Saturday, November 29, 2014

Holiday Stress—Dealing with the Contradiction

Chaplain Pierce McIntyre offers helpful insights and prayers for dealing with every day life in his regular e-mails to friends and colleagues.  In a recent e-mail, he pointed out that there is an inherent contradiction in the term “holiday stress.”    A holiday is “a celebratory day, break, day of rest or vacation.”  Stress means “anxiety, impatience, and nervous tension.”  The two really don’t seem to go together, but we know that they exist in combination too often these days.

We are now immersed in the “holiday season’ that is inaugurated with Thanksgiving, reaches its peak with Christmas, and then closes out with New Year’s Day.  This is a time of feasting, visiting, giving, reflection, and worship for most of us.  As McIntyre notes, however, it is often a time of stress as well.

So how do we deal with the stress?  What are some things we can do to deal with the stress?

First, we can set priorities.  What do we really value not only during the holidays but everyday?  If we value family, we will make sure that the holidays are times of sharing and creating positive memories together.  If we value giving time to others, we will structure such time into our lives.  Holidays are different from the normal flow of life but they can still reflect the values we embrace and put first.

Second, we can take the time to give back. During the holidays, we become even more aware of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  Many struggle in a number of ways—to have food on the table, to have safe and comfortable housing, and to provide for their families.  Those of us who have so much become more aware of those who have little.  Providing meals, support, and assistance for those in need may give us a head start on a new way of behaving in the New Year.

Third, we can take the time to nurture and enjoy relationships with family and friends. Take the time at parties, dinners, and other gatherings to really connect with others and show appreciation for them.  Even if we are geographically separated from those we love, we can call, write (remember old-fashioned cards and letters?) and find other ways to communicate.

Finally, we can commit time to prayer and reflection.  This is a holy season. We give thanks for the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Son, Jesus Christ, and consider what it means for our lives.  Although the change in calendar from one year to another is totally arbitrary, the move from 2014 to 2015 provides opportunities for us to assess where we have been and where we might go in the future with God’s help.

Holiday stress is a reality, but we can commit ourselves to emphasize the first part rather than the latter part.

(A version of this blog appeared on this blog on December 2, 2013)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Taking the Fear Out of Performance Reviews

When I worked for a state Baptist convention, one of my responsibilities was to do annual “performance reviews” with staff both in my office and in the field.  I quickly came to realize that many of our staff dreaded these annual discussions.  One told me that when these reviews first started (before my tenure) that he got physically ill prior to his annual performance review!

After doing these evaluation sessions over two decades, I learned a lot about taking the fear out of performance reviews—both for myself and others.  For one thing, I tried to think of these as collaborative conversations in which I was an active participant.  As I talked with the staff member about his or her work, my role as a leader and supervisor was also under review.  I tried to keep in my mind this question:  “What does this person need from me to do a better job?”

As I think back, I realize that in many ways I was moving toward a coaching approach in these meetings.  In Growing Agile Leaders, Bob Dale defines coaching in this way:  “Coaching is a growth-oriented, strategic relationship.  Coaching links two peers, equals who are in distinct roles, to collaborate as though partners and to find the way forward for the person being coached.” 

Good leaders know that they are only as good as the people with whom they work.  They seek to invest in the abilities, gifts, and ideas of others.  Although in the strictest sense coaching is focused on the agenda of the person being coached, supervisors can use coaching techniques to advance the agendas of both the organization and the staff person in a collaborative relationship. 

Pastor Andy Stanley understands this.  In a recent podcast titled “Five Questions to Help Leaders Perform More Effectively,” Stanley suggests the use of these questions to guide and evaluate those one supervises:

1. What are you most excited about right now?
2.  What do you wish you could spend more time on?
3.  What's most challenging for you right now?
4. is anything bugging you?
5.  What can I do to help?

Of course, Stanley’s approach is that every meeting with a staff member is an opportunity to both evaluate progress and to coach that person, so all of these questions are not used every time.  They come into play at the appropriate time in the work of the staff member.

By using these open-ended questions, the supervisor is inviting the staff member to do deeper, be more reflective, and be more vulnerable.  This works only if the staff member sees the supervisor as trustworthy, committed to the staff and the organization, and willing to listen without judgment.

A good leader wants the best both for the organization and for those who serve it.  When seen as a collaborative relationship, the conversations between supervisor and staff member can be less threatening for both.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Adaptable Apostle

If I asked you to give me a word that describes your impression of the Apostle Paul, I doubt that “flexibility” would be one of those words.  We generally tend to see Paul as a driven, committed follower of Christ who overcame all obstacles to proclaim the Gospel.  Dedicated, yes. Willing to adapt his message to reach others, yes.  We might consider, however, this memorable passage that Paul writes to the church at Corinth:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NIV)

Paul never wavered from his core understanding of the Gospel, but he was willing to change his presentation methods to reach his audience. This is clearly seen in Acts 17 where he uses (at least) three approaches to share the good news with a pagan culture.

First, after a harrowing visit to Thessalonica, Paul and his team went to Berea and, as was his custom, he spoke in the synagogue.  He found there a more accepting group of Jews who were willing to listen, dialogue, and examine the Hebrew Bible—their source of authority—to verify Paul’s claims.  Both Jews and Greeks responded positively to the message.

When people from Thessalonica arrived in Berea to make trouble for Paul, he was spirited off to Athens while Silas and Timothy stayed behind to disciple the new believers.  Paul found himself alone in Athens, no longer a dominant political center, but still important as a place of intellectual and philosophical debate.

We see a different approach to sharing the Gospel as Paul wandered through the marketplace in Athens.  While there, he commented upon and probably asked questions about the various gods whose images adorned the city.  He seems to have been engaging the common people in discussion about the popular culture, a culture overcome with a multitude of gods expressing innumerable human needs and concerns.

Finally, Paul was taken to the Areopagus (Mars Hill) to debate the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers there.  No longer a seat of government, the Areopagus was both a place and a group of people where philosophical debate occurred.  The site had become a place where the intellectuals presented their ideas and defended them. Just to be invited there was an honor!

Paul launched into a long presentation that reflected his Greek education and his knowledge of the culture in which he found himself.  He used various quotes from well-known Greek writers to both challenge his listeners and point them toward the Creator God who had provided a Savior for them.  Many doubted but several, including at least one member of the Areopagus, accepted his message.

Paul’s experiences recounted in Acts 17 show not only an ability to be flexible but a model for Christians in a postmodern society.  Paul used the authority that was appropriate to his audience to introduced the Gospel—scripture, popular culture (or superstition), and philosophy.  Did he change his core beliefs? No, but he used those things that were important to the audience to make a connection, creating a bridge to the Gospel.

I believe that our post-modern world is much like the pre-modern world in which Paul preached.  When Christians hear about postmodernism, many are moved to attack the concept and belittle it.  Paul is an example of how we should respond to the culture in which we find ourselves.  Do we curse the darkness or light a candle?  Paul did not fear the darkness but brought light.  He engaged his culture to fulfill his mission.

Christians today should not be afraid to enter into dialogue with the authority structures of the world, but we must do so with intelligence, humility, and commitment.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Saved? From What?

As I work through the Book of Acts for Sunday morning Bible study, I am becoming more aware of the similarities between the pre-modern world of the first century and the post-modern world of the 21st century.  For example, we have assumed certain things about the Philippian jailer that may not be justified.  You know the story.  Paul and Silas have been thrown into prison because of an act of generosity.  This is what happened next: 

 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”  The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:25-30, NIV)

We have usually jumped to the conclusion that the jailer wants to be saved from his sins.  But how would he know that he needed to be forgiven?  He was a pagan, perhaps a retired Roman soldier who had been rewarded for his service with a nice government job.  There is no indication that he had ever heard about the God of Israel or the teaching of Paul and Silas about Jesus.  So from what was he asking to be saved?

I believe he was asking to be saved from his fear of the unknown.  Something unexpected had entered his life.  His world had been turned upside down.  There was an earthquake which threw the doors of the prison open.  What had caused this?  Were there hostile gods or spirits behind this?  Had the prisoners escaped?  If so, he feared retribution from those in the Roman government he served.  His fears were rooted both in the existential and the material.  His fragile sense of security was in shambles.  All seemed to be conspiring against him.

This is certainly the postmodern dilemma.  Bad things happen and people have no framework with which to understand them.  Sometimes they cannot even give a name to those fears.  They are cast adrift and need to be saved.  They fear the unknown and unknowable.

There is a God who understands that bad things happen and who helps us to deal with those things, a God who provides a base for building a life of faith and hope.  This is the Good News that Paul and Silas proclaim:  You can be saved from your fear of the unknown.