Managing tension v. Solving problems

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Business writers often talk about the difference between problems and tensions. You solve problems. You manage tensions. We’re wired to look for solutions and to find answer to what we believe are problems. Life in a complex world, however, means that a lot of our most important decisions (and much of our work) revolve around learning to tell the difference between a problem and a tension and acting accordingly.


As a missionary I raise financial support to allow me to do the work God has called me to. As a missionary to the university campus, I live, work, and raise financial support on my “mission field.” It could be easy for me to conceive of raising support as a problem that needs to be solved rather than a polarity to be managed. After all,  if I raise all the support I need to cover my ministry budget I’ll be free to spend 100% of my time meeting with students and faculty, preparing talks, investing continuing education, etc. Won’t I?

This makes sense until you realize that the world is a fluid place. Donors lose jobs or decide that they’d like to give elsewhere. Budgets grow. In reality, fund raising is never “done.” Consequently, the concept of funding as a problem to be solved leas almost inevitably to frustration or depression.
There exists a tension between the ministry of fund development and ministry to students and faculty. Now, it’s important to realize that tensions aren’t necessarily bad or unhealthy. More often than not, a tension is simply the result of living and working in a complex world. It’s not something you’re going to get to go away. Ignore and you’ll favor one pole and stray into error. Concentrate on solving it and you’ll exhaust yourself. Learn to manage it and you may just experience break-out excellence.

Next up – case study in managing tensions: fund raising.


How to follow well

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Brad Lomenick of Catalyst posted this excellent list of characteristics of good followers. Every leader is a follower so take some time to scan the list and ask yourself: how good am I at following?


So here are a few thoughts on following:

1. Good followers are great finishers. They get the job done. Take projects across the finish line.

2. Good followers anticipate. They understand what needs to be done next before others, and are always looking for ways to make the process better.

3. Good followers criticize in private, and praise in public. Enough said on that.

4. Good followers are trustworthy. When given an assignment, a leader can be assured that it will get done. This is incredibly important.

5. Good followers are vision copycats. They take on, embody and live out the vision and mission of their leader, and of the organization.

6. Good followers make their leader better. They push their leader, and know how to lead up appropriately and intentionally.




Finding a sustainable pace

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One of the challenges in ministry is finding a sustainable pace. Ours is a culture prone to excess. (Our church culture often mirrors the broader culture in this respect too). In our work life this manifests itself in excessive labor (in the sense of working too long) and in excessive leisure (we have become addicted to entertainment because we’re so tired from our overwork). This is certainly the case more broadly than in ministry, but since I’m a minister I’ll stick with what I know best.

One of the challenges of working as a campus missionary is that staff are tied to two calendars that often conflict.

On the one hand, there’s the campus calendar (school starts in August and ends in May). There are regular breaks along the way and periods of intense activities too (like the beginning of each semester).

On the other, there’s InterVarsity’s organizational calendar. Since when school’s in session, our missionaries are expected to be giving themselves to their ministry with students and faculty, we often schedule our conferences, meetings, and other required events during school vacations. There are natural periods for reporting on the health of the chapters we work with (at the end of each semester) and for reflecting on personal and ministry goals (at the beginning of the year with period check-ins along the way). There are also periods of more intentional activity around raising support to fund the ministry. Summer is a prime time to engage in this work since there are limited numbers of students on campus. December 31 marks the end of the calendar year and it’s the deadline for making tax-deductible gifts to ministries like InterVarsity. June 30 is the last day of InterVarsity’s fiscal year and staff are required to have balanced their ministry budgets by that date.

Do you see the problem? If you think of a sustainable pace as a series of peaks (intense labor) and troughs (reflection, planning, evaluation) it’s entirely possible, looking at the scenario above, to never have any troughs. 

That’s a recipe for burnout. Unlike all other types of work, the effectiveness of a minister is rooted in his connection with God in Christ. Where the peaks of life and ministry cause the troughs of reflection and devotion to be leveled out, there is a decline in the effectiveness of the minister.

So what’s the solution? Here are some suggestions for avoiding the pitfall of over scheduling. These are things I practice myself and which I have suggested to some of the staff I supervise. They’re pretty obvious, but often the simplest things are the most easily forgotten or overlooked. [Note: much of this stuff isn’t original to me, where I remember the source I’ve attributed it.]

  • Plan on planning. According to MaryKate Morse (Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence, 158 – HT: Anna Gissing) excellent leaders spend 40% of their time in self-leadership functions. This includes professional reading, character development, continuing education, prayer, reflection, etc. It also include planning. It may seem like 40% is a huge chunk of time to spend this, but I guarantee it will make the other 60% of your time more effective.
  • Plan a year ahead. We’re almost to January so now is a good time to pull out the calendar and get down the date for every “big rock” you have in your work and family life. Make notes of congregational meetings, presbytery meetings, session meetings, conferences, travel for work or pleasure, etc. These are the “hard edges” to your calendar. Take a look at Mike Hyatt’s annual time block for one way to do this. I do this over the summer since our ministry year run July to June.
  • Plan on multiple levels. By the day. By the week. By the month. By the quarter. Don’t fall into the habit of planning simply by the year and by the day. You need to get your mind around each of these levels of planning. If there’s going to be a stretch of time that is especially busy (it could be a month, a week, or a year) make sure that you make intentional plans to dial it back a bit when that time is passed. David Allen refers to this as planning on the levels of the runway, 10,000ft, 20,oooft etc.
  • Learn to say “no.” You probably don’t want to say yes to everything or no to everything. Those who do the former burn out, those who do the latter are never asked again. You need healthy criteria for saying yes. Ask yourself: what do I really care about? What enlivens me? What am I good at? Say yes to projects that intersect with those questions in an affirmative way.


What have you learned about finding a sustainable pace for your profession and stage of life?

You might want to check out:

MaryKate Morse. Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space, and Influence.

Wayne Cordeiro. Leading on Empty: Refilling Your Tank and Renewing Your Passion.

Do you lead in the crisis, or manage?

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Great leadership exists in presenting that vision and using appropriate levels of management (process) to steer team members toward embracing and achieving the goal.

When a crisis comes, there are two ways to respond: you can lead or you can manage. The choice you make will probably be pretty significant to the outcome.

Most organizations respond to a critical problem or a crisis by attempting to tighten control of employees. It’s a natural response. A problem is often caused or made more acute by poor decisions. It stands to reason that exercising greater control over daily decisions could avoid worsening the problem. This is a managerial response. It involves increasing reports, rationales for decisions, and generally adds work for employees that actually draws time and attention away from solving the problem. It centers on accountability.

Don’t get me wrong, management of a problem is critical to recovering from it. However, if it is the only response it is doomed to fail. Employees solve problems because they are presented with and come to believe in a vision of a better future that is presented to them by their leaders and by their co-workers not because they’re told that this is what they need to do.

If this is absent in the midst of a crisis, the results will be mediocre. You can only get so far with reporting, which is often seen as punitive by creative professionals. The vision of a better future can give energy and vigor to a struggling team by helping to refocus attention from the crisis itself to its resolution.

Great leadership exists in presenting that vision and using appropriate levels of management (process) to steer team members toward embracing and achieving the goal.