What are you resolved to do?

The almighty index card

Bill Hybels has a great chapter in his book Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs called “Six-by-Six Execution.” In it he describes a transformative practice he implemented at Willow Creek.

Every six weeks he would take an index card and write the question: “What is the greatest contribution I can make a Willow Creek Community Church in the next six weeks?” He then answered it and used the answer to focus his energies for the next six weeks.

As we move further into 2012, many of us have made resolutions. If your goal is actually to achieve your resolutions its important that you follow Hybels’ advice and focus your energies.

Enter Michael Hyatt who has posted some tips on making resolutions stick.

  1. Keep them few (focus!)
  2. Make them “SMART” (Specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-bound)
  3. Write them down (and review them regularly)
  4. Go public

In the spirit of “going public” here are my personal resolutions for 2012 (our fiscal year run July to June so I do my professional planning at or before July each year).

  1. Lose 40 pounds by December 31, 2012.
  2. Practice a weekly date night with Anna.
  3. Spend quality, focused time with both Nathan and Eliza daily.
  4. Take a monthly spiritual retreat.
  5. Take a walk with Anna and the family at least three times per week.

So, what are your resolutions for 2012?

Review – Hybels, Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs

A great resource for leaders

Bill Hybel is a strong leader and an effective communicator. In fact, these may be his  greatest contribution to the contemporary church. His 2011 book Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs touches on both of these topics (they’re closely related) and is a great resource for leaders serving in a church or ministry setting.

I like to think of the book as a leadership devotional. It’s a series of short proverbs (1-2 pages) that are grouped into four content areas:

  1. Vision and strategy
  2. Teamwork and communication
  3. Activity and assessment
  4. Personal integrity

Each of these is a critical area for professional development among clergy yet most of these receive little to no treatment in seminary classes and in continuing education.

Here’s what I liked about Axiom:

  1. It’s bite-sized. Hybels packs a lot of content into few words. A short 1-2 pages can deliver enough content to reflect on for days.
  2. It’s experience-based. He writes out of his own experience and therefore is autobiographical.
  3. It’s church-focused. Hybels writes as a church leader for church leaders–there’s little to no translation necessary.

If you’re a ministry leader, I recommend Axiom.

Driven to distraction

It’s Christmastide, which means one thing–travel. During our annual ten-plus hour drive to the Gulf Coast of Alabama we stopped in a remarkable gas station north of Atlanta. As I moved around the car to take the gas pump in hand, I was confronted with a smallish flat panel television mounted immediately above the price display. It was showing NFL highlights complete with sound. High above me muzak wafted out from speakers in the awning and together with the tunes clearly audible from a neighboring car (despite closed windows) it formed a perfect trifecta of noise-pollution.

Random moments of quiet are quickly shrinking from our lives. Every nook and cranny of our waking hours is filled with some form of stimulation designed to propel us toward the consumption of some goods or services. Go to a restaurant, even a relatively expensive one, and you’ll find at least one television. Find yourself in your doctors office waiting for an appointment and there will be some form of visual and auditory stimulation offering you information about some disease or condition sponsored by a purveyor of one drug or another. Noise is ubiquitous. 

It’s amazing how comfortable we have become with noise and other forms of stimulation. The instant the power goes off during a winter storm or an electronic device fails many of us start getting really anxious–stir crazy. We need something to do. That’s because distraction is addictive. I forget where I read it but scientists have found that the “ping” of a new email releases a small amount of dopamine into our brain–we keep going back to email, Facebook, Twitter, because we get a biochemical reward for it.

The key to focus is learning to steward technology and distraction so as to control it rather than be controlled by it. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to get away with not having email–we have become too accustomed to this technology to be able to move past it yet.

Some ideas for keeping your focus:

  1. Turn off new mail notifications.
  2. Schedule time to process email. Try 30 minutes twice or three times a day (10am, 1pm, 5pm).
  3. Get noise-cancelling headphones.
  4. Automate and schedule your social media interactions. Try an app like Buffer <www.bufferapp.com>

How do you maintain optimal focus at home and work?

[Series] Nine Things Successful People Do Differently

Working in the worlds of the university and the church, I’ve had the occasion to meet and interact with a lot of highly successful people–university administrators, large church pastors, non-profit executives, and popular writers. Some are arguably almost genius; most are pretty normal. So what sets them apart? What do they do that others fail to do?

To answer the question, I turned to Nine Things That Successful People Do Differently (there’s a summary here) by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

Halvorson discovered nine things (or habits/practices) that successful people engage in.

Here they are:

  1. Get specific
  2. Seize the moment to act on your goals
  3. Know exactly how far you have left to go
  4. Be a realistic optimist
  5. Focus on getting better, rather than being good
  6. Have grit
  7. Build your willpower muscle
  8. Don’t tempt fate
  9. Focus on what you will do, not what you won’t do

In the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging through these nine habits and thinking through how they apply to those of us in ministry or academic life. I hope you’ll join me.

Difficult situations: Getting unstuck

All of us will, from time-to-time, find ourselves in a difficult situation. Often when we get into a tough spot we find ourselves stuck. It often takes a great deal of energy and attention to extract yourself from a difficult situation. Sometimes you can find yourself wondering whether it’s worth the effort. Counselors tell us that change only happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change. In the world of our emotions, it seems, we’re all economists who engage in a cost/benefit analysis.

I read an interesting post linked from Lifehacker. Niall Doherty explores how the Stockdale Paradox can help us overcome difficult situations. The term refers to mental strategy employed by Admiral James Stockdale while a prisoner of war (during the Vietnam conflict). Stockdale held in tension two things: (1) a realistic appraisal of his present situation and (2) an unfaltering hope that he would overcome the ordeal. Jim Collins unpacks the paradox in Good to Great:

You must retain hope that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties….And, at the same time…You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

There are twin dangers when confronting a difficult situation. The first is unbridled optimism. The second is unbridled pessimism. 

David Allen quotes Yvon Chouinard in Getting Things Done:

There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh, it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything,” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyway.” Either way, nothing happens.


I think that pretty much sums it up. Lying to yourself might make you feel better for a little while, but in the end it will destroy you. When things don’t turn out fine because you didn’t apply yourself to addressing the problem in a realistic way, you will come one step closer to losing hope.

It’s far better to admit to yourself that things are not as you would wish–you’re in a tough spot. Admit it. Own it. Then, apply yourself to reasonable plan to extract yourself from it.



Can a leader be spiritual?

This week I’m in Chicago meeting with other middle and senior leaders in Graduate & Faculty Ministries. We’re focusing on creating a culture of leadership development within our corner of the InterVarsity movement. It’s not that we don’t think that leadership development isn’t happening, it’s just that we see that in order to make the leap to a deeper and more effective mission on campus we need a common, shared sense of the importance of developing leaders and an effective approach to carrying that element of our mission out.We want to be as intentional about developing staff, whatever their career stage, to be more effective leaders who are using their gifts and their wisdom to serve the kingdom of God as we are about doing this for students and faculty.

In discussing the topic of leadership there is often a degree of discomfort around the intersection of leadership and spirituality. Perhaps because there is such a shortage of healthy leadership in the ‘Christian world,’ we often associate leadership with things like the unhealthy use of power and influence. The word often conjures up images from the world of politics or of business. We wonder how can following Jesus be compatible with leadership–especially point leadership where you’re out front saying “this is where we need to go, come join me”?

Some observations…

Effective ministry leaders are always growing disciples of Jesus Christ. Godliness is the foundation of ministry leadership–where it is not present, the rest of the metaphorical building has been build on sand. Before anything else, ministry leaders are followers. We are called to follow Christ in obedience to express commands to us in the words of Scripture and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as he leads us in making decisions and planning.

Perhaps the fact that we so often place spirituality and leadership at odds is a sign of a weak theology of leadership or of a weak theology of discipleship? Are we bracketing the task of leading the people of God and setting it apart from the touch of Jesus’ renewing and sanctifying work in us? May it never be!

Effective ministry leaders always consider others more important than themselves. I don’t mean that leaders ought to vacillate or equivocate on leadership decisions. I do mean, however, that leaders ought to love and value their staff and/or volunteers in such a way as to mean that their decisions always consider them. I am convinced that good leaders don’t consume and discard staff, but value and lead them into deepening effectiveness in their ministry.

I’ve got a long way to go in thinking about this topic and, frankly, to living out true discipleship in the context of ministry leadership. However, I’m convinced that unless and until we as ministers are able to find healthy, biblical ways of talking about the spirituality of leadership we will perennially be hamstringing the church and ministries we serve. We will be creating a culture of leadership apathy or avoidance rooted in the desire to remain a growing Christian and, ironically, for many, depriving them of one of the ways in which Christ wishes them to grow–using their leadership gifts to guide the people they work with.

What are your thoughts about leadership and discipleship?


Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership
Bob Fryling, The Leadership Ellipse
Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership

Space for creativity

I recently discovered The Accidental Creative, a blog for people who work in creative fields. I’m convinced that the work of a pastor is creative — there’s more connection between pastoring and art than there is between pastoring and business.

One of the snares of good pastoral work, a snare that has it’s grip on me at the moment, is busyness. A friend posted this as his Facebook status recently: “If the devil cannot make you sin, he’ll make you busy.” When we’re busy we tend to ignore the things that make us effective, the wellsprings of our pastoral creativity.

That’s why I appreciated this post at The Accidental Creative. In order to find inspiration to write, preach, cast vision at a meeting, or speak into the life of a friends, it’s important to keep room for these sources of inspiration.

How do you keep room for creativity in your own life and work?

How to respond to a crisis…or just regular overwhelmed-ness

We all feel overwhelmed from time to time. Sometimes being overwhelmed is situational — caused by a specific event or crisis that causes the rest of our work and life to pushed out of kilter. Sometimes that overwhelmed feeling is a symptom of an on-going imbalance between what we’re trying to accomplish, those things we have agreed to be responsible for, and the resources (of time, personnel, money) that we have to meet those responsibilities. In this situation, it’s important to devise a plan to remedy the situation. If you don’t, things will continue to function in a way that’s less than effective and that makes you feel bad both about yourself and the work you’re trying to do.

Michael Hyatt is someone whose ideas on productivity and leadership I especially value. In a recent post he identified some ways to respond to this sort of feeling of being overwhelmed. You can read the post here.

To summarize Hyatt’s points:

It’s important to know the difference so that you can respond appropriately.

A situational cause is specific, limited, and (hopefully) non-repeating. In order to respond to it creatively it’s necessary to do several things:

  1. Evaluate the relative importance of the crisis. On a scale of 1 to 10 how important is this crisis — does it strike at the very heart of your organization’s vision and mission? Or, is it something that is urgent but tangential to the core business you have?
  2. Evaluate the appropriate timeline for the crisis. How long will it take to respond adequately to this situation? Make a liberal estimate and then add 25%.
  3. Ask, whose help do I need to respond well to this? It’s unlikely that you have all the resources you need either to respond well to the situation itself or to handle the increased stress and pressure that results from a crisis. Identify key people to help you deal with the situation itself and also to help deal with you as you deal with the crisis.
  4. Plan for the worst, hope for the best. How many times have I planned with the best case scenario and ended up dealing with something worse than I planned for? Too many to count. It’s best to think of the worst outcome you can imagine and gear yourself to deal with that. Prepare for it. At the same time, don’t fixate on it. Picture a healthier outcome that produces good for all of the parties to the conflict or crisis. Work toward that, but be prepared for something else.
  5. Get help in covering your normal responsibilities. Crises don’t mean that the rest of your world and the rest of your work ceases to exist. Many of us are wired to think and behave as though this is the case — I know I am. Make plans to delegate the critical elements of your work to others for the duration of your crisis response. This certainly means have your personal assistant step up his involvement in managing your day-to-day life. It also means identifying critical job responsibilities and making sure those are covered either by your direct reports, your peers, or by some other appropriate person. You don’t want to expend a huge amount of effort in responding to a difficult situation only to return to your normal, on-going work hopelessly behind and impossibly deflated.
Sometimes the feeling of being overwhelmed isn’t related to a single, difficult situation that has arisen at work. Instead it is a symptom of an imbalance between the responsibilities we have undertaken and the resources we have at our disposal to address them.
Michael Hyatt is someone whose insights on leadership and productivity I find to be extremely valuable. He has an excellent post on dealing with this sort of problem. Read it here.
Allow me to summarize Hyatt’s points — I absolutely encourage you to check out his site for lots of good resources for learning to lead intentionally.
When Hyatt realized that his responsibilities were greater than his resources to address them he did seven things:
  1. He decided to make a change. As many of my counselor friends have told me: people change when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.
  2. He identified the things only he could do. Each of us has high payoff activities in our jobs — they are our strengths — where we really add value to our organization or ministry. Identify these and make them central to your work.
  3. He identified his biggest productivity sinkholes. These are the things that take the most time and effort for the lowest return — not our strengths! They don’t really advance our core mission or do so at a cost that is too high. Make plans to reduce this stuff.
  4. He reviewed the basics of productivity. I think it was Einstein who said that doing the same thing repeatedly and hoping for different results is the very definition of insanity. How often do we try to do our work the same way we always have and expect to somehow eventually not be overwhelmed! Do it, delegate it, defer it. Automate it, eliminate it, or delegate it. Whatever you do…plan to get rid of it.
  5. He decided that simply because he could do something didn’t mean he should do something. Is it really good stewardship to spend $35 per hour to do something that could be done by someone for $12 per hour?
  6. He hired a virtual personal assistant. In other words, he got help.
  7. Schedule the important stuff. The principle here is schedule out blocks of time for your important, high return activities and force your low return, productivity sinkholes into small blocks of time that are limited.
Whew! I know that over the next week, I’m going to be reviewing Michael Hyatt’s tips and revisiting the way that I’m structuring my work day in order to feel less overwhelmed! What about you?

Why do you work?

In her essay entitled, “Why Work?” Dorothy L. Sayers writes a scathing critique of the West (specifically, England). Her words were written during the Second World War when all of England was experiencing what might be called drastic shortages of certain food stuffs.

Sayers points out that all industrial capitalist economies are based on consumption. That is to say, there is no market for goods and services except that there are parties who wish to consume (i.e., use) these goods or services. I might attempt to go into business as a physic advertizing that I can achieve wonderful results for sufferers of the gout by treating it with leaches and blood-letting. Despite my not having consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I am fairly willing to say that there is not a strong market for this sort of thing. There are no consumers.

The central point of her critique is that consumer capitalism erodes the Christian doctrine of vocation. Why? Sayers claims that the advent of modern capitalism has produced jobs rather than vocations (“callings”). The industrial revolution provided massive increases in the efficiency of labor. By dividing labor tasks (i.e., conveyor-belt) the production of goods could be radically increased. The problem? Increased efficiency in production is negligible apart from a similar increase in demand for said goods. If there is no corresponding increase in demands then the price of the goods falls.

The result of these advances was the removal of the worker from the creation of an item/product. In other words where once the same wheelwright was responsible for the creation of a wheel from start to finish, now one person treats the wood, another steams and shapes it, another makes the spokes, another forges the iron band, another markets and another delivers it. The division of labor here can drastically increase the number of wheel produced, but at what cost to the worker?

Sayers critique is based upon a couple of presuppositions. The first is that each individual is called to a vocation and that this vocation must be morally good, creative, constructive, and provide fulfilment to that person. [By this logic, no one is called to the vocation of tele-marketer.] Second, this vocation is one of the chief purposes of this person’s life and therefore, in Sayers’ mind, “we live to work rather than work to live.” She has no time for, indeed she claims it is sub-Christian, to work simply for the purpose of getting a pay check.

At the time of writing this essay, massive amounts of money were being spent on the war in Europe. Sayers poses the question, will the material sacrifices made during the war endure when the war ends? If anything, the war proved that “man does not live by bread alone.” Even with very little affluence, comfort, or luxury, the British people managed to live good lives. Of course, the war itself was serving as the chief consumer at the time, and the majority of businesses (public and private) were directed at providing products useable in that market.

Of course, we know now that the Post-War Western hemisphere has plunged headlong into the type of consumption that Sayers decried in Pre-War Europe. Does capitalism then actually improve lives? Does technology actually make humanity more contented? This is, of course, difficult to gauge. However, I will concede the point to Sayers that the world would be a better place if there were more artists–those who work because they must, not simply to get paid. Of course, given that I am writing this in a coffee shop on a notebook computer with a wireless card shows that I enjoy consuming plenty of goods and services!

There are many people who work simply to get a pay check. Perhaps they need not do this. Perhaps they grow accustomed to the comfort of a certain (or at least relatively certain) amount of money coming into their checking account each month. They could do otherwise, but over time they give up on their dreams.

It is, perhaps, here that Entrepreneurs can teach us (and Sayers) something. At the start, the only reason to start a company is because you believe in it (unless you are a fraud). When you’re working 60 hours-a-week for next to nothing, you are building the character and discipline that will regulate you when the profits begin. Entrepreneurs are artists. We can quibble about whether the services they provide are truly necessary/good/worthwhile (or whatever justification you might require for the consumption of a good or service), but most entrepreneurs believe in what they’re doing. It’s encouraging to know that from a Christian perspective, entrepreneurship can be a virtuous vocation.

So, why do you work? Is there something else you’d be doing if you didn’t have to get a paycheck? 

The power of rest?

Rest is undervalued in our society. We reward and sanction overwork and personal neglect. In fact, some would say that our modern way of life is at odds with the design of our bodies and brains.

Writing in The Twenty-Four-Hour Society, physiologist Martin Moore-Ede makes an alarming claim:

At the heart of the problem is a fundamental conflict between the demands of our man-made civilization and the very design of the human brain and body… Our bodies were designed to hunt by day, sleep at night and never travel more than a few dozen miles from sunrise to sunset. Now we work and play at all hours, whisk off by jets to the far side of the globe, make life-or-death decisions or place orders on foreign stock exchanges in the wee hours of the morning. The pace of technological innovation is outstripping the ability of the human race to understand the consequences. We are machine-oriented in our thinking — focused on the optimization of technology and equipment — rather than human-centered — focused on the optimization of human alertness and performance (37).
To borrow the title of a book I recently heard about from a friend, we are not gadgets. Writes Wayne Muller (again quoted in The Power of Full Engagement):
The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life (39).
This perspective, that we aren’t gadgets, is central to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. Consider the words of the 23rd Psalm: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” As humans we have limitations. These creaturely limitations are not something that we can attempt to overcome without pretty serious repercussions.  

One of those side effects is stress addiction, a very real risk for many people especially people in ministry. Stress causes our bodies to release stress hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. Over time the repeated experience of stress causes us to be unable to operate in any other way.
In fact, in Japan there is a phenomenon known as karoshi — death by overwork (41). The factors that lead to this being the cause of death include:
  • Extremely long hours that interfere with normal recovery and rest patterns
  • Night work that interferes with normal recovery and rest patterns
  • Working without holidays or breaks
  • High-pressure work without breaks
  • Extremely demanding physical labor and continuously stressful work

It’s interesting to note the only country in the world where workers work routinely work more hours than the Japanese is right here in the United States. 

In light of this, let me suggest five ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life:
  • At the end of your workday, turn off your computer and do not restart it until next morning.
  • Leave your iPhone in the car when you get home. If it’s not at hand, you won’t reach for it.
  • Create explicit boundaries with your co-workers about when you will and will not return their emails.
  • Find rituals that will allow you to unwind when you get home or before you go to bed (take a shower, read fiction, dim the lights)
  • Don’t drink caffeine after lunch – elect decaf coffee or caffeine free soda

It’s a crazy world out there…how do you manage your pace of life?