Good Leaders Need a "To-Don't" List

medium_22237769 I recently attended a three-day training on community organizing and congregational leadership. There were many great insights that I'll be chewing on for a while, but one hit me right away.

Our trainer quoted Jim Collins's book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't. According to Collins, all leaders have to-do lists, but great leaders also have stop-doing lists. These are tasks that someone else should be doing, and/or tasks that don't have much impact in the long run but that keep us busy and make us feel useful. They take up our time to the point that we have no energy or mental bandwidth for the deep thinking or creative work that is essential to move an organization forward.

There was a definite buzz in the room when the trainer dropped this tidbit on us. One pastor couldn't contain herself; she stood up and said, "My name is [Kate], and I'm going to stop photocopying the bulletins!" We all erupted in cheers, applause and nods of recognition. (We also recognized that she has some calling/training/equipping work to do before she gets to that point.)

As a Sabbath-minded gal, I am totally on board with leaving stuff undone---but I'm mainly good in the short term. When break's over I try and pick everything up again. I've been complaining for several days about my kids' crazy camp and swim schedules and having no time to think. But the truth is, I bear some responsibility for that. I've been holding on to (and committing to) too many things.

The training gave me permission to be more intentional about letting stuff go, not because I'm a slacker or unconscientious, but because there's a bigger goal in mind. Granted, you've gotta be smart about what gets delegated to another person or to the floor. But there's something liberating about saying, "I'm gonna get to that thing... never."

Following the training, I had a great week eliminating the low-hanging fruit. Now I feel called deeper into this practice, which is going to be tough. It's going to mean some agonizing decisions. When you stop doing, you disappoint people. (Ugh. UGH.)

Case in point: what about newsletter articles? Virtually every pastor I know detests writing them. Most people don't read them, and it's a chore to come up with compelling content each month. (If only there were a lectionary for newsletter articles!) But just enough people read them that we keep on doing this thing that saps our energy.

Of course, not everything we do is going to be fun. And Jesus does call us to care for the one wandering sheep over the 99 safe in the pen. But sometimes our time and energy gets held hostage by 2-3 people.

In fact, when we're trying to decide what to stop doing, the question isn't whether people benefit from the activity. The question is whether the activity is central to our mission as an organization, and whether the benefit is worth the cost to us personally, given other creative options we have for our time. Remember my theology of call lately, a la Howard Thurman: the world needs people who have come alive.

And in the case of newsletter articles: could these people's needs be served in a different way that doesn't drain us?

What do you need to stop doing? Maybe these sticky notes can help.

photo credit: Afroswede via photopin cc


Parker Palmer, one of my favorite people, was profiled in Utne Reader's "25 Visionaries Changing Your World" feature. There's an online version that has a profile of Uncle Parker and lots of other fascinating folks. Check it out (and please help me feel better---I'm not the only one who had to bump up the font, am I?)

Whom would you nominate as a visionary in your life or community? I would nominate Jan.

Lionel Logue and Leadership

I saw The King's Speech over the weekend. Stop reading if you don't want to be spoiled, although the plot is formulaic enough (not in a bad way) that you can see some of this coming a kilometre away. This movie is really about the characters, not as much the plot. I saw the movie after spending the day in church leadership training, so of course that colored my impressions of the movie. That said, the Geoffrey Rush character had many marks of a transformational leader. (Leadership doesn't always imply an assembled group; leaders can lead individuals into new places as well.)

First, Lionel Logue had a very intentional sense of purpose and vision and remained faithful to it (I meet with clients here, nowhere else; I will call you Bertie; we will meet everyday).

He expected the people around him to work hard and he held them accountable (practice an hour a day).

This weekend we talked about the job of a congregational leader, namely, to train more leaders. He certainly did that; he helped train a king!

Transformational leaders do not rely on outsiders to give them their credentials; their authority comes from within. This was demonstrated in the way Logue handled the confrontation with Bertie over his not being a "real" doctor.

He exhibited an extremely high level of empathy. He was an attentive listener and he used what he heard to increase his effectiveness and care for his famous client. His fidelity to his vision grew out of his love and concern for others and a belief that straying from that vision just so people would feel safe and comfortable would not serve them in the long run.

And yet he also was very authentically himself. He shared about his humble beginnings and was visibly hurt when Bertie blasted him with these personal details in the park. Later, when confronted about his lack of credentials, he didn't stammer and rationalize and beg for a second chance. He shared his experience with quiet confidence and let the chips fall where they may.

Lots to chew on.

In short, it is a testament to Geoffrey Rush's performance that I was more captivated by Logue than by Colin Firth in Royal Attire. *cough*

Have you seen the movie? What did you think?

Grants? Genius!

Today is the day the MacArthur Foundation announces its 2010 "genius grant" recipients. In honor of these folks, here's an "encore" article I wrote for our presbytery newsletter a few years back (edited only slightly): ------------

Originally published in the NCP Monthly in October 2007:

This week the MacArthur Foundation named 24 new MacArthur Fellows as recipients of their so-called “genius grants.” These fellowships were awarded to a medieval historian, an education strategist, an opera singer, a poet, a water quality engineer, a spider-silk biologist, and a blues musician, among others.

The award is $500,000 over the next five years and comes with no strings attached. According to the MacArthur website, fellows are chosen based on three criteria: “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.” The award is not a reward for past accomplishments, but an “investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential… for the benefit of human society.”

Why is the church not doing this?

Surely we have people of exceptional creativity in our churches… people who, with a bit of seed money and no strings attached, could be free to experiment, dream, and explore. Every year we hemorrhage more and more members. We've tried the conventional remedies. Is it not time for some unconventional ones? Who knows what kind of creative ideas for ministry could be hatched as a result of a Presbyterian Genius Grant?

Of course we have grant-making entities in our churches that fund deeply important work. Our own presbytery funds new church developments and other projects. The assumption, however, is that people are expected to produce something pre-determined and measurable—all the grant applications I’ve been a part of ask the program to provide clear goals, objectives, and a timeline.

What if we added to the mix a series of grants that were grounded not in a theology of predictable results, but in a theology of God’s abundant and unpredictable grace? Cindy Rigby of Austin Seminary spoke to us at the most recent presbytery meeting about the Christian imagination and its relationship to hope. A Presbyterian Genius Grant would be a powerful affirmation of the need to imagine ministry differently for the 21st century. One of our seminaries had a tagline years ago: “We are equipping pastors for a church we cannot yet envision.”

But how do we find the time and space to envision such a church? As one MacArthur recipient put it in the Chicago Tribune, “[The award] means the freedom to explore. It’s a long time since I’ve been allowed to be purely an explorer in my life. I’ve had to do other things in order to be an artist. I have a family, and I have to put food on the table. I have had to take lots of jobs just to eke out a living.” Can I get an Amen from those pastors who have creative gifts for ministry but who feel like the everyday tasks of preaching, pastoral care, and administration (while important) don’t provide much space for dreaming?

The closest thing we have to a genius grant is a sabbatical grant, but it’s not quite the same thing. Sabbaticals are short-term, and they center around rest and renewal, not necessarily striking out in new directions with intentional creative work. And they are only granted to pastors. A Presbyterian Genius Grant could go to laypeople in even greater numbers than pastors, and probably should… What if the poets, blues musicians, and yes, water quality engineers in our pews were empowered to imagine Christian ministry and mission through a program that prizes experimentation and risk?

What’s the biggest obstacle? Money, of course. Budgets are tight. More and more churches and governing bodies are hunkering down in protecting mode. Good stewardship is always important, but has hunkering down stemmed the tide of membership decline? Maybe it’s time for something bold.

I for one think it’s genius.


That was 2007. Here's a question for 2010: to whom would you award a genius grant? I'll share some thoughts in the next day or so.