just some of the things that had to happen for me to reach my quarterly goal.

Some people might find it helpful to set weekly goals to achieve their quarterly goal. This is great, but it’s not my style. I’m a “perceiver” in the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI), which means I don’t like to get boxed into a prescriptive set of plans. So instead, I kept a list of all the things that needed to happen and every day that I could, I did something to make progress.

The important part of this for me was that it kept me focused on putting in the time and the effort. I believed that if I did that, I would achieve the goal. I launched the blog on September 3rd, about a month ahead of schedule.

If you’re the type of person who likes lists and plans, a “judger” in MBTI, then you can break down your quarterly goals into smaller goals and check them off. This will make you happy. Either way, by focusing on effort, you’ll make progress.

Journal

Finally, I started journaling a few weeks before I started working on my quarterly goals. I don’t journal every day. I’ve journaled 80 times since the end of May. What it did was help me to reflect on what was working and to stay focused on what matters most. I wish I could remember where I got the questions that I used as a framework. In any event, I adapted them to fit my own situation. Here are the questions:

What did I learn today?
What did I do today that was really important/energizing?
What didn’t I do today that I should have?
What could I do without?
For what am I grateful?
Where did I experience God today?
Three things I will accomplish tomorrow are?

The last question is the one that’s most relevant to this topic. The three things weren’t always from my three priorities. A lot happens in life and sometimes you just have to get things done that aren’t a part of your main thing. But, in general, focusing on three important things each day moved me toward my quarterly goals. I found that if I spent just a few hours each day, no more than one before work, and a couple at work on my ministry-related priorities, then I would make progress. It wasn’t that I didn’t put in a full day’s work, it’s that there are thousands of other things that are part of the job, but aren’t the main thing. For the most part, all these other things got accomplished, as well. More importantly, I spent quality time on my most important tasks. Time that could easily have been gobbled up by less important priorities.

Questions for Reflection:

What is your vision? For your life? For the ministry you serve?

If things went well, where would you be a year from now?

What can you do in the next three months to make significant progress?

 

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Looking for Bright Spots: How Small Things Lead to Big Change

Photo by Ben White courtesy of StockSnap

31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches

Matthew 13:31-32

Thinking about big change is overwhelming. Especially if it involves other people and organizations. We may know where we need to get, but getting there is a monumental task. Planning the steps, convincing people to change and then executing the tasks can seem impossible.

And, if it seems big to you, it’s almost unthinkable to others. They haven’t put near the amount of thought into it that you have. A wise pastor once told me that we need to allow others three hours of process time for every hour we’ve put into developing a plan. So if you’ve spent 20 hours obsessing over the big change you want to see, as well as developing the rationale and action plan, you need to allow 60 hours for others to get it. That’s a lot of discussions, Q&A and receiving feedback.

There is a different approach.

In 1990, Jerry and Monique Sternin went to Vietnam to try to fight severe child malnutrition for the Non-Governmental Organization, Save the Children. Analysts had determined the causes were many: poverty, poor sanitation, lack of education, etc. Sternin called this information “TBU,” true but useless. Instead, he went looking for what might already be working. He asked the question, “Are there children from poor families who are much healthier than the norm?”

Once identified, Sternin discovered that the mothers of these children were doing little things that made a big difference. They were feeding their children four times a day instead of two, using the same amount of food in smaller portions. They used brine shrimp from the rice paddies and sweet potato greens in their children’s diet, even though they were considered “low-class” foods. Sternin described these situations as “positive deviance,” an idea first posited by Marian Seitlin. These are situations that deviated from the norm in a positive way.

The Sternins were then able to replicate these bright spots to teach other mothers these simple changes in food preparation. In six months, 65% of the children in the villages Sternin served were better nourished. The method ultimately reached 2.2 million children across Vietnam.

Out of this came the Positive Deviance Initiative, that has improved childhood nutrition in 41 countries around the world. That’s BIG change.

But it started with a small bright spot.

When we are following God, the entire path is seldom, if ever, revealed to us. If it were, it wouldn’t really be faith. It starts with small steps. Like a mustard seed. As Stephen Covey says, you can begin with the end in mind. But the path from here to there is not always clear. That’s OK.

Dan and Chip Heath put this in perspective in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. I found this book helpful because it shows how change is possible without power or resources. Like Jerry Sternin in Vietnam. It deconstructs the change process into understandable components that can be replicated in a variety of situations.

They help us to understand that our rational side has a weakness. It loves to solve problems and it tends to focus more on the problem than the solution. We love to analyze and go deeper down the rabbit hole of why a problem is a problem. It is the wheel-spinning of the paralysis of analysis. Bright spots get our rational side thinking positively instead of negatively. Plus, they motivate our emotional side.

The book is predicated on a metaphor originally developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. The model argues that humans have two sides:

  • An emotional/irrational side called the elephant.
  • An analytical/rational side called the rider.

According to Haidt, the rider is rational and can plan ahead, while the elephant is irrational and driven by emotion and instinct.  The Heath brothers put it this way:

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to loseHe’s completely overmatched. 

If you convince the rider, you’ll have direction but no motivation. If you convince the elephant you’ll have motivation with no direction. That’s why bright spots are so critical. They motivate the elephant and focus the rider on what’s possible.

Bright spots give us hope. And hope gives us the faith and energy to take a step. And then another. Then another. To start with the small change that leads to the big change.

Like a mustard seed.

Questions for Reflection?

What is the big change you are seeking as a leader?

What are the bright spots, the positive deviance, that show that the change is possible?

How can you communicate those bright spots to others?

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How to Develop Your Most Important Asset as a Leader: Trust

You can’t lead without trust.

Stephen M. R. Covey put it this way in his book, The Speed of Trust:

“Trust is the one thing that changes everything. The lack of it can bring down governments, cripple businesses (and churches) and destroy relationships. Conversely, when cultivated it has the potential to bring unparalleled effectiveness…the ability to establish, grow, extend, and restore trust with all stakeholders is the key leadership competency of the new global economy.”

Dr. Paul Zak, the preeminent researcher on the neuroscience of trust, demonstrated two decades ago that trust is the one thing high performing cultures have in common. Whether they’re companies, cities or countries, there is a direct correlation between trust and economic well-being.

Zak goes even further to say that even in the corporate world, employees are volunteers. Just because somebody is on the payroll, doesn’t mean they’re going to bring passion and energy to what they do. That requires trust.

This is even more true in the church.

You can’t lead without trust.

Learning how to build trust is not rocket science. But understanding a bit of biology is helpful. That’s where oxytocin comes in.

Oxytocin is both a neurotransmitter that’s released in the brain and a hormone that’s released in the bloodstream. It is the molecule that enables us to bond with others. It facilitates both trust and trustworthiness.

Zak has shown in studies that people with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to trust strangers. He’s also shown that showing trust to others increases levels of oxytocin, making them more likely to trust you.

Without oxytocin, most of our decisions would be fear-based. Sounds like the church.

So how can understanding oxytocin help us to build trust?

Let’s take the log out of our own eye first.

It’s no accident that certain practices cause the release of oxytocin:

  • Gratitude-write down something for which you are thankful every day. This is, in large part, the power of journaling.
  • Pray and meditate-give thanks to God. Pray for others. Just thinking about others, especially those you care about, increases oxytocin levels.

Oxytocin does not last long. It has a half-life of three minutes. In other words, in three minutes after its release, there’s only half as much oxytocin in our system. The important part of these practices is that the more we do them, the more the release of oxytocin becomes natural for us.

So how do we build trust?

In a word: empathy.

Zak, in his book, The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, says, “Oxytocin generates the empathy that drives moral behavior, which inspires trust, which causes the release of more oxytocin, which creates more empathy.”

There is a virtuous cycle to building trust. When we connect with others in meaningful ways, oxytocin levels increase in both parties. Here are four things we can do as Christian leaders to build trust:

  • Listen-as Zak says, “Conversation creates a sense of community, which builds trust, which leads to oxytocin release.” When we listen more than speak, when we show that we understand what the other is saying, we are showing empathy.
  • Be generous-with your time and with yourself. When someone receives a gift their oxytocin levels rise. Giving your time and effort to help another is the best gift we can give. Every time we do something to help someone else, without asking for anything in return, we gift them a gift.
  • Choose to trust-this is hard, especially when we’ve been burned. But when we trust others, their oxytocin levels rise, making them more likely to trust us.
  • Be trustworthy-this is obvious (or maybe not). When we do what we say we’re going to do, people trust us. This causes our own oxytocin levels to rise, making it easier to trust them. The virtuous cycle.

The most important takeaway from this:

Building trust requires time.

And it’s not just the passing of time. It takes an investment of our time to really build relationships with others.

In a world of email, texting and social media*, the human touch still matters. Visits, phone calls and handwritten notes are not just niceties. They are essential elements of Christian leadership. Without them, it’s harder to lead.

That’s how God made us.

Questions for reflection:

With whom do you need to connect today?

What daily practices can you develop to build your own oxytocin levels?

What daily practices can you develop to do the same for others?

*Zak found that social media can increase oxytocin release when it makes us think of people we care about.

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Three Ways that Gratitude Will Make You a Better Leader

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! 2 Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

Psalm 100:1-5

The benefits of gratitude are well-documented. This Newsweek article highlights that grateful people are healthier and sleep better. They are also more hopeful, more empathetic, more resilient, more helpful and have greater self-esteem. Just 15 minutes a day spent giving thanks can change your life.

Besides these benefits, gratitude will make you a better leader. Here’s how.

Gratitude reminds you that it’s not about you

Whether you work for a church, nonprofit or mission-based organization, it’s not about you. If you’re focused on what you can get out of it, you’ve missed the point. On the other hand, if your personal mission is aligned with your organization’s purpose, then you realize that the work you do is about something much greater than yourself.

When you’re grateful, you’re more likely to think about the good things that are happening because of the work you do. It’s not all because of you, but you are part of something that is making a difference in the world.

The mission of The United Methodist Church, of which I’m a part, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. This outward focus is all about loving God and loving neighbor, especially those most in need. As I have grown in my Christian walk, I find that I feel most blessed when I see something good happening in someone else’s life. When I have had a part in that, I’m filled with gratitude. It’s not about us, but about the God we serve and the people we serve.

Gratitude reminds you that you can’t do it alone

None of us can do it alone. You work together with others to achieve greater things than you can do on your own. Whether a family, church or organization of any size, relationships matter. Giving thanks for those relationships will make you a better friend, spouse, sibling, child, co-worker and leader.

My daily prayer time includes a litany of prayers for immediate and extended family, the sick, the grieving, the Pecometh staff, our Bishop and cabinet, colleagues in ministry, my pastor and the staff of a ministry in which I volunteer. I pray for each of these persons by name.

When you pray for other people you think more kindly of them. It’s also a good time to express your gratitude for them. Instead of thinking about what they haven’t done for you, think of how knowing them, living with them, working with them makes your life better.

Gratitude helps you keep your priorities in order

When you are grateful you are less self-centered and are better able to discern what matters most. Gratitude can give you the resolve to focus on those things, even as you feel pressure from all aspects of your life.

This can mean spending time with a friend or family member even when work demands are relentless. It can mean helping a person in need even when you don’t feel like it. It can mean helping a colleague or staff member meet their goals even when you haven’t met yours. It sometimes means taking time for yourself so you can better serve others.

Why does all this matter?

Because people will follow a leader who is clearly aligned with their mission and who appreciates the work they do. They will work for a leader who is not about himself or herself, but who knows that their effort is as important as the leader’s. Gratitude helps you do that.

Questions for reflection:

What improvement in someone else’s life makes you grateful?

Whose effort has really made a difference in your life?

What really matters in your life? How are you grateful for this?

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A Leadership Lesson from Saturday Night Live

Courtesy Imgur

If you look at it objectively, it’s a miracle that Saturday Night Live even produced its first episode, let alone its first season. Instead, it became one of the longest running and most successful TV shows in history.

The original cast and writers were a collection of egotistic, competitive, drug-abusing, promiscuous young adults who all had tremendous talent. Writers and actors had to pitch their sketches. If a sketch was chosen for the show it meant someone else’s sketch wouldn’t make it.

So how did they do it?

Credit the leadership of the show’s creator and producer, Lorne Michaels.

If you follow this blog, you will see a lot about leadership through self-differentiation. This is a family systems concept from Edwin Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Friedman’s definition is:

“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this.  If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow.  There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along.

The emphasis on a leader’s self-differentiation is not to be confused with “independence” or selfish individuality. On the contrary, we are talking about the ability of a leader to be a self while still remaining a part of the system. It is the most difficult thing to do in any family. (p. 229)”

In practice, leadership through self-differentiation comes down to being a non-anxious presence. You do this by not letting your own anxiety spew forth into the interaction, while staying connected emotionally. There is a tension created when you try to be non-anxious and emotionally present.

It’s easy to be non-anxious and not emotionally present. This is detachment.

It’s also easy to be present and not control your anxiety. This often manifests itself as overfunctioning.

Leadership through self-differentiation is the ability to say “I believe” when everyone around is saying “you” or “we,” what Friedman calls surrounding togetherness pressures. Some examples:

  • You should or we should…telling you what to do directly or indirectly using group pressure.
  • You always or you never…whatever follows is typically blaming you for their own condition.

Anytime someone is not taking responsibility for their own goals, values or feelings, it makes it harder for you to do likewise. Yet, that is when it’s most important.

You know you are leading through self-differentiation, whether in your family, church or business, when you say “I believe” or “I feel” in a non-anxious way. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel anxious. You’re just able to control it in a way that prevents it from poisoning your interactions.

What goes unsaid here is that you are giving others the freedom to say “I,” as well.

Why does this matter?

Charles Duhigg, in his book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business, cites a large Google research project, code-named Project Aristotle, that sought to determine what social norms characterized the most effective teams. Duhigg summarized the results as coming down to two things: psychological safety and social sensitivity.

Psychological Safety is the sense that you can be honest and vulnerable without being embarrassed or punished by the group.

Social sensitivity is the ability to read non-verbal cues to gauge how others are feeling.

When these two norms are present, people feel free to speak their mind. They don’t have to get their own way, but if they have an opportunity to give their input, they are more likely to support the final decision, whether it is consistent with their opinion or not.

Furthermore, team members are more willing to take appropriate risks. Innovation and adaptation become possible because people are willing to risk failure.

Back to Lorne Michaels.

From Duhigg’s perspective, Michaels was able to create an environment where everyone felt heard, had a chance to give input and were aware of the feelings of others.

From a family systems perspective, I believe Michaels was a self-differentiated leader. He believed he knew what would make a great show. He was willing to express that in a way that created vision and direction. At the same time, by being a non-anxious presence, he encouraged others to express their own opinions passionately. By staying connected emotionally, his team knew that he valued their self-expression, even if their sketch didn’t make the show.

By leading through self-differentiation, Lorne Michaels led a group of gifted people with strong personalities to do their very best work for the sake of the show’s greater good.

In the church, there are many gifted people with strong personalities. When a leader is not self-defined, anxiety and chaos result. On the other hand, a self-defined leader creates the emotional space that enables God’s spirit to work…to do great things through gifted people.

Questions for Reflection:

As a leader, how able are you to state “I believe” or “I feel” in a non-anxious way?

In what leadership situations do you feel anxious? How do you manage it?

In what situations are you playing peacemaker when you should be leading through self-differentiation?

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